In an essay last month in this magazine, Jonathon Foley offered an urgent reality check for environmentalists. Foley contrasted the long-standing ambitions of those arguing for action on climate change who have focused on the “wholesale transformation of the world’s economy and energy systems” with the prevailing dysfunction in Washington and the endless debate that has derailed international climate negotiations.

For Foley, it is time for those of us working on climate change to end our collective “state of denial, saying that maybe this time our national leaders will wake up and take the problem seriously.” His portfolio of alternative strategies take the form of “planet levers,” relatively “focused efforts, targeted the right way” that “can translate into big outcomes” and that rely on a “handful of nimble actors — including a few key nations, states, cities and companies — to get started.” Examples include working with states and cities that still have functioning governments to catalyze innovative new energy technologies, to deploy existing renewables and to improve energy efficiency across sectors.

Foley is the latest voice to argue on behalf of a new paradigm for climate policy. As outlined over the past decade in articles at Science and Nature, and in reports such as the Hartwell paper and Climate Pragmatism, various experts have argued that political success will only come by pursuing a diverse portfolio of policy solutions and technologies, implemented across levels of government and through the private and nonprofit sectors.

Indeed, as New York magazine’s Jonathon Chait points out, to the extent that the Obama administration has been able to make substantive progress on climate change, it has been through a combination of smaller scale, less politically visible approaches rather than pushing for society-transforming solutions such as an economywide price on carbon.

By breaking down the wicked nature of climate change into smaller, interconnected problems, achieving progress on these smaller challenges becomes more likely.

Chait notes that Obama’s stimulus bill helped jump-start new clean energy innovations. The administration also reached an important deal with China to limit hydrofluorocarbons and has implemented or proposed higher standards for gas mileage in cars, fuel cleanliness, energy efficiency in appliances and fewer emissions from new power plants. More recent efforts are aimed at protecting Americans against extreme weather-related impacts and at transforming our cities and towns into more secure, healthier and safer places to live.

At the core of this new paradigm for climate advocacy is an emphasis on pragmatism and compromise in managing complex problems, especially in the face of intense political disagreement. By breaking down the wicked nature of climate change into smaller, interconnected problems, achieving progress on these smaller challenges becomes more likely. As these smaller successes are achieved, we not only gain more time to deal with the bigger policy challenges, but also start to rebuild networks of trust and cooperation while experimenting with new solutions and technologies.

Yet a mixed portfolio of policy approaches will not alone lead to success in either limiting greenhouse gas emissions or brokering eventual political consensus. A diversity of innovative energy technologies that extend beyond the current focus on solar and wind also must be supported, evaluated and debated.

In his 2010 book The Climate Fix, the University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Jr. notes that polls show the public for several years has favored action on climate change but at low levels of intensity, suggesting that, at least at some level, it is not a lack of public support limiting policy action. “The challenge facing climate policy is to design policies that are consonant with public opinion, and are effective, rather than try to shape public opinion around particular policies,” he argues. “A broad portfolio of technologies and practices should be supported … despite the fact that no one energy technology will be universally popular.”

Once next-generation technologies are available that make meaningful action on climate change cheaper, Pielke believes that much of the political arguments over scientific uncertainty will diminish.

Moreover, Pielke warns, the “more technologies deemed politically unacceptable” by climate advocates, such as next generation nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage, “the greater the challenge of accelerating decarbonization, the longer we’ll depend upon fossil fuels, and the longer more than a billion people will lack basic access to energy.”

Once next-generation technologies are available that make meaningful action on climate change cheaper, Pielke believes that much of the political arguments over scientific uncertainty will diminish. For example, as he wrote with Dan Sarewitz in a 2013 article in The Atlantic magazine, the “greatest promise of carbon capture [technology] is how it could transform the political debate. Unlike abandoning fossil energy, capturing carbon does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles. It does not threaten the ambitious development aspirations of China and other poor countries. It enfranchises the very groups that have the most to lose from conventional climate policies — from powerful corporate interests to many of the world’s poorest people.”

Carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy have significant risks and trade-offs — and face a great deal of uncertainty in their development, cost and eventual deployment, leading many environmentalists to argue that they should be left out of the conversation when debating steps forward on climate change. Yet solar and wind energy also face tremendous uncertainties and come with their own significant costs, trade-offs and societal impacts. As James Hansen and three other notable climate scientists urged in an open letter earlier this month: “Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

The key take away is that achieving political consensus on climate change will ultimately depend on advocates joining with experts in pursuing a broader portfolio of policy actions across levels of government.

Indeed, in their much-discussed research on “cultural cognition,” Dan Kahan and his colleagues suggest that public perceptions of climate change at least partly depend on the technological solutions proposed. In their research, conservative-leaning Americans who adhere to a hierarchical and individualist view of the world are more likely to support policy action on climate change when nuclear energy or geoengineering are part of the conversation. “It isn’t the case, of course, that carbon-emission controls are the only policy response to climate change risks; technologies that furnish a substitute for and that offset the effects of greenhouse-gas-producing energy sources can contribute, too,” wrote Kahan and his colleagues. “Many of these alternatives, such as nuclear power and geoengineering, are likely to convey cultural resonances that affirm rather than threaten hierarchical and individualist confidence in the power of human ingenuity to overcome environmental constraints on economic production.”

The key take away then from Foley’s argument for planetary levers, Pielke’s strategic reasoning on technology and Kahan’s findings is that achieving political consensus on climate change will ultimately depend on advocates joining with experts in pursuing a broader portfolio of policy actions across levels of government. And in the process they need to keep a diversity of technological solutions on the table as part of the discussion. Under these conditions, it will not only be easier to gain public support from across the political and cultural spectrum, but it will also give political leaders, when they are ready to return to the business of governing, more options by which to reach agreement and compromise. View Ensia homepage