In college classes, climate change is taught as a textbook example of where democracy fails. And there are a whole host of reasons to think America will fail on climate change: We've waited too long; the consequences aren't as tangible as in other areas of policy; we're bad at sacrificing in the short term to achieve in the long term.
President Obama, who on Monday rolled out landmark regulations for coal-fired power plants, has found a way around that age-old political problem posed by climate change and democracies, in part by acting a little bit more like a dictator. This is something he's been skewered for on the right, with Rush Limbaugh accusing the White House of focusing on global warming just because "it offers the president opportunities to be dictatorial."
Limbaugh is onto something, but he has it precisely backward: The decision to use executive authority is the means, not the ends. It also makes a lot of sense when it comes to global warming given Congress's failure to pass the Waxman-Markey energy bill in 2009, and, for decades before that, to pass any sort of comprehensive climate legislation whatsoever.
If climate change seems like a difficult problem to navigate nationally, internationally things get even more complicated. Esteemed British economist and academic Nicholas Stern elaborated on the dilemma in the Stern Review, a 700-page report released for the British government in 2006. No two countries face exactly the same situation in terms of impacts or the costs and benefits of action, he observed, and no country can effectively act alone. "International collective action to tackle the problem is required because climate ... is a global public good," he wrote, "and because cooperative action will greatly reduce the costs of both mitigation and adaption. The international collective response to the climate-change problem required is therefore unique, both in terms of its complexity and depth."