The Challenge of Climate Change in the American West

Bruce Cain argues that the federalist nature of the U.S., along with regional history and idiosyncratic human behavior, have made resolving collective action problems uniquely difficult.
Bruce Cain presented his research during a CDDRL seminar on May 30, 2024. Bruce Cain presented his research during a CDDRL seminar on May 30, 2024. Rachel Cody Owens

How does the history and culture of the American West affect its capacity to address Climate Change? In a CDDRL seminar talk, Bruce Cain addressed the question by drawing on findings from his latest book, Under Fire and Under Water: Wildfire, Flooding, and the Fight for Climate Resilience in the American West (University of Oklahoma Press, 2023). Cain — director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, and CDDRL faculty affiliate — argued that the federalist nature of the U.S., along with regional history and idiosyncratic human behavior, have made resolving collective action problems uniquely difficult.

Cain opened his talk with a reflection on American federalism. He indicated that the U.S. strongly federalist political system aims to delegate the provisions of specific public goods across its national, state, and local jurisdictions. However, the worsening issue of climate change — and its negative externalities — transcends these jurisdictional borders, thereby creating a coordination challenge. There is fracture at both the vertical level — between federal, state, and local governments — and the horizontal level, across branches of government and between states and localities themselves. Polarization, geographic sorting, and rising inequality have exacerbated the problem.

Adequately addressing climate change requires extensive coordination and planning, which is not often the strength of a highly diverse democracy. Furthermore, the public, even when it is not polarized along party lines, may hesitate to take sufficient steps to protect climate progress because people may not want to pay now for future benefits.

This national framework serves as the backdrop for the West’s regional history. The initial move to the West required incentives, as people were uneasy traveling into a land seen as untamed and wild. This created an appropriative culture, as settlers had to be motivated to undertake the risks of living and working in the American West. After World War II, the private nature of this land began to get in the way of the maturing environmental movement.

The Western climate is arid, a characteristic that will be further exemplified by the changing climate. As such, in California, we face two “water problems.” First a “too little” water problem — droughts. But we also face a “too much” water problem — sea level rise and flooding. The “too little” water problem leads to extensive wildfires — the smoke from which has serious health effects. While fires are one of the most visible and concerning effects of climate change, their bearing on electoral outcomes is marginal, as only a small number of people lose their homes in a given year.

In many places where homes have been destroyed, they tend to be promptly rebuilt. Unfortunately, this is not the only case of building in disaster-prone areas. Infrastructure continues to be built in flood zones on the coast, and neighborhoods routinely decimated by fires are erected time and time again. But this issue is confronted with a competing priority, namely the lack of housing in the state, making policy decisions all the more complicated.

Governmental fractioning and perverse incentives make the coordination necessary to address these issues even more difficult.

So what does all of this mean going forward? Cain believes the federalist nature of this country may mean a lower ceiling on progress but a higher floor in the long run. Our progress will be slower but more resilient to party shifts in the executive. He also predicts that U.S. decarbonization efforts will vary more by income and lag behind other OECD countries. Finally, in the absence of coordination, the U.S. strength will remain in providing innovation and pushing for the early adoption of first-mover policies.

A copy of Cain's presentation slides can be viewed here.

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