On the Future of Regulation Scholarship

by Julien Etienne*

© Joel Pett, USA Today,2009

It is startling to see that regulation scholarship continues projecting a business-as-usual picture, when current trends and scientific insights into the foreseeable future all point to radical change. Indeed, scientists have been documenting the extremely rapid decline in biodiversity and acceleration of climate change. They project that these trends will continue to worsen for decades, radically transforming the conditions of life on Earth and upending societies.
They already are. There is a marked increase in the frequency of natural disasters. Only this year, dramatic droughts continue in Chile, Brazil, Mexico and the US, and have hit Europe, the Maghreb, the horn of Africa, China; catastrophic floodings have happened in South Africa, Iran, Uganda, the US, South Korea, Japan and Australia; heatwaves have struck India, Pakistan, both poles, Europe, China, Japan, and the US, reaching temperatures in many of those places that have no precedents in the human historical record; wildfires are occurring across the Northern hemisphere at a rate and scale that goes well beyond what has been experienced before. Crop losses due to droughts and/or excess heat are likely across Asia, Europe, and the Americas, as several breadbasket areas are being hit at the same time. This is not in any way an exhaustive list.
As far as global warming is concerned, the general trend in temperatures is consistent with what scientists have modelled, but the frequency and severity of climate extremes associated with these temperature increases are worse than anticipated.
There is no logical reason to think that any of these trends will go in reverse any time soon. Societies are on the same path of exponential growth since the Great Acceleration started in the 1950s, with ever more intense impacts on the earth system. CO2, of which we are emitting more and more, stays in the atmosphere for centuries. Emissions of methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, are increasing at a rapid rate that scientists are only starting to understand. Several critical parts of the Earth system have or are about to pass the point of no return, including the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, and the Amazon rainforest, which will create even more disruption. And there is no tested technological fix that can be deployed at scale in time to revert it all. Instead, the climate is evolving so quickly, scientists tell us that we cannot hope to adapt to it rapidly enough. This is an existential threat. It has implications for everyone, and therefore for this community of scholars and students.
Where to from here? In the face of a new reality, business-as-usual is not an option. The brilliant Karl Weick has famously written about the necessity to free oneself from habits, categories, ways of working so as to become able to make sense of a completely new situation. He originally made his case about the wisdom of “dropping one’s tools” in a paper discussing explosive wildfires. This was at a time when wildfires had not yet become the marker of climate breakdown they are today. Specifically, Weick studied wildfires during which experienced firemen refused to drop their heavy tools (chainsaws, water containers, shovels) even after it had become clear they were in great danger. Their tools slowed them down. They died within sight of safety. If they had dropped their tools, they would probably have made it out alive. Weick went on to illustrate the same point with other examples. He addressed his message to “drop your tools” to fellow academics and students who “hold onto concepts, checklists, and assumptions that similarly weigh them down, reduce their agility, and blind them to what is happening right here and now and how they can cope with it.” To take in the science on climate change and biodiversity loss means heeding Weick’s message to “drop our tools”. We are facing disaster, therefore we must leave behind business-as-usual and whatever prevents us from making sense of this new reality and responding to it.
I propose below that the community of regulatory governance scholars should “drop its tools” and adapt in several ways.
First, we need to drop our unwritten and oftentimes unspoken assumptions that the near future will be reasonably similar to the present. Instead, we should consider what the prospect of an exponential increase in disasters means. How will continuous, severe material disruption affect societies and what does this mean for our work? Already, poor countries cannot keep up with the damage caused by extreme weather. Poor areas in wealthy countries (such as Kentucky in the US) are already running out of capacity to rebuild, while some US cities are being bankrupted by climate disasters. Wealthier regions will reach their limits too as the impacts and the costs of disasters increase. The insurance and reinsurance market will not cope: insurers have begun to exit a number of areas deemed uninsurable and this will likely accelerate. Runaway climate change will make the world uninsurable. The public purse is not bottomless either, and sovereign debt crises could ensue from the crippling costs of climate disasters, unless hard decisions are made about what to keep and maintain and what to abandon. Will pensions, accessible healthcare and education, publicly funded research, public housing, etc. endure? Mass migration, huge loss of life and comfort associated with climate extremes, food scarcity, pandemics are also on the menu, leading a growing community of scientists to consider the possibility of societal collapse at local, regional, and even global level. A recent United Nations report explicitly discusses “global collapse”, while military intelligence agencies across the world are also anticipating and preparing for climate induced regional breakdowns.
Second, our concepts and questions need to change in order to capture this unfolding reality. A few contributors to this community have already made major headways, both to link the regulation literature with the earth systems and Anthropocene literatures, and to propose a critical revision of key concepts; as they write, regulation and regulatory scholarship need to acknowledge that “planetary boundaries must and do – one way or another – both ground and trump all social and economic concerns.” This is echoed by others, who mainly come from outside the regulatory scholarship community, and have begun raising key issues of policy design for the Anthropocene (including calls for interdisciplinary work between social scientists, ecologists and engineers), governance in the face of extreme events, and how to avoid policy paralysis in the face of uncertainty. Here lie the promises of a research programme but more importantly of collective efforts to drive policy change.
Third, teaching needs to change. A wave of contestation is growing among graduates against the teachings they receive, when those ignore the climate and biodiversity breakdowns and continue to reproduce the same ideas which have caused them. We are seeing such pushbacks already in engineering schools and business schools (also this). I wager that this wave is destined to grow and hit other countries, schools/universities, and disciplines. One can resist it or accompany it, reshape the curriculum or lose students. Fundamentally, this is about preparing students for the world of tomorrow, not the world of today. This is not about militantism. This is about skills. A major first step would be to incorporate facts about climate change and biodiversity loss, the contribution of regulation to the Great Acceleration, and planetary boundaries into the curriculum.
Fourth, conversations with regulators need to change. We sometimes work for them or advise them, bump into them at events, and interview them for our work. These conversations are opportunities to ask a different set of questions and speak truth to power, particularly for the more senior and authoritative in this community. They can be used to encourage regulators to abandon business-as-usual and incorporate the science on climate and biodiversity loss in their daily work and their decisions. Coordinated engagement of regulators across multiple areas and countries to carry forward these messages could usefully be discussed on this list.
Many of us are not dealing with this because we think it is someone else’s job. I disagree, obviously. It is not that I think scholars and regulators hold the key. They are only a small piece of the puzzle. But consider this: a growing number of climate scientists have been stepping out of their comfort zone, speaking up, staging protests, using their position and their authority to make themselves heard outside of the classroom and academic conferences. They are doing so because they think there is still a window to secure a liveable future. And they are doing so because no one is resolving this crisis on their behalf, or yours, or mine. The EU’s Green Deal and its ambitious package of measures is in peril because special interests and short-sighted and opportunistic politicians have been exploiting the fears of food insecurity and energy cuts raised by the Ukraine war, at the expense of the much greater threats generated by climate change and biodiversity loss. A compromise has been finally achieved on Biden’s climate package with senator Manchin, delayed for months by partisan politics and fossil fuel interests, but for all its promises this package includes also provisions for new extraction projects of fossil fuels that will lock in further emissions. The US EPA’s ability to act on climate has been struck down by the Supreme Court. There is no breakthrough of political parties with ambitious climate agendas almost anywhere. Governments, banks, and fossil fuel companies are planning new fossil fuel extraction projects that go against pledges made at COP conferences (most recently this) and will ruin the chances of avoiding a hothouse Earth scenario, as the head of the International Energy Agency made clear earlier this year. The media, with few exceptions, have overwhelmingly downplayed or simply ignored the topic, focusing instead their attention (and ours) on Covid, the war in Ukraine, Elon Musk’s latest acquisition plans, or inflation. Corporations, with rare exceptions, continue to bank on the fallacy of ever expanding growth on a finite planet.
This is why, lastly, we need to drop our views about the role regulatory scholarship should play, and rethink. Christine Parker and Fiona Haines, besides setting out a research agenda for “ecologically rational regulatory studies”, suggest that regulation scholars could help bridging the multiple local initiatives taken to address the climate and biodiversity crises, on the one hand, and the global dominant narratives on the other hand. As they put it: “The size and scope of the ecological challenges require us to go beyond a focus on local, boutique forms of economic and social exchange. (…) the job of ecologically rational regulatory studies should be to find and analyse ways that these new potentially ecologically sustainable forms interact with and challenge dominant regulatory frameworks, frameworks that form the familiar terrain for major global capitalist enterprises. The local cannot just exist in market niches – but must challenge globally dominant enterprises to change their modus operandi or cease to exist. A regulatory analysis of how regulations support or undermine diversity can reveal the connections between local and dominant socio-economic forms” (emphasis added). In other words, regulation scholars can help local initiatives to successfully challenge the dominant frameworks that are responsible for the climate and biodiversity crises. Another angle here (which builds on the writings of Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz) sees regulation scholars supporting those who need help in the exploration of the new world of hazard, scarcity, and choices they must live with. In other words, it cannot be just about producing research in the hope that it will trickle down over time. Instead it has to be about doing research and diving into the situations in which that research is tested in the field.
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* Dr. Julien Etienne is an independent policy consultant and a visiting fellow at the LSE Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation. This Call was originally posted on Regulation mailing list associated with the ECPR Standing Group on Regulatory Governance.

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