Global warming has characteristics that make it unique among most public policy problems. Its effects are more global, more long-term, and more uncertain than most. That triple whammy makes sensible national and global policy exceedingly difficult. But that shouldn’t stop us to look for analogies and cues from other seemingly intractable problems.

Nuclear disarmament is one. The analogy isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to be said to avoid the current UNFCCC-focused mindset and bubble of international climate talks.

Perhaps an even better analogy is the abolition of slavery. Marc Davidson has written the seminal paper on the topic, drawing parallels in reactionary argumentation in U.S. congressional debates between abolition and the Kyoto Protocol. Some of the parallels are readily apparent: the debates “revolve around ‘energy resources’ considered vital to the economy and pivotal to everyday life”; true costs are shipped off to others who have no vote in the political process; and, first and foremost, deep-seeded resistance to social change.

Direct parallels in “reactionary rhetoric” are even more striking. In both cases, you have duly elected Representatives arguing how what is clearly bad is, in fact, good (no, slaves weren’t better off as slaves, and no, global warming isn’t good for the planet), how change would bring economic ruin (wrong then as it is now), or how social change would hit other groups (women then, the poor now; newsflash: global warming hits the poor the most).

There may well be another parallel at work here, as Christian Azar points out in Makten över klimatet, a successful Swedish book, soon to be translated into English: “Slavery in the British colonies was abolished in 1833, effective five years later. The slave owners, not the slaves, were compensated for their losses.”

Photo by UN.