Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 08/2010

Ghosts of crises past: Comparing Japanese policy effectiveness in the 1970s oil crises and contemporary climate change

Alexandru Luta

June 2010

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


Due to the immense strain they put on policymakers, the oil crises of the 1970s and the contemporary challenge of anthropogenic global warming must represent two of the greatest tests of Japanese energy policy of the past 50 years. As such, the policy response to the oil crises had been effective, but the challenges posed by global warming have not been met with equal success – and this situation partly stems from the measures adopted in response to the previous crisis. While admittedly climate change is a crisis of a somewhat different nature than the oil shocks of the 1970s, both crises compel decision makers to shape the composition of their country’s energy mix in response to external imperatives. In the earlier case a host of countries were confronted with the physical scarcity of energy as a result of geopolitical changes stemming from the volatility of the region in which their main energy suppliers were located. Due to the negative externalities associated with the combustion of fossil fuels, solutions typically put forward in response to climate change involve simulating a scarcity of fossil energy in an environment where this scarcity is not immediately apparent. Given the violent pinch of the 1970s, Japanese policymakers’ apprehension against setting up such an in vivo experiment in political economy is understandable – though ultimately counterproductive.