The Politics of Climate Change

The 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as the Paris Climate Talks, is currently underway in Paris, France. The goal of this conference is to build on previous negotiations to reach an international agreement that will limit the rise of Earth’s temperature to 2°C by the year 2100 by establishing limits and/or reductions on the emission of greenhouse gases. The conference has a great website where you can learn more about the negotiations, their history, and the science behind the UN’s targets here. According to the UN, if current emission rates continue, Earth’s temperature is likely to rise by 3.7-4.8°C by the end of the century. To stay within the 2-degree increase, emissions must be reduced by 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050. (Scientists believe that global temperature increases above 2°C will have dire consequences, including an increase in disastrous weather events. More information here.)

When I was teaching international relations as a graduate student at Columbia and as an assistant professor at UMass Amherst, climate change was often the issue in which students were most interested, and about which they were most often frustrated. Climate change is happening, they would argue—why can’t the United States and world leaders do something about it? Today I’m going to focus on three explanations from international relations theory about why this is such a difficult problem for the international community to tackle. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I think it covers three of the main obstacles.

1. Uncertainty over the trajectory of emissions and over the impact of the proposed solutions

Even if we, like the vast majority of scientists, acknowledge that climate change is a real phenomenon influenced by greenhouse gases produced by human activity (like burning fossil fuels), there is inherently a lot of uncertainty about how much the climate will change, how this will affect humans, and whether and to what extent the curbing of future emissions will mitigate the worst of the projected outcomes. This matters both in terms of trying to coordinate the behavior of multiple states and in terms of the policies pursued by the leader of any individual state. Any time we ask organizations or individuals to tackle hypothetical problems that may be realized at some point in the future by applying a solution that may or may not have the desired outcome, it’s going to be difficult to coordinate behavior—particularly when states face many pressing and immediate problems that are actually happening, right now, and when many of the officials responsible for setting national policy probably won’t be in office long enough to see the results of either implementing or failing to implement an agreement. In a world of uncertainty, it’s much easier and politically much safer to go for short-term solutions to immediate problems. This is true regardless of whether the officials in question are elected or not.

2.  Unequal distribution of the costs and responsibilities of climate change

One of the thorniest issues in tackling climate change is the fact that poor, developing countries are likely to suffer most from the impacts of a changing climate, but they are least responsible for current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These countries are also the least capable of coping with the natural disasters, famine, etc., that experts believe will accompany climate change, and they are also the least well equipped to make the changes to their economies that will help reduce global emissions (for example, investing in renewable energy sources rather than burning fossil fuels). One of the major components of the agreement being hammered out in Paris is a pledge of aid from developed countries to help poor countries cope with climate change. Similarly, climate change negotiations have often become hung up on questions of responsibility and fairness: the countries that have already developed (the United States and western Europe, for example), had the luxury of burning all the fossil fuels they wanted in the 19th and 20th century and are now asking that developing countries not avail themselves of this path to development. It’s not difficult to understand why this is hard for developing states to accept: they are least responsible for climate change, will suffer from its effects the most, and to top it all off, are being asked to pursue future development under terms more restrictive than those faced by the world’s largest emitters (China surpassed the US as the world’s largest emitter in 2007).

To try to combat these inequities, past climate change treaties—including the Kyoto Protocol of the 1990s, the first attempt at limiting emissions under the auspices of the UN Framework—set different targets for emissions reductions for different countries. Rich polluters like the US were expected to shoot for greater reductions in emissions than developing countries. This was the key issue that blocked ratification of the Kyoto protocol in the United States. Although the President has the authority to negotiate and sign treaties, the Senate must approve (ratify) a treaty for it to go into force for the United States. In the 1990s, senators refused to okay the Kyoto protocol because, they argued, the emissions targets would have placed the US at a competitive disadvantage relative to other states that were not being asked to cut back their emissions as much.

3.  Enforcement

Related to the last point above: there is no international government with the ability to enforce international agreements as there is in domestic society. In international relations, we refer to this as “the condition of anarchy in the international system.” Adherence to emissions targets, and even the accurate reporting of national emissions, are on a voluntary basis. Yes, there are intergovernmental groups like the UN, but the UN does not have the ability to punish lawbreakers the way that the police and courts do in domestic society. For example, if and when a state violated its emissions target as set by the Kyoto protocol, it was punished by being required to make additional reductions to its emissions. So, if you broke the rules, you were asked to follow the rules even more closely in the future.

This is not a unique feature of climate change agreements but rather a general problem with the making and enforcement of international agreements. You may find people out there arguing that we live in a world of international laws and regulations, but the reality is that when a state—particularly a powerful state—violates its commitments to an international treaty, there’s not much that other states can do about it.

The difficulty of enforcing international agreements means that everyone has to worry about the possibility that other states will cheat on their obligations. This is a very real obstacle to attaining an effective agreement to reduce emissions: if I think my nearest competitor is going to cheat and continue to pollute at current rates rather than spend the money to change production methods or switch away from fossil fuels, then I am going to be sorely tempted to cheat on my own commitments. Cheating becomes even more attractive when we realize that the emissions generated in one state do not simply stay in that state but instead float up into the sky contribute to the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Knowing that all the signatories face these incentives to cheat, states may be reluctant to sign onto an agreement and actually commit to the required changes.

In sum, there are reasons to be cautious about the prospects for a successful, effective agreement resulting from the Paris climate talks. Even President Obama, who gave a speech at the start of the negotiations and pledged US support for reducing global emissions, admits that he would be unable to get any signed agreement past the Republican-controlled US Congress. Obama has still made pledges to cut US emissions, but the unwillingness of the United States to become a signatory to this latest treaty certainly won’t help its prospects for success.