The Futility Of An International Climate Treaty

A scaled-down, step-by-step approach might yield more results

Call it Kyoto Syndrome, but each year for the past few decades we hear hopeful things about the upcoming negotiations for the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” These discussions usually take place in some far-flung world capital, but they seem to always result in a nothing sandwich. In 2009, President Obama embarrassed himself with a last-ditch flight to Copenhagen to try to hammer out something meaningful, ultimately to no avail.

This year, hopes seem to be higher than normal that something might actually get accomplished in Paris in December.  But should we really get excited about the potential?  Or is the environmental community misplacing its efforts on the international stage on a fruitless path, when better options could be available?

In a new article for Georgetown International Environmental Law Review (PDF), Ruth Greenspan Bell tackles the question of whether or not a meaningful international agreement is either feasible to achieve or likely to make a difference, if one were to actually get signed.  She argues strongly against the current “comprehensive” approach, questioning the assumptions underlying international talks to date:

Negotiators have, apparently, uncritically accepted the proposition that a huge basket of climate-related issues—each of them very complex and requiring for their execution the cooperation of many parties with often wildly disparate views—can (indeed, must) be resolved in one comprehensive agreement. They also assume that such agreements, should they be signed and ratified, will lead to assured changes in the GHG emission practices of the many parties to the agreement.

It’s worth reading the piece in full, but in short, Bell traces the history of multilateral agreements in the environmental context and notes the tremendous uncertainty about their effectiveness. And the greenhouse gas problem is arguably even more difficult to tackle than some of the past agreements that addressed single pollutants with often straightforward technology fixes or alternatives. She also points out how challenging the United Nations process is to reaching an agreement, with its requirement for consensus, the huge number of parties involved, and the incredible political diversity and needs of the countries at the table. And by focusing so much on ratification, the process is in danger of reaching an agreement with little enforceability or monitoring of compliance.

Meanwhile, time is running out on our ability to stabilize the Earth’s climate.

Given the urgency, Bell offers some alternatives that could actually achieve reductions sooner. To start, climate negotiators and advocates would have to forget about achieving a comprehensive agreement and instead bite off more manageable international agreements, akin to the progress made in the international weapons arena. For example, major emitter nations could come to terms on pollution targets among themselves; developing countries could negotiate over reduced amount of emissions reductions; and bilateral agreements, such as the recent one between China and the U.S., might pave the way for future agreements between other countries.

I believe that much of the solution to global climate change will come locally, from technology, policy, and financing innovations that happen within places like California, China and Germany. But at some point soon we will need a global approach to limiting carbon to reflect the true cost of this pollution to our economy, health, and environment. I’d much prefer that climate advocates engage in that process in a way that will actually achieve results, rather than spinning their wheels on the international stage each year.  Bell offers an approach that I hope advocates will consider, before they waste yet another opportunity in Paris.

Reader Comments

3 Replies to “The Futility Of An International Climate Treaty”

  1. Ethan Elkind wrote: “Meanwhile, time is running out on our ability to stabilize the Earth’s climate.”

    There has been no climate “stablity” in the 4.5 billion year history of earth, and there is no reason to think that stability could ever be established, unless you could stop global processes – i.e., freeze the earth in some particular state. Which could probably only be achieved by forcing earth out of its solar orbit and into remote space, too far to be warmed or influenced by our sun. Then the planet would freeze, and that might well establish a sort of climate stability.

    Human beings have never, in the history of the human race, been able to accurately predict long-term climate change. There have been many long-term prophecies, no long-term accurate predictions. There is no evidence to show that that has recently changed, no evidence that global warming alarmists will fare any better with their mathematical models and their catastrophic warnings. The idea that people can control earth’s climate, is just as unsupported by scientific evidence.

    Climate scientists might apply to their profession the lesson that Friedrich Hayek tried to impart to economists (who have been demonstrating the futility of large and small scale modeling to predict and control market outcomes for many decades): “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

    Hayek was not naive, though. He understood the real value in modeling was that models that failed to predict future outcomes would always require further development and further funding, and they would always be useful for advising politicians what actions to take to attain the unattainable: market stability, full employment, market equilibrium, etc. Business cycles have yet to be repealed.

    The earth warms, and then it cools, and the climate cycle continues. Climate change is an inescapable condition, an unrepealable law.

    1. Ethan, you offer the counsel of despair. WE HUMANS have gotten the earth to the point of a major catastrophe; it didn’t just happen as a result of “climate cycles”. Human-caused emissions of CO2 and Methane have brought this about, must be controlled, and can be controlled. Bell’s approach makes great sense, particularly in light of the minimal progress so far in just diminishing the rate of CO2 emission and of temperature change. “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good” as Voltaire said, and we should strive for manageable, wieldy sub-agreements that can be coordinated together to achieve global improvements.

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Ethan Elkind

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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