The New Politics of Climate Change Moving Beyond Gridlock on Global Warming

Tr@nsit Online

The Copenhagen meeting ended with few tangible achievements nor any clear plan for future diplomacy on global warming. These troubles are fundamental to the strategy of broad UN-based talks that aim, as in Copenhagen, for universal agreement on binding treaties. A new approach is needed.

The following considerations will show, using lessons from the history of international economic cooperation, that other approaches focused on smaller groups of countries and more flexible legal instruments would be much more effective. They will also show that even in the best scenario the world is likely to experience substantial changes in climate, requiring nations to make massive investments to adapt to new climate conditions. Changes may also be so severe that radical “geoengineering” systems may be needed to blunt the effects of rapid warming.

This contribution is based on David G. Victor’s new book Gridlock on Global Warming (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) and his lecture “The New Politics of Climate Change: What Next After Copenhagen?” given at the IWM on June 24th, 2010, in the series Ecopolitics and Solidarity. We are grateful to our co-operation partner Grüne Bildungswerkstatt, the political academy of the Austrian Green Party, and to Victor’s c ommentator Alexander Van der Bellen, Member of the Austrian Parliament and Spokesperson of the Austrian Green Party for International Developments and Foreign Policy, for their support.

In the late 1980s the United Nations began the first round of formal talks on global warming. Over the subsequent two decades the scientific understanding of climate change has improved and public awareness of the problem has spread widely. Those are encouraging trends. But the diplomacy seems to be headed in the opposite direction. Early diplomatic efforts easily produced new treaties, such as the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Those treaties were easy to agree upon yet had almost no impact on the emissions that cause global warming. As governments have tried to tighten the screws and get more serious, disagreements have proliferated and diplomacy has ended in gridlock.

The following considerations are based on a new book (Victor, in press) that aims to explain the gridlock and offers a new strategy. My argument is that the lack of progress on global warming stems not just from the complexity and difficulty of the problem, which are fundamental attributes that are hard to change, but also from the failure to adopt a workable policy strategy, which is something that governments can change. Making that change will require governments, firms, and NGOs that are most keen to make a dent in global warming to rethink almost every chestnut of conventional wisdom. Here I will summarize my argument in six steps.

1. Why the Science of Global Warming Matters

Any serious effort to slow global warming must start with one geophysical fact. The main human cause of warming is carbon dioxide (CO2). Other gases also change the climate, but compared with CO2 they are marginal players. Making a big dent in global warming requires making a big dent in CO2. Most of the economic and political challenges in slowing global warming stem from the fact that CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for a century or longer, which is why climate policy experts call it a “stock pollutant.” The stock of CO2 determines the amount of warming because it builds up from emissions that accumulate in the atmosphere over many years. Because the processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere work very slowly, big changes in the stock require massive changes in emissions. Just stopping the buildup of CO2, for example, requires cutting worldwide emissions by about half.

Because CO2 is a stock pollutant the problem of warming is global. Emissions waft worldwide in about a year, which is much faster than the hundreds of years needed for natural processes to remove the excess CO2. Politically, this means that every nation will evaluate the decision to cut emissions with an eye on what other big emitters will do since no nation, acting alone, can have much impact on the planetary problem. Even the biggest polluters, such as China and the U.S., are mostly harmed by pollution from other countries that has wafted worldwide.

Because our chief pollutant is CO2, the science of global warming also guarantees that serious regulation will mainly focus on modern energy. CO2 is an intrinsic byproduct of how society burns fossil fuels today, and the vast majority of useful energy comes from fossil fuels. Tinkering at the margins of the energy system won’t make much of a difference. Deep cuts in CO2 will require a full re-engineering of modern energy systems. Such an effort will alter how utilities generate electricity and the fuels used for transportation, among many other implications. Such a transformation is not impossible; over history it has happened several times. But no country—let alone the world community—has ever planned such a massive transformation. At this stage nobody knows what it will cost, but most likely it will be expensive. Because energy systems are based on complicated infrastructures it is likely to unfold slowly. And because this transformation will require new technologies that do not yet exist and will require societies to adopt complex policies, the pace of this transformation will be impossible to predict to exacting timetables.

That’s the first step in any serious look at global warming regulation. CO2 is a stock pollutant, and from that simple geophysical fact comes two important political insights. One is that regulation will require international coordination. The other is that governments will have a hard time making credible promises about exactly how quickly they can cut CO2. Because CO2 is interwoven with energy systems that are costly and sluggish to change, when governments tighten the screws on emissions—something that has not yet happened except in a very small number of countries—they will find it increasingly difficult to plan and adopt the policies needed to make a difference. What every country does will depend on confidence that other countries are making comparable efforts. Yet even governments working in good faith will be in the dark about what they can really deliver.

2. Myths about the Policy Process

Second, in this new book I argue that international coordination on global warming has become stuck in gridlock in part because policy debates are steeped in a series of myths. These myths allow policy makers to pretend that the CO 2 problem is easier to solve than it really is. They perpetuate the belief that if only societies had “political will” or “ambition” they could tighten their belt straps and get on with the task. The problem isn’t just political will. It’s the visions that people have about how policy works.

One is the “scientists’ myth,” which is the view that scientific research can determine the safe level of global warming. Once scientists have drawn red lines of safety then everyone else in society optimizes to meet that global goal. The reality is that nobody knows how much warming is safe, and what society expects from science is far beyond what reasonable scientists can actually deliver. One consequence is that the science around global warming looks a lot more chaotic and plagued by disagreement than is really true. The climate system is intrinsically complex and does not lend itself to simple red lines; “safety” is a product of circumstances. The result is an obsession with false and unachievable goals.

Over the last decade many scientists and governments have set the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees, which has now become the benchmark for progress on global warming talks. Two degrees is attractive because it is a simple number, but it bears no relationship to emission controls that most governments will actually adopt. Serious policies to control emissions will emerge “bottom-up” with each nation learning what it can and will implement at home. Just as countries learn how to control emissions they will also look at the science and determine the level of warming they can stomach. It highly unlikely that countries will arrive at the same answers. The “scientists myth” needs puncturing because it creates a false vision for the policy process—one that starts with global goals and works backwards to national efforts. When pollutants such as CO2 are the concern, real policy works in the opposite direction. It starts with what nations are willing and able to implement.

Other myths also divert resources. One is the “diplomat’s myth,” which imagines that progress toward solving problems of international cooperation hinges on the negotiation of universal, legally binding agreements that national governments then implement back at home. The scientists myth starts with scientific goals and works backwards to national policy. The diplomats myth starts with binding international law and makes the same backward conclusion. Events like the Copenhagen conference are the pinnacle of the diplomats myth, and when they fail, the diplomatic community doesn’t shift course but merely redoubles their efforts to find universal, binding law. The reality is that universal treaties are the worst way to get started on serious emission controls. Global agreements make it easier for governments to hide behind the lowest common denominator. Binding treaties work well only when governments know what they are willing and able to implement.

Another fiction concerns technology. The “engineer’s myth” holds that once inventors have created cheaper new technologies, these new devices can quickly enter into service. This belief is appealing because it offers hope for quick and cheap solutions. It is also appealing because many engineers believe that the needed technologies already exist. Energy efficiency, for example, is widely believed to be a readily available option for making deep cuts in emissions at no cost. The reality is that technological transformation is a slow process because it depends on a lot more than engineering. New business models and industrial practices are needed. The more radical (and useful in cutting CO2) the innovation, the greater the technological and financial risks. Putting those innovations into practice hinges on creating the policies and business practices to manage the risks—especially financial risks—that accompany new technologies. Pretending that engineering innovation is the key step leads to policy goals that are overly ambitious and divorced from the realities of what determines whether real firms actually adopt new technologies. The engineer’s myth also allows governments to avoid grappling with the kinds of technology policies that will be needed to make a difference. Innovation is easy; creating the policy environment to encourage testing and adoption of innovations is the weak link.

We need to clear away false models of the policy process and focus on what really works. For the rest of the talk I will do that.

3. Regulating Emissions

Slowing global warming requires a big reduction in emissions of CO2. Achieving that goal will require international coordination. Getting serious about international coordination requires starting with a close look at what individual national governments are willing and able to implement.

Oddly, most studies of international coordination on global warming ignore national policy and treat governments as “black boxes.” Nobody peers inside the box to discover how it works; they just imagine that the national policy process will behave as needed once people have political will. Black boxing national policy is convenient because it makes it easier to focus just on the simpler and sexier topic of international diplomacy. Such studies start by imagining various ideal mechanisms for international coordination and then expect that the black boxes will follow along with implementation. The reality is that the black boxes are prone to produce certain kinds of policies. Ignoring those tendencies raises the danger that international coordination will become divorced from what real governments can adopt at home. These dangers were not apparent in the early years of global warming diplomacy because international agreements weren’t very demanding. But as governments have tried to tighten the screws on emissions of warming gases, a huge gap has opened between the agreements that diplomats are trying to craft at the international level and what their own governments can credibly implement at home. That gap produces gridlock. It lowers confidence that international law is relevant, and as confidence declines governments become less willing to make risky, costly moves to regulate emissions. In the extreme, the result are agreements such as the Copenhagen Accord—legal zombies that have no relationship to what governments will actually implement yet are hard to kill or ignore. Crafting a more effective system of international coordination requires a vision for how to avoid such international outcomes.

We need to stop thinking about states as black boxes and have, instead, a theory that predicts and explains national policy. Armed with that theory, we can later turn to international cooperation. International institutions are generally weak. Usually they are no more effective than what national governments are willing and able to allow..

My starting point is power, interests, and capabilities. Power tells us which countries really matter and must be engaged in coordination. Interests reveal what those countries will be willing to do. And capabilities are what they are actually able to achieve in controlling emissions.

In global warming, power is first and foremost a function of emissions. China and the United States are the most powerful countries on global warming because they have the largest emissions and thus the greatest ability to inflict global harm and avoid harm through their actions. Although the UN officially registers 192 countries on the planet, when it comes to emissions only a dozen or so really matter. (All nations will eventually need to be part of the solution, but the key challenge today is how to get started.)

Whether big emitters actually control emissions is a function of their interests and capabilities. The full list of factors that determine interests is long, and scholars should spend more time trying to explain and predict the variation in national interests. Some countries are highly vulnerable to global warming, such as the low-lying island states; others, such as frigid Russia, are less worried or might even welcome a thaw. Rich countries are usually more worried than poor ones because wealth brings the luxury of focusing on more than just immediate survival. Democracies seem to be more concerned than non-democracies because the ability to organize interest groups and a free press are empowering to NGOs that carry the messages about warming dangers to people and governments around the world. Parliamentary systems are often more energized about warming than presidential governments when green parties become members of ruling coalitions. A nation’s interests also depend on what it thinks other countries will do. If one country thinks that emission controls at home will inspire other nations to follow suit it will be more keen to make the move.

In my research I get started by dividing the world into two categories: enthusiastic and reluctant countries. Enthusiastic countries are willing to spend their own resources to control emissions. These countries are the engine of international cooperation. The bigger that group and the more resources they are willing to spend on controlling emissions, the deeper the cuts in emissions. Some of the troubles with global warming diplomacy during the last two decades simply reflected that the group of enthusiastic countries was pretty small and consisted of little more than a few EU members and Japan. But that group is getting bigger and now includes the U.S. and essentially all members of the OECD.

The reluctant nations, such as China and India, also matter. They are already big emitters, and most studies suggest that such countries will account for essentially all growth in future emissions. Because these countries don’t put global warming high on the list of national concerns, they won’t do much to control emissions except where those efforts coincide with other national goals. Outsiders can change how these countries calculate their national interests by threatening penalties such as trade sanctions or offering carrots such as funding. The capabilities of governments to regulate emissions is highly correlated with interests. In general, the enthusiastic countries have well functioning systems of administrative law and regulation and can control all manner of economic activities within their borders, but in reluctant nations those systems are much less well developed. In the reluctant countries some sectors are under tight administrative control and others beat to their own drummer.

In my book I have developed a theory to predict how enthusiastic countries will regulate emissions. They could use market-based strategies, such as emission taxes or “cap and trade” schemes. Or they could use traditional regulation that, for example, forces companies, farmers, and consumers to utilize particular technologies and practices that reduce emissions. The most likely outcome is a hybrid of emissions trading and regulation. Emission trading systems are attractive because they create extremely valuable assets (emission permits) that can be awarded to politically well-connected interest groups. Once the initial awards are made, those same groups become a powerful lobby to keep the system in place. Where these lobbies are well organized to manage a market that channels resources to themselves and prevent new entrants, emission trading is the policy instrument of choice. Where regulated firms have close ties to their regulators, then direct regulation is even better. Many NGOs like regulation because that approach makes it easier to hide and shift the cost of policy. Within this range of hybrid outcomes, every nation will make a different choice because each government faces differently arrayed interest groups. I call these hybrid outcomes “Potemkin markets” because on the surface they look like market solutions yet are designed, exactly contrary to the principle of markets, to hide the costs of action and to channel resources only to well-organized groups. This is a prediction of what governments will actually do and one that I will test with evidence. It is not an argument that Potemkin markets are good economic policy. In fact, as a policy analyst, I find that outcome deeply unsettling. A simple economy-wide cap and trade program would be more cost-effective, and even better than that would be a simple economy-wide emission tax. Ideal theory often clashes with political realities.

In the book I also deal in depth with the challenge of the reluctant countries, starting with China and India. I have written about that issue in depth elsewhere (Victor, 2009a) and won’t dwell on the matter here.

One conclusion is clear when looking closely at how governments might control emissions. The tighter the screws on emissions the harder it will be to plan regulation according to exact targets and timetables. And the tighter the screws the more that efforts by one government will depend on what others do as well. This helps explain some of the gridlock from Kyoto to Copenhagen. International negotiations have been organized to force governments to coordinate around emission targets and timetables. But no government that is serious about making credible promises actually knows the emission levels that will emanate from its economyInternational cooperation should be designed with this insight in mind. It should focus on commitments that governments can credibly promise to implement. Moreover, cooperation should elicit contingent promises—that is, governments should outline what they will do on their own merits as well as the schedule of additional efforts they will adopt if other governments make comparable efforts. One encouraging sign from Copenhagen is that governments, starting with the EU, are looking more closely at contingent promises. The EU promised to cut emissions 20% and tighten its limit to 30% if other nations follow suit. Legislation taking shape in the US will have a contingent element as well. These are among the few promising signs that have come from the negotiating process in the last year. (For more on contingency see Victor, 2009b.)

4. Investing in Innovation

Let me briefly talk about two detours—steps 4 and 5 in the argument I am developing. I include them because ignoring them leads to a global warming plan that doesn’t work over the long term and leaves the planet highly vulnerable.

Step 4 is getting serious about technology. As the cost of emitting CO2 rises and as regulations tighten, companies and governments will know that they should find technologies that can lower the cost of compliance. Those built-in incentives for innovation go a long way, but not far enough. Really deep cuts in emissions will require radically new technologies but few companies can justify spending the resources on that kind of innovation because the benefits are so uncertain and difficult to internalize. So an active “technology policy” is needed.

Getting started on technology policy requires focusing on the countries that matter most. Luckily, that list is short: about 95% of innovative activity occurs in only 10 countries. A big push is needed not only within these countries but also through collaboration between those governments. Increasingly, the market for technology is global. Good ideas in one country diffuse quickly, which means that individual countries will under-invest in new technology unless they are confident they can create new markets for innovation around the world. In the past there has been almost no serious international collaboration on technology policy. In the area of global warming the situation isn’t much different. In the book I look at this issue in much more depth and offer some models for global warming technology policy. For now, let me just say that technology policy will require money, and one of my chief worries is that in the aftermath of the current efforts at economic stimulus the leading governments—notably the US and EU—won’t be feeling very rich. A period of fiscal austerity is in store, and that will make it harder to mobilize the resources needed for long-term investments on problems like global warming.

5. Bracing for Change

Step five is my other detour. Even a serious effort to control emissions is unlikely to stop global warming. The climate system and the energy system that emits CO2 are big, complicated systems that are laden with inertia. They are pointed in the wrong direction, and they won’t change course easily. Worse, so far the planet hasn’t created a serious regulatory scheme to address warming. Once such a system is in place the benefits of slower warming will be felt only after perhaps 20 years of sustained effort. Perhaps 40-50 years of sustained effort will be needed to stop warming. Even longer will be needed before the stock of CO2 declines decisively from its peak. These timetables will be seen by experts, who have invested heavily in efforts to set “safe” goals for warming such as limiting warming to 2 degrees, as too pessimistic. My sense is they are about as fast as serious regulatory and technology deployment efforts will run. And this optimistic scenario assumes that governments actually launch serious, prompt efforts to control emissions and invest in new technologies.

Even under the best scenarios the world is in for some warming. Societies need to brace for the changes. For many years, this subject was a taboo in most circles because many of the most ardent advocates for global warming policy feared that talking about the need to prepare for a warmer world would signal defeat. Worse, it might signal that warming was tolerable, and that might lead governments to lose focus on the central task of regulating emissions. It is much sexier to imagine bold schemes that stop global warming rather than the millions of initiatives that will be needed to cope with new climates. Yet the unsexy need to brace for change is unavoidable.

Humans are intelligent and forward-looking, and those qualities make them adaptive so long as they can anticipate the needed changes and have the resources required to adjust. Farmers, for example, can plant different seeds and switch to new crops. Real estate markets can adjust to the likely effects of rising sea levels and stronger storms that could inundate ocean-front properties. Water planners can anticipate rainfalls of different levels and variability. The central role for policy is to lubricate these natural abilities. More timely information about climate impacts can help; more efficient markets for scarce resources such as water can be created; funding for infrastructures can be mobilized. For rich, capable societies, success in adaptation is hardly guaranteed but at least it is a familiar task.

Much tougher issues arise in less wealthy countries where climate-sensitive agriculture dominates the economy and people are already living on the edge. Small changes in climate can have a big human toll. When I began this project I expected to conclude that rich countries should create huge funds to help poor countries adapt. Instead, I have arrived at a much darker place. Such efforts are well-meaning, but they are unlikely to make much difference. Adaptation does not arise as a discrete policy. It comes from within a society and its governing institutions, and there is very little that outsiders can do to help. Most so-called “adaptation projects”—for example, building sea walls or creating a national weather service to provide farmers with more useful climatic information to help them adapt—make no sense unless implemented within institutions that can actually deploy and utilize these resources. I’ll call these adaptation-friendly contexts. One of the hard truths about global warming is that these contexts are self-reinforcing. When they exist, the list of discrete adaptation projects where outsiders can be helpful is short because societies invest in adaptation on their own. When these contexts don’t exist adaptation spending isn’t very useful. Readers will recognize this problem as analogous to the problem of economic development. Foreign assistance for development can be extraordinarily important when applied under the right circumstances, but only a subset—perhaps a small subset—of countries actually enjoy those circumstances. The same is true for adaptation.

Despite all the promises of massive new funding for adaptation, such as embodied in the Copenhagen Accord, there is very little that international diplomacy can do to help fix the adaptation dilemma. The poorest countries are most vulnerable to a changing climate. The rich countries are most responsible for the emissions that are causing the world to warm yet are largely unable to help the poor adapt. To be sure, more money can assuage guilty feelings that rich polluters feel, having imposed climate harms on poor societies that already have enough troubles. But it probably won’t do much to boost those countries’ welfare. I devote a large space in chapter 6 to checking whether this insight is correct, and I think it is robust. It raises troubling questions of justice. So far, most of the theories of international justice that have been applied to the climate problem have not grappled with this reality.

If the news about adaption for humans is dark, the news for Nature is even more troubling. Unlike humans, nature responds to changing circumstances mainly through natural selection. That means that a changing climate is likely to bring a lot of extinction to species that are already living on the edge while promoting hardier plants and critters such as weeds and cockroaches. The impacts will be felt not just in individual species but whole ecosystems. Avoiding these unwanted outcomes will require a more active human hand. Because humans can look ahead and behave strategically they can implement projects such as installing corridors between ecosystems so that plants and animals can more readily march to cooler climates. If climate changes in extreme ways this will turn humans into zookeepers. Huge areas of wild landscapes will be put under environmental receivership, and managing them will require human handling on a scale never imagined. Doing all this across Nature will probably cost a lot more than people are wiling to pay, and in many ecosystems human management may be worse than letting Nature sort itself. The need for triage will appear. So far, barely any such discussions is under way. The last century has seen a sharp rise in international funding for Nature, much of it managed by NGOs and focused on preserving gems of Nature. These NGOs will be on the front lines of Nature’s triage, and they will probably have a difficult time accepting this mission because zookeeping and triage run counter to their core historical missions. The most successful international nature NGOs are steeped in a culture of protection—they buy lands, create parks, erect fences where possible, and do their best to keep humans away and to lighten the human footprint. Triage will require more or less the opposite strategy.

If all that isn’t dark enough, I also look at some worst case scenarios. Barely a month goes by without a publication of new research suggesting that climate could change more rapidly than previously expected. Once such changes are under way the effects on things that matter could be more horrendous than earlier thought. The unknown unknowns of global climate change might hold pleasant surprises or horrors. The evidence at the horror end of the spectrum is mounting.

Bracing for change also requires readying some emergency plans. Those will include intervening directly in the climate to offset some of the effects of climate change, which is also known as “geoengineering.” Volcanoes offer a model, for their periodic eruptions spew particles in the upper atmosphere that cool the planet for a time. Man-made efforts along the same lines might include flying airplanes in the upper atmosphere and sprinkling reflective particles that might crudely cool the planet. So far, most of the public discussion about geoengineering treats the option as a freak show of reckless Dr. Strangelove’s tinkering with the planet. Yet it is hard to digest the most alarming scenarios from climate science without concluding that serious preparations are needed on the geoengineering front. I argue for a research program in this area so that some of the most viable options can be tested. I also argue that such a program needs to follow special rules such as transparency, publication of results, pre-announcement of tests, and careful risk assessments. That approach is needed so that if governments ever get to the stage where they might actually deploy geoengineering systems, a set of norms and practices are in place about how to treat these technologies. There are two big dangers with geoengineering. One is that the technology will be so controversial that the countries with the best scientists don’t invest in testing the options responsible and readying them in case of need. The other is that a desperate country will launch geoengineering without preparing for the side-effects. A dozen or so nations already have the ability to deploy geoengineering and the list is growing. A race is on between building a responsible research program that can lay the foundation for good governance of geoengineering technologies and the desperate “hail Mary” pass of a country that can’t stomach the extreme effects of warming and is disillusioned with the lack of serious efforts to stop global warming through regulation of emissions.

6. A New International Strategy

The sixth and final step in the logic I would like to lay out today concerns a redesign of the international diplomatic strategy. It will seem odd in a lecture that is about overcoming the gridlock in international diplomacy to wait so long before diplomacy arrives fully on the scene. I have started with national policy because international agreements that don’t align with national interests and capabilities are unlikely to be effective.

I take on this task in two stages. First, I explain why diplomatic efforts so far have led to gridlock. My argument is that the diplomatic toolbox used over the last two decades is the wrong one for the job. That toolbox comes from experience in managing earlier international environmental problems, which have little in common with the costly, complicated regulatory challenges that arise with warming gases. All of the canonical elements in that toolbox are wrong for global warming. Those elements include global agreements, which diplomats cherish because they believe they are more legitimate. They include binding treaties, which most analysts wrongly think are more effective because governments always take binding law more seriously. And they include emission targets and timetables, which are a mainstay of environmental diplomacy because most diplomats and NGOs think targets and timetables are the best way to guarantee that governments actually deliver the environmental protection they promise. These conventional wisdoms are so ingrained in environmental diplomacy that in my book I offer a new history of international environmental protection and show why nearly all the canon of conventional wisdom in this area is wrong.

Finally, I suggest an alternative. My starting point is one central insight: effective international agreements on climate change will need to offer governments the flexibility to adopt highly diverse policy strategies. Instead of universal treaties, I suggest that cooperation should begin with much smaller groups. It should begin with nonbinding agreements that are more flexible. And it should focus on policies that governments control rather than trying to set emission targets and timetables since emission levels are fickle and beyond government control. Cooperation challenges of this type are rare in international environmental diplomacy, but they are much more common in economic coordination where governments often try to coordinate their policies in a context where no government really knows exactly what it will be willing and able to implement. The closest analogies are with international trade and the model I offer draws heavily from the experience with the GATT and WTO.

The backbone of this new approach would be a series of contingent offers. Governments would outline what they are wiling and able to implement as well as extra efforts that are contingent on what other nations offer and implement. Negotiations would concentrate on the package of offers that are acceptable to participating nations. By working in a small group—initially about a dozen nation—it would be easier to concentrate on which offers were genuine and to piece together a larger deal that takes advantage of the contingencies. If individual countries are confident that others will honor their commitments then they, too, will be willing to adopt more costly and demanding policies at home. As part of this process, enthusiastic nations would also scrutinize the many bids from reluctant nations and offer resources to those that were most promising.

Analysts often call this strategy for getting starting on cooperation a “club. Deals created in this small group would concentrate benefits on other club members—for example, a climate change deal might include preferential market access for low-carbon technologies and lucrative special linkages between emission trading systems in exchange for tighter caps on emissions. Such club approaches often fare better than larger negotiations when dealing with problems, such as global warming, that are plagued by the tendency of governments to offer only the lowest common denominator. Clubs make it easier to craft contingent deals and channel more benefits to other members of the club, which creates stronger incentives for the deals to hold.

The logic of clubs underpins many efforts and proposals in recent years to focus on warming policy in forums that are smaller and more nimble than the UN. Those include the G20, the “Environmental 8,” the Major Economies Forum (MEF), and similar ideas. These are all good ideas; what is missing is an investment in real cooperation through these small forums that will generate benefits and incentives for still more cooperation. I am cautiously optimistic that such approaches will regain favor in the wake of the troubles at Copenhagen, but I am not blind to the power of conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdoms that have created gridlock on global warming remain firmly in place and are hard to shake.

Clubs are a way to get started, but they aren’t the final word. Eventually the clubs must expand. But the advantage of starting with a club is that the smaller setting makes it easier to set the right norms and general rules to govern that expansion. In practice, this will be a lot easier than it seems because international emission trading can be a powerful force working in the same direction. With the right policies, the international trade in emission credits creates a mechanism for assigning prices to efforts. It rewards countries with strict policies by giving higher prices to their emission credits. Over the history of the GATT/WTO, the most powerful mechanism for compliance was the knowledge that if one country reneged on its promises, others could easily retaliate by targeting trade sanctions and removing privileges to punish the deviant. With the right pricing policies, emission trading could provide the same kinds of incentives.

The central diplomatic task is getting countries to make reliable promises about what they can and will implement and then getting all nations to expand their promises as they learn what their trading partners will do. This exactly describes the process of negotiating trade agreements. It is the only way to get serious about global warming. Alas, it is likely to be slow and cumbersome, which means that even in good faith quite a lot of warming is in store.

7. New Politics

The old politics of global warming were deceptively easy. Governments could make promises that they kept when convenient and ignored when not. They focused on cooperation that was mostly symbolic and didn’t have a real impact on emissions. The new politics will be a lot harder because more will be at stake. Serious policies will be costly. Contingent commitments will be needed; governments will make those promises with a close eye on whether other governments are making credible commitments as well. Politically, these serious tasks will be much harder to manage. Progress will be slow. But progress has been almost nonexistent so far—this year marks the 20 th anniversary of sustained UN diplomacy on global warming with very little that is practical to show for two decades of work. I will be happy with slow and serious rather than gridlock.

David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation. Until 2009, Victor served as director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, where he was also a professor at Stanford Law School.

His books include: Gridlock on Global Warming (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming); Natural Gas and Geopolitics (Cambridge University Press, 2006); The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming (Princeton University Press, 2 nd edition 2004); Climate Change: Debating America’s Policy Options (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2004), and Technological Innovation and Economic Performance (Princeton University Press, 2002, co-edited with Benn Steil and Richard Nelson). Victor is author of more than 150 essays and articles in scholarly journals, magazines and newspapers, such as Climatic Change, The Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, Nature, The New York Times, Science, and The Washington Post.


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To be sure, these marginal players can help slow the rate of warming and shift the most intense periods of warming by decades. A big effort to regulate strong but short-lived warming gases such as black carbon or methane can help slow the rate of warming, but there is no viable strategy for making deep reductions in the rate of warming or stopping warming altogether without a central focus on CO2. For multi-gas studies that explore such issues see, among many, notably Wigley et al. 2009 and Ramanathan and Xu 2010.

For example, IEA 2009a and EIA 2010a.

See, for example, Paltsev et al. 2009 which analyzes the economic costs of an ideal policy and also policies that are implemented in more fragmented Potemkin-like ways. The latter are a lot more expensive to society.

Some analysts say that emission trading fixes that problem because it guarantees that emission caps are honored. As I will show in chapter 4, that view is largely a fiction because much of international trading concerns CDM credits that are design to create the illusion of compliance with emission caps while not actually reducing emissions.

Nobody is really sure of the exact timetable over which regulatory efforts will lead to climatic outcomes. The timescales for change I quote here come from combining the slow rate of turnover in energy infrastructures (see for example Grübler, Nakicenovic,, and McDonald 1998) with the slow rate of change in atmosphere conditions (e.g., Wigley, Richels, and Edmonds 1996).

Belatedly there is now much more public attention to preparations for the large coming changes in climate. For a thoughtful essay on this see Pielke et al. 2007.

There is a growing literature on climate-induced extinction. See, for example, McLaughlin et al. 2002 and Root and Schneider 2006.

Among the exceptions, Richardson et al. 2009.

The geoengineering intelligentsia actually call this “solar radiation management (SRM)” because their definition of geoengineering is much broader and includes any large-scale intervention in the climate system. Here I will use the term in a narrow way to mean climate interventions that produce quick results, such as sprinkling reflective particles in the stratosphere to mimic the behavior of volcanoes. What matters is that these systems produce very rapid and large-scale climate impacts—that’s why they are interesting to investigate as options in case a climate emergency appears on the horizon and why they are also scary. Whenever one messes with a complex system in ways that produce large-scale and rapid change it is hard to predict all the consequences.

The argument here is based on Buchanan 1965 and Olson 1965. This line of thinking is applied to international affairs in Keohane and Nye 1977 and in Keohane 1984 who looks at clubs anchored around the interests of one dominant member, the hegemonic U.S.

For example, see Martin 2005; Stern and Antholis 2007. Initiated by Paul Martin’s interest in this idea, in the early 2000s I spent a lot of time fleshing out the ideas around how global warming could be addressed in a small forum. From the first time I looked at the global warming problem in detail I was skeptical that universal treaties that were commonplace in environmental problems would work. See Victor 1991, which used the GATT as a model for how to get started on global warming. I think it still reads well today, but its practical influence on the negotiations then and now has been nil.

Tr@nsit online, 2010
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