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The argument for incrementalism in international climate negotiations

stones (Shutterstock)

The international community has been talking about climate change since the 1980s, with a continuous procession of meetings, accords, treaties, and declarations. All the while, global carbon emissions have continued to rise.

Even the Paris climate accord signed in December, as promising as it is, falls well short of what the nations involved say is needed. And it is mostly composed of promises and pledges. Actual, tangible action to restrain carbon emissions remains vanishingly modest relative to the amount of talk and diplomatic attention that have been lavished on the problem.

What explains the skewed ratio of talk to action? And what can bring the two into sync?

There are two basic schools of thought on this, or rather, two ends of a spectrum.

On one side, the belief is that only a comprehensive, legally binding global treaty has any hope of adequately (and justly) addressing climate change — so a comprehensive, legally binding global treaty must be had. The Paris accord, though it represents some progress, is another failure to achieve this. What's needed is a global grassroots movement to force greedy and short-sighted politicians to try again and do better.

On the other side, the belief is that it was always a mistake to go straight for a comprehensive, binding global treaty. By going so big, right off the bat, negotiators practically guaranteed gridlock and lowest-common-denominator outcomes. It's going to take a stepwise, incremental process to build up the amount of trust, and the institutions, needed to support a global treaty.

It's possible to fall various places in between, of course. My (admittedly anecdotal) sense is that the climate community is slowly migrating from the first school to the second.

There are plenty of people — especially in poor and low-lying countries, or among climate justice advocates and activists — who still think anything short of a binding treaty is failure.

But most people (some more grudgingly and despairingly than others) are coming around to the realization that a binding global treaty just isn't in the cards, and the quest to achieve it is standing in the way of more small-scale, concrete steps.

The clearest articulation I've seen of the latter school of thought was just published in Nature Climate Change by Robert Keohane of Princeton and David Victor of UC San Diego, in a paper entitled "Cooperation and discord in global climate policy."

It's part of a larger package of papers on "the role of society in energy transitions," which is an overdue focus for academic attention. There's tons of great stuff in it, but it's all behind a paywall, which is really a damn shame. So I'll just briefly summarize the Keohane-Victor argument.

The structure of climate change resists collective action

Climate change is a global commons problem. The costs of action are localized, but the benefits accrue globally, over long time periods. A safe climate is a public good, and "public goods are typically underprovided in the absence of a governing authority," write Keohane and Victor, "because each actor has an incentive to free-ride — to gain a beneficial climate while failing to pay its share."

Because of this malign incentive structure, it has proven extremely difficult to achieve the deep cooperation that will be required to solve the problem. To get beyond shallow coordination requires more trust, reciprocity, and international governing authority than currently exists.

Coordination is easy, cooperation is hard

Keohane and Victor's analysis turns on a distinction between coordination and cooperation. They explain the distinction this way:

Collaboration can take many forms along a continuum from coordination to cooperation. In situations of coordination, agreements are self-enforcing, that is, once an agreement has been made, the parties do not have incentives to defect from it. For instance, once everyone in the United States understands that Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road, no rational driver has an incentive to drive on the left, and vice versa for drivers in the United Kingdom. Cooperation, by contrast, is not self-enforcing. In the famous game of ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’, for instance, each player has an incentive to confess, implicating his partner in crime in return for a lighter sentence. The deep coordination needed between states to provide public goods has a similar structure.

Moving from coordination to cooperation requires relationships of trust and institutions that can counter this incentive to free-ride, through rewards or punishments. And for a global public good like climate mitigation, the problem is particularly severe, since there are dozens of big emitters, which all have strong domestic incentives to free-ride. Success is only possible with near-universal cooperation, and there is, as yet, no central authority for global governance. (The UNFCCC itself has virtually no power to sanction or reward its members.)

Keohane and Victor offer this simple matrix to divide international agreements into four types, based on two variables. One is whether the level of agreement is self-reinforcing (coordination) or not (cooperation). The other is the level of "joint gains" that could potentially be achieved through agreements. Here's a chart:

keohane & victor (Nature Climate Change)

They run through examples of international agreements that fit in all four boxes. For our purposes, the problem is that international climate action has long been stuck in the lower left box — because collaboration is relatively shallow, only a modest amount of joint gains are being achieved. Last year's US-China climate accord and the Paris agreement are good examples; both amount to codifying their respective members' national interests. There's little to push countries beyond their immediate interests, so the joint gains (in terms of climate mitigation) remain far lower than what's possible. International climate change agreements need to be lifted to the upper-left box.

As an example of international collaboration that has made that ascent, Keohane and Victor cite trade. More open trade began with smaller, bi- and multi-lateral agreements to lower or remove the worst, costliest tariffs, actions clearly in participating countries' interests. As countries worked together and developed reciprocal relationships, they built up the trust needed to create institutions like the WTO, which provided a level of central governance that enabled greater cooperation and greater joint gains.

In other words, it was not enough merely to agree on the abstract desirability of more trade. There was a long, deliberate process of ratcheting up, building trust, and forming institutions.

Climate campaigners have long been fixated on securing a big agreement on final ends, with the unspoken assumption that once a binding agreement is in place, the means will simply emerge. But it doesn't work that way:

It is tempting to imagine that once general agreement has been reached on the nature of the climate change problem — for example, agreement that warming should be stopped at 1.5 or 2 °C, as was visibly codified in Paris — appropriate institutions will emerge and that optimal mitigation strategies discovered by economic analysis will somehow follow suit. One of the central insights from political science is that optimal institutions often don’t emerge, even when there are large potential gains to be had.

That last sentence is particularly noteworthy. Without those institutions and practices in place, and the trust that undergirds them, national leaders have immense incentive to make big, flowery promises but do the minimal amount required of them — "organized hypocrisy," a too-frequent state of affairs in international relations.

So how to do that ratcheting work, laying the foundation for greater ambition?

Carbon reductions can serve a wide range of interests

It would be nice to think that all 194 countries involved in the UNFCCC are motivated by the public good of a safer climate, but that would be rather naïve. In fact, arguably only two of the big emitters, the US and the EU, are thus motivated (and them only partially).

Stitching together a stronger web of international collaboration will require a nuanced understanding of what various nations need and are capable of contributing.

Interests are a vexed subject for researchers, since countries are rarely frank about their true interests, but in the climate space, we're in luck. The Paris climate accord set aside the dream of a binding treaty and instead moved to a new structure, in which countries submitted their own voluntary Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs). Thus far there have been 160 submissions, involving 187 countries, representing around 98 percent of global population.

Because INDCs are voluntary, they represent a decent (if not perfect) approximation of the interests and capabilities of the countries involved. Keohane and Victor identify five:

1) Create the global public good of reduced climate change.

As mentioned, only the EU and some regions of the US (California) are plausibly motivated by this; for most countries, other interests drive participation.

2) Create local or national public goods that happen to address, as well, the global public good of climate change.

There are tons of carbon mitigation efforts that also bring immediate local benefits. For instance, China is powerfully motivated to reduce smog and other air pollutants, which are nearing crippling levels; in doing so, it will also secure climate benefits (usually).

3) Generate competitive economic benefits, such as the creation of new industries — solar, wind, batteries.

This is a two-edged sword. The pursuit of competitive economic advantage can induce countries to invest in clean energy industries, but it can also lead them to dig in to protect powerful fossil fuel interests.

4) Bargain for side payments, such as requests for money to help pay the cost of controlling emissions and adapting to climate change.

This is a somewhat uncomfortable topic among climate campaigners, but the fact is that many poor or developing countries see climate negotiations primarily as a way of securing financial assistance from the developed world. (As they will suffer most from climate change, for which they are least responsible, they are entitled to redress.)

5) Create reputational benefits.

There are benefits to leading on an issue of international importance. Perhaps more significantly, it looks bad to be a laggard when everyone else is participating. It is hoped that this these "soft power" dynamics will help the Paris accord succeed.

Given this range of interests, Keohane and Victor write, "institutions such as the UNFCCC that require near-universal consensus are likely to make only modest progress. Even states that would conditionally be willing to do more are unlikely to offer ambitious policies, insofar as such policies would make sense for them only in the context of an ambitious agreement in which all major polluters participated."

A wicked problem, diverse interests, and a negotiating framework that requires unanimity — that's a recipe for lowest-common-denominator agreements. Demanding maximum ambition and unanimity at the same time is a recipe for frustration.

"The fundamental logic of global public goods makes it difficult for countries to create deep cooperation quickly," Keohane and Victor write. The only alternative is to create it slowly, piece by piece.

The route to deep cooperation is paved with shallow steps

They discuss a few forms that such incremental cooperation might take, including Victor's long-time hobby horse, "climate clubs," small groups of countries working together on climate strategies that offer mutual benefit, boosting one another's fortitude and ambition. There are also joint research programs, shared commitments on energy or deforestation, and various other bits of bricolage.

Keohane and Victor summarize the strategy this way:

States should cooperate where cooperation is possible, often on the basis of voluntary groupings; coordinate on issues where cooperation is too difficult or where universal participation is desirable; and probe experimentally to seek to expand the boundaries of feasible cooperation. As no single path is likely to be globally effective on its own, a multiplicity of actions should be taken.

This is already how things seem to be evolving. In addition to China, the US has signed bilateral agreements or released joint statements on climate efforts with Brazil, India, Vietnam, and the Nordic countries. Each of those agreements is tailored to its participants, emphasizing areas of mutual benefit.

And "subnational actors" (e.g., states and cities) are taking action as well; California hosts the first "Subnational-Clean Energy Ministerial" in June.

Approaching cooperation from the bottom up makes for diffuse and frustratingly slow progress, but it makes for progress. The alternative hasn't.

This kind of talk makes many climate activists apoplectic. It sounds like surrender, or fatalism. Unlike a binding agreement with a clear target, it sounds fuzzy and uncertain, terrifying characteristics for a strategy intended to save the world. And in a decentralized framework, it's difficult to see how to secure climate justice for poor and low-lying nations (something the paper doesn't spend enough time on).

But if Keohane and Victor are right, the choice is not between grand ambition and incremental steps. There is no way to go straight to grand ambition. The choice is spinning our wheels or getting underway.

"Proceeding by small steps to build confidence and generate patterns of reciprocity is not a timid, second-best strategy," they write. "Instead, it is essential." Right now, nations have varying preferences and interests, there is no global authority, and trust is low. It's premature to try to jam everyone into a single grand bargain. Instead, "supporters of effective climate policy must figure out how to operate effectively in a polycentric global system."

I once wrote a post about the perpetual search for Archimedes' lever, that one strategy or policy that is powerful enough to tackle climate change on its own. The long quest for a binding global climate treaty is a version of that hope.

But it won't be one big struggle, it will be a million little struggles. There won't be one big final treaty, there will be an evolving skein of bilateral and multilateral agreements. The journey of a thousand miles doesn't begin with a thousand-mile leap. It begins with steps.