Climate Change and International Cooperation

February 2, 2021
Climate Cooperation

By Pedro Mariani

If the world continues to burn fossil fuels at current rates, earth average temperatures may rise to catastrophic levels. Climate change resulting from a world 3 to 8 degrees °C warmer than pre-industrial levels will cause changes in rainfall patterns, the disappearance of glaciers, droughts, a rise in sea levels, the loss of islands and coastal wetlands, as well as increased flooding. COVID-19, if not a direct result of climate change, may have been caused by one of its main contributors -- deforestation.

Although climate change will not affect all countries in the same manner, it poses a security and existential threat to all. While some (island) countries may disappear entirely, many others will lose a substantial portion of their territory and large cities. Climate change will also likely exacerbate political instability, migration crises, and intrastate warfare, in addition to increased military spending to repair or rebuild existing infrastructure.

Because the effects of climate change cannot be attributed to each specific country that causes greenhouse emissions, all countries are at the same time culprits and victims of the problem, albeit to different degrees. If this is the case, international cooperation should be the obvious pathway to address this collective problem.

However, international cooperation has so far obtained modest results, as global temperatures and fossil fuel emissions continue to rise globally despite years of negotiations aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. A recent study suggests that pledge and review mechanisms contained in the Paris Agreement have small effects on actual contributions towards emission reduction targets.

Realism explains, at least partially, why such cooperation efforts have largely failed. Because of the “enduring anarchical nature” of the international system, states will only abide by international norms to the extent such norms do not pose a security threat or risk leaving the state in a relative disadvantage vis-à-vis its competitors.

There are a variety of incentives for non-cooperation in climate change, including, first, the “free riding” factor: because greenhouse gases mix globally in the atmosphere, damage is not necessarily attributed to the country where the emissions came from. Conversely, expenditures to reduce emissions may not benefit the country that is incurring them but another unrelated set of countries -- the free riders -- which, could very well not be spending anything on curtailing greenhouse gases or even investing in increasing their fossil fuel energy matrix. In this free riding scenario countries may decide to invest in minimizing the effects of climate change within their own territory rather than in reducing emissions.

Second, developing countries have argued that developed nations have reaped the lion’s share of the benefits of CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution and should now bear the brunt of expenses related to curtailing emissions. In other words, developing nations do not seem to be willing to sacrifice economic development on the altar of climate change without some form of compensation or disproportionate reduction targets.

In addition, if nations take the view that the climate change match is lost or that investments in turning the game around are prohibitive, they may withdraw from the negotiating table and focus all their investments on reducing damages in their own local communities.

Finally, domestic issues combined with timing may have an impact on a country’s decision to collaborate on climate change strategies. Investments to reduce greenhouse gases may not be tangible for the free riding reasons mentioned above and also because political leaders and their voters will not survive to experience their benefits. A decision to invest in fossil fuel reduction will always be weighed against investments with more immediate local returns such as infrastructure, schools and hospitals, particularly in developing nations. Thus, the question a political leader would ask is: why should I risk the next election to benefit a remote set of countries at the expense of visible investments at home? The issue is further complicated to the extent a significant part of the population is comprised of climate change skeptics.

One should not ignore the fact that, given certain circumstances, states may decide to cooperate in a common external threat scenario. Faced with oblivion, the instinct of self-preservation outweighs relative gains concerns. If this is the case, why has cooperation around climate change failed so far, as discussed above?

It is difficult to argue that climate change does not pose an existential security threat, for the reasons already mentioned. Cooperation, however, is built on defeating a clearly identifiable source of threat, such as Germany in the world wars or France during Napoleon I. Yet climate change poses a different problem because, as we have seen, all nations are collectively and simultaneously the source and the target of its destructive effects. This is a statement of affairs that eerily recalls Dr. Jekyll: “I have brought on myself a punishment and a danger that I cannot name. If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also.”

Another aspect of the problem with climate change cooperation is that the threat, although certain, is not as immediate, condensed or recognizable as threats that have historically aligned nations behind a common purpose. An invasion or nuclear attack is clearly identifiable and their potential effects produced in a short period of time. Effects of climate change build up over time and in many circumstances cannot be immediately attributable to greenhouse emissions.

The global reaction to COVID-19, which significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions, was less a result of global cooperation than countries reacting individually and not necessarily in concert to deal with a common public threat.

Faced with this gloomy scenario, should we all now just sit in “passive contemplation” and resign ourselves to the fact that future generations will live through Armageddon? I hope not.

Since there is no way out of the climate change problem other than through reluctant cooperation, further investigation should focus on how treaties on the subject could be more effective.

First, it seems that countries can and do behave in a less self-serving way when it comes to climate change. For example, a pessimist would expect, under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol, that nations would purchase carbon credits solely to offset increases in domestic greenhouse emissions. However, according to Mark Purdon, states acquiring CDM also tend to be the ones making the most progress in reducing domestic emissions: “[m]y investigation of the carbon market also dispels moral hazard claims: those states acquiring CDM credits also tend to be making the most progress in reducing emissions domestically.”

In addition, there are actual cases of international treaties achieving a reduction in greenhouse emissions. For example the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) has “reduced greenhouse gas emissions four to five times as much as the Kyoto Protocol tried, but failed, to achieve” as a result of the following factors: (i) effective enforcement mechanisms; (ii) specificity (i.e., focus on each individual gas or fuel emission rather than having an overall reduction target); (iii) limiting production; and (iv) trade bans.

Further analysis of the negotiation and implementation history of the Montreal Protocol may reveal patterns that could serve as a starting point for an effective collaboration framework on climate change despite relative gainsconcerns being the norm. Our future generations are depending on all of us to get this cooperation right - now.


About the Author:


Pedro Mariani is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Senior Fellow. Prior to ALI, Pedro was a senior legal, compliance, corporate affairs, and government relations executive, most recently serving as vice president of legal and corporate affairs at beverage company AmBev S.A., one of Brazil’s largest corporations. Previously, he was an associate of Clifford Chance in New York and general counsel of Vale S.A., the world’s largest iron ore producer.

A leader in corporate social responsibility efforts, Pedro led the creation of a platform through which AmBev shared its water sustainability expertise with other companies, launched a social business that directed profits to improve water access in Brazil’s semi-arid region, and partnered with São Paulo government on responsible drinking and road safety initiatives that reduced traffic fatalities by 13%.


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