Common Sense Climate Change – Paul Fry

Do we need a comprehensive and binding international treaty in order to start to tackle the global issue of climate change? Of course not. Do we need the country of Lesotho to agree to chip in by reducing greenhouse gas emissions before other countries can move forward on addressing climate change? Again, of course not, and thankfully it seems that we are waking up to those simple facts.

The articles “Think Again: Climate Treaties” by David Shorr and “Toward Effective International Cooperation on Climate Change: Numbers, Interests, and Institutions” by David Victor make some very interesting observations on climate change and the common wisdom surrounding how to tackle it. Both authors argue that non-binding institutions actually perform better than legally binding treaties, with Shorr citing the failures of Kyoto as an example of the latter. By trying to solve the issue of climate change through a treaty with legal obligations (and ramifications for not meeting those obligations), you have to water the treaty down far enough to the “lowest common denominator” in order to get states to sign on to it (rendering it fairly ineffective), or risk states walking away altogether and refusing to sign on to a treaty they aren’t sure they would be able to meet. By using non-binding instruments however, you encourage states to set their own realistic goals and attempt to achieve them at their own pace. States are pressured into leading by example through reporting mechanisms and greater transparency, while still being allowed the flexibility to change their goals (either increase or decrease them) without being shamed or punished for having to temporarily prioritize other issues.

Another major criticism leveled at Kyoto was its inclusiveness. Common sense would say that for a global issue like climate change some sort of global consensus would be needed to address the issue and begin to tackle it. The environment is, of course, a common good used by all, and the broadest membership possible for an enterprise aimed at preserving it would be ideal. But we would be left waiting a very long time if we were to wait for all states involved in this issue (the entire UN) to align their interests and commit to action. When the top dozen countries in the world account for 74% of world emissions of CO2 (Victor 95) it really doesn’t become necessary to wait for the thirteenth country to jump on the train before it can start moving. Focusing on a limited number of countries with the most to offer through cooperation is of course how both the World Trade Organization and the European Union began.

There really is no need to sit around and wait for international lawyers to draw up a legal treaty which will be ineffective either because it is watered down to a lowest common denominator or because those who would have been major signatories to it decide to walk away from it. There is also very little benefit to making concessions or compromises in an agreement in order to widen support for it and craft it to be as inclusive as possible. Let Copenhagen be the example, where the big states came together and said they would try their best and lead the charge, the smaller states followed suit, and a firm overarching goal was set for the world to be reached by the flexible contributions of the many. It is in this spirit of cooperation and shared responsibility and action that we will see (and have already) real headway made into combating climate change.


5 thoughts on “Common Sense Climate Change – Paul Fry”

  1. I completely agree that the smaller states should have more say in the treaties regarding climate change, and they all need to consider their own benefits when they decide to sign onto a treaty regarding this sensitive topic. However, one factor we should carefully address is that timing is also a key factor in order to achieve climate change. Therefore, although we can “water down” the treaty to fit the wants and likes of the smaller nations, it is important that they are willing to be on the same boat with big nations like India or China, at the same time. There are going to be losses from all nations if you want to settle on a treaty. Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that smaller states should be a key factor in making this climate change treaties happen. Rather, we should emphasize on what we could do immediately for them to cooperate together and realize what steps to take at the same time, even though their goals and efforts may be different.


    1. I was actually trying to argue that we should steer away from traditional treaties in dealing with climate change, and that agreements only really need to initially be made among the big states (those that produce the most greenhouse gases). Smaller states can always sign on to or agree with the bigger states, but their consent really isn’t needed to get the ball rolling on climate change. Basically, smaller states shouldn’t have more say in the treaties regarding climate change, and they shouldn’t be treaties anyway but agreements instead.

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  2. While I think that climate change is an issue that should be adequately addressed by the international community as the author mentioned, it is also very important to note the uniqueness of this global issue. It will be very difficult to establish consensus on a comprehensive climate deal because this issue is inextricably linked to global economic prosperity and has a large impact on domestic production and industries in many states. Past forums in Copenhagen and the Kyoto Conference, which resulted in fairly low compliance rates, exemplify the unsuccessfulness of a climate change agreement. It seems this is not an issue that can be solely addressed for its own sake, and if a climate change deal is to be lasing and effective with sufficient member state compliance, its goals and standards must closely align with national interests and provide incentives that accommodate global economic prosperity.


    1. I think that is certainly a reason why the authors were advocating for climate change agreements like Copenhagen, rather than climate change treaties like Kyoto. In crafting an agreement you give states the flexibility to make their own goals based on their own domestic issues (e.g. their economic situations as you pointed out), while also taking out the risks associated with signing on to an ambitious treaty (the consequences of not meeting legal obligations). In approaching climate change this way you also sidestep the “required” consensus usually associated with international treaties, and can better tailor agreements to the group of countries most important in the issue (the major contributors to greenhouse gases) and then tailor it to the individual countries themselves (e.g. different promises from India and the EU).

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  3. Though I agree that smaller states shouldn’t have as much say in treaties, I think that they should definitely uphold the same environmental standards. My main worry is that these smaller economies will try to capitalize on the fact that they aren’t bound to anything as a way to build their economy. Therefore when they get to the size of India and China, they cannot afford to switch over to environmental policies. Smaller nations should try to figure out a way to start incorporating their environmental policies into the development of their nation. Therefore, they should be involved in the treaty making process as they could become leading economies in this vastly changing world.

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