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.