Climate scientists yesterday warned that the earth had crossed an important milestone. For the first time in 3 million years, the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million. The last time CO2 levels were this high was during the Pliocene era, when temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher and the earth was in a middle of a prolonged warm period.
It’s important to remember that the 400 ppm figure is a bit arbitrary. CO2 levels have been flirting with the 400 ppm level for several months. But the overall upward trend in CO2 levels does pose reason for concern. Scientists warn that failure to stabilize CO2 levels at less than 450 ppm could have catastrophic climate effects. But over the past fifty years, CO2 levels have been on a steady upward march (see graph below), and they show no signs of leveling off.
Carbon dioxide levels can be seen climbing steadily in Scripps data from the last 55 years.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
But reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere presents a classic free rider dilemma. Collectively, we face dramatic consequences: increasingly erratic weather patterns, declining overall food productivity, rising sea levels, desertification, and so on. But any individual country’s actions are unlikely to have a significant impact on the overall trend. Thus it is in every country’s individual self-interest to continue business as usual, and rely on other countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, they capture all of the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while paying none of the costs. Every state behaving in a rational and self-interested way leads to the worst possible outcome—a classic example of the prisoners’ dilemma.
Yet we also know that there are several strategies to overcome the prisoners’ dilemma. Iteration (repeated plays) and communication (which leads to confidence building and trust) can overcome the otherwise nihilistic outcomes of the dilemma. The question, of course, is whether or not governments can work to overcome the dilemma in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
What do you think? Will governments be able to collectively address the challenges posed by climate change? Or are we locked into a nihilistic outcome, as the prisoners’ dilemma would suggest? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
The Atlantic ran a story this morning entitled, “We’re Screwed: 11,000 Years’ Worth of Climate Data Prove It.” The story, complete with accompanying grasp, see below, was based on a study published in Science earlier this week. The author of the that study, climate scientist Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University, stated, “What we found is that temperatures increased in the last hundred years as much as they had cooled in the last six or seven thousand. In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we’ve seen in the whole Holocene” (the last 11,500 years).
Climate Change Estimates constructed for a new study in Science.
The Atlantic then concludes that, “Today’s study should help debunk the common climate change denial argument that recent warming is simply part of a long-term natural trend.” Such a conclusion is, of course, based on the assumption that what we need to address climate change is simply greater clarity or more data. But it misses the point that convincing data already exist. Very few scientists who seriously study the environment believe that climate change is not taking place. Sure, there is debate over the degree and pace of climate change, but there is little scientific debate over the big picture. So more data is unlikely to change many minds. Those who are convinced that human activity is resulting in broad changes to the global climate will continue to believe. And new data is unlikely to change the minds of those who do not believe anthropocentric climate change is taking place.
Game theory provides a powerful tool to make sense of these questions. For any given country, the cost of mitigation (reducing climate change) and adaption (changing our activities to take count of the impact of climate change) are high. And the ability of any individual state to have a real impact on climate change is small. Further, the costs of climate change are distributed (unevenly) around the world, while the benefits of economic activity are concentrated in a single economy. Under this situation, a tragedy of the commons emerges, where every individual actor (in this case, states), behaving rationally, will attempt to free ride on the efforts of the others. If climate change is averted, then everyone benefits regardless of who paid to prevent it. If it is not averted, everyone pays the costs. The tragedy of the commons thus suggests that individual states making decisions based on their own rational self-interest will be unable to address collective problems like climate change.
And yet we get treaties like the Kyoto Protocol, which attempts to limit the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was signed by almost every developed country in the world, despite the fact that their individual interests would be better served by not signing the treaty and letting other states worry about climate change. How can we make sense of the apparent selflessness of states in the context of the Kyoto Protocol?
Liberal internationalism argues, unlike realism, that the international system makes reliance on the use of force an ineffective (or at least an inefficient) foreign policy tool. International cooperation emerges even in a state of anarchy, as Hedley Bull famously argued in The Anarchical Society, when “a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions.” Cooperation rather than conflict, in other words, can become the default position in international relations.
Yet even when cooperation is possible, states have competing domestic interests. And achieving cooperation to address climate change is one of the most complex problems we face. Elected officials have a very short decision making horizon. They are concerned with the next election, and are thus often hesitant to adopt policies which might undermine economic growth (and with it, their chances of victory). No amount of additional scientific data will change that. What we need, therefore, is not more climate change data but a better understanding of the political and economic factors that shape our public policy decisions in the first place.
What do you think? Will the new study change critics’ minds about climate change? What is needed to bring about a coherent environmental policy, both in the United States and in the international community? And how do we balance economic and environmental concerns? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
US leadership would likely be welcomed. A new round of climate change talks are set to begin in Doha next week, and there is hope that—unlike in previous rounds—negotiators may be able to reach agreement on legally binding greenhouse gas reductions by 2015. Without active US participation, agreement appears unlikely, and any agreement would likely be ineffective. At the same time though, as Jordan Weissmann points out at The Atlantic, the United States alone can’t stop climate change. Chinese participation is also vital.
And this gets at the heart of the issue. The scare tactics of the World Bank and others is unlikely to compel significant movement on the part of negotiators. Two fundamental principles mitigate against the possibility.
First, global climate change is a classic example of a collective goods dilemma. All states will benefit from an agreement on climate change, regardless of whether or not they cut their own emissions. Given this, there is little incentive for states to agree to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, the incentive is to free ride on the efforts of other states to cut theirs. But as each state responds to these incentives in the same way, the effectiveness of any agreement is undermined, and the collective well-being of all peoples (and of each individual state) is undermined.
Despite a handful of voices claiming the contrary, the problem with reaching agreement on climate change has never been scientific uncertainty about the impact of climate change. Rather, it’s about interests and trade-offs Reaching agreement on climate change thus requires rethinking the cost-benefit analysis and the payoff structure for action or inaction.
What do you think? Will negotiations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change be successful? Or is the bleak scenario painted by the World Bank and others likely to emerge? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development.
The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio +20 (since 20 years have passed since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) wrapped up on Friday and produced some interesting results. Sustainable development refers to economic development–an activity often associated with environmental degradation–that preserves the environment for future generations. The Rio +20 Conference website elaborates on this concept as follows:
“Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”
Despite numerous opportunities (e.g., Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009) states have generally failed to produce environmental treaties that are both binding and include the world’s major polluters. For example, on the issue of climate change, states that are responsible for the largest emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g., the U.S. and China) have been unwilling to cause potential harm to their economies by substantially reducing emissions. Developed and developing countries have traded accusations as some of the former have refused to sign on to binding treaties unless the latter countries are also forced to cut emissions (a requirement developing countries view as unfair and hypocritical).
Despite (and perhaps because of) this gridlock at the interstate level, nonstate actors have begun to pick up the slack on environmental issues in important ways. This may be part of a general evolution away from the state-centric Westphalian international system as power in an age of globalization has become dispersed among more and more actors, including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs), Multinational Corporations (MNCs), terrorist groups, and even individuals. A New York Times article summarizing the results of the conference was entitled “Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends.” The article describes some of these achievements as follows:
“Yet despite this record [of failure for state-centric treaties], the activity outside the main negotiating sessions here produced hundreds of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments and that offer the promise of incremental but real progress…For instance, Microsoft said it would roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The Italian oil giant Eni said it would reduce its flaring of natural gas. Femsa, a Latin American soft-drink bottler, said it would obtain 85 percent of its energy needs in Mexico from renewable sources…A group of development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.”
MNCs are the primary type of nonstate actor featured in this article, but local governments, NGOs, and prominent individuals are increasingly active in shaping agendas and mobilizing action on environmental issues.
What do you think? Are nonstate actors now the leaders in dealing with environmental problems? What are the limits of these actors’ influence (if any) in terms of tackling climate change and other issues of sustainable development?
But what happens if that territory disappears? This question is being asked by several small, low-lying island states fearing that their territory may become uninhabitable—or indeed disappear altogether—as ocean levels rise as a result of global climate change.
The law in this area is unclear. While the breakup of countries like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union provides precedent for the breakup of existing countries, there is no precedent for the physical disappearance of a country. The government of the Marshall Islands is asking precisely this question.
And even if the country doesn’t disappear, it may become uninhabitable. Already, countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati are suffering from increasing salinization of groundwater supplies, as ocean water seeps into wells. If the islands become uninhabitable, what would happen to the citizens of those countries? Would they become a stateless population? Would they continue to have citizenship in a country that no longer exists?
And what about the economic rights of statehood. Under current international law, states possess extensive rights over territorial waters, which can be rich fishing grounds and home to other valuable resources. What happens if the islands from which the territorial waters are measured disappears?
There are many interesting questions but few real answers.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
There was a great deal of virtual ink spilled last week to discuss how the midterm elections would affect U.S. foreign policy. Bruce Stokes, Richard Haass, Steve Walt, and Daniel Drezner, among others, all chimed in. The emerging consensus seems to be that it will make little difference. As Daniel Drezner pointed out, the election his neither about foreign policy nor has foreign policy been a central—or even a tangential—concern. A former professor of mine once said that foreign policy will never win an election for you, though it can certainly lose one. This year, it did neither.
In general, there’s a great deal of wisdom here. President Obama still controls the foreign policy apparatus of the United States, and Congress has long been hesitant to intervene. But despite assertions that Republican control of the House and their increased minority in the Senate will make little difference, there are a couple of areas where change may be afoot.
First, the START Treaty—the new arms control agreement between the United States and Russia. The agreement would replace an arms control agreement that expired in December, and would impose new limits on the number of warheads and launchers possessed by both countries. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the agreement by a 14-4 vote in September, which cleared the way for a vote by the Senate as a whole. Harry Reid has previously indicated that a vote on the treaty was unlikely before the end of the session, which forces the ratification vote into the new Congress. Ratification would require 67 votes—a tough feat in a Senate suspicious of administration efforts in this area.
Second, climate change. In June, the House narrowly approved a climate change bill that would develop a version of cap-and-trade in the United States. The initiative stalled in the Senate, and now appears unlikely to receive a vote before the end of the session. Given the lack of support for climate change legislation among Republican lawmakers, efforts to develop a comprehensive policy governing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States appears to be ever less likely. And with that decline, U.S. initiatives to address climate change at the multilateiral level also appears increasingly bleak.
has an interesting analysis of the New Republic’s recent editorials on the political economy of climate change. The short version is that the disconnect between climate change rhetoric and reality has undermined policy proposals to limit the impact of dramatic climate events. This is not to suggest that anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change is not occurring. It is, but its impact is difficult to assess and probably less-dramatic and immediate than climate change scientists have warned. To make matters worse, the impact of efforts to address climate change—by, for example, increasing the cost of polluting activities through taxes or regulation—are felt immediately. The consequence is that it becomes relatively easy to mobilize individuals to oppose legislation addressing climate change but it much more difficult to mobilize them to support it.
What we’ve done to date is to treat carbon emissions—one of the primary drivers of climate change—as a negative externality [glossary] and to attempt to establish policies which force firms and consumers to internalize those externalities. Cap-and-trade does this by creating a market in carbon emissions and requiring firms to purchase the right to emit carbon. Not surprisingly, most firms, especially those which already emit high levels of carbon, oppose such a policy. As The Economist’s Free Exchange blog notes, the introduction of a cap-and-trade system in the United States appears dead for the foreseeable future, given strong opposition by Republicans who will likely regain control over the House of Representatives in the fall.
Ultimately, the challenge of addressing climate change can best be understood as a collective action problem, in which the incentive for each rational actor (be it a state, a firm, or an individual) is to do nothing and to free ride [glossary] on the efforts of others to address the problem. This is because of the nature of efforts to address climate change. Preventing climate change is a classic example of a public good [glossary]. And because it is impossible to exclude someone who has not paid for a public good from benefitting from that same public good, the rational course of action for any individual actor is to free ride on the efforts of others.
At the domestic level, public goods are often provided by the state. National defense for example, is provided by the state because of its nature as a public good. Historically, fire prevention services might also have been considered a public good. But at the global level, the anarchic nature of the international system increases the incentives for states to free ride on the efforts of others, and the provision of global public goods is consequently much more contentious.
The solution is to change the way we think about the problem. According to Michael Shellengberger and Ted Nordhaus, long-term public investment in green energy provides a better alternative. Rather than increasing the cost of carbon emissions, reducing the cost of green energy is more politically palatable. There are problems with this solution to be sure. As the Free Exchange blog notes, research subsidies will likely not address the low-hanging fruit of easy, low-cost changes that have a minor (but important) impact. Further, absent changes which force the internalization of carbon price externalities, the incentives for green energy production are likely to be less dramatic than they might otherwise be. But in the political climate in which we currently operate, green energy subsidies might be the only path towards a more sustainable energy policy.
There’s been a great deal of concern expressed over the past couple of months about the rising influence of China. President Barack Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama in February, China’s repeated rumblings over the valuation of China’s currency, the rumbai, China’s subtle threats to slow down their purchasing of U.S. Treasury securities, and tensions over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have all served to increase tensions between the two powers.
But here’s one you might have missed. According to the Guardian’s Datablog, Chinese investment in renewable energies in 2009 was almost twice that of the United States. Chinese investment totaled more than U.S. $34.6 billion, compared to $18.6 billion in the United States. The United States still out produces China, but just barely, 53.4 gigawatt capacity in the U.S., 52.5 gigawatts in China. It appears the Chinese government is serious about its 20 percent by 2020 target, which it set last year.
The timing of Copenhagen is clearly less than ideal, following shortly on the heels of the embarrassing publication of emails suggesting climate scientists were manipulating charts to make them look more dramatic before publication (critics have termed this “Climategate.”) The release, while hardly rising to the level of scandal that it has been afforded, nevertheless offered climate skeptics ammunition with which to engage an uniformed public. (The issue even reached Jon Stewart’s Daily Show last week). And this is too bad, because climate change is clearly a major concern for international politics. From the emerging tensions between the United States and Canada over who controls the emerging Arctic sea lanes to the concerns over the impact of climate change on conflict in Africa, climate change is likely to be a (perhaps the) major driver of global politics in the near future. And while the international community debates who should bear the cost of addressing the challenge of climate change mitigation, the costs of not addressing climate change continue to mount.
Prince Charles, who will likely become the symbolic role of head of state [glossary] of the United Kingdom when his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, passes, is visiting Canada this week. His eleven-day visit, which began on Monday in Newfoundland, will take him across Canada, from the Maritimes to Ontario, to Canada’s Pacific coast, and back to Quebec and Ontario for Remembrance Day ceremonies before returning to the United Kingdom.
But Princes Charles faces some challenges during his visit. On his first day in Canada, Charles called on Canada to exhibit greater leadership in the climate change debate. The Canadian government, currently headed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephan Harper, has been criticized for its foot-dragging on the climate change debate.
The visit comes at a time when the British monarchy in general and Prince Charles in particular face growing unpopularity in Canada. Like many former British colonies, Canada’s political system separates the ceremonial position of head of state and the position which yields real political power, head of government, [glossary] into two separate posts. In the United States, the two offices are fused into a single position, the president of the United States. But in Canada and many other former British colonies, the ceremonial position of head of state is occupied by the reigning British monarch (currently the Queen Elizabeth II), who is represented in Canada by the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the parliament.
The polling data suggest that Canada’s political system may be in for reform in the future. Does an independent, ceremonial head of state have a role to play in the political system? In many states, such a position exists and often plays an important role. In Belgium, King Albert II lacks any real political power but has played a central role in efforts to maintain the fragile unity of the country amid efforts to divide the country along linguistic lines. In Germany, the President performs a largely ceremonial function, while real political authority is vested in the Chancellor. Japan maintains its Emperor, Luxembourg has its Grand Duke, and the Netherlands its queen, all reminders of the historical legacy of the monarchy and important cultural references for the people. But the model used in many states of the British Commonwealth is unique insofar as the head of state is not a national of the country itself. Can a British King serve as the ceremonial leader of Canada? It’s a question many Canadians seem to be asking.