The Global Politics of Science: Climate Change Edition

CC-iceburgThe 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.

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.

In the case of climate change, the primary questions are political and economic, not scientific. Just this week, the government of Poland sued the European Union over restrictions imposed on Polish coal power plants by the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The Polish government was concerned that the ETS would undermine the Polish economy. The United States has similarly resisted efforts to trim global greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that such efforts would prove too costly and would undermine economic growth.

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.

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