• Agreement Without Enforcement: A climate change agreement, but who will hold signatories to their commitments?

    The COP21 meetings ended with a host of speeches and profound statements about positive changes to make the future better. Nations with diverse economic, geographic, and political circumstances have agreed to make significant changes in their behavior over the next twenty years and to lay the groundwork for policies on climate change that will play out between now and the end of the century.

    Fine words stated with confidence in front of a lovely backdrop in the City of Lights. But, will any of the signatories do what they have promised to do? Even the next five years will require policy changes that signatories are expected to implement. Some of these changes (such as significant cuts in carbon emission by 2030) will require significant policy action in developed states. These policies will be expensive and will harm some groups in the raucous democracies of Europe and North America. With some parts of the American polity still arguing that climate change is not even real, it is difficult to see such major changes taking place without strident opposition. Emerging economy states like India and Brazil have agreed to cut the rate of growth of their carbon emissions, but it is equally hard to see two developing democracies convincing voters that reduced carbon emissions are more important than economic development. If these domestic political obstacles are so great, do we expect that states will comply with their agreements when there is no outside enforcer to make them?

    Past climate agreements set specific targets and tried to shame states into meeting them. The COP21 Agreement allows states to set their own targets, based on their own circumstances, and to update each other regularly on their progress. Regular meetings of the signatories provide a chance for open communication about what is being done and how much real progress is being made. Democracy can be a two-edged sword for climate change. While harmed groups fight policies that attempt to reduce carbon change, the norms regarding climate change continue to evolve. With the transparency that comes with frequent meetings, and with continued attention from NGO’s and global civil society, it is possible that the norms of the electorates may shift in favor of policies that reduce carbon emissions. While there will be no third party enforcement, the COP21 Agreement may create conditions that provide for stronger self-enforcement by the Parties.

    We have already seen global NGO’s mobilizing to work towards enforcement of the existing terms of the agreement and an expansion of its terms in the future. Norm diffusion is a strange thing, often progressing in terms of punctuated equilibrium rather than a smooth growth. The COP21 Agreement includes provisions that were unthinkable thirty years ago, in large part due to changes in global attitudes.

    It remains to be seen what the impact of the COP21 Agreement will be, but as an international agreement, it depends on the will of the signatories to honor their commitments. This challenge demonstrates the complicated relationship of domestic political institutions, international commitments, and the impact of norm diffusion by international non-state actors. The changes in the global institutions (the agreement on the COP21 provisions) impact domestic policy-makers by changing the international environment. The domestic institutions determine how these leaders survive in office, determining how free they are to make and keep commitments. NGO’s and global civil society work to shift the normative framework of leaders and their electorates in order to make compliance politically possible. This complex network of relationships permeates all international decisions, but there are few areas where it is more open and easy to follow than environmental policy.



    1. Is it easier for authoritarian states like China to make binding international commitments like the COP21 accord? What aspects of authoritarian domestic institutions would impact your answer to that question?
    2. One of the major divisions in global environmental politics is the split between the industrial economies in the North and the emerging economies of the South. Does the relative state of economic development impact the likelihood that a given state will comply with its commitments? What aspects of the domestic political systems would influence how you answer that question?
    3. Given the challenges, is the COP21 likely to make progress on the overall goal of reducing the human impact on climate change?
  • A COP With Too Many Cops? Non-governmental organizations and the normative dimension of climate change

    Few issues demonstrate the widespread activism of non-governmental groups in shaping global norms more effectively than climate change. NGO’s have played a powerful role in shaping the public debate both over the potential impact of climate changed and the policies that should be deployed to address it. In spite of this pivotal role, NGO’s remain on the margins of climate talks at the COP21 meeting in Paris. But that does not mean that they aren’t determined to have their voices heard. Braving a protest ban, zealous security guards, and counter-lobbying by multinational corporations, climate NGO’s are working to have their views heard.

    NGO’s play a critical role in norm diffusion and in shaping the normative framework in which other actors operate. That does not mean that NGO’s reflect a consensus view, or even a majority view, but their activism does balance the views of other actors. In addition, the sheer variety of NGO’s makes for an incredibly diverse range of ideas.

    At the COP21 meetings, NGO’s have little formal role in the meetings. In spite of this, there is a great deal of effort at influencing the debates and the discourse related to climate change going on. Following the Paris terror attacks, a ban on public protest was imposed by the French government. In spite of this, the NGO’s who have been planning on attending the COP21 meetings showed up and engaged in protests, at times clashing with police. Other activists “crashed the party” at the COP itself in order to protest the formal inclusion of MNC’s in the conference.

    Lacking the power of states and the money of MNC’s NGO’s often turn to public efforts such as these to influence the outcome of global debates. The diversity of the NGO’s in Paris for the COP21 reflect the wide range of views on climate change, and also the global reach of the community of NGO’s that lobby on these issues. NGO’s seek to apply moral pressure on the leaders of states in order to impact the outcome of global policy meetings like the COP21. These meetings also provide an unusually good chance for publicity for groups that may otherwise struggle to get onto the agenda under normal circumstances.

    While the debates range inside and outside the COP21 meetings, the vibrant debate over how to tackle climate change rages on.



    1)      Without the power and influence that comes with the sovereignty of states or the money of MNC’s, how to NGO’s impact the policy actions of nation-states? Can NGO’s really impact the outcomes at talks like this if they don’t have at least some elements of hard power?

    2)      When working to shape global norms, do the domestic political institutions of the states that the NGO’s seek to sway matter? Do democratic states allow more fertile ground for this kind of norm diffusion? Or does the more open and contentious range of issues in a democracy mean that NGO’s get drowned out in the mix? How does this relationship impact the way that ideas are transmitted around the world?

  • A COP Without a Cop: The UNFCCC's 21st meeting and the problems of collective action without enforcement

    The 21st annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place in Paris, France from November 30 through December 11. More commonly called COP21 (Conference of the Parties 21) this is the most significant meeting of the countries that have signed up for the UNFCCC since the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. While the Copenhagen Summit was largely perceived as a failure, hopes are high for a more substantive agreement in Paris.

    Climate change is among the clearest examples of collective action problems at the global level, and the negotiations over coping with it highlight many of the challenges of global governance.

    Climate change is a problem that no state can address on its own. The climate is, by definition, a global phenomenon. While there is debate over the science behind climate change in the United States, the global consensus is that human action is a major contributor to climate change and that human action is required to slow it. This consensus is reflected in the Fifth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) which serves as the basic foundation of the science accepted at COP21.

    Given the acceptance that climate change is both caused by human action and that human action is the only thing that can slow it, countries would seem to have a strong interest in collective action to limit the human parts of climate change. But there are many other complicated interests at stake at COP21 that hinder the achievement of an agreement. The industrial economies of the Global North have achieved economic success and high standards of living through the exploitation of fossil fuels that are now seen as dirty sources of energy due to their high carbon output. Poor states in the Global South have not been willing to accept reduced standards of living and slower economic growth in order to keep carbon emissions low. This has been a powerful area of contention among the parties to the UNFCCC. States in the South argue that they must be allowed to achieve economic progress and that the states of the North must provide economic assistance in order to promote this. This is generally presented in the form of subsidies by Northern states for clean energy projects in the South, but often includes additional support for economic development.

    Making the issue more complicated is the practical experience of states like China. China achieved economic progress on the back of many coal-fired power plants. This was wonderful for electrification, but a nightmare for the people living in the areas fueled by these power plants. The pollution caused by the widespread use of coal for power has made the air in Chinese cities among the most dangerous in the world. India has seen what has happened in China and is concerned about the potential that its own economic development may be accompanied by similar increases in pollution and the attendant health problems. In spite of the potential problems, India also desires to grow economically and that requires energy. This has led India to a position where it is willing to reduce its reliance on coal, but only if the international community will provide financial assistance with greener energy development.

    The states of the North are reluctant to spend large sums of money subsidizing greener energy in the South, even though it may be the only way to limit the growth of carbon emissions. These conflicting interests make an agreement difficult. There is a great deal of common ground on the problem, but actually making solutions work if they require the cooperation of over a hundred countries is very difficult.

    The COP21 conference is made even more complex by the anarchic international system. Many attendees would like to have a “binding” agreement emerge at the end of the meeting. But what would a binding agreement look like if there is no higher authority that can provide third-party enforcement in the international system. Under conditions of anarchy the concept of enforcement must be different from what you would see in domestic contract law.

    The COP21 meetings are an interesting exercise in global governance. They show that potential consensus on an issue is possible to create at a global level through the IPCC. At the same time, these talks show that even a global consensus runs into significant problems in practice. Competing interests make it difficult for parties to agree on solutions to complex global problems.



    1)      What kind of mechanisms for enforcement could be used in a “binding” agreement at the COP21 meetings? How can states enforce and agreement without a global government to serve as an enforcer?

    2)      The interest in economic development is frequently cited by countries of the Global South as a reason for continuing to follow development strategies based on carbon-intensive energy. These states argue that only significant transfers of resources from the North to the South can make greener development possible. Northern states have historically been reluctant to provide such development assistance. Is it possible to promote greener development if the Northern states remain unwilling to provide significant assistance? Are voters in Northern democratic states likely to support such transfers?