Is an International Consensus on Climate Change Mitigation Possible?

Anthropogenic activity, both at the private and at the industrial level, continues to raise the salience of climate change. With the advent of new technologies and increased capacity in the scientific field, climate change has not only been proven to exist but has also been shown to have a detrimental impact on future generations. Despite this overwhelming evidence highlighted in a number of prominent studies, such as those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[i], a vast number of world leaders and nations continue to remain in a state of inaction. Climate change is a complex problem, so a solution focused on addressing one point cannot lead to significant results. Leading scholars within the field of political science offer a number of insights and solutions that can aid in directly addressing the issue of climate change. A thorough analysis of these works leads to the conclusion that both large-scale international cooperation and shifting public opinion are inextricably linked and that both aspects need to be addressed together to achieve climate change reduction.

The current literature surrounding international cooperation paints quite a bleak picture with respect to thwarting climate change going forward. Political Science argues how a number of nations may in fact have an incentive to defect from taking action due to both the perceived costs and the tendency for a number of countries to free ride in the overall effort. The primary reason to defect is due to the anarchy under which different nations interact, since there is no true governing body to oversee decisions or punish those who do not abide by the rules. Kenneth Oye notes that the apparent anarchy within international relations can often make it quite difficult to ensure cooperation among countries, especially since, as the number of actors increases the likelihood of defection also increases.[ii] The time inconsistency problem further aids in explaining why certain actors may have an incentive to defect. According to Jon Hovi, this problem essentially dictates that optimal choices at one point in time may be at odds with optimal choices at future points in time.[iii] With respect to climate change, the time inconsistency problem implies that benefits of climate change mitigation is so far into the future that countries may not have as large of an incentive to take part in action. This idea becomes increasingly worrisome when you have about 196 actors because both defection and the possibility of one country discounting the future more than another become more likely.

One primary reason that may explain the disparity that exists between different rates of discounting is the economic cost associated with climate change reduction. William Nordhaus creates a number of complex statistical projection models in his writing in order to aid in explaining the impact of discounting. Nordhaus begins by stating that action against climate change now can aid in avoiding future economic damage. He then shows the impact of different discount rates on the present value of a $100 Million reduction in damages 100 years later.[iv] A 1% discount rate applied to the $100 Million will lead to a present value of around $61 Million, whereas a 4% discount rate will lead to a present value of around $14 Million.[v] A seemingly marginal difference in discount rates was enough to lower the present value of $100 Million by a significant amount. However, Nordhaus’s statistical models focusing on different levels of participation illustrate the truly detrimental impact of defection and inaction. Considering a 100% participation rate, the lowest cost is achieved if we aim toward a 2.3°C temperature increase.[vi] However, Nordhaus’s model shows that with limited participation the optimal cost-benefit point is at a 3.8°C temperature increase.[vii] Costs needed to achieve climate change reduction goals become exponentially higher given limited participation. The resulting conclusion from this analysis is that the cost per country in thwarting climate change decreases substantially with increased participation in the international arena.

Costs needed to achieve climate change reduction goals become exponentially higher given limited participation.

The natural question that now arises is what methods can we begin to implement as an international community that will lead to this increased participation. It is clear that many nations have incentives to defect and in addition may not highly regard future benefit from tackling the issue of climate change now. For instance, the Kyoto Protocol was not signed by the United States due to fears that such restrictions may impede the progress of economic advancement and businesses in general. Political Scientist Alexander Thompson poses the solution of increasing national reporting on climate change with a standard procedure of general reporting.[viii] However, this solution seems far from perfect. A standard procedure of national reporting is unlikely to exist due to the variety of different media sources that exist today. It is difficult to imagine that a TV station that carters to conservative factions within the US would want to broadcast news or shows that illustrate the necessity of taking action against climate change. Even if the optimistic scenario portrayed by Thompson does become reality, there still remains the issue of discounting the future, since many individuals may not regard benefits that are derived many years from now as truly valuable.

Hovi is another compelling political scientist who attempts to solve the time inconsistency problem with a number of innovative solutions. The first notion he presents is to eliminate alternatives, meaning that a designer of climate policy can achieve greater success by prioritizing emission reduction measures that are literally or practically irreversible.[ix] For instance, once a new emission-reducing technology has been installed, it will usually be economically unattractive—at least in the short run—to revert to older and more emission-intensive technology.[x] Hovi also recommends that nations begin to focus on long-term solutions rather than short-term solutions. However, one pressing matter that remains is that domestic politics can negatively impact how one country interacts with another in the international arena. Hovi, notes this very fact when he poses the example of how conservative politicians within the US prevented the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in the States.[xi]

Domestic politics can therefore exacerbate not only the anarchy problem but also the time inconsistency problem. In democratic nations such as the US or India, if enough of the population begins to discount the future benefits of climate change action or perceives costs associated with impeding the progression of climate change to be too high, then it becomes quite difficult for governing bodies to take significant measures to thwart climate change. Taking these factors into account allows us to further understand that international cooperation is dependent in many ways on domestic public opinion. Without changing the minds of private individuals who oppose climate change action, it is nearly impossible for the government to cooperate on climate change policy in the international realm.

It is therefore integral to consider different methods of shifting public opinion to support mitigation efforts. Robert Keohane suggests that incentivizing people to engage in mitigation efforts will most likely reap the greatest benefits.[xii] His solution is to impose a tax on carbon-emitting industries with a direct electronic rebate of the full amount of the tax on a  per capita  basis.[xiii] This would cause large energy users to be net payers and moderate users to be net gainers; since, energy use-like income- is highly skewed, a large majority of the populace would be net gainers if this policy were to be implemented.

Without changing the minds of private individuals who oppose climate change action, it is nearly impossible for the government to cooperate on climate change policy in the international realm.

Keohane’s solution of incentivizing individuals does indeed appear to be a great solution, especially considering what other scholars have found about the general public. Larry Bartels in particular notes that the voting population is largely irrational in their choices and are not very knowledgeable about different political issues.[xiv] For instance, one study conducted by the Pew Research Center in September of 2016 found that less than 50% of voters in the US actually know where Clinton and Trump stand on issues.[xv] In fact, most voters tend to vote on policy issues depending on their unique party identity. In addition, Robert Brulle’s analysis on concern for climate change revealed that only 1% of those surveyed ranked environmental issues as the number one concern, and within that group climate change was ranked last in terms of importance.[xvi] Incentives to take part in solutions aimed at climate change reduction can help bridge this gap, since there seem to be limited opportunity to do so with other avenues given the limited priority given to climate change policy by voters.

Given this information, Keohane’s solution seems even more apt because most voters who are against climate change mitigation probably would not take action unless there was sufficient incentive to do so. However, should we not attempt to change the minds of those who continue to deny climate change given the tremendous amount of scientific evidence we now have on the matter? Well according to Paul Bain, converting deniers to believe in science is unlikely because these beliefs are largely ingrained ideologically.[xvii] His solution therefore is to frame climate change mitigation policy as creating a society that was more caring with superior technology and a better economy. Bain’s studies revealed that believers and non-believers alike are most impacted when they are told that climate change solutions can lead to further societal progress rather than being told about the harms of climate change.[xviii] This takeaway is very important to consider, but traditional norms of thinking would dictate that attempting to convert people was necessary to combat climate change. However, political science has shown that this may indeed not be the case, and that mitigation policy can be implemented even if there exists a significant number of climate change deniers.

The natural opposition that is likely to arise to the importance of shifting public opinion is the role that public opinion would play in undemocratic nations such as China. One can argue that in China, shifting public opinion would have no effect because the government does not directly have to answer to the Chinese public. However, even in undemocratic nations there remains the worry of a mutiny or general uprise. Frances Fox Piven, a prominent political scientists, tracks a number of different social movements throughout history to illustrate that protest can be used by the masses in order to bring about desired reforms even under authoritarian rule.[xix] If the public within an authoritarian regime or undemocratic nation begins to support a certain ideology or cause, and the government completely opposes that initiative, a great deal of turmoil would most likely ensue in the aftermath. Take for example the situation in the Middle East. A large number of nations in that region is composed of authoritarian government rule that des not necessarily need to answer to the public. However, if the public begins to collect under a common goal and demand a certain change then the government would have to answer to a degree.

The second criticism of changing public opinion to support climate change would be that it may be unrealistic to change the minds of many individuals who oppose climate change solutions. The answer to this criticism would actually be quite simple. Keohane supports the idea of incentivizing mitigation efforts through tax benefits, and these incentives can lead to a larger degree of individuals who will support the cause of climate change reduction. In addition, Bain calls for efforts to frame climate change mitigation policy as creating a society that was more caring with superior technology and a better economy. This effort would lead to individuals supporting the cause of climate change in an indirect manner, for example, increased tax cuts for using energy efficient technology. So, climate change deniers do not necessarily need to be shifted completely in order to achieve some form of overall benefit.

The third opposition that others may have to changing public opinion in order to impact mitigation policy on an international level is that lobbying groups from fossil fuel industries may continue to influence the government, which would inadvertently lead to a reduction in the number policy makers supporting climate change action. However, what this group of critics would fail to realize is that the public can play a major role within governments even when there are major lobbying forces in play. Take for instance a hypothetical circumstance. Let’s assume that a large lobbying group representing the fossil fuel industry in Texas wishes to influence politicians to block any bills regarding climate change reduction policies. However, due to the introduction of tax incentives coupled with the idea of reframing climate change mitigation efforts as an effort to increase technological or economic capacity, citizens in Texas may in fact be inclined to support policies indirectly that would support mitigation efforts. Of course this example is rather simplistic, but the fundamental point remains the same. Politicians depend upon the public in order to get elected, so they cannot disregard the public will without seriously jeopardizing their own reputation or their chances of winning re-election.

An analysis of a diverse array of studies in the field of political science reveals that climate change reduction is indeed possible. International cooperation is both necessary and difficult to achieve; however, with the aid of shifting public opinion to support mitigation efforts nations will be more likely to engage in policies aimed at reducing the negative impact of climate change.

Mirza Uddin is a Junior at Harvard studying Government. You can learn more about him at Link

[i] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change: 2014 Synthesis Report

[ii] Kenneth Oye, Explaining Cooperation Under Anarchy: Hypotheses and Strategies (Cambridge University Press, 1985), Vol. 38, No. 1

[iii] Jon Hovi, Detlef F. Sprinz and Arild Underdal, Implementing Long-Term Climate Policy: Time Inconsistency, Domestic Politics, International Anarchy (MIT, 2009)

[iv] William Nordhaus, The Climate Casino (Yale University Press, 2013)

[v] William Nordhaus, The Climate Casino (Yale University Press, 2013)

[vi] William Nordhaus, The Climate Casino (Yale University Press, 2013)

[vii] William Nordhaus, The Climate Casino (Yale University Press, 2013)

[viii] Alexander Thompson, Management Under Anarchy: The International Politics of Climate Change (Springer, 2006)

[ix] Jon Hovi, Detlef F. Sprinz and Arild Underdal, Implementing Long-Term Climate Policy: Time Inconsistency, Domestic Politics, International Anarchy (MIT, 2009)

[x] Jon Hovi, Detlef F. Sprinz and Arild Underdal, Implementing Long-Term Climate Policy: Time Inconsistency, Domestic Politics, International Anarchy (MIT, 2009)

[xi] Jon Hovi, Detlef F. Sprinz and Arild Underdal, Implementing Long-Term Climate Policy: Time Inconsistency, Domestic Politics, International Anarchy (MIT, 2009)

[xii] Robert Keohane, The Global Politics of Climate Change: Challenge for Political Science (The 2014 James Madison Lecture)

[xiii] Robert Keohane, The Global Politics of Climate Change: Challenge for Political Science (The 2014 James Madison Lecture)

[xiv] Larry Bartels, The Irrational Electorate (The Wilson Quarterly, 2008)

[xv] Baxter Oliphant, “Ahead of debates, many voters don’t know much about where Trump, Clinton stand on major issues”, The Pew Research Center (9/23/16), http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/23/ahead-of-debates-many-voters-dont-know-much-about-where-trump-clinton-stand-on-major-issues/

[xvi] Robert Brulle, Jason Carmichael and J. Craig Jenkins, Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the U.S., 2002–2010 (Springer Science+Business Media B.V, 2012)

[xvii] Paul Bain, Matthew Hornsey, Renata Bongiorno and Carla Jeffries, Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers (Letters, 6/17/12)

[xviii] Paul Bain, Matthew Hornsey, Renata Bongiorno and Carla Jeffries, Promoting pro-environmental action in climate change deniers (Letters, 6/17/12)

[xix] Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor Peoples’ Movements (Vintage Books, 1977)

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