The International Climate Regime Without US Leadership: Collapse or Multilateral Institutionalization?
Robert Keohane, Professor of Public and International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School.
Climate negotiations since 1992 have been conducted in the context of US leadership, heavily constrained by domestic US politics. When Donald J. Trump was elected President, the Paris Accord was still a work in progress – with universal participation and good symbolism, but with vague commitments and unclear procedures for transparency. The election of Trump and his attempts to dismantle former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan call the future of the Paris-based climate regime into question.
Several different scenarios can be imagined. I focus on three:
- The Free Riding-Collapse Scenario.Climate change policy is a public good, in the sense that its benefits accrue to every country, although unequally, depending on their vulnerability to climate change. Yet since the costs of action are borne by individual countries, most countries have incentives to shirk – that is, to be “free riders” on the efforts of others. For them to have a self-interest in contributing, they need to believe that their contributions will help induce others to contribute, and that the joint effort will be efficacious. On this Free Riding Scenario, we should expect the US pullback to induce lower effort from other countries, and for the international climate regime to become much less rigorous, and perhaps to collapse altogether as Kyoto did.
- The Leadership Opportunity Scenario.In world politics, however, there are advantages to leadership. Leaders are rule-makers rather than rule-takers, and can shape rules that are advantageous to them – as the United States did in ensuring that the Paris Agreement would not take the form of a treaty that the US Senate would have to ratify. US leadership on multiple issues from trade and investment to human rights to climate has led to some important international agreements, but has also pre-empted the leadership position. Other prominent states and groups – in particular China and the European Union – may therefore see opportunities for leadership in the US pullback and have incentives to increase rather than degrade their commitments. Furthermore, successful leadership on a high profile issue such as climate change on which there is broad global agreement could help the same states and groups take leadership on issues such as trade and investment where the distribution of gains is more important. On this Leadership Opportunity Scenario, therefore, the turn in American policy from support to opposition could generate a more robust multilateral regime with a broader base of committed leading states and groups. Such a regime could generate a new institutional status quo that could both facilitate effective climate change policy and constrain the next American administration that seeks to support such action.
- The Symbolic Alternative Leadership Scenario. China has not favored a transparent international regime for climate change. It, perhaps along with some like-minded partners, could seek to seize leadership by making significant nominal commitments to policies that would generate emissions reductions, while resisting transparency. Such a strategy would seek to reap the symbolic gains from being a “climate leader” while the US is pulling back, without having to make costly policy changes.
One lesson from this analysis is that the climate change regime should not be analyzed in isolation but as part of more general patterns of strategic action in world politics. With respect to climate change in particular, it is too early to tell which of these scenarios – or which mixture of scenarios – will prevail, but the lecture will seek to suggest indicators that could be used to analyze the direction of regime change over the next few years.
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