An article in a recent issue of The Economist suggests that putting effort into domestic climate change legislation is more important than pushing international climate agreements right now. The piece describes the results of a new study that assesses whether the climate change policies of 33 countries have improved, gotten worse, or remained the same as of the end of 2012. The encouraging results indicate that domestic policy action is happening even in the absence of a mandated treaty structure.
This ought to bring hope to environmentalists who advocate for a more decentralized approach to climate change policies. It should also appeal to those who bemoan the apparent political impasses of the international U.N. climate negotiations.
The new study—the third in a series by GLOBE international—was extolled by Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, the U.N. body that coordinates global climate change agreements. She attended the release party for the report in London this January and issued an official statement, in which she said, “[D]omestic legislation on climate is the absolutely critical, essential linchpin between action at the national level and international agreements.” At the same time, she remarked that the ultimate goal of the study should be that it paves the way for the next U.N. climate treaty that’s supposed to be agreed upon by 2015, to take effect by 2020.
The U.S. National Climate Assessment report came out just as recently from the U.S. government. Also in its third iteration, the Assessment is open for public review until April 2013. Perhaps in a complementary way to the GLOBE study, the US Assessment focuses more on the science and evidence of climate change for one particular country and broadly touches upon the policy situation as well. Similarly, the conclusion of the report states that more U.S. policy action is necessary, but that concerted global actions would be the best way to go forward.
Both reports seem to suggest, then, that domestic policies are necessary, but not sufficient, to achieving the ultimate goals of climate action.
This is a familiar problem in the global climate policy debate: should governance move from the top down or the bottom up to reach desired outcomes? And, should success rely on individualistic actions or, rather, support from movements in concert? These tensions are the fuel for geopolitics and have led to both progress and paradox.
The need for harmonized policies in the face of trying times reminds me of a passage in The Federalist. John Jay, writing to newspapers in 1787 to argue for the adoption of the new Constitution, argued that it’s beneficial for a central government, when concerned about national defense, to “move on uniform principles of policy.” The case certainly has been made for treating climate change as an issue of national security; many politicians have already argued that climate change poses that kind of threat to the United States (both John Kerry and the US Navy have issued public statements). In this case, perhaps its management should be approached in terms of coordinated policies with the kind of logic articulated in The Federalist:
Who shall settle the terms of peace, and in case of disputes what umpire shall decide between them and compel acquiescence? Various difficulties and inconveniences would be inseparable from such a situation; whereas one government, watching over the general and common interests, and combining and directing the powers and resources of the whole, would be free from all these embarrassments, and conduce far more to the safety of the people.
--John Jay (Federalist No. 4, available online http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed04.asp)
As John Jay tells us, these debates are not new. The new climate reports show that the world’s countries do behave in the manner similar to Voltaire’s Candide, tending their own gardens; but, at the same, the reports remind countries to keep in mind that the end goal is to use those piecemeal gardens to make the wider world greener.
The Economist. “Climate-change laws: Beginning at home.” 19 January 2013.
BBC News. “Climate change measures: Report praises politicians.” 13 January 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20983931
The 3rd Climate Legislation Study from the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).
Homepage of GLOBE International: http://www.globeinternational.org/index.php/legislation-policy/studies/climate
UNFCCC statement from Christiana Figueres. 13 January 2013. http://unfccc.int/files/press/statements/application/pdf/201314011_globe_international.pdf
The U.S. National Climate Assessment, draft for public review. 2012.