from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

An Impressive New Book on Climate Change

April 19, 2011

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Climate Change

There are few books on climate change that are worth reading. That’s all the more reason that I’ve been waiting for David Victor’s new book, Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet, which I expected to be an exception to the rule. It does not disappoint.

The basic thrusts of the book will not surprise people who’ve been reading David’s critiques of the current approach to global warming: domestic politics and economics can drive climate strategy in different directions; international negotiations focused on universal and legally binding instruments will not succed; incentives other than carbon markets and financial transfers will be critical to incentivizing developing country action. (Nor will many of these currents surprise readers of this blog: I owe a lot of how I think about climate change to early conversations with David.) The book does an excellent job of drawing the various strands of this analysis together, and presenting it as a coherent whole. It also manages to be a clear and systematic piece of political science while speaking quite directly to real policy debates. That is a bridge that few scholars are able to span.

This does not mean that I agree with everything in the book. Indeed one of the hallmarks of a serious book is that it has enough meaningful specifics to provoke useful disagreement from pretty much anybody. In this post, I want to talk about three differences I have. (I may pick up on another important one later.) These bits are particularly interesting to me because they’re areas where I’ve agreed with David in the past, but where I’m now not so sure I do.

The first is his relative neglect of the role of reputation in international politics. There is no room, for example, for China to take climate-related steps because of their consequences for Beijing’s reputation in the broader developing world; instead, all that matters are its direct material interests. I have been sympathetic to this view, at least as opposed to the contrary belief that simply hectoring countries will get them to change their climate ways. But I worry that David goes to far. In particular, his analysis leads to a near wholesale dismissal of the value of global diplomatic forums. I’m certainly no fan of the UN negoatiations, but one still has to acknowledge that there are forms of pressure that those negotiations can mobilize – and that smaller groups (like the G-20) cannot.

The second is his focus on the role of diplomats’ and experts’ beliefs in shaping climate diplomacy. In particular, David traces the persistent focus of negotiations on targets, timetables, and legally binding instruments to a “herd mentality” amongst environmental diplomats; that gives him hope that efforts (such as his book) to explain why they’re wrong will change their ways. I don’t doubt that this is part of what shapes international efforts, but my sense is that there are other equally important factors at work. Climate change is confusing, and targets and timetables are relatively easy for the public to understand (or at least to think they understand). In an issue area that’s driven in substantial part by public pressure (particularly in Europe, which is the biggest champion of the targets and timetables approach), I wouldn’t understate the importance of this factor. An alternative approach to climate diplomacy that is more effective in principle but harder to explain to the public (particularly in Europe) may have a tougher time getting off the ground.

The third place where I’m not sure about David’s analysis is in his blanket claim that states will find it easier to commit to meaningful policies and measures than to meaningful emissions targets. The logic, which I’ve deployed many times myself, is simple: it’s easier for governments to commit to things they control (policies) than to things they don’t (targets). But while this is true for governments as a whole, it may not be true for governments with significant executive-legislative splits. The U.S. (executive) commitment at Copenhagen to a 17% emissions cut (one can debate where that’s meaningful) is still helping guide U.S. domestic policymaking despite the (legislative) demise of the cap-and-trade bill that originally motivated it. Had the United States committed at Copenhagen to a cap-and-trade bill, it would have had to start its international engagement over from scratch. (More likely, it would not have made the 17% commitment in the first place.) In contrast, I do think that the policy-based approach makes more sense for a country like China, where executive control over policies is much greater, but where the ability to predict their impacts is much worse.

But these are quibbles – and, I hope, productive ones. I encourage readers to buy the book – it really is excellent – and engage its arguments for themselves.