Coaxing climate policy leadership.

Author:Vanderheiden, Steve

With the failure of the international community to negotiate a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol in late 2011, and with little prospect of U.S. ratification of any treaty framework that includes binding greenhouse emission targets, hope for a sustainable and effective international climate policy appears dim. As of 2012, only Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union continue to endorse binding post-Kyoto greenhouse emissions targets, with countries representing half the emissions controlled under Kyoto rejecting any further binding mitigation commitments in the absence of a treaty framework that includes the United States. Further, the remaining commitments are likely to be tested by political and economic turmoil that strains the ability of the governments to maintain them. While the "roadmap" that emerged from the seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)--held in Durban, South Africa--calls for a post-Kyoto treaty to be negotiated by 2015 and to take effect by 2020, ongoing reluctance by China, India, and the United States to accept binding emissions caps threatens to frustrate progress toward any such future agreement. Given the rapidly closing window of opportunity to begin reversing current trends of increasing global emissions and to eventually stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at levels that would prevent the dire consequences predicted by "business as usual" trajectories, significant mitigation action remains urgently needed, with climate change adaptation programs becoming increasingly important.

As observers have noted, this stalemate in international policy development shifts the onus to ground-up rather than top-down actions, including policy at the national and subnational domestic level as well as private actions undertaken by civil society actors. In the near future policy leadership may be widely diffused, residing with nongovernmental organizations, private corporations, and local communities, rather than with states. Such efforts can affect larger emissions trends at the margins, but to solve the problem itself an international policy framework is still needed. As others have stressed in recent exhortations for more leadership from such key actors as the United States, in order to bring about such a framework the disparate and competing interests that have thus far produced only an international climate policy impasse must be aligned through the exercise of effective leadership.(1) My aim here is to explore the decision structure from which such leadership might potentially emerge and from which a fair and effective climate policy framework might gain requisite international support.

In what follows, I identify several conditions for and obstacles to effective international policy leadership with a view toward creating the conditions for that leadership to emerge, and suggest how such an overtly strategic analysis might address some key unexplored territory in climate ethics. First, I sketch the nature and role of leadership in international climate policy negotiations, defining leadership as the ability to induce action by other parties, and to subsequently generate further and reciprocal action by followers. Next, I analyze the current decision structure related to national action on climate change, showing how leadership might help to overcome resistance to cooperation. I then suggest the use of conditional promising as a means for inducing climate policy leadership by either the United States or China. By transforming the decision structure from one in which the exercise of such leadership carries high risks and promises few rewards into one with lower risks and higher probabilities of success, this approach casts leadership as an essential element for mobilizing international cooperation in protecting the climate system. Rather than viewing such leadership as a spontaneous and persuasive power that need only be summoned by would-be leaders and is thus independent of actions by potential follows, this approach understands leadership as a power to trigger cooperation that in some cases can be induced by pledges of reciprocal action.


The impasse over the main terms of an effective international climate policy agreement can be understood in part as having resulted from a failure of leadership. Although the UNFCCC called on developed countries to "take the lead" in combating climate change, the United States in particular has shirked that commitment, refusing even to follow other signatory nations in accepting binding mitigation targets, let alone to lead them in doing so. In advance of the 2007 COP-13 meetings in Bali, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the United States and China to "play a more constructive role" in climate policy negotiations. (2) The results of the 2008 U.S. presidential elections gave many people renewed hope that America might finally eschew the climate policy obstructionism that characterized the George W. Bush administration. Awarding President Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee remarked that "the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting." However, the renewed effort at multilateral diplomacy for which Obama was recognized never materialized. The president's late-hour effort to salvage a deal from the 2009 COP-15 meetings resulted in the Copenhagen Accord, which abandoned multilateral diplomacy for an end run around the established UNFCCC process and generated a nonbinding pledge that includes no binding targets. Surely, this was not the leadership that the secretary-general had called for or that the Nobel Committee had anticipated.

Even if potential leaders such as the U.S. president had acted differently, an effective international policy may not have emerged. It is also unclear that others could have made a difference, had they been in the relevant leadership positions. My aim is not to scrutinize recent policy history or impugn particular actors as having failed to lead, except insofar as this might yield insights into how such leadership might emerge in the future. Rather, attributing ongoing disagreements over international climate policy to a failure of leadership trades on the definition of leadership itself, which involves inducing others to act in ways to which they are not currently inclined or to accept policy terms toward which they are not currently disposed, and introduces what I call the problem of leadership. As explained below, the problem arises when cooperative action by some potential leader becomes necessary for securing the reciprocal cooperation of others, but the prospects for that exercise of leadership are affected by potential followers. Apart from the terms of an effective and presumably fair international climate policy framework capable of gaining the assent of the world's nations and their governments, my aim here is to explore how the powers related to leadership can sometimes be used to overcome policy divisions, as well as the role that leadership might potentially play in securing such an agreement.

Moreover, contrary to the presumption that leaders act from the sheer force of will to overcome existing obstacles to cooperation, leadership can itself be enabled or enhanced by potential followers, and in many cases must be if it is to successfully emerge. (3) While the powers vested in particular leaders depend on such institutional authority as well as personal skills and traits, the decision of when to draw on such leadership resources as political capital and moral authority as well as the efficacy of their deployment are context-dependent, and influenced by those seeking to enhance and direct or frustrate leadership powers over a given issue area. One may, for example, improve the chances of a U.S. president opting to lead on a particular policy proposal by "priming" the policy community to coalesce around a favored option, (4) helping to build the congressional majorities needed to adopt the measure, and/or by dividing and weakening its expected opposition. Potential leaders can be led, and their powers of leadership positively affected, in the same ways that followers can be: the external basis for their continued resistance to some desired action can be undermined or the expected rewards for undertaking that action can be improved. Policy leaders are not immune to the force of the incentives that comprise the decision structure within a given issue context. Indeed, effective leadership is quintessentially about acting within such a structure.

As Henry Shue notes in his call for U.S. climate policy leadership in an earlier issue of this journal, "the American failure of political leadership is one major factor that is crippling efforts to negotiate multilateral action at the international level," and he offers ethical reasons for the United States to lead but no political prescriptions for how it might do so. (5) Others have likewise called on the United States, and sometimes also China, which recently surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse pollution, to exercise more constructive policy leadership in international climate politics. (6) The status of the United States and China as major greenhouse polluters and their historic reluctance to accept binding emission reduction targets make their participation vital. The transformation of these states from policy laggards to willing cooperators is a necessary condition for the success of any effective international scheme. Yet the same features that warrant efforts to call for greater cooperation from these two countries in developing international climate policy also make them potentially effective...

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