Why is international cooperation so difficult to achieve?

Effective international action to tackle climate change will only occur if solutions are found to a series of obstacles to international cooperation. The most significant of these obstacles are the following:

  • Conflict between the collective good and national interests

  • Tensions between developed and developing states ! Economic obstacles

  • Ideological obstacles

The issue of climate change can be seen as a classic example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. What countries accept would be generally beneficial to all of them may not be the same as what benefits each of them individually. Clean air and a healthy atmosphere are therefore collective goods, key elements of the ‘global commons’. However, tackling global warming imposes costs on individual states in terms of investment in sometimes expensive mitigation and adaptation strategies as well as accepting lower levels of economic growth. In such circumstances, states are encouraged to be ‘free riders’, enjoying the benefits of a healthier atmosphere without having to pay for them. It is entirely rational, therefore, for each actor to try to ‘pay’ as little as possible to overcome the problem of climate change. This creates a situation in which states are either unwilling to agree to binding targets, or if targets, binding or otherwise, are developed, these are likely to be set below the level needed to deal effectively with the problem. Moreover, the more economically developed a state is, the greater will be the costs incurred in tackling climate change, and the more reluctant such states will be to undertake concerted action. Democracy, in such a context, may create further problems, particularly as party competition tends to be orientated around rival claims about the ability to deliver growth and prosperity. The second problem is that the issue of climate change exposes significant divisions between developed world and the developing world. Climate change, in other words, serves to widen the North–South divide (see p. 360). One source of tension is that current emissions levels arguably provide an unfair guide for setting targets because of ‘outsourcing’. The transfer of much of manufacturing industry to the developing world means that over a third of carbon dioxide emissions associated with the consumption of goods and services in many developed countries are actually emitted outside their borders. Deeper divisions nevertheless stem from rival approaches to the problem of burden-sharing in the area of climate change. From a Southern perspective, the developed world has a historic responsibility for the accumulated stock of carbon emitted since the beginning of the industrial age. In effect, developed countries have used up a large part of the safe carbon-absorbing capacity of the atmosphere, and made substantial gains in terms of economic growth and prosperity as a result. Developing countries, by contrast, are both disproportionately badly affected by climate change and have the fewest capabilities to tackle it, whether through mitigation or adaptation. This implies either that emissions targets should not be imposed on developing countries (as at Kyoto), or that any such targets should take account of historic responsibilities and be structured accordingly, imposing significantly heavier burdens on developed countries than on developing ones. From a Northern perspective, however, countries cannot be held responsible for actions whose consequences were quite unknown at the time they were carried out, and, anyway, those who were responsible are largely dead and gone. In this view, targets should be set in line with current emission levels alone, in which case developed and developing countries would be treated alike. Apart from anything else, the growing importance of emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil means that unless the developing world plays a significant role in cutting emissions global targets will be impossible to meet. Nevertheless, tensions between developed and developing countries are even more acute if population size and per capita income are taken into account. For instance, although China has overtaken the USA as the world’s foremost emitter, per capita emissions in the USA remain almost four times higher than in China (19.2 tons against 4.9 tons in 2010). Southern thinking on the matter tends to be rights-based, reflecting both the idea that each human being has an equal right to the world’s remaining carbon space and the idea of a right to development (already exercised by the developed North). This suggests that emissions targets should clearly favour the developing world, where most of the world’s people live, as well as most of the world’s poor. Critics of the rights-based approach to tackling climate change nevertheless argue that it introduces egalitarian assumptions that do not apply to other aspects of life. For example, why should the use of the world’s remaining carbon space be allocated equally when there is no agreement on the wider issue that natural resources should be equally shared? Radical ecologists, including both social ecologists and deep ecologists, tend to argue that inadequate progress in responding to climate change has much deeper, and perhaps structural, roots. The problem is not simply a manifestation of the difficulty of bringing about international cooperation, but rather is about the underlying economic and ideological forces that have shaped capitalist modernity. As far as economic factors are concerned, criticism usually focuses on the anti-ecological tendencies of the capitalist system, at both national and global levels. In particular, profit-maximizing businesses will always be drawn towards the most easily available and cheapest source of energy: fossil fuels. Short-term profitability will dominate their thinking, rather than issues to do with ecological sustainability. In this view, ‘green capitalism’ is merely a contradiction in terms. At an ideological level, countries’ attachment to carbon industrialization may, in the final analysis, be a manifestation of the materialist values that dominate modern society, creating, deep ecologists argue, a profound disjuncture between humankind and nature. Materialism and consumerism mean that the economic and political systems are geared towards economic growth and the quest for rising living standards. From this perspective, the difficulties of tackling climate change stem not only from the problem of persuading people to forego at least a measure of their material prosperity, but, more challengingly, from the task of encouraging people to revise their values.