International Environmental Agreements: Are They Possible?

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As we approach the important UN conferences on sustainable development and climate change coming in 2012, it is necessary to think about what we expect these international political processes to do for us. Do we want significant and sweeping international treaties to prevent approaching catastrophes? Can the current diplomatic structure allow for strong global agreements? Why have we thus failed to act collectively and require environmental protection from all countries?

Our empty-hands are not the result of a lack of effort or input. International representatives have been coming together for more than twenty years in attempt to address climate change. There have been movements, rallies, discussions, and activists around the world that call for significant action. So where have we gone wrong?

Scott Barrett, professor and researcher at Columbia University, recently published a persuasive paper on this very subject. Entitled “Climate Treaties and Environmental Catastrophes” (2011), this work takes a new look at what leads to successful international cooperation. Barrett argues that the biggest difficulty approaching diplomats is actually the lack of scientific consensus on which “tipping point” of climate change would be the worst. Is 2˚C the threshold we must avoid? Would a 3˚C increase be acceptable? The problem is that, when you break the very complex consequences of climate change up into pieces (ex. Glacial melting vs. Prolonged droughts), it is easier to ignore the more benign results.

Barrett argues, therefore, that framing climate negotiations around a specific threshold (commonly 2˚C) is not a good idea given the uncertainty with this number. He sees countries as actors that are extremely good at working together to avoid specific problems, but as wholly incapable of dealing with the more intricate, and often confusing, set of problems that climate change brings at once.

But we can’t take this somewhat pessimistic interpretation of human nature as defeat. The international process has proven incredibly nimble and effective at preventing catastrophes in the past- from avoiding the Ozone Layer crisis to eradicating smallpox across the globe. We must take on this challenge together, by increasing international political will for multilateral action. If we demand that our representatives make strong treaties against climate change, and if we hold all countries accountable for their environmental behaviors, we can better work against approaching catastrophes. Our institutions need to evolve with the changing political and climatic landscapes, for we must demand that they meet our world’s complex needs. Only with an active engagement in the international process, and a global mandate to take significant steps, can our diplomats do what our earth demands.

By Kate Offerdahl, 2011 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Leadership Intern

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