Good COP, Bad COP

A New Textbook Example
by -- December 14th, 2009

Today’s impasse exemplifies the collective action problem.

As you may have heard, negotiations and plenary sessions have been suspended at COP15 until further notice.  The cause?  An African-led protest against talk of changing the commitments to and/or moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol from industrialized nations.  It is important to note that African nations are not alone in this protest, the G77-China bloc of 130 nations is backing the suspension.  UN officials are frantically working to mediate and get the talks back on track.

It’s not as if this is a surprise.  Finding a solution to climate change is the biggest collective action problem that the world has ever faced.  For those who are not familiar with the term, collective action refers to the pursuit of goals by more than one person.  A collective action problem occurs when two or more people are unable to accomplish these goals because of the problems inherent in working together – collaboration, cooperation, motivation, differences in perspective, transactions costs…the list continues.  Imagine trying to decide how to divide up responsibility for a messy house among yourself and a few friends.  Now, multiply that situation by 6.8 billion.  See the problem?  And that simple example does not account for compounding effects, differences in resources and power, and past actions.

Let’s just say that there is a reason why the COP15 logo looks like a gigantic ball of tangled string.

8 Comments

  1. Dave
    Dec 14, 2009

    Aren’t you studying at Duke in order to learn to solve tough problems? How about a few suggested solutions?

    • Courtney
      Dec 14, 2009

      Hi Dave,

      Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to this problem. Luckily, the negotiations resumed this afternoon and I am sure that the plethora of bright minds involved can work towards a solution. Personally, I would suggest assuring developing nations that the Kyoto Protocol obligations will be enforced and met until the Protocol expires. I believe that the Protocol does have several weaknesses, but that it is a foundation that must be used in order to avoid drawing the negotiations out into the very distant future. While offering membership to the United States late in the treaty process (relative to Kyoto’s implementation in 1997) is certainly unfair to countries that have been on board since the beginning, it is necessary to receive U.S. participation and the necessary domestic support (e.g. Congressional legislation) to achieve obligations.

      Thanks for reading,
      Courtney

      • Richard Belzer
        Dec 15, 2009

        Courtney,

        One thing they should be teaching down there at Duke is the critical linkage between policy and implementation. No policy can be a success if it cannot be implemented.

        Much smaller policy reforms have foundered on those rocks. I call to your attention a old book by Jeremy Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky titled “Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or, Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All…” Its lessons still apply.

        Climate change, by its very nature, has more implementation problems than almost any other. I daresay there is no global public policy problem to date that has been solved by international institutions. Treaties can work, but only when adherence is in the interests of the signatories.

        Today’s NYT has a story about how the US and China are at an impasse. The American side wants effective verification; the Chinese do not. See
        http://www.nytimes.com/%5B…%5D/15climate.html?_r=1&hp.

        Climate change will not admit to first- or second-best solutions. I suggest you start thinking about 99th-best.

        Regards,

        Richard Belzer

        • Courtney
          Dec 16, 2009

          Richard,

          Please do not be misled by my blog post – we spend a great deal of time learning about the critical linkage between policy and implementation at Duke. Please note that the COP15 blog is meant for a diverse audience, including those without training in politics, environmental policy, and international relations. This post was meant to cater to that audience.

          I would be interested to hear your solution.

          • Richard Belzer
            Dec 16, 2009

            Courtney,

            I was not misled by your blog post, except to the extent that I interpreted it as evidence that Duke was failing you as a master’s degree student. As a HKS ’82 alumnus, I am well aware of the tendency of public policy programs to downplay the hard parts.

            If you understand the problem of implementation, then it should be an essential element of your analysis of climate change — even your blog posts — not something left out of the analysis because it is terribly inconvenient.

            I have not studied climate change in detail. If pressed for a solution, here is what I’d recommend:

            1. A revenue neutral US carbon tax: The purpose is to change the relative price of carbon-based energy, not to fill the Treasury. To accomplish revenue neutrality, I suspect that the 16th Amendment would have to be modified. Otherwise, Congress will use a carbon tax to raise endless sums of money, not to internalize the negative externality posed by climate change. (I admit that modifying the Constitution is really difficult and may not succeed. However, the income tax is not so popular that it would have a lot of defenders, except perhaps tax lawyers. Moreover, it is my concern for implementation that leads me to recommend it. A carbon tax enacted to combat climate change that degenerates into a general purpose tax used to grow the government will undermine public support for addressing climate change.)

            2. Liberate nuclear power from statutory and regulatory straightjackets.

            3. No subsidies for renewables or clean coal or whatever: Subsidies breed complacency and deter innovation. Some renewables (e.g., ethanol) have externalities of their own, which should be subject to Pigouvian taxes, too.

            4. Investment in adaptation: An oppressive international police force of Biblical proportions would be needed to enforce mitigation commitments. No such force is needed to implement adaptation measures.

            Regards,

            Richard Belzer

  2. Richard Belzer
    Dec 14, 2009

    Imagine a scenario in which by COB today all 192 nations reached an agreement. How do you suppose it would be enforced? Are you prepared, for example, to go to war against China if it fails to achieve agreed upon targets. Which side would you be on if they declared war against the United States?

    Reaching an agreement, however difficult, is the easiest of all collective action problems. Enforcing an agreement is astoundingly more difficult.

  3. NonBelieverIN.CC
    Dec 14, 2009

    First of all China actually produces things we use, want, and need. Why would we go to war with them. They will not loose either if we did. Here’s one more question, How much CO2 is in a Nuclear Fallout Cloud? Which is worse, Nuclear fall out or Carbon Emissions! China owns the US. Maybe you’ll bomb us, the US? Then make sure to hand whoever pushes the button a Nobel Peace Prize ok.

  4. Courtney
    Dec 14, 2009

    Richard,

    You make a great point. I realize that creating the law is less than half of the battle. As we have seen with phase one of the Kyoto treaty, enforcement is incredibly difficult. These difficulties are inherent in the structure of international law and a second best solution is the best that we can hope for.

    No, I am not prepared to go to war with China. I believe that war with China is extremely unlikely and that there are bigger, more realistic problems to solve.

    Thanks for reading,
    Courtney

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