Focus Less on Collective Action, More on Delayed Benefits and Concentrated Opponents

Fixing Climate Governance Policy Brief No. 4

June 4, 2015

Controlling climate change has significant collective-action aspects, but the importance of these has been exaggerated and efforts misdirected as a result — particularly regarding the feasibility and impact of leading actions to pursue large emission cuts by individual nations or subgroups. Such leading actions need not, as current policy debate presumes, be futile or ruinously costly — particularly if these are viewed as initial steps in a multi-stage pursuit of deep global emission cuts. Serious climate action must confront other challenges, however, that have been neglected in the excessive focus on the global collective-action problem — most importantly, delayed benefits and concentrated opponents. Focusing on these suggests different priorities for action. This policy brief sketches several specific approaches to addressing these challenges, which can be pursued nationally or internationally and which hold greater prospect of success than the present approach.

Part of Series

Fixing Climate Governance Series

Climate scientists agree that human activity has been changing our planet’s climate over the long term. Without serious policy changes, scientists expect devastating consequences in many regions: inundation of coastal cities; greater risks to food production and, hence, malnutrition; unprecedented heat waves; greater risk of high-intensity cyclones; many climate refugees; and irreversible loss of biodiversity. Some international relations scholars expect increased risk of violent conflicts over scarce resources and due to state breakdown. Environmentalists have been campaigning for effective policy changes for more than two decades. The world’s governments have been negotiating since 1995 as parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) . Their 2015 Paris Agreement created a new regime for joint action; among other things, it is the first UN climate agreement to oblige all parties to make some contribution. Each party made a pledge pertaining to the period 2020 to 2025 or 2030. But it is widely agreed that if they are all implemented, together these 2015 pledges will still fall far short of what is needed to meet the collective goals and avoid widespread catastrophes. Important details of the Paris Agreement itself also remain to be negotiated. Nor is the UNFCCC the whole of international climate governance. Many initiatives have also been launched by smaller sets of countries, national governments, provinces, cities, civil society, and private investors and companies.   This project was designed to generate improved ideas for both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process and other possible sites of climate governance. In 2015, we published nine policy briefs and papers, which can be found below. The ideas in two of them appeared in Paris during COP21. Several offered original recommendations for more effective action outside the UNFCCC. A new series of publications appeared in 2016-2017.  

About the Author

Edward A. (Ted) Parson is the Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law and faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles.