Karl Popper and Climate Change: Chapter 3

Following off my two previous blogs on Popper’s approach to public policy, what would be the implications of his approach for tackling climate change at the global level?   Climate change has been accurately branded as one of the most complex and challenging environmental and economic issues facing the international community today, and the typical approach has been to try and find solutions through a mega-deal involving all nations, addressing a vast array of issues.  The United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has become the sacrosanct home for reaching such a ‘mega-deal’, usually with limited results.  In fact, since the Kyoto Protocol, this multilateral approach has been unsuccessful in finding a viable way forward.

Is such a course the only way forward?  What if Paris collapses under the weight of unrealistic expectations?  Looking through the lens of Popper, I would submit that continuing to rely on the expectation of some sort of politically contrived  ‘mega-deal’ is a way forward fraught with risks and follies.  Even if such a global, comprehensive agreement were to be reached, it would soon unravel at the implementation stage, with too little consideration having been given to the unintended consequences from trying to engineer such a complex pact.

Nor should we forget the accumulation of negotiating ‘hubris’ in these negotiations over the last twenty years, in no small part, fueled by the founding principles of the UNFCCC.  Under most circumstances, principles are helpful ‘markers’ that can work to provide a useful framework for developing effective agreements.  The principles established in the UNFCCC, for the most part, have done the very opposite.

The three related principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, recognizing the ‘special circumstances’ of developing countries and the right to sustainable development in reality has resulted in paralysis in the negotiations:  developed countries state they cannot take on deep, unilateral mitigation targets for competitiveness reasons, while developing countries (led by China and OPEC in particular) hide under the ‘cover’ of the G-77 and China negotiating bloc to absolve themselves of any international obligation to reduce their emissions.  Even the fifth principle, expressing support for the international economic and trading regimes, is mostly invoked to deter any discussions on best practices for fear it may used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for protectionism on the part of developed countries. Sadly, the one principle left standing and which is actually a constructive contribution to the process – the precautionary approach, which states that the lack of certainty should not be used a rationalization for waiting to take actions to address climate change, is the principle least raised in the negotiations.

Let me be clear – for the purposes of this discussion, I am completely agnostic as to the normativity of these principles. My lens is effectiveness, and from that perspective no objective analysis could conclude that the principles have been a useful starting point for addressing climate change. And I left out the one overriding tenet that while not formally part of the UNFCCC founding principles is a core precept of the negotiations: namely, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, meaning that even where progress has been made – for example in the terms of reference for Reduced Emissions for Land Degradation and Deforestation (REDD) – it cannot come into effect without a ‘mega-deal’ covering dozens of contentious issues that have avoided any solutions for the last twenty years.

So what then might be the way forward?  In a word, simplify: simplify the actors, the issues and the mandate of the UNFCCC.  First of all, on the issue of actors, while the issue is undoubtedly global, the responsibility (in terms of emissions) can be easily identified.  There can be no prospect of an effective global treaty without first having China and the U.S., the two largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters, showing leadership in the process.  So in effect, we should cease to continue multilateral discussions on defining mitigation targets (and the terms for how such target can be determined) until such time that we first have a G-2 agreement on their respective contributions.  At Copenhagen, we saw a tentative agreement between the U.S. and major developing economies, led by China, setting national voluntary targets as the outcome of those talks. For Paris, we should look to the U.S. and China to first come in with national targets and a platform for co-operation on an outcome that then opens the door for other major economies and emitters to submit their contributions.

On issues, the process should treat topics as discretely and concretely as possible, allowing for agreements to be reached on areas where progress can be made with mandates for implementation prior to the conclusion of any ‘mega-deal’.  The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (one of the two major bodies established under the UNFCCC) should actually reflect its name and follow the example of the Montreal Protocol in providing a platform for providing expert advice around those issues.  Obvious candidates for immediate implementation include, inter alia, REDD, black carbon, methane mitigation, adaptation, technology co-operation and reporting modalities.

Finally on the UNFCCC itself, a significant ‘re-boot’ is in order.  In terms of institution building, it has undoubtedly been one of the most successful UN bodies over the last 20 years.  One might almost conclude that the lack of substantive progress in the negotiations has been absolved, in the minds of Parties, by establishing a myriad of ‘sub-secretariats’.   The UNFCCC needs to rediscover its roots and exclusively focus on being the home for negotiations and reporting on Parties’ progress in meeting their commitments.  Areas of implementation, such as market based mechanisms, climate financing, technology cooperation, adaptation and REDD, should find homes outside of the UNFCCC and the proclivities of politicized negotiators.

In the next blog, I will examine the implications of Popper’s lens of ‘limited engineering’ on public policy for nationally based actions to address climate change.  Until then, please feel free to express your views!

Here’s to a future climate regime that is actually effective.