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.

2 thoughts on “Karl Popper and Climate Change: Chapter 3

  1. thanks for this useful perspective. I hope the embedded links below work and would welcome your thoughts.
    Climate Treaty-by Small Victories
    by Ruth Bell
    You might wonder what the Cold War has to do with climate change, but as I listened last month to historian James Graham Wilson talk about the “triumph of improvisation” that ended the nearly 50-year stare-down between the United States and the U.S.S.R., I was struck by the parallels. The idea of individual leaders escaping the momentum of conventional approaches and adapting on the fly to solve a major global issue deeply resonated with me. It’s exactly what international climate change negotiations desperately need.
    Creative improvising means leadership not hemmed in by the past; leadership that considers many different pathways, venues, and agreement configurations to get to the end goal. For humanity, as the stranglehold of greenhouse gas emissions tightens, it is time to decide whether it is more important to sign a piece of paper or have a real impact on global warming.
    Follow the Lead of Weapons Treaties
    Scientists tell us the situation is stark and governments must do more to reverse the rapid heating caused by unrestrained release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Inaction has forced us into a critical situation. “We cannot afford to lose another decade,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist who co-chaired the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, told The New York Times. “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.” A melted Greenland ice sheet, for example, cannot be reconstructed, at any price.
    Resolving smaller pieces of the bigger problem can build mutual trust and confidence
    We know there are serious challenges of political will – put plainly, governments not stepping up to take responsibility. But the model for addressing climate change is also faulty. Doggedly sticking to the idea of resolving, in one grand bargain, every one of the hugely complex issues that together result in, or are a consequence of, climate change is not realistic. Yet this is what is intended by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. I and others have argued that such a narrow vision may be a mistake. Resolving smaller pieces of the bigger problem can build mutual trust and confidence, and create momentum that might start us in the right direction.
    There are models for such an approach. In a number of publications, Barry Blechman, Micah Ziegler, and I have examined the example of international weapons treaties. Efforts to control nuclear weapons also started with UN members negotiating along highly idealistic lines (the seeming Cold War non-starter of “general and complete disarmament,” for example). But when the Cuban Missile crisis dramatically reminded everyone of the dangers of unrestrained nuclear weapons proliferation, the conversation quickly became more practical. One-by-one, smaller agreements began to prohibit nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in space, and under the seas; set a framework for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons; and peel off other parts of this knotty challenge. Smaller groups within the UN, as well as regional and bi-lateral approaches, proliferated, even when larger negotiations floundered. The results haven’t been perfect, but where most informed observers thought there would likely be two dozen or more nuclear powers by the end of the 20th century, there are currently only nine.
    Re-Examine Assumptions and Narrow the Focus
    Another way of looking at this is to consider how realistic the basic assumptions that appear to be driving the UNFCCC model are. These include:
    • An “if you build it, they will come” assumption that global agreement will produce domestic results;
    • An assumption that every nation must come to agreement, despite their widely varying responsibilities for greenhouse gas emissions;
    • Adherence to a consensus model that sometimes gives disproportionate power to smaller, and frankly, less-relevant countries to block progress;
    • Excessive concern about the formality of ratification;
    • An impulse to try to decide every climate-related issue together;
    • A belief that climate change is an environmental matter to be decided by environmental experts; and
    • A belief in markets as a primary tool for greenhouse gas reduction.
    If these assumptions don’t make sense in today’s world or if they don’t support an adequately robust basis for managing global greenhouse gas emissions, they should be reconsidered (for more on this, read my article for the Environmental Law Institute).
    If these assumptions don’t make sense in today’s world, they should be reconsidered
    An alternative approach is to narrow down the issues and negotiating parties to those best situated to solve them, using the international weapons treaty model. This would put more energy into working directly with the handful of major greenhouse gas emitters and perhaps sequence issues more opportunistically, rather than waiting for consensus on the hardest things.
    In fact, a great deal of this is already going on, albeit quietly. A coalition of UN organizations and member governments, including the United States, has announced plans to limit black carbon and other specific pollutants that contribute to rapid warming. Forums such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, and the G-20 are developing alternative communication channels and some are working on discrete issues such as adaptation and mitigation technology.
    It would be encouraging if this marked a quiet trend away from depending entirely on the single UNFCCC model, but significant parts of the climate community continue to focus on the hope that negotiations in Paris in 2015 will produce their grand agreement. For some who have invested much of their careers in the hope of the UNFCCC, loyalty to that body has become a litmus test for concern about climate change itself, so even a hint of lack of faith in the negotiation process is fought tooth and nail.
    But unconventional threats require unconventional responses. Climate change is a challenge that cries out for creative improvising.

    • Thanks Ruth. Wholeheartedly agree, although I may not be as optimistic on the progress being made in other forums. I think, for example, that the Asia Pacific Forum was a great initiative, but it has become relatively moribund. The initiative on black carbon also appears to have some challenges going forward. But totally agree on the sentiment.


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