How Are the Copenhagen Talks Supposed to Overcome Collective Action Problems?

Let me leave aside for the moment all the leaked memos and stuff.  I would describe myself as a non-expert on climate issues who has been gradually persuaded to the following positions:

  • Agnostic on the question of warming and human impact on it;
  • Getting less agnostic as I read the emails and leaked materials;
  • Unpersuaded that the CBA supports radical “front end” attempts to deal with a diffuse threat of uncertain likelihood far down the road, because the discount for uncertainty is too high;
  • Persuaded by the Lomborg position that we should address real damage as it manifests, in the most prudent way;
  • Persuaded by Lomborg that resources proposed for dealing with climate change must be weighed against other uses, particularly more immediate health and welfare issues such as malaria and AIDS; and
  • Persuaded by Lomborg that climate change across a very long time frame must be weighed up, in resource terms, against much more immediate, unquestionable environmental damage not defined as CO2, but regular old air pollution, water pollution, etc., especially as it exists in the developing world, the cities of Asia, Mexico City, other places – and not set aside on the assumption that the developed world’s long term climate change issues should take precedence.

I’m not arguing for this, just letting you know where I’m coming from.  But let the rest of this post be on the assumption that all the climate change warming threats are real, if long term.  If that is so, then, leaving aside climate science and turning just to international law and  diplomacy and politics …

Well, I do not understand how this Copenhagen conference manages to overcome the collective action failure problems that have been encountered in Kyoto and every other exercise in this area.  Extremely diffuse damage from a multitude of players, now and into the future; diffuse set of actors who must act in a coordinated way; individual states being tasked to take sacrificial actions that in the short and medium term at least are bad for their individual economies and their voting citizens; consistent record of failures not just in the nature of the promises made, but in their non-fulfillment even as they stand … on what grounds does anyone plausibly think that Copenhagen might produce a different outcome?

I’m not asking about climate science here, I’m asking about collective action problems in international law and policy.  How is this exercise different from previous failures?  Even if new states are persuaded to say yes on paper, on what grounds does anyone think that these commitments will be fulfilled this time, particularly given the record of Kyoto?  The article linked here from the AP talks about “momentum building” and “legally binding agreements.” What does that mean and how?  Legally binding to prevent defection down the road, how?  This is not an attempt to get snarky, but complete puzzlement on my part.  How is this different from earlier attempts?

The one thing that might be different, so far as I can tell, is that the meeting might make moves toward the global fund for the developing world.  Which would suggest, however, that the world has largely accepted that it won’t really do anything about the problem on the front end, but might do things to address concrete damage in the developing world.  Or perhaps will simply hand out the money as a sort of buy-off and global welfare transfer payment.  That seems to me to be the most likely outcome of Copenhagen, at most, and maybe or maybe not an agreement that, on the basis of past experience, will be invoked in op-ed pages and law review articles and politely sidelined as discussions get underway for the next round of agreements.  Copenhagen (apart from the speeches and expressions of concern and photo ops and opportunity for the Secretary General to re-cast himself as a little bit of a rock star) appears to me mostly about the fund.  It might have similar collective action problems in collecting for it, but that is a lot easier as a tradeoff than actually doing any of the stuff that might be proposed or even agreed to on the issue of climate change itself.

But there are lots of very smart people working on this issue in international law who, obviously, have thought long and hard about these problems.  How are the collective action problems believed to be overcome in this round?

(Update: I could be persuaded that the “real” common ground among governments is the desire for more government, and perhaps even the desire for global governance, as the best, or most likely, explanation for the pursuit of a process that, at least so far, I can’t see is supported by an account of how to overcome collective action failures.  However, it is not clear how that would overcome collective action problems, either, if it were true that the common policy sought were best understood not as “addressing climate change as such” but instead “increasing the size and powers of government using climate change as an opportunity.”  The interests of governments, to start with, are “parallel” rather than “common.”  And even if common, it is unclear what would prevent defection; in order for governments to seize these powers, would they not have to act on them and actually do something regarding climate change?

However, here is one way it could work.  One could see the desire to increase government size as a form of positive feedback loop, governments feeding and feeding off each other, toward the ends of larger governments.  In that case, one might say that governments expand not because they necessarily actually act to address climate change, whatever that actually means, but instead because they simply seize the powers that might address those things, but at bottom simply seize powers, whatever they actually do with them.