Do We Need Global Governance To Combat Global Warming?

The recent Copenhagen Conference on global warming has led to renewed claims that we cannot effectively combat global warming without “global governance,” or perhaps even a full-fledged world government. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently claimed that “A [climate change] deal must include an equitable global governance structure” and many other political leaders and environmental activists have expressed similar views. Political scientist Campbell Craig summarized the standard argument for global governance to address climate change in this 2008 article:

[O]ne of the most evident failures of the nation-state system in recent years has been its inability to deal successfully with problems that endanger much or most of the world’s population. As the world has become more globalized—economically integrated and culturally interconnected—individual countries have become increasingly averse to dealing with international problems that are not caused by any single state and cannot be fixed even by the focused efforts of individual governments. Political scientists refer to this quandary as the “collective action problem,” by which they mean the dilemma that emerges when several actors have an interest in eradicating a problem that harms all of them, but when each would prefer that someone else do the dirty work of solving it. If everyone benefits more or less equally from the problem’s solution, but only the actor that addresses it pays the costs, then all are likely to want to “free ride” on the other’s efforts. The result is that no one tackles the problem, and everyone suffers.

Several such collective action problems dominate much of international politics today, and scholars of course debate their importance and relevance to world government. Nevertheless, a few obvious ones stand out, notably the imminent danger of climate change….

Essentially, the argument is that global warming is a collective action problem that only an international entity will have incentives to solve. If not a world government, it will have to be a “global governance” structure that is to a large degree independent of individual governments and has the power to compel them to take necessary measures, such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

In my view, such global governance is neither necessary nor sufficient to prevent global warming. As co-blogger Eric Posner points out, an effective climate change deal requires the agreement of only about 20 or so major emitting nations, such as the US, China, India, Russia, and several major European states. Obviously, most of these states would suffer serious harm if catastrophic global warming scenarios turn out to be true. They therefore have strong incentives to reach a deal. Collective action problems are not a serious danger when a solution only requires the cooperation of a few major actors, each of whom knows that their participation is essential to the success of the overall project. There is little incentive to free-ride if the potential “free-rider” knows that the problem can’t be solved without his participation. I have spelled this logic and its application to global problems in more detail here. For a more extended treatment, see Todd Sandler’s book Global Collective Action, which, among other things, shows how cooperation between a few big powers was enough to address the problem of ozone layer deterioration in the 1980s.

Of course, big power cooperation isn’t guaranteed to solve the global warming problem. It has several potential flaws. In each case, however, global governance has similar or even worse weaknesses.

One potential problem is that national governments aren’t always representative of the interests of their people and therefore won’t take full account of the dangers that global warming poses to them. However, any global governance structure is likely to be even less democratic and less representative than national governments are, especially those of liberal democracies such as the US. As John McGinnis and I explain here and here, the existing international institutions that influence the content of international law are highly undemocratic, and any new global governance structure is likely to be the same. The personnel of any such entity will be chosen either by relatively unaccountable international elites, or by national governments (with a hefty dose of influence by authoritarian states).

A second danger is that one or more important governments will decide that the benefits of preventing global warming aren’t worth the costs. For example, China and India might decide that severe emissions restrictions pose too great a risk to their economies, and Western nations might be unwilling to make large enough payments to them to get them to change their minds. Obviously however, a world government or global governance agency could also decide that the costs of preventing warming outweigh the benefits. Any such structure would have to take Chinese and Indian interests into account. Moreover, we wouldn’t want to foreclose the possibility of such a decision. The costs of greatly reducing emissions are substantial, potentially even catastrophic. Even to those who, like me, believe that global warming is a genuine danger, it’s not obvious that those costs are necessarily worth paying.

Finally, national governments could underestimate the dangers of climate change; for example by buying into flawed scientific analyses. Here too, a global governance structure could make similar mistakes. Moreover, this risk has to be balanced against the danger that either national governments or the global governance decision-makers could err in the opposite direction: buying into an overly pessimistic view of global warming, and therefore enacting costly measures that turn out to be excessive. Overall, I think analytical error is less likely if we allow different nation-states to reach independent conclusions and make a compromise than if the decision is left up to a single global entity that is more likely to fall prey to groupthink. The recent Climategate scandal underlines the dangers of like-minded small groups falsifying evidence and excluding opposing views. A system of global governance over climate change issues would make this danger more severe, not less. If, at the end of the day, governments continue to disagree over the severity of the global warming danger, those with more pessimistic views could potentially offer side payments to convince the doubters to take more aggressive preventive measures.

The movement to institute global governance as a response to climate change wouldn’t be problematic if such governance did not pose any risks of its own. In fact, however, global governance itself would create potentially grave longterm threats to the future of humanity. These risks might be acceptable if there was no other way to prevent worldwide catastrophe. In fact, however, we don’t need global governance to combat global warming.