We should begin by noting that global warming is, by definition, a global problem. Because it extends beyond national boundaries, it must be addressed by global policy measures. The fashioning and implementation of global policy measures is a novel challenge in that it implies the need for creating international public goods. Public goods are in general provided by governments, yet at the international level there is no government.
This is a long-standing problem in foreign affairs and international relations. When addressing this issue some years ago, Kindleberger (1986) proposed that in general, the problem can be solved by two means. The first is for the reigning hegemonic power to provide the appropriate public good. The United Kingdom did this for the international economy during much of the 19th century. Similarly, in the second half of the 20th century the United States provided monetary stability for the global economy by serving as central banker for the world, and sustaining an effective dollar standard for the international trade and financial system.
An alternative approach is what Kindleberger referred to as the "realist" solution, where groups of countries agree to come together to form institutional arrangements that provide the needed public good or goods. There are currently a number of such arrangements on the international scene, perhaps the most significant at this point being the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The origins of the WTO are to be found in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a rather modest framework of rules governing international economic relations established in 1947 after the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the treaty creating the more ambitious International Trade Organization. There are many lessons derivable from the GATT and its evolution into the WTO. In the first place, membership is strictly voluntary. Neither the GATT nor the WTO had (have) an army, navy, or air force. The successive organizations have negotiated the rules for international trade, and member states have agreed to follow them. Moreover, from a modest group of industrialized countries that agreed to negotiate reductions in tariffs on manufactured products, the scope of trade issues subject to negotiation by the WTO has increased significantly, and membership has grown to over 180 countries.
The Kyoto Treaty was a "realist" attempt to find a workable solution to the global warming problem. (The Montreal Treaty for dealing with the problem of atmospheric ozone change was a predecessor.) The withdrawal of the United States from the Kyoto Treaty may have delivered it a fatal blow, especially if Russia follows the U.S. lead in withdrawing its support.
It may be that the drafters of the Kyoto Treaty were too ambitious. A more modest beginning might have made success more likely. The modest initial beginnings of the GATT may provide some important lessons. I will return to this issue later.
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