Science and Universal Participation

In that the sources of climate change are certainly worldwide, as are the potential effects, I am not arguing that climate change is not a global problem environmentally.2 However, I question the presumed connection between these scientific characteristics and political definitions. To be sure, relying on scientific characteristics is attractive in this case precisely because climate change is a hugely complex, global phenomenon. Two officials from Canada eloquently articulated conventional wisdom for climate change:

Because of this global interdependence, both environmental and economic, it was and remains, crucial that as many countries as possible be involved in the solution to the climate problem. This applies to large and small emitters as well as to current and future emitters.3

Conventional wisdom denotes the crucial characteristics of climate change to be that every person and state on the planet contributes to the problem, and that the problem potentially affects every person and state on the planet.4

These characteristics and the conventional wisdom that accompanied them are seductive for analysts of climate change politics. Because environmental politics is so wrapped up in the interplay between science and policy, when scientists declare that climate change is " 'truly global' and cannot be solved by the actions of one nation alone,"5 it is difficult to conceive that the issue could be addressed in any way other than with global, universal negotiations (or that the United States would consider any other options). When scientists proclaim the global nature of climate change, it seems natural to hear a U.S. policymaker claim that "climate change is, by definition, an international problem which must be addressed among nations,"6 or that a criterion for a successful climate negotiation is an integrated treaty, "designed to involve all nations and dynamically reflect and incorporate each nation's unique circumstances into the development of a truly global response strategy."7

Why then the talk about a participation norm? As seductive as it may be to translate scientific definitions of the climate change problem directly into political characteristics and solutions, the two are not always (if ever) precisely related. In other words, scientific characteristics do not objectively determine political characteristics. Science may inform politics, but it does not determine it—even in as scientifically dominated a problem as climate change. This is not in direct contrast to the claims of the epistemic community literature, which holds that scientific groups frame issues and provide policymakers with coherent, consistent policy options, thus facilitating cooperation.8 Certainly the work and rhetoric of scientists focusing on the global aspects of climate change had an effect on the early definitions of climate change. However, the actual characteristics of the problem are politically ambiguous, and more than one scientific discourse surrounds climate change.

In addition, the more important factor was a prior understanding of climate change as a universal problem, fostered in the ozone depletion negotiations. Such an understanding did not exist in the early ozone negotiations even though scientists stressed the global nature of ozone depletion. As noted in chapter 2, "science" rarely, if ever, consists of a single discourse (or alternatively, multiple discourses can be constructed from the findings of science).9

For instance, the United States and the Europeans looked at the same climate change data and scientific conclusions and adhered to two different interpretations. U.S. officials, choosing to focus on uncertainty and the potential costs of ameliorating actions, constructed a discourse of skepticism. The Europeans, on the other hand, focused on the consensus available and the potential impacts of climate change, forging a discourse of urgency. Science did not provide objective information with which to decide policy. In addition, EU and U.S. policies diverged as they regarded emission reductions, but converged over participation.10 The Europeans and the Americans agreed on the need for a universal response but vehemently differed on the need for reductions. The scientifically discerned characteristics of the climate change problem did not govern the responses to climate change in and of themselves.

In fact, it is reasonable to ask if the scientific consensus built and conclusions reached in the mid to late 1980s actually warranted universal negotiations. Most U.S. officials, and most of the international community, assumed that if any negotiations were obligatory, they would have to be universal, but was that really what climate science should have led them to believe? The historical record and the scientific descriptions of climate change point to a negative answer. The scientifically discerned characteristics of climate change do not make global negotiations the only, or even the most obvious, manner for addressing climate change.

When scientists first started to think about policy options in the mid to late 1980s they discussed how the global climate change problem required action by a subset of states—the major sources of the problem (United States, EU, USSR, Japan, China, and India). In early 1988 when UNEP began organizing the SWCC, they conceived it as a scientifically focused meeting with between twenty and thirty countries participating— "mainly the industrialized states which have expertise in the field of climate studies."11 While climate scientists have correctly stressed the global sources and global impacts of climate change, what gets lost in this talk of global, is that only a few states (treating the EU as a single entity) are the overwhelming cause of the problem. What is clear is that the normative context influences how scientists as well as policymakers conceive of a problem.12 According to the 1990 State of the World Report published by the Worldwatch Institute, roughly 70 percent of the world's 1987 carbon dioxide emissions generated by burning fossil fuels were accounted for by the United States, Canada, Australia, the Soviet Union, Japan, selected EU countries, Brazil, India, and China.13 Further, when climate change first became an important issue (1986-1988), environmental groups and scientists focused on the potentially significant benefits achievable through the actions of a limited number of states. The Worldwatch Institute claimed that

[a]ir pollutant emissions could drop substantially with concerted action by China, the Soviet Union, and the United States alone, which are the world's three largest consumers of coal . . .14

Just one year later in the spring of 1987, the Worldwatch Institute reiterated this claim, noting:

[T]he United States, the Soviet Union, and China together account for half of the global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. These three countries also possess roughly two-thirds of the world's remaining reserves of coal. . . . A vigorous effort to curb fossil fuel use by these three countries could go a long way toward slowing the global CO2 buildup and the projected change in climate . . .15

In hindsight, even U.S. policymakers will admit that seven or eight countries (counting the EU as a single entity) could deal with the climate change problem and that perhaps universal negotiations were not the best way to proceed.16 Nitze recalled, "Frankly if you had the US . . . the annex I countries plus China and India, then you have enough critical mass, but you have to get India and China."17

This is not to downplay the impact that Southern states can/will potentially have on the problem. As Scott Barrett makes clear, "Any unilateral action by the OECD countries as a whole would not have a profound effect on global concentrations [of carbon dioxide], at least not in the long run."18 The fact that carbon emissions from the South are growing and will surpass those in the North is an important factor to consider. However, this does not change the fact that a small subset of states (including major Southern states) controls a vast proportion of the problem. In addition, as Richard Sandbrook argues, data on Southern contributions to the problem should not detract "from the fact that 75 percent of the emissions responsible for the current greenhouse effect come from within the United States and Western Europe."19

Early climate change negotiations could have proceeded in an OECD meeting or with a summit of fewer than ten states (including the EU) and been entirely scientifically justified, at least in the short term. Such a plan was called for by negotiation expert James Sebenius and this was the very manner in which the MP was negotiated from 1985 to 1987.20 Yet, curiously, this option was never even considered. The notion of universal participation dominated the climate change proceedings from the very beginning.

Scientific observations do not equal policy characteristics. In the climate change case, the universal participation norm shaped the views that policymakers had of scientific conclusions—it was the lens through which they beheld the climate change issue. This understanding of the problem filtered scientific information. As constructivists argue, the norm provided intersubjective understandings of the material world, producing political characteristics for the climate change issue. The universal participation norm put boundaries on possible definitions of climate change.

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