Carbon Pledges, Part 2

Economists are likely cringing at the inefficiency and potential inefficacy of the climate change pledges made by 81 companies last month. But they assuredly recognize that pledges have some value. Their colleagues in neighboring political science departments have some words to say about the pledges as well. In this second article of a two-part series on these pledges, we’ll review the political dimensions of these pledges, keeping in mind the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. The Obama administration announced the pledges as an important step toward successful negotiations at the conference as well as a crucial partnership between business and government for climate change policy. How do they measure up?

Economists would note that pledges could be acting as a signal. (Yes, economists do comment on political dimensions of politics and often refer to the “political economy” of a particular situation.) Signals may be used by individuals to communicate that they are a certain type, like a productive worker instead of a lazy worker. For example, people want to signal that they are productive workers—whether they are or not—so that they will receive high wages. With these climate change pledges, both the signatory businesses and the Obama Administration may be signaling. Businesses might want to communicate to customers that they are “green,” (again, whether or not they are actually green). The current administration could have been signaling that the U.S. is taking action to encourage other nations to do so. More specifically, because the recent Conference of Parties (COP) negotiations in Paris were to operate on nations’ voluntary pledges of action on climate change (called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs), the Obama Administration might have been signaling that it was capable and ready to broker a deal of such format. Additionally, the administration might want to signal that it will be proactive in domestically carrying out any promises it makes at the international table; its promises will be credible.

Some political scientists would argue that there is more to climate pledges than their symbolic value. In international relations (IR) scholarship, there are at least three main theories that attempt to explain how the international system works: realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Each would take a slightly different position on these pledges. In fact, one could plot the camps of thought on a scale of how effective the pledges would be at impacting international negotiations and how meaningful a business-government partnership is. Realism would be a bit cynical, liberalism would assert effectiveness, and constructivism would regard the pledges as potentially very powerful.

Realist scholars see anarchy—the fact that there is no international government—as the defining characteristic of international relations, including actions like these pledges. Realists see nation-states (states) as the primary actors in the international system, as they are the highest defined political entity which holds the power to enforce law. When “national interests” are threatened, states are willing to use force to defend their interests; no one else can or will.

Interestingly, realism would predict much of what we have observed to date regarding action on climate change. States would be unable to come to an agreement because they would be acting in the in their own interest at all times. Thus, small island states would definitely take action and try to get others to do so. Economically emerging states would be wary of promising to do anything other than continue to develop in ways they see fit, including with regard to fossil fuel use. Others who take action would be doing so because it would help them in some way, such as giving them a leg up on the market for low-carbon energy technology when others need alternative energy in the future (obtaining a “first-mover advantage”).

Realism would not emphasize the role of businesses in international relations about climate change, maintaining that states primarily hold the power to influence the actions of other states. Thus realists would see pledges by businesses, unaccompanied by state action, as of little value to induce other states to adopt climate change policy. Since the pledges were at least in part due to U.S. action and announced as such, however, they might be a manifestation of the U.S. pursuing its own interests. Realists would see the President’s announcement as a form of soft power being used to sway the actions of other states. That is, given the fact that direct enforcement of climate goals seems unlikely, the U.S. is making its climate policy attractive, a sexy private-public partnership that is good for its “bottom line.” What more could speak to developing states wary of adopting climate policy lest it slow their economic growth?

Liberalists, on the other hand, see the international (or preferably “global” or “world”) system as an interdependent web of not only states but also multilateral actors—such as regional organizations (think NATO), government bodies (like the UN), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational businesses—as well as sub-national organizations and individuals. The anarchy that creates power relations between states in the realist perspective is seen as neither complete nor competition-inducing by liberalists. Cooperation is possible. Liberalism would have predicted the formation and operation of international organizations such as the IPCC and agreements like the UNFCC in order to coordinate action on climate change. Liberal theorists would see climate pledges from both businesses and governments as perhaps exactly what they are stated to be: a form of cooperation and norm-setting to bring other states and non-state actors on board. The pledges could easily shake the interwoven nature of global markets and governments to draw them toward more ambitious climate action.

What would climate pledges mean to a constructivist? Like liberalists, constructivists see global dynamics as an interplay of actors at both supra- and sub-national levels. They especially emphasize the roles of norms and rules. Ideas are important, and our assessment of what’s going on at any given time is subjective. A pledge, therefore, can be powerful. In fact, it can be what you make of it. If we live in a hopeful, inspired age or place, a pledge could be a spark. If regarded with suspicion, it would be worthless.

So what can we make of all this theorizing? The concept of signaling and each IR theory has a different take on what are the motives behind climate change pledges, how effective they might be at inducing others to change their behavior, and how important private-public partnerships might be. One point of commonality between all these ideas, though, is that they all see pledges as an action that could have some effect on the decisions of other actors. Part I of this article series concluded that economists would largely agree that pledges are not the business-friendly way to go with climate policy. But, no matter what politically-oriented economist or political scientist you ask, there would be at least some acknowledgement that pledges could benefit the international negotiations on climate change and perhaps establish helpful partnerships between business and government. They might just disagree on the mechanism of their action (signaling that the U.S. is a top-notch negotiator vs. setting new norms for the business community, for example) and just how helpful pledges would be.

The key point may be that climate pledges are not necessarily good for the bottom line. But, they could get more actors—nations, business, and others—reaching for sensible climate policy in the near future.

Photo Credit: Jay Buangan via Flickr.

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