What might evolutionary theory say about the UNFCCC?

At Sense and Sustainability we seek to highlight research that adopts an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development – an excellent example of which is “Punctuated equilibrium in energy regime complex,”* a paper recently published in The Review of International Organizations and authored by Jeff Colgan, Bob Keohane, and Thijs Van de Graff. The paper applies the controversial but fascinating “punctuated equilibrium (PE)” model from evolutionary biology to institutional development in the energy regime between 1950 and 2010. The authors empirically demonstrate that evolution of the energy regime has followed a model of relatively static periods punctuated by abrupt upheavals driven by dissatisfaction and innovation, and that one can infer path-dependence from the model.

Stephen Krasner adopted the concept to institutional development in his seminal paper published in Comparative Politics in 1984, “Approaches to the State: Alternative Conceptions and Historical Dynamics.” He posited that institutions, like species, undergo little net evolutionary change for most of their history (long periods of stasis), but are radically changed by sporadic upheavals. The “stickiness” and inertia of large institutions, ideas, and policymakers limits the ability of institutions – and therefore regimes – to continually adapt and evolve.

A fascinating point made by Colgan et al is that changes in the regime occur only when the interests of the major dissatisfied actors are homogenous. When interests are factionalized, no proposals command sufficient support and states seeking revolutionary change have to create new institutions. Collective dissatisfaction spurs changes within global actors such as the IEA, whereas specific discontents lead to the emergence of institutions such as OPEC.

The model used raises natural questions about the implications of the model for institutional development in the sphere of environmental policy climate change governance. Baumgartner applies the PE model to environmental policy in the United States. He tracks trends in federal spending on environmental activities and congressional attention to the environment up to and following the creation of the EPA in 1970. Although several papers tangentially reference the PE model when talking about climate change governance, there appears to be a research gap in the rigorous application of the model to the emergence and evolution of institutions such as the UNFCCC. What degree of collective dissatisfaction would be required to trigger a truly enforceable and effective climate regime? Or would energy insecurity drive blocs of countries with homogenous interests to develop their own institutions (such as the EU-ETS)? The path dependency of institutional development in the system of global energy governance might provide insights into the evolution of the international climate regime.

* working paper version