Nexus, Fall 2007

Shifting the Global Climate Debate:  When Bad News is Good News

by Jutta Brunnée

This article was first published in the Fall 2007 issue of Nexus.

The international Climate change regime has been dismissed by some as fatally flawed, for reasons ranging from the complaint that the Kyoto Protocol "exempts 80% of the world" and so is "unfair and ineffective,"1 to the assertion that its emission reduction requirements are too weak to halt global warming,2 to the claim that compliance with even these targets would spell economic ruin.3 These claims have been politically powerful, in part because they convey simple messages (unfair, ineffective, unaffordable) and appeal to our innate desire to choose the path of least resistance (do nothing). Sadly, therefore, instead of doing what we can to combat climate change, we have been locked into endless debates about what can't be done.

Breaking out of this vicious circle has been difficult precisely because it is impossible to offer up simple solutions to our climate predicament. The problem is dizzying in its complexity, daunting in its implications, and multifaceted in a way that eludes easy categorization.

Beginning with the environmental dimension, global warming is a problem of unprecedented scale. It is planetary in scope and inter-generational in its implications. More importantly, solving the problem is about nothing less than changing the way we do everything that we do, everywhere in the world. Climate change, then, is also a quintessential collective action problem. It can only be solved if all states, or at least the major greenhouse gas emitters, cooperate. For that very reason it might seem pointless to make costly adjustments without assurance that others do the same. We need only think about our personal carbon politics (honestly, how many of us are actively reducing our carbon footprints?) to imagine how the dynamic plays out internationally.

These difficulties are compounded by the fact that far-reaching decisions must be made under conditions of scientific uncertainty. While both the phenomenon of climate change and its dangerous potential are now beyond doubt, that was not always the case. On other issues, such as the speed and severity of climatic change, some debate continues. Not surprisingly, therefore, global warming is also an intractable political problem. How does one get states and political leaders to prioritize the issue, nationally and internationally?

In addition, climate change raises difficult questions of equity, some say of global environmental justice. Historically, emissions of greenhouse gases have been far greater in the industrialized world. The emissions of industrialized countries still significantly exceed those of developing countries, although the emissions of some large developing countries are projected to rise sharply over the next two decades. The impacts of climate change are likely to disproportionately affect developing countries, many of which are especially vulnerable to such impacts. Industrialized countries have vastly larger economic and technological capacity not only to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but also to adapt to its consequences.4 These issues must be addressed if an international climate regime is to succeed. But the gulf between radically different perceptions of the problem is not easily bridged. Many developing countries see climate politics as part of a larger pattern of historical and economic injustices and so demand that industrialized countries bear the primary burden of combating climate change. In turn, many industrialized countries insist on developing country participation as a matter of pragmatic problem solving, or even "fairness."5

Climate change can also be framed as a security issue. In 2004, the U.K. Chief Scientific Advisor, David King, famously referred to climate change as "the most severe problem that we are facing today - more serious even than the threat of terrorism."6 In the long term, climate change may threaten nothing less than survival of the human species. But dangers loom also in the shorter term. For some countries, like small island states, climate change poses an existential threat. For others, its physical effects might endanger human settlements, supplies of food, water or energy, or economic stability. All of these impacts can exacerbate humanitarian crises, state failures, or border disputes, producing more conventional threats to national and international security.

Lastly, there is the legal dimension. All states' actions impact on the global climate and all states are affected by the consequences. But the Earth's climate is also beyond the jurisdiction of individual states. States must therefore agree to develop an international climate regime and consent to being bound by its requirements. Building and sustaining an international legal regime is hard work in the best of circumstances. And, yet, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992, and supplemented by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

It is probably fair to say that the Climate Convention owes its existence in part to the green internationalism (reinforced by post-Cold War optimism) that peaked at the 1992 Earth Summit. Still, it is remarkable that 191 of 192 UN member states have become parties to the Climate Convention, while 173 have joined the Kyoto Protocol. Even more remarkable is that the regime actually speaks to all the climate change complexities that I just sketched.

The convention acknowledges climate change as a global environmental and sustainable development problem with intergenerational implications, requiring the widest possible cooperation by all countries. Indeed, it acknowledges that climate change and its adverse effects constitute a "common concern of humankind." To deal with scientific uncertainty, the regime endorses precautionary action and provides an array of information gathering and exchange mechanisms. On the security side, the convention's objective is to prevent "dangerous interference with the climate system," with particular attention being paid to the concerns of countries vulnerable to sea level rise, flooding or desertification.

To secure global political support and the State consent required to bring it into force, the legal regime was built incrementally. The 1992 framework convention was not intended to impose immediate emission-reduction obligations on states. Rather, the goal of the convention was to engage states in dialogue about climate change, to set out the principles that should frame the international regime, to promote shared understandings regarding climate change, and to establish forums and processes for decision-making and regime-development. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol is the product of these efforts, as are the current discussions about further emission reduction commitments.

The most important aspect of the climate regime, however, is the fact that it attempted to tackle the global equity dimension. Seen against the backdrop of today's war of words, the language of the convention is striking. It states plainly that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases stems from industrialized countries, and that per capita emissions in developing countries remain relatively low. It recognizes that eradication of poverty and economic growth are legitimate priorities for developing countries. It acknowledges that states have common but differentiated responsibilities to address climate change. Finally, it asks developed countries to take the lead in combating climate change and to take immediate action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The fact that the Kyoto Protocol imposes emission reduction commitments only on industrialized (and industrializing) countries was a deliberate choice, and consistent with the principles established by the 1992 convention. Therefore, it is not "unfair" that developing countries were exempted from the first round of Kyoto commitments, but rather a response to valid concerns. Simultaneously, the Kyoto Protocol was a pragmatic deal, struck to prepare the ground for subsequent developing country commitments. Clearly, in light of emissions trends in some developing countries, the climate change regime will not be effective in the long run without their participation. But that participation is less likely to be gained as long as rich countries, like the United States, refuse to take on emission reduction commitments, or, like Canada, seek to evade their obligations citing economic hardship.

What of the argument that the Kyoto Protocol is but a drop in the climate bucket and so not worth the economic sacrifice involved? While the first part of the claim is true, the complaint still misses the point of the Protocol. Its drafters never expected that it would be the definitive answer to climate change, neither in environmental nor in regulatory terms. It was always clear that the Kyoto commitments were only a first step in the right direction. Similarly, the drafters did not imagine that they could build Rome (or Kyoto) in one day. The global climate regime is a work in progress. It charts entirely new ground, for example by providing for international trading of emission entitlements and reduction credits, and by establishing a mechanism to "facilitate, promote and enforce" compliance with the Protocol.7 It is difficult to see how such a regime could be built and refined through anything other than learning by doing. For that reason alone, the Kyoto Protocol is indispensable.

In short, the foundations for an effective global climate change regime are in place. It is framed by the right principles, provides the decision-making bodies and procedures required for regime development, has laid the groundwork for a blend of emission reductions and emissions trading, and has sketched the contours of a carrots and sticks approach to compliance. But is there any reason to believe that current treaty parties will agree to more demanding commitments and new states will join the regime?

Here, we return to the beginning of the story. As it turns out, we may be approaching a tipping point, not just in climatic terms, but also in the debate about climate change. The bad news about the climate can now be put in chillingly simple terms. Al Gore's efforts to articulate the Inconvenient Truth in terms that resonate with the proverbial person on the street have been instrumental in shifting public discourse.8 But even without his contribution it would be hard to ignore the growing chorus of voices calling for urgent action.

Hundreds of government-nominated scientists from around the world, collaborating through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, confirm that human-induced climate change is occurring, and that it will have dangerous environmental effects if unabated.9 The British Government released a major report by economist Nicholas Stern, concluding that climate change will have severe economic consequences, whereas stabilizing carbon emissions at manageable levels over the next 20 years would cost 1% of global GDP.10 Finally, in April of this year, the United Kingdom took the unprecedented step of bringing climate change before the UN Security Council. The British Foreign Secretary stressed that global warming was not merely a matter of national security for individual states, but a question of "collective security in a fragile and increasingly interdependent world."11 Many of the more than 50 states participating in the debate welcomed the effort to reframe the issue so as to highlight its importance and urgency. Others questioned that the Security Council, with its limited membership, was an appropriate forum. In particular, many developing countries saw the move as following a familiar pattern, threatening their full participation in policy making and raising the specter of decisions being imposed on them.

These developments underline the importance of the existing climate change regime. And the debates in the Security Council illustrate why there is no way around the inclusive albeit lumbering processes that the regime provides. They also underline the importance of its basic approach, placing greater onus for action on industrialized countries. As noted above, this is one reason why American participation would be so important, quite apart from the fact that the US is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But it would also be consistent with the regime's "common but differentiated responsibilities" approach to include the highest emitting developing countries (China, India and Brazil, South Africa) among the parties with reduction commitments. Attracting these countries is not impossible, although it will require concessions and incentives. South Africa and Brazil are already indicating their support for developing country ommitments.12 Importantly, the near-term goal is not to get emission reduction commitments from all states, but from a relatively small number of major emitters. Twenty states currently account for 80% of global emissions; only about half have Kyoto commitments right now.13

As to future commitments, a loose consensus seems to be emerging, pegging required emission reductions at 20% by 2020, and 50% by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). These benchmarks are advocated by the European Union,14 echoed by Japan.15 They also find rough equivalents in various legislative proposals currently before Congress in the United States,16 where industry groups too have joined the call for a mandatory climate change program.17 Although the current American government continues to resist speedy development of the global climate change regime, the many sub-national initiatives suggest that the United States will eventually re-engage internationally.

The global climate change debate has shifted. It took some pretty bad news to get to this point. The good news is that, unlike the frogs in the oft cited experiment, we now know that we will be in hot water if we wait much longer. That means it is no longer good enough to say that the international climate change regime is flawed, too weak or unaffordable. We must now do what we can to deal with climate change, in all its complexity.


1 White House press release, 13/03/ 2001, at

2 D. Malakoff, "Thirty Kyotos Needed to Control Warming," (1997) 278 Science 2048.

3 Government of Canada, "The Cost of Bill C-288 to Canadian Families and Business," April 19, 2007, at

4 On these issues, see e.g. K. Baumert and J. Pershing, Climate Data: Insights and Observations (2004), at

5 See e.g. J. Timmons Roberts and B.C. Parks, A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy (2007). 

6 D.A. King, "Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate or Ignore?" (2004) 303 Science 176. 

7 Emphasis added. 

8 See

9 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report, Vol. 1 (The Physical Science Basis), February 2007; Vol. II (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), April 2007; and Vol. III (Mitigation of Climate Change), May 2007. All at

10 UK Treasury, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, Summary of Conclusions (30 Oct 2006), at

11 UN Security Council, Press Release SC/9000, 17 April 2007, at

12 UN News Centre, "UN treaty official sees 'very encouraging signals' on climate change," 24 May 2007, at NewsID=22672&Cr=climate&Cr1=change. 

13 P. Christoff, "Post-Kyoto? Towards an effective 'climate coalition of the willing,' (2006) 82 International Affairs 831. 

14 European Commission, "Limiting Global Climate Change to 2 Degrees Celsius: The Way Ahead for 2020 and Beyond," 10/01/07, at

15 J. McCurry, "Japan calls for 50% reduction in emissions by 2050," Guardian, May 24, 2007, at,,2087314,00.html

16 J. Larsen, "Global Warming Legislation in the 110th Congress," February 1, 2007,

17 US Climate Action Partnership, A Call for Action, January 2007, at