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International Relations Impeding Equity and Global Climate Justice

Sreeja Jaiswal ( is at the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. T Jayaraman ( is at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

By drawing heavily from neoclassical economics, game theory, and rational choice theory, mainstream international relations ends up adopting a managerial approach to the issue of climate change, wherein international politics becomes structurally similar to a market economy in which states are rational, self-interested actors. Consequently, cost–benefit calculations rule out the normative moral arguments for an equitable sharing of future carbon space that do not converge with the material interests of states.

The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for their comments and suggestions, from which the paper has greatly benefited. A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the conference titled “Piecing Together a Paradigm,” at the Central European University, Budapest, organised by the Institute of New Economic Thinking in October 2016. The authors would like to thank the participants at the conference for their feedback.

At a recent major international conference on global cli mate change governance, Robert Keohane, an eminent political scientist from the United States (US), called for future research to focus on describing and explaining  political action on climate change rather than articulating a normative philosophical view of an ethical climate policy or criticising national or international policies on normative gro unds (Keohane 2016a). In a further clarification to this keynote address, he insisted that he was not dismissing the issue of equity from the agenda per se, but was instead encouraging scholars to focus on its trade-offs with effectiveness (Keohane 2016b). His rationale was that in the real world, falling short of justice or equity may be a consequence of the trade-offs  imposed by the difficult circumstances in world politics  (Keohane 2016b).

Several scientists and international relations (IR) scholars working on climate policy have expressed reservations about the adequacy of the voluntary commitments made under the Paris Agreement—in the 21st session of the Conference of the  Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—with regard to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius (McKie 2016; Victor 2016). This inadequacy, coupled with a diversion of focus away from justice and equity issues in climate change scholarship, is worrisome, especially because of the uneven and unequal  nature of the impact of climate change. Taking Keohane’s  remarks as a starting point, we argue that circumventing the normative dimension of climate change politics in favour of a more positive analysis is not a recent phenomenon in mainstream IR, which is dominated by neorealism and neo-liberal institutionalism. Instead, it has a long history and has been continually informing practice. Academics and negotiators (especially from the US) as well as think tanks and national governments have argued in the past, and continue to argue that, though equity considerations are important, they take  attention away from the more immediate problems of climate change governance.

In this paper, through a critical review of literature, we  argue that for a number of methodological, theoretical, and substantive reasons, mainstream IR has consistently paid  insufficient attention to the normative dimension of climate change politics since its early days.1 As it relies heavily on  insights from mainstream (neoclassical) economics, the metho dology of game theory, and rational choice theory, IR sees states as self-interested and rational actors in an anarchic  international system very much like the firms in a domestic eco nomy. It uses the findings of game theory, the economic theory of institutions, and the bargaining theory to find ways of managing the complex and interdependent issues involved in  climate change governance.

We argue that the import of mainstream economics into IR has resulted in the adoption of a more managerial approach that tries to look for solutions to the problem of climate change within the current global order (particularly in economic terms). Consequently, such theories and theorists  exhibit a system-maintenance bias as they take the basic structure of world politics as a given and explain outcomes or make policy prescriptions within that framework. A substantive impediment to normative solutions is the framing of the climate change mitigation and adaptation as a trade-off between a hard-to-achieve, but just and equitable agreement versus an agreement that is politically feasible and effective. We argue that mainstream IR theorists have succeeded in disguising  political feasibility and effectiveness as a neutral or scientific value, and in promoting it as the most logical and rational  alternative, obscuring the fact that it is one among many normative values and should compete with others such as fairness, distribution, equity, justice, rights, and obligations.

In the following section, we provide a brief overview of the trajectory of mainstream IR scholarship on climate change politics.2 Since this literature is substantial, our attempt is to provide only a snapshot of the same. This is followed by a discussion on the normative dimension of climate change politics, which will also serve the purpose of clarifying key terms, such as equity, rights, obligations, and justice, which we use in reference to the politics of climate change throughout the  paper. The next section discusses the methodological, theoretical, and substantive concerns of mainstream IR scholarship that have suppressed normative considerations in climate change. We conclude by emphasising the importance of normative theorising in climate change politics.

The developments in mainstream climate change scholarship have closely mirrored advances in the discipline of IR and have sometimes even contributed to them. The scope of what is studied in IR has broadened dramatically over the years  (Reus-Smit 2012). From external relations between sovereign states being its sole concern, the discipline has evolved to  encompass an understanding of domestic (internal) and international as mutually constituted. With globalisation and the growing importance of non-state actors, IR has further concerned itself with the complex webs of transnational relations (Reus-Smit 2012). With these developments, the discipline has come to be variously characterised as global politics, global governance, and global affairs, each with its specific nuances. The following sections provide an overview of the developments in climate change scholarship paralleling these developments in IR.3

Neorealism and Neo-liberal Institutionalism

In the early days, IR scholarship on climate change was dominated by traditional realist and/or liberal institutionalist  regime theories, which tried to understand the issues of international regime formation and maintenance, and, in some  instances, reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of using the regime approach in climate change. Neorealist  regime theorists operate on the premise that in an anarchic world in which there is no world government holding power over states, the states concern themselves with relative gains. For the neorealist regime theorists primarily concerned with  hegemonic stability, international cooperation to address  climate change will only arise when it supports the political interests of the great powers or dominant states that have both the power and resources to provide the leadership necessary to foster international cooperation. Therefore, according to neorealists, the US was able to extract relative gains in the early days of the climate change negotiations—such as the inclusion of flexibility mechanisms—despite resistance from developing countries because, militarily and economically, it was the most powerful nation in the world and also because its position as the world’s largest emitter made its participation in the Kyoto Protocol crucial (Rowlands 2001; Paterson 2005; Vezirgiannidou 2008). Later, in 1997, when the US Senate blocked the Clinton administration from signing the Kyoto Protocol due to concerns that the disparity of treatment between developed and developing countries would result in serious harm to the US economy, this was seen as proving correct the neorealist assumption that states pursue relative gains with respect to other states when it comes to international cooperation (Vezirgiannidou 2008).

More recently, President Donald Trump’s employment of the rhetoric of “putting America First” in his announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement harkens back to the era of George W Bush (sr) and is emblematic of the continued US legacy of classic neorealist responses to the problem of climate change. At the Earth Summit in 1992, Bush had declared, “the American way of life is not up for negotiation” (Vidal 2012). Later, George W Bush (jr) also chose not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because of his professed concern for American workers. He said, “I will not accept a plan that will harm our economy and hurt American workers. Because first things first are the people who live in America. That’s my priority” (Gerstenzang 2001). In 2017, Trump used the rhetoric that as President, his obligation was to the American people and the Paris  Agreement would undermine the American economy and leave it “at a permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world” (White House 2017).

The material conditions of the world have changed since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, with China becoming economically and militarily more powerful and overtaking the US as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). This change in the global distribution of power has led the neorealists to emphasise the importance of relative gains to China and the US, which together represent the great powers that currently dominate international climate politics (Terhalle and Depledge 2013; Brenton 2013). According to neorealists now, international cooperation would only arise insofar as it enhances the relative power (in economic terms) and the political interests of China and the US. Scholarly work coming from a neorealist perspective therefore focuses on coming up with proposals that would mirror the most acceptable relative gains distribution for these two states. This is evidenced most recently by the work of Grasso and Roberts, who propose a compromise for sharing the remaining carbon budget, based on the classic neorealist premise that states “are the primary unitary actors in international regimes” and that they “pursue coordinated efforts for reduc ing emissions mainly based on interests aimed at material objec tives” (2014: 543). Their suggested compromise, therefore tries to balance the relative gains concerns of the two largest emitters and economic and political powers: China and the US.

Presently, the interest-based neo-liberal institutional framework dominates the bulk of academic work on climate change. Using game theory, particularly the iterative prisoner’s dilemma and rational choice theory, neo-liberal institutionalism challenges neorealism’s pessimism about the prospects of cooperation in climate change. In contrast to neorealists, who assume that states act in order to maximise their relative gains, neo-liberal institutionalists are of the view that states act to maximise their absolute gains. For them, states do not worry about the gains of other states except insofar as these gains interact (or interfere) with their own (Keohane 2005). Consequently, for neo-liberal institutionalists, the gains that “states are assumed to be maximising are not necessarily to do with power, but are more reliant on an economic measure of welfare” (Paterson 2005: 68). Thus, in this view, international cooperation can be fostered when regimes are set up to create enough incentive for the states to participate, to overcome the incentive to cheat or free-ride, while simultaneously protecting the principle of state sovereignty. The central preoccupation for regime theorists then is to create cooperative mechanisms which can  increase transparency, reduce the transaction costs of cooperation, monitor compliance, and thereby encourage states to move away from pursuing relative gains and towards pursuing absolute gains (Young 1993; Victor and Salt 1994; Ward 1996; Victor 2004).

A Two-level Game

In another development, several IR theorists, dissatisfied with the classical regime theories, argued that by treating states as unitary and as the most important actors in the international arena, these theories ignore the significance of the diverse  interests and motivations that drive the domestic politics of climate change. Subsequently, developments in non-cooperative game theory, specifically two-level game theory, were harnessed to provide a more sophisticated analysis of the conditions under which governments or electorates take decisions regarding participation in an international climate change agreement.

According to two-level game theory, the interrelationship between the international context and domestic pressures will affect how governments approach climate policy. At the upper level, the nation states interact strategically, each seeking to benefit from the global climate change regime while reducing their costs. At the lower level, climate policies are formulated and implemented within each country by national governments. National governments in democratic states ultimately rely on majorities in the legislatures or on public referendums in order to ratify international agreements (Sprinz and Weiß 2001). Sometimes, most visibly in the case of the US, even the ratification of international environmental agreements cannot guarantee that these will be successfully implemented, since industries, courts, and interest groups often find sufficient flexibility to delay and, in some cases, circumvent the implementation of international obligations at the domestic level (Sprinz and Weiß 2001). Therefore, government positions at international negotiations are likely to be influenced by  domestic pressure groups not only during implementation, but also in anticipation of the challenges that will be posed
by  ratification.

Given these developments in game theory, there was a proliferation of qualitative and formal models which would supposedly provide a more nuanced analysis of the link between the domestic and international levels in decision-making on international climate regulation (Rowlands 1995; Sprinz and Weiß 2001; Lisowski 2002; Sprinz and Vaahtoranta 2002). More recently, Keohane and Oppenheimer (2016) have argued that whether international negotiations will lead to substantial emissions cuts post Paris will depend not so much on the text of the Paris Agreement, but will follow from a two-level game simultaneously involving domestic and international  actors within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. According to them, while domestic politics will be crucial in determining the  attitudes of both sets of countries towards paying such costs, the actual impact of the Paris Agreement will depend on whether it can be used by domestic groups favouring climate action as a point of leverage in domestic politics. They further reason that since domestic politics in the present era is closely linked to transnational interactions, transnational movements and orga nisations can play an important role in mobilising support within countries for costly climate
change action.

Fragmentation of Climate Change Governance

Towards the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, scholarly work on a post-2012 global climate policy architecture to replace the Kyoto Protocol gained momentum. An example of this endeavour is the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements, located at the eponymous university, which commissioned leading scholars from around the world to examine the key design elements required for such a framework. It was very influential—especially in the US academic and policy circles—in setting the terms of the debate regarding the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. The project identified three criteria to serve as overarching principles for guiding the research on the key design elements of an international climate architecture. These principles mandated that the architecture should be scientifically sound (consistent with achieving the objective of stabilising GHGs at levels that avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with global climate), economically rational (cost-effective), and politically pragmatic (capable of bringing the US on board and engaging rapidly growing developing countries) (Aldy and Stavins 2007, 2008, 2010).

More recently, political science scholars have turned their attention to understanding and finding solutions to the fragmented nature of climate change governance using various analytical terms such as “regime complex for climate change,” “institutional complex,” and “transnational regime complex” to name a few (Keohane and Victor 2011; Biermann et al 2009; Abbott 2012, 2014). This stream of work generally comes to the conclusion that fragmentation is a ubiquitous phenomenon in IR today, including in the arena of climate change. Therefore, this school of thought argues that instead of debating whether a bottom-up approach or a universal top-down approach is better, the need of the hour is to advance a research pro gra mme for theoretical and empirical understanding of the  phenomenon by asking specific questions about the causes, consequences, and responses to such fragmentation (Van  Asselt and Zelli 2014). While some scholars working on this  research agenda acknowledge that a universal governance  architecture would be the best option, they remain pessimistic about its emergence (Keohane and Victor 2011).Others among this group consider equity considerations important, but are nonetheless convinced that such questions obscure the fact that global climate governance is already fragmented and the need of the hour is to forge coordination among them (Zelli 2011).

Normative Dimension of Climate Change Politics

Global warming of anthropogenic origin is, perhaps, one of the most startling illustrations that the relation of the universal to the particular—which is undoubtedly one of the grand themes in philosophy and the social sciences—is a question of profound moral import to human society and the manner in which it conducts itself. If one sets aside the contemporary predilection for purely instrumental reasoning in the global  climate change discourse to take a more self-reflexive view, then surely one of the fundamental questions that the nature of this discourse raises is the inability to reconcile universal concern for human society as a whole with the particular concerns of individual nation states. Treating humanity as a single moral community that has moral priority over national and sub- national communities would call for immediate and decisive action by all to ward off the threat to the environmental security of humanity as a whole (Shapcott 2014; Dyer 2005). On the other hand, are the particular concerns of individual  nation states that prioritise the interests of their economy and the (relative) well-being of their citizens over a concern that is based on abstract notions of universalism. This debate on climate change thus gives rise to complex normative questions involving existing concepts of justice, rights, and obligations when it comes to the long-term goal of the preservation of the global atmosphere.

The normative questions arise from several features of the issue of global warming. The atmosphere being a global commons would entail that the space for emissions or carbon space be treated as a scarce re source that needs to be equitably shared among all nations. The developed countries have  already occupied more than their fair share of the global carbon space—approximately 75%—despite comprising only 19% of the world population (Kanitkar et al 2009). At the centre of the issue of equity is the issue of equitable distribution of the available cumulative emissions among different countries (Jayaraman and Kanitkar 2016).4 Therefore, any principled burden-sharing formula, whether understood in terms of pragmatic problem-solving or climate justice, will be an essential feature of climate negotiations.

Moreover, while recognising the need for universal concern for the planet, one has to also be sensitive to the particular challenges facing different countries. For all countries, these challenges include the impact on their economy, differing  levels of vulnerability of their populations, preserving or  enhancing their levels of economic development, and the availability of financial resources and technology to mitigate and adapt to climate change. For developing countries, the economic and social development that is necessary in order to meet the basic needs and aspirations of a vast and growing population is expected to lead to increased GHG emissions in the future. The daunting task before these nations is to outline a strategy for sustainable development which reduces emissions while simultaneously pursuing economic growth and protecting the vulnerable sections of society from the impacts of climate change. This path to development is fraught with uncertainty as it would require nations to figure out how a low-carbon path to development can be achieved in practice—a challenge that calls for a pioneering effort on the part of  developing countries.

As far as the impact caused by global climate change is concerned, it is inequitable and unjust not only because some are harmed and some are not, but more importantly because the pattern of harm reveals a politics of privilege and power bet ween the developed and developing countries as well as bet ween the affluent and poor within all countries, as the former in both cases have the capacity to face challenges emerging from climate change and the latter lack such a capacity (Elliott 2006). The unfair and inequitable nature of the impact of glo bal warming gives rise to both positive and negative duties on the part of the international community (Shapcott 2008). The countries which have contributed most to the GHG emissions and those that will do so in the future have a negative duty to reduce their emissions. Shapcott (2008) argues that it is a commonly agreed upon notion that one should take responsi bility for harming someone, especially if they have benefited from it.

In the case of climate change, this means the OECD nations must shoulder a proportionate responsibility that would entail not only reducing emissions, but also taking financial responsibility for the harm that their past and future emissions will cause others. This is because, as Elliot (2006: 362) points out, “environmental harm comprises not only the harm caused to people through environmental degradation, but also the harm caused to people by environmental injustice.” Therefore, the “duty to avoid environmental harm demands that one avoids or take reasonable precautions to avoid causing environmental injustice as well” (Elliot 2006). This would mean “amongst other things, helping those who have been harmed through environmental degradation not of their own making (that is, those who are the victims of environmental injustice)” (Elliot 2006). Moreover, industrialised countries, regardless of their greater contribution towards causing the problem of climate change, have a positive duty to aid those with the least capacity to adjust to the cost of global warming, those who will be  affected disproportionately, and also those who have done the least to contribute to global warming. This positive duty arises because of the significantly greater economic resources and scientific, and technical expertise which industrialised countries possess.

Impediments to Normative Theorising

One may argue that all the signatories to the UNFCCC—and now the Paris Agreement—are indeed committed to some normative positions on climate change—even if it is not fully  articulated as such—through the very act of signing and ratifying such an international treaty. The text of the UNFCCC is replete with normative stances on a number of issues and is hardly the product of a bare utilitarian calculus. The principles incorporated in the UNFCCC—of common but differen tiated responsibilities, of the developed countries taking a leadership role, and the need to take into account the specific needs and circumstances of developing countries—are testimony to the fact that the international community recognises the importance of the problem of climate change and ack nowledges the need to address issues of equity and fairness related to it.

Indeed, the agreement that is referred to as the Durban Platform—which came just two years after the dramatic events at the Copenhagen climate summit and called for a global compact for climate action within a definite time frame—points to the reality that nation states do feel an obligation that transcends mere national self-interest. Interestingly, it was the  major developing nations, especially India, that resisted a  decision at the Durban CoP of the UNFCCC, and eventually fell in line with other countries (including developed and developing nations) (Vidal and Harvey 2011). In the lead-up to the 21st CoP in Paris, countries in the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries—such as China and India—fought hard to retain references to equity and common but differentiated responsi bility in the agreement, reasoning that the differentiation bet ween Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 countries as envisaged in the UNFCCC is still relevant. On the other hand, the developed countries, particularly the US and the European Unions (EU), called for a dilution of the differentiation, with the former  insisting on “self- differentiation” and the latter on “dynamic differentiation.”5 However, significantly, at no point was this call for the dilution of differentiation couched in the language of withdrawal from any normative commitment whatsoever. Instead, it was based on the argument that the annex-based distinction between  developed and developing countries had been substantially weakened by the rise of countries like China and India to the economic centre stage and that any future climate change agreement should take into account not only past emissions but also account for the future emission growth paths of the emerging economies.

Scholarly work from mainstream IR perspectives, identified in previous sections, falsely obscures and suppresses the normative component of international climate change politics, which, as illustrated, the political and intellectual leadership of most countries have recognised. This has happened due to a combination of methodological, theoretical, and substantive reasons. More fundamentally, in the next section we explore how mainstream IR theories are unsuited to the task of meeting the normative challenge of dealing with global warming of anthropogenic origin, as their frameworks ignore the import of normative commitments.

Nelson (2012) argues that the importing of mainstream economic thinking into IR has a perverse effect on thought about the ethical responsibilities of nation states when it comes to global warming. According to the founder of neorealism, Kenneth Waltz, “international-political systems, are like economic markets that are formed by the coaction of self-regarding units” (1979: 91). International politics then becomes structurally similar to a market economy insofar as the self-help principle is allowed to operate in the latter. By analogy, Waltz (1979) argues that microeconomic thinking should explain how states will act in international affairs. Since states in the international system are like firms in a domestic economy and every state (like every firm) has the same fundamental interest, which is to survive, even if the state (firm) wants to do other things, it cannot do them unless it survives. Hence, states are mainly concerned with survival and security and due to the unmitigated nature of international anarchy as well as a history of international conflicts, the interactions between states are driven by the pursuit of relative gains with respect to other states (Waltz 1979). Therefore, for the neorealist, states being rational egoists, have no incentive to take unilateral action for mitigation if this might create costs or disadvantages relative to other states. It is clear then that when it comes to environmental problems, as Eckersley notes, the neorealist analysis routinely fails to consider the normative dimension to be  important enough to “dislodge the more basic, and base, state interests of survival/security and economic advancement” (2004: 22). Even in extreme scenarios when ecological problems appear to pose a direct threat to the fundamental security or economic interests of states, neorealists remain pessi mistic about the potential of international cooperation (Eckersley 2004).

Moreover, for neorealists, states are the only important  actors in this model. Waltz (1979) again uses an economic analogy to justify this: if all firms are equally sized, then all of them matter equally in perfect competition, but when the market is dominated by a few large firms (oligopoly) the focus should be on them. According to this analogy, we should focus on the more powerful states.

Neoclassical Economics and Rational Choice Theory

However, the negative inter national reaction to President Trump’s announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as well as subsequent criticism from businesses, civil society, and city administrators within and outside the US points to the widespread recognition of the moral context not only by other nations but by other actors as well. It is also evident that what appears to some commentators as the fragmentation of the global climate change regime (that we have  referred to earlier), or the evolution of polycentric governance in the global climate regime, may be read more fruitfully as the manifestation of the moral imperative to deal with climate change that moves local governments to act even in the  absence of concerted action by  nation states (Ostrom 2012). One may add to these considerations the considerable effort mounted by a number of non-state actors, including international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media entities, and global civil society, to under take some form of climate  action (both in terms of mitigation and adaptation) as a means of forcing  nation states into action at the climate negotiations.

Neo-liberal institutionalism also considers IR as analogous to imperfect markets in which transaction costs for the states under anarchy are too high to pursue joint gains. Using a  supply–demand approach that borrows extensively from microeconomic theory and rational choice theory, Keohane, the founder of the neo-liberal institutionalist theory, conceives a market for regimes like an economic market. It is “on the basis of an analysis of relative prices and cost–benefit calculations, [that] actors decide which regime to buy” (Keohane 1982: 331). Consequently, actors buy into a regime because the benefit of membership is expected to outweigh the cost of joining it  (Keohane 1982). Keohane and Victor (2011) remain pessimistic about the emergence of a single comprehensive climate change regime, reasoning that cooperation among states is difficult in a scenario where benefits are uncertain and arise in the future but the costs are immediate. For them, such cost–benefit calculations rule out non-instrumental moral arguments for an equitable sharing of future carbon space that do not converge with the material interests of states. For a neo-liberal institutionalist, therefore, unless “proposals can pass through the filter of a utilitarian calculation from the narrowly conceived interests of states, they are unlikely to become the subject of multilateral agreements” (Eckersley 2004: 31). Thus, global warming is framed as a problem to be managed through incentives and sanctions following the carrot and stick app roach of rational choice theory, thereby disguising the political and ethical question of how to address global warming as an economic question (Jamieson 1992).

The theoretical and methodological insights of rational choice theory and game theory has had significant traction in the discipline of IR and the practice of international politics since its extensive application in strategising state action during the Cold War period, which was marked by a nuclear arms race. Their heavy application had led some scholars to observe that mainstream IR was not only endorsing the status quo of nuclear terror, but was also failing to see it as a moral problem rather than merely as a technical issue (Shapcott 2001). This led them to question whether IR as an academic discipline was in fact contributing to the problems facing the international realm (Shapcott 2001). The primacy of national interests in much of mainstream IR theory obstructs, or entirely ignores, the normative dimension of climate change politics, both in theory and practice. A relevant example is the excusing of the US’s stonewalling of international climate policy as a case of commonly expected behaviour of rational self-interested states in an anarchic world system (Posner and Sunstein 2008, 2009; Posner and Weisbach 2010, 2013). Posner and Weisbach (2010) make self-interest foundational even in their so-called justice approach to climate change. According to them it is essential to think about how to solve the climate problem in a way that even selfish states would agree to. They write:

Suppose, for example, that American citizens were persuaded that the US has a moral obligation to bear the bulk of the climate burden because the US is wealthier than most other states, and because the US is responsible for a large portion of the GHGs in the atmosphere ... Our conception … rules out such a possibility because we believe that states (and not just the US) define their self-interest in narrower terms, oriented mainly toward wealth and security. (Posner and Weisbach 2013: 357)

Posner and Weisbach (2013) further argue that their conception “is based on [their] reading of history.” Thus, [they] do not expect “Americans (or people in other countries) to define their national interest so capaciously because they never [did so] in the past” (Posner and Weisbach 2013). This is a limited reading of world history, which discounts historical precedents of formation of solidarity among states and other expressions of other-regarding behaviour. One of the exemplars of soli darity among nations is the radical cosmopolitanism of Nehru and other anti-colonial leaders during the Non-Aligned Movement (Chandhoke 2014). The normative commitment to the most vulnerable nations also most certainly remains a potent factor in the climate negotiations and both developed and developing nations have faced the pressure that groupings like the  Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and least developed countries can bring to bear in the negotiations. The  AOSIS’s success in the negotiations has been attributed to its member nations’ unique vulnerability to climate change, which gives them moral leverage, along with support from the best available scientific evidence and their sense of unity due to the common threat of climate change (Betzold et al 2012).

Nordhaus (2015), in his work on climate clubs, concedes that “while history is full of wooden-headed actions of countries and their leaders, as well as policies that are farsighted and attend to global welfare.” However, in his analysis he ass umes that “countries maximise their national economic welfare and ignore partisan, ideological, myopic, and other non-optimising behaviours” as attempting to incorporate them is beyond the scope of his study of climate regimes (Nordhaus 2015: 1341). This simplifying assumption, which takes an ahistorical view of the world, is the hallmark of the game theory approach,  particularly when it is applied to the study of  climate change and global politics. Amadae has argued, in her book Prisoners of Rationality, that it is standard in mainstream game theory for “theorists [to] acknowledge strategic rationa lity’s restri cted version of human conduct, [however] they still tend to tacitly endorse its simplifying assumptions, and add ress its limitations in an ad hoc or provisional manner” (2016: 227–28). The same is true for the game theoretic approach as applied to the study of climate regimes.

The two-level game, applied to the study of climate change, provides a more complex representation of international negotiations compared to classical IR theories, which do not take into account domestic constraints in explaining international bargaining outcomes. However, the main concern of the two-level game theorists is not that the neorealist and neo-liberal institutionalist assumption of states as interest-maximising actors has gone too far in determining states’ negotiating positions on climate change, but that it has not gone far enough in unpacking the enclosed state box to show how such interests are conditioned by internal factors. Hence, while two-level game theory illuminates the effect of norms, world views, inte rest groups, and civil society in the formation of interests, these interests are only aggregated to reflect on how states can maximise self-interest under this expanded set of constraints, given the underlying methodological assumption of indiviudalism. Therefore, in a two-level game, the interrelationship between the domestic and international-level constraints, the actions taken by the self-interested states, and the range of feasible outcomes have to be “win-sets” at both levels.

The assumption of mainstream IR of states as interest- maximising agents under constraints obscures the normative dimension of climate change politics, both in theory and practice. Serious consideration of an equitable and just climate agreement is bypassed on the presumption that it will not see the light of the day in an anarchic world system where states are assumed to act in self-interested and rational ways, even in light of the fact that the world is facing, perhaps, its most serious existential crisis.

Political Feasibility and Effectiveness

Added to the theoretical and methodological impediments to normative theorising, is the more substantive impediment evident in the framing of the problem of management of climate change as a trade-off between a hard-to-achieve but just and equitable agreement versus an agreement that is politically feasible and effective. In mainstream IR, a politically feasible treaty is thought of as one which is capable of getting the US and China to participate. This is also, at most times, de facto assumed to be an effective treaty (in limiting dangerous  anthropogenic climate change). Substantively, the argument goes that as we live in a world in which states want to maxi mise short-term economic interest, if there exists a trade-off between an agreement centred upon equity and justice (which will presumably call for protracted negotiations without an immediate prospect of resolution) and a politically feasible and effective agreement (which would presumably appeal to major recalcitrant countries like the US), choosing the latter alternative is the most rational and efficient outcome.

Further, in the face of the urgent universal problem of climate change, the particularities of equity and justice, and what it means in the context of individual countries is a luxury which we can no longer afford. This is used as a justification for limiting the choice of research questions to more pressing problems. This normative insistence on a more politically feasible treaty rather than an ethical one has over the years  become an established line of argument and it has only intensified in recent years. It is echoed in meetings of the CoP and is advocated largely by US think tanks, policy circles and academia, and government ministries, although such advocacy is not limited to them.

In a recent article, David Victor has reflected that in the first two decades of climate change diplomacy, very few lessons  offered by scholars had an impact on diplomacy, but the Paris Agreement may be changing this as it “much better reflects insights from scholars about how to build effective international institutions” (2016: 133). He further argued that “the shift from an integrated “top down” style of climate bargaining to a more flexible pledge and review system has its roots, in part, in academic thinking” (Victor 2016: 136). From this line of reasoning, it would not be an exaggeration to extrapolate that the well-funded Harvard Project on Climate Agreements—and its team of researchers, which includes Victor, Keohane, Posner, Weisbach and Sunstein among others—had a crucial role to play in this shift towards pragmatic political analysis based on feasibility and effectiveness as opposed to the normative approach based on equity and justice.

The major aim of the Harvard Project was to influence policy and to that extent, it issued a number of policy briefs and conducted roundtables and workshops across the world, bringing toge ther researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders (advocates and leaders of businesses and NGOs). As per its website, it has also conducted many policy outreach meetings and meetings with individual negotiating teams from over 50 countries at the COPs and at intermediate UNFCCC negotiating sessions. Many thinkers involved with the Harvard Project diagnosed that the Kyoto Protocol had failed because it lacked adequate incentives for compliance as well as participation. It was further argued that it was politically unfeasible and of question able fairness because of the absence of binding rules for large developing countries and major emitters such as China and India, which reduced the incentives for participation for developed countries, especially the US (Barrett 2008; Keohane and Raustiala 2008). Given the popularity of such a diagnosis, desi gning a more just international climate change archite cture is then bypassed in favour of the so-called more prag matic and rational approach.

The work of Grasso and Roberts referred to earlier exemplifies this stance by arguing that “several key observers have pointed out that it is in fact morally superior to look for a course of action that is likely to be politically feasible rather than a perfect one without a chance of enactment” (2014: 543). For them, only those agreements whose economic benefits override the cost for the US and China are politically feasible. Therefore, they lean towards coming up with a proper balance of incentives for the wealthy nations while making some concessions to China so that things get moving. Posner and Weisbach are also of the opinion that

focus on ethically  appealing but infeasible proposals is … one of the reasons for the failure of climate negotiations so far,” and according to them “the world would be better served, and a more ethical outcome achieved, if the focus was instead on feasible treaties that actually reduce emissions. (2013: 348)

Similarly, Keohane (2016b) argues that “equitable solutions may not be acceptable to the powerful countries, who might be willing to act on climate change, but not go the extent of beha ving fairly towards the weak.” Elsewhere, he acknowledges that in long term, “we may be able to harness emotions and to change fundamental beliefs toward a norm of not polluting nature” (Keohane 2015: 24). However, the overriding emphasis on pragmatism and effectiveness—circumventing equity and justice concerns—is evident in his framing that “climate change action needs to be taken soon” and “from this short-term standpoint, in view of the prevalence of self-interest as a motivation, and the short-term orientation of our society, we need to identify incentives and reframe the issue in productive ways” (Keohane 2015: 24). In the lead-up to the Paris Agreement and subsequently, mainstream IR would have us believe that we are in a post-equity era of a universal and voluntary climate change agreement, which should focus on the technical and managerial details of implementation rather than the futile exercise of thinking about it in ethical and  moral terms.6

In short, mainstream IR accuses normative theorising in climate change of being preoccupied with what we ought to do instead of caring about what is politically feasible or effective. Calls for politically feasible and effective agreements are often made by appealing to the need for urgent action to avoid the potentially calamitous impact of climate change and/or by stressing on the welfare of humanity as a whole. While doing so, mainstream IR overlooks the fact that its own normative starting point is political feasibility and effectiveness, which it disguises as neutral or even scientific values and as the most logical and rational alternative. By insisting on political feasibility and effectiveness as the primary value, mainstream IR obscures the fact that it is one among many normative values, and should compete with others, such as fairness, distribution, equity, justice, rights, and obligations.

System-maintenance Bias of Mainstream IR

By portraying pragmatism and feasibility as neutral values, mainstream IR takes away the focus from equitable, just, and effective solutions. It essentially ends up preserving the existing global structure of social and political relations and overlooking the possibilities of transformation. Indeed, it could be argued that such a bias, on occasion, prevents the envisioning of even modest shifts in the way international cooperation in relation to environmental questions or questions of sustainability could be forthcoming. Of course, strategic bargaining on benefits and burden-sharing does occur in climate change nego tiations and such considerations do appear, to a considerable extent, to dominate the negotiations. However, the impor ting of mainstream economic thinking into IR, makes them theoretically and methodologically unsuitable to meet the normative challenge of dealing with global warming of anthro pogenic origin as their very framework is thrown off the mark due to their refusal to accept the importance of normative commitments. By merely prescribing managerial and procedural solutions, mainstream IR thus operates in a problem-solving mode.7

As problem-solving theories, their goal is “to make the existing relationships and institutions work smoothly by dealing effectively with particular sources of trouble” (Cox 1981: 129–30). Consequently, such theories exhibit a system-maintenance bias. They take the current world order and the existing social and power relationships and institutions into which they are organised as the given framework for action and investigate only how to manipulate it in order to achieve a pregiven end (Shapcott 2008). They do not question the present order, and have a tendency to legitimise prevailing social and political structures (Cox 1981; Neufeld 1995). To give an example, the objective of neo-liberal institutionalism, as explained by its foremost exponent, is to “facilitate the smooth operation of decentralised international political systems” (Keohane 1984: 63). Thus, Shapcott observes that “while neo-liberal institutionalism has a purported interest in bringing about change, its presuppositions are such that it is limited to change within, but not of, the international system” (2008: 333).

In Conclusion

The problem-solving approach of mainstream IR may be practical and necessary when it comes to timely decision-making and action to avoid the potentially calamitous effects of climate change on human populations and natural environments. However, normative theorising and moral persuasion is of significance to climate change politics in order to take the debate away from the narrative of management of the problem within the existing international system towards a focus on issues of justice to difference, fairness, rights and obligations. This is imperative as the long-term fate of a global climate  regime hinges on a political architecture that is not only effective, but also pays sufficient attention to differences among nations in their levels of development, vulnerability, and  economic and technological resources and is therefore consi dered a just regime, especially by the developing and vul nerable  nations. The question remains: What constitutes the way  forward for such a political architecture in the face of the seemingly insurmountable impediments to equity and  climate change justice? The answer to this question, despite Keohane’s and mainstream IR’s insistence to the contrary, is worth exploring.


1 This is not to argue that mainstream IR scholarship lacks a commitment to improving human well-being or is unconcerned about the significant threat to human well-being due to climate change. Mainstream IR theorists do concern themselves with these questions. However, we argue that for a number of methodological, theoretical, and substantive reasons, mainstream IR theories are incapable of seriously engaging with the normative dimension of climate change politics.

2 We would also like to add a caveat that we are not arguing that proposals for addressing climate change based on equity and justice considerations and sound ethical reasoning have not been forthcoming. Instead, our attempt is to point out that mainstream IR scholarship has overwhelming traction in the international politics of climate change and has come to  inform the world views of various actors  involved in the debate.

3 We refer to international relations as a discipline in this paper in a broad sense that enco mpasses other related disciplines and sub- disciplines such as international affairs, global politics, global governance and international political economy.

4 For more conceptions of equity, see Kanitkar et al (2009), Winkler et al (2013), Ngwadla (2014), Klinsky et al (2017), Vanderheiden (2008) and Baer and Feildman (2009).

5 The US insisted on “self-differentiation” which allowed parties to define their own commitments and tailor them to suit their national circumstances, capacities, and constraints. The EU preferred to use the term “dynamic differentiation,” which allowed for a broad spectrum of differentiated commitments for all as oppo sed to the annex-based static differentiation of the Kyoto Protocol.

6 This characterisation of the climate change discourse as post-equity is from Sonja Klinsky et al (2017).

7 The description of mainstream approaches as problem-solving theories comes from a widely quoted article of Robert Cox titled “Social Forces, States, and World Orders,” in which he made the significant observation that “theory is  always for someone and for some purpose” (1981: 181).


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