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Improving the Effectiveness of the Climate Convention

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Session Description: 

This workshop consisted of deliberations of an expert group that considered ways to improve the long term effectiveness of the global warming regime. Issues covered range from the transfer of financial resources to the management of non-compliance, negotiation of additional commitments, the participation of developing countries, and ways to improve systems that provide scientific advice. It develops several dozen specific recommendations for policy and research.

The essence of the global warming problem is that emitters of greenhouse gases are forcing the complex natural climate system. The global, regional and local consequences of this forcing are unpredictable. Research can and has made a major contribution to under standing some of the possible and likely outcomes.

Policy on global warming is fundamentally driven by concern about the impacts of changing climates; thus the focus here is on the results of impacts research, leaving aside the costs and benefits of mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming, which have been reviewed extensively by many others. The impacts fall into three categories: gradual and roughly predictable impacts on marketable goods and services, gradually and roughly predictable impacts on non-market goods and services, and potential catastrophes. The categories reflect how interdisciplinary research is done to measure the impacts.

Two observations are striking. First, current research is focused almost exclusively on the impacts on marketable goods and services. The results of such research suggest that relatively little money will or should be spent to slow global warming. Industrialized countries are relatively invulnerable to market impacts from global warming, yet they are the countries that (currently) have the highest emissions and are being urged to take the lead by implementing perhaps costly measures to control emissions. In contrast, the impacts on developing countries are probably much higher, but those countries have other more pressing demands than to spend scarce resources on abating emissions of greenhouse gases. In other words, the countries being urged to control their emissions don't have much rational incentive to do so. The countries most at risk have higher priorities than global warming.

The second observation is that there are sharp differences between what is known about climate impacts, what information is needed, and the forces driving policy. Quantified and monetized results of impacts research are systematically refined in the areas where the impacts of global warming are likely to be lowest: the gradual market impacts on the industrialized countries. This reflects the fact that doing research in all the other cells is extremely difficult. It is also the product of a research monoculture that is equipped only to answer that narrow set of market-oriented questions.

The impacts on developing countries are crucial. Because resources are scarce in these countries, the decision to spend money on slowing and adapting to global warming requires much better information on the potential consequences. Presumably, the increasing awareness of the intrinsic value of nature will give growing weight to the non-market consequences of global warming in all countries. Yet there is little systematic knowledge about these potential consequences, just some illustrative examples such as the loss of biological diversity in marginal areas. Finally, the politics of global warming have and will be driven by the fear that a nasty surprise is lurking in the climate system. But researchers lack systematic knowledge about possible catastrophes and their consequences. At least one simple inventory now exists (see Elements of Change 1994, Part 2, Anticipating Global Change Surprises , Aspen Global Change Institute), but research has not attached probabilities and consequences to the possible events.

Two dozen experts met over two weeks in August 1995 to discuss ways to improve the effectiveness of the international agreements and institutions designed to manage the causes and consequences of global warming. The group included scholars and practitioners from industrialized and developing countries and trained in international law, political science, physics and economics. Following the long term, cumulative nature of the global warming issue, the group took a long term perspective on the climate regime. They sought to identify what can be done now with policy and research to manage climate change effectively over the next several decades.

The AGCI discussions encompassed eight major themes:

1. Incentives to act on global warming, and how research has systematically avoided what may be the most important effects of global warming
2. Some special problems associated with research on potential climatic catastrophes, which are poorly understood yet the main concern driving the politics of slowing global warming
3. Some functions that the global warming regime might perform but is not currently on track to fulfill adequately including financial transfers, technology planning and transfers, insurance schemes, and management of geo-engineering
4. Relevant lessons learned about other international environmental regimes, primarily those on controlling depletion of the ozone layer and limiting acid rain in Europe
5. Future climate commitments and the management of implementation and compliance
6. The factors that affect participation of developing countries in the climate regime
7. Ways to improve participation and influence of non-state actors in the making and implementation of policy
8. The roles of expert advice and assessment

Five major issues were highlighted, and conclusions drawn from this workshop:

First, the existing state of knowledge is systematically incomplete in the area of non-market impacts, impacts of all types in developing countries, and potential catastrophes. Policymakers should be aware of these limitations, which probably understate the overall potential consequences of global warming. Further, in many countries political attention to global warming is driven by fear of potential catastrophes and surprises lurking in the climate system. Useful information is needed on the real probabilities and possible consequences of major potential catastrophes. We suggest a method and six case studies that can provide a first crucial analysis.

Second, the international system for negotiating and implementing commitments should be seen as an ongoing process of bargaining. If that process is to be well-informed, and if agreements reached are to be connected to what is actually implemented, the process must be served by mechanisms for exchanging and reviewing information about implementation and handling problems of non -compliance. Most multilateral environmental agreements do not benefit from such mechanisms and are thus less effective than they could be. In the spirit of improving the effectiveness of the Climate Convention, it is essential that policymakers give continued attention to building the system of national "communications" and regular reviews that now exist in nascent form in the Convention.

Third, participation of developing countries is essential to the long term effectiveness of the regime if global emissions are controlled stringently. But the interests of developing countries are different from those of the developed nations that have put the global warming issue on the agenda. Principals are identified to guide efforts to include developing countries in the regime. Because the policy priorities are different, although the developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change the developed world will still need to increase climate-related resource transfers by several orders of magnitude if they want to control global emissions stringently over the long term. Further, it is likely that there will be a need for a practical system that makes a finer distinction among developing countries as efforts are made to tar get control measures and distribute the currently small resources to the countries where they are most needed and effective.

Fourth, there is a massive increase under way in the participation and influence of non-state actors in making and implementing climate -related policies. Devices are explored to expand non-state influence further, but there are many problems that are already evident in the democratic societies that have opened themselves to non-state influence in the making of domestic environmental policy. Researchers need to conduct more comparative case studies of different styles of participation and influence in order to develop some governing principles. In the interim, policy makers should experiment with some different systems that allow more extensive participation and influence by non-state actors. Some of the problems can be managed - for example, the fear that NGOs are not accountable because they don't have responsibilities could be addressed by requiring NGOs to compile reports and submit them in parallel with the government reports, perhaps when the next round of reports under the Climate Convention are due in 1997.

Fifth, virtually every aspect of climate science is marked by uncertainty and the need for scientists to make subjective assessments of probability and consequences. Improvement in the communication of such assessments is badly needed - without it, policymakers have little feel for the range of possible outcomes and how they compare with other risks that society spends scarce resources to manage.

In addition to the five major issues outlined above, the AGCI group proposed some detailed changes to policy and research on the basis of its evaluation of the long term needs of the climate regime and analysis of the factors that have made other areas of international cooperation effective. These include, for example, actions needed to identify technologies for verification of future climate commitments, ways to improve existing systems for transferring resources, and strategies for keeping the geo-engineering option viable in case it is needed in a crisis.

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Climate Variability and Change (including Climate Modeling)
  • Human Contributions & Responses