Contention over values and knowledge

One may analyse political constraints to international environmental agreements as involving contention over values and knowledge. Differing values between states and differing conceptions of knowledge has led to difficulty in creating effective MEAs. One may argue that the environment should be valued as a public good, a commodity that is provided without profit and that benefits all members of society. Just like international financial stability, cultural heritage, telecommunications, and foreign aid, a stable climate and stratospheric ozone can be described as public goods; no one can be excluded from benefitting from them (non-excludable), and one actor benefitting does not reduce benefits for others (non-rival) (Brown, 2019, p. 154). Given the global impacts of international public goods, countries must work together to jointly supply them; the responsibility to reduce risks to global public goods must ultimately be shared among countries that benefit from those public goods. Conceptualising the environment in this way raises the classic prisoners’ dilemma: although countries have a common interest to protect themselves and supply this public good, they also have a private incentive to abate pollution as they see fit, which might not match what is collectively beneficial (Kroll and Shogren, 2008, p. 563). This tension between self-interest and collective interests leads to significant political constraint on international protocols to address climate change and ozone layer depletion.

The prisoners’ dilemma model assumes that actors do not know how the other will act before choosing their own course of action; that actors will act in their self-interest; and that the game is only played once (Brown, 2019, p. 161). But these assumptions do not necessarily apply in the case of international climate change agreements, and it is important to explore how states communicate with one another, build community around shared values and knowledge, and ultimately overcome the constraints suggested by the prisoners’ dilemma.

The success of MEAs concerning stratospheric ozone depletion can be attributed to the activities of an ecological epistemic community, a knowledge-based network of specialists who shared beliefs in cause and effect relations, validity tests, underlying principled values, and common policy goals (Haas, 1992, p. 187). The negotiations for the Montreal Protocol were framed by an ecological epistemic community composed of atmospheric scientists and policymakers who were sympathetic to the scientists’ common set of values, which stressed avoiding the depletion of stratospheric ozone. The epistemic community was able to ease potential political constraints by spreading information that suggested the need for stringent international CFC controls. More specifically, it directly influenced the major US CFC producer, DuPont, and enhanced the prospects of enforcement of the treaty by creating market incentives for smaller actors to gradually eliminate CFCs (Haas, 1992, p.188).

In conclusion, there are significant political constraints that may prevent states from reaching agreements to address ozone depletion and climate change, but there are some ways to overcome these constraints. This essay has explored the internal dynamics of international institutions like the EU, the tensions between states’ domestic interests and the need for international collective action, and the usefulness of models like the prisoners’ dilemma for explaining why states may not act in their collective interests. But ultimately, scientific knowledge is the glue that keeps policy actors committed to international environmental agreements (Gough and Shackley, 2001, p. 332). The strength of the ozone epistemic community meant that actors were able to ease potential political constraints by channelling discussions towards strong, science-based ozone treaties, and this has led to success reversing damage to the ozone layer (BBC News, 2018). It is important for climate change negotiators and policymakers to learn from the success of ozone agreements and recreate the conditions for success. The FCCC represents a strong epistemic community on climate change, and coupled with the efforts of climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough, may be able to push countries towards low-carbon futures. Further study should be given to issues of justice and sustainable development in the context of developing countries reducing their emissions, and the importance of self-reinforcing agreements and effective side payments as incentives to follow agreements.


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