Climate Governance at the Crossroads: Review

Climate Governance at the Crossroads: experimenting with a global response after Kyoto by Matthew J Hoffmann, 2011 Oxford University Press.
Reviewed by John Jopling

A good test of the usefulness of an academic book is: has it helped us to think differently? This book seeks to do precisely that: it seeks to persuade the reader to think differently about climate governance. In my case it has succeeded.

The book describes and analyses various alternative forms of organisation in response to climate change, alternative, that is, to the official process of multilateral negotiation between nation state governments. The author had long been disillusioned with the multilateral process. What excited him to do the research and write the book was the realisation that the mainstream process was not the only show in town in terms of ‘governance’ in response to climate change: there were lots of other initiatives out there which could be described as experiments in governance. “As the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of the multilateral treaty-making process erodes… we are transitioning into an era of experimentation, with enormous consequences for how the world responds to climate change.”

Local communities, municipal and provincial and even national governments, businesses and various other actors are engaged in a host of projects and processes that are independent from the Kyoto process and from national regulatory measures. The book identifies and analyses 58 of these. To qualify for inclusion in the research they must be engaged in making rules that shape a response to climate change and they must function across jurisdictions whether vertically or horizontally. These features qualified the selected initiatives as ‘experiments’ in ‘governance’.

The experiments analysed ranged from Transition Towns (described as “network/set of principles that encourages communities to “relocalise” all essential elements that the community needs to sustain itself”) to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (“CEO-led, global association geared towards sharing of best practices and knowledge on climate change”) with many other kinds of initiative in between, almost all initiated within the last 10 years. The research discovered who initiated them and how they worked: market or regulatory, for mitigation or adaptation, voluntary or mandatory; what activities were undertaken, for example: cataloging emissions, setting targets, education, monitoring, these being categorised as either planning, networking, direct action or oversight; the actors themselves being categorised as either networkers, infrastructure builders, voluntary actors or a mixture of all three. This is interesting information and is well presented.

All this activity is found to reflect a voluntary, market-oriented approach. “Market mechanisms – pricing carbon, emissions trading, economic incentives, and the joint pursuit of greenhouse gas emissions reductions and profit – dominate the ways experiments answer the question of how climate change should be appropriately addressed”. “Climate governance experimentation is a liberal environmental phenomenon that emphasises voluntary, market-orientated mitigation as a global response to climate change”. The author candidly observes that it is “not entirely clear” how effective market mechanisms can be as a response to climate change, or what impact they will have on equity concerns. However these issues are not the subject of this book.

The value of the book lies in the discussion of governance itself. Why was multilateral negotiation chosen in the 1980s as the model of governance to address climate change? And why are the completely different forms of governance described in the book being experimented with today? To deal with these issues the author turns to constructivist and complexity theory. These disciplines provided a frame in which to understand the process whereby one form of global governance might be replaced by a quite different form. In a nutshell, multilateral negotiation was the model of governance chosen to address climate change simply because it was the way international issues had always been dealt with since the 19th Century. When anyone thought about global governance, that’s what came to mind. But globalisation – the increasing pace and volume of global flows of people, information, ideas and money – has showed up the short-comings of this model: its inability to cope became increasingly obvious. Nation states, individually and collectively, could no longer be relied on to provide the necessary governance. As this realisation was recognised by numerous actors – cities, states/provinces, corporations and more -, these had begun to see themselves as potentially authoritative actors in relation to governance in response to climate change. The case studies in the book are examples of the resulting experiments in new kinds of climate governance. They are seen as reflecting the beginning of a transition in the nature of climate governance itself.

This story is told by reference to case studies describing how the various corporate and governmental (city, state/province or national) actors responded to the inadequacies of the multilateral process, in various ways and with diverse motives, developing new relationships both competitive and cooperative. I found this analysis convincing and useful. I liked the fact that the author makes no claim as to the effectiveness of these initiatives: the case he argues is not that they amount to an adequate global response to climate change in terms of emissions reduction or otherwise. What he claims is not that they are or will eventually be effective but that they are “altering what counts as the global response to climate change” simply because they are happening.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the big questions in terms of climate governance are no longer about the outcome to be aimed for, or to be expected from, the multilateral negotiation process. Within the last few years that has ceased to be the main show in town in this context. The big questions now relate to the new world of climate governance described, or some important components of which are described, in this book, this “self-organising system that is transforming novelty into normalcy”. For example, how effective has this new form of climate governance been so far in terms of meeting the challenges of climate change? What prospects does it offer of developing into an effective system, effective that is in halting and reversing the slide into unstoppable climate change that climate scientists fear that we are currently heading for? Is the dominant character of this new world of climate governance, namely its voluntary market-orientated approach, inconsistent with the possibility of its developing into an effective system? If this character is not fatal to its growing into an effective system, how might this growth be achieved? The usefulness of this book is in setting the scene for these questions to be discussed.

Underlying those big questions are even bigger questions, not even hinted at in this book. The book does not reflect an understanding of climate change as just one of many unwanted consequences of the current dominant global economic/governance system. The description in the book of how the world came to adopt negotiation between nation state governments as the form of global governance to deal with climate change makes no reference to fact that the dominant purpose of nation state governments is to promote economic growth. There is no discussion of the possibility (or should that be impossibility?) of sustainable economic growth in a world of limited resources, especially limited availability of energy and limited ability of the climate to cope with unlimited industrial growth; in other words there is no reference to the problems associated with the idea of ‘sustainable development’ endorsed by governments at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit at the same time as launching the multilateral negotiation process for climate change. Nor, whilst account is taken of the current economic downturn, is there is any mention of the possibility, or as many would say strong probability, of an imminent widespread collapse of the mainstream global economy due to the impossibility of perpetual growth. So there is of course no discussion of the consequences such a collapse might have for the world of climate experimentation portrayed in the book.

In other words, the book, like the world of self-organising experiments in climate governance it describes, exists within the frame of today’s dominant economic paradigm. For me, whilst this is a serious limitation, it does not diminish the value of the book or detract from the interest of conclusions. For if the book does not stand out from the current dominant economic paradigm, it does stand out from the frame of governance dominant throughout the 20th Century. The author has been bold enough to stand up and declare that the currently active and growing paradigm of climate governance is completely different from the sovereign state one which gripped almost everyone’s mind until recently. Moreover he has analysed in some detail the nature, the incentives driving and typical activities of certain types of project (city-level responses to climate change and carbon markets) in order to consider whether their design is likely to promote effective climate mitigation as well as being good for profits and jobs. He recognises frankly that much of this activity is still in its infancy; and that at this stage firm conclusions are hard to come by. However some preliminary conclusions are drawn: for example, in relation to carbon markets, that these cannot be effective without national and global policy. “Leadership is required to ensure that they work together effectively.”

The book convinced me of the need to think differently about climate governance. It also got me started doing just that. My particular interest is the global level of climate governance, currently absent, but needed because the climate is a global system and is only interested in the impact of human activities in the aggregate. I had already recognised that what is needed at this level is not a command-and-control type of authority, but rather one suited to the global economy seen as a self-organising system. But, whilst sharing the author’s disillusionment with the multilateral negotiation process, I had assumed that the main enforcers of any global scheme, for example a global cap and share scheme, would have to be nation state governments, because that is where all sovereign authority lies. What I have learned from this book is that communities, corporations, city and state/provincial authorities and other entities and their various networks are also active in climate governance. These activities are part of the self-organising world. Any global scheme will need to relate to them. This is a new challenge. The book’s descriptions and analyses of the experimental system is going to be of enormous value in this work.

The whole topic of climate change has for me been depressing and daunting. Even if a global-level institution designed to relate to the global economy as a self-organising system were established, my assumption that to be effective it would have to work mainly with nation state governments envisaged a head-on confrontation between an institution operating in a new enlightened paradigm of governance and national governments stuck in the old command-and-control one. It was difficult to envisage the possibility of cooperation. The final chapter of the book makes a point that has cheered me up somewhat. Almost all the people involved in the experiments examined thought of themselves as part of a broader movement even though not having in their minds any clear picture of it. What struck me was that for a new global institution of the kind we are envisaging to relate to these people may not be so difficult as relating to nation-state governments. All concerned would see themselves operating as participants in a global-wide self-organising system.

Of course, there still remains the point about economic growth: if a global institution seeking to guide the global economy to make the cuts in fossil fuel emissions recommended by climate scientists was seen as not speaking “the common language that all these experiments speak – based on the premise that climate change can be addressed in a way that enhances growth”, communication could be difficult. However I did notice the end-note to the words just quoted to the effect that this may not be entirely true and may not hold in the medium to longterm – a final example of the author’s care not to overstate his case. My own view is that, whilst most of the experiments considered are certainly ‘market-orientated’, and that is undoubtedly the dominant nature of the world we have to deal with for the future in relation to reversing current climate trends, a market-orientated approach is not the same thing as enhancing economic growth and is not necessarily inconsistent with an effective response to climate change.

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