Climate governance – a new paradigm

This paper, prepared by members of Feasta, asserts that the climate crisis demands a new paradigm of global governance. It was written with specific reference to a project currently being undertaken by the World Resources Institute which arose out of an initiative by members of Feasta and the United Nations Environment Programme and is supported by the Government of Ireland. The WRI project “aims to highlight the best proposals for the institutional design of an international climate change regime.”[1]

Climate change is a symptom of a wider problem of governance

The context for discussing climate governance is that humanity’s relationship with the whole of the natural world is in crisis. For example a study by the UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health estimates that we will need 27 Earths by 2050 unless we deal with the big issues of overpopulation, overconsumption and inefficient resource use. Governance systems generally have failed.

Climate governance as a problem for the whole of humanity

The current system of governance in relation to climate change is the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The assumption underlying this paradigm of governance is that global action depends on agreement between the governments of the world’s nation states. This approach is unrealistic. As Daniel Cole has recently written[2], climate change is the “greatest collective action problem the international community has ever confronted”. Governments are but one of many relevant actors involved in addressing this problem and reaching agreement between them is but one of many steps that can be taken by way of effective global governance in response.

A systemic issue

The UNFCCC’s process is widely recognised as not capable, on its own, of delivering an effective response to the problem of climate change; and the reasons are essentially systemic – in other words largely due to the system’s design flaws. These are inherent in working within the framework of inter-governmental negotiation.

A systemic problem dictates a systemic solution for climate change governance. This does not mean abandoning the UNFCCC process but it does mean looking at initiatives outside the UNFCCC and exploring a way forward by incremental, iterative steps towards a new system of climate governance operating alongside a revised UNFCCC. This is where WRI’s project could make a unique contribution to humanity’s response to climate change.

The flaws in the UNFCCC process include the following:

1. World as collection of states

The system is based on the view of the world as a collection of states. This means that international action on climate change depends on agreement being reached through negotiations between the governments of countries with widely differing circumstances and widely differing, and often conflicting, interests in the context of climate change. The obvious and now widely recognised result is that it is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the nations of the world to agree about something as contentious and complicated as climate change and what to do about it.

2. Agreement only by compromise

Agreement, if it is reached, can only be achieved by compromise. So the aim of those in charge of the process is to secure a compromise, rather than for governments to take the actions needed to avoid the disaster we are currently heading for.

3. Limited powers of governments to deliver

Another simple but frequently overlooked point is that governments have limited powers: nation states are limited in the degree to which they can directly affect emissions of greenhouse gases and in influencing the ability of their societies and economies to adapt to climate change. Even if they agree something between themselves, it does not necessarily follow that it will happen. It thus tends to be the case that that they will only agree what they think they can achieve without difficulty.

4. Other species and ecosystems not parties

A fundamental flaw is that there is no adequate representation of other species and ecosystems or of future generations of our own species. If any compromise is arrived at, it will necessarily have been agreed without either future generations or other species being represented round the table. These interests are of course represented by numerous NGOs given a hearing in the negotiations but these organisations are not going to be parties to any agreements reached and their representations are in practice generally ineffective.

5. No risk management

Linked to that is the absence of an effective risk management system. Risk management is essential for applying the precautionary principle, which although enshrined in the UNFCCC is currently being largely ignored due to the lack of such a process within the current arrangements.

6. No procedure for the current emergency

A more specific defect of the UNFCCC process is that it lacks any procedure for taking urgent action in the event of an emergency.

Climate change was recognised by the UN General Assembly in 1988 as ‘a common concern of mankind’ and this was the general understanding at the time the UNFCCC was set up in 1992 and when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997: it was not seen as a crisis requiring immediate action. Since then, the situation has become far more critical due to human-induced forcing, the emission of CO2 in particular, having triggered a number of positive feed-back systems including the melting of Arctic ice and release of methane from permafrost.

We now have an emergency on our hands: what we need is urgent action to staunch the haemorrhage of global warming gases into the atmosphere. The UNFCCC was not designed to provide this sort of emergency operation and shows no sign of doing so.

7. No place in the process for taking account of important contexts eg the impending economic collapse

Context is also important: the inevitable consequences of the global economy’s growth path are highlighted by the previously mentioned UN University Report. Because of the importance of growth for climate it is of immense significance that we seem to be facing an inevitable, and probably imminent, collapse of the current debt based money system. Hitherto it is this money system that has driven uneconomic and climate destructive growth – now this growth is probably no longer possible because of peak oil. These are momentous contextual determinants of what happens in climate policy – yet the topics are not within the UNFCCC process.

Sleep walking to catastrophe

Given all of these process problems, current climate policy process turns out to be largely fictitious. All the major officials know this in their hearts and in their private conversations, for example, they freely talk about “problems of compliance”. However, what they say in their private words, and actually believe in their hearts, is not, and cannot be said in their official roles – nor in the official negotiations where it is a “consensus trance” that reigns. Presumably they keep hoping and hoping that things will turn out for the better. However, one must ask if the “official process” is being carried out by people who are effectively in a state of psychological denial on the surface, with growing anxiety, panic and confusion under the surface.

If there really were more appropriate systems structures the international mitigation process would look very different.

It must also now be borne in mind that the systemically incompetent international system set up in 1992 is no longer the only actor on the stage of climate change governance. As a number of writers have observed recently, the landscape today is not simply a failing or failed multilateral negotiation process, with the rest of the canvas blank. Many initiatives of many kinds, within the meaning of ‘governance’ broadly defined, are responding to climate change and to the failure of our governments to address it: local communities, municipal and provincial and national governments, businesses and various other actors are now engaged in a host of projects and processes that are independent from the intergovernmental process and from national regulatory measures. See for example Matthew Hoffman’s and Ken Abbott’s work identifying and categorising various ‘experiments’ in climate governance completely outside the UNFCCC process[3].

What is to be done?

So what might then be done? Bill McKibben has put it like this for the USA, and his message has world wide relevance: “For the first two decades of the global-warming era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade agreement that died in Congress in 2010. These were attempts to solve the problem of climate change via complicated backstage manoeuvres and manipulations of prices or regulations.  They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed, at every turn, to dilute or defang them. Clearly the current Congress is in no mood for real regulation, so – for the moment anyway – the complicated planning is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard to defang: Keep it in the ground!”

If the struggle to prevent climate change and the struggle to enable humanity to survive is to be real, rather than a continuance of the official pretence, then it has to get real and adopt no-nonsense approaches. For example, if carbon emissions through burning fossil fuels are to be reduced then their production must be reduced. Thus a first step has to be to create an “Upstream Fossil Fuel Data Base” to identify where coal, oil and gas is coming out of the ground and into the global economy – the locations and installations that will have to be rapidly closed down. If officials will not do it, because they are in the thrall of governments who are under pressure from lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry, then citizens around the world must do it themselves.

Creating such a database wikipedia style could be, indeed it would have to be, one of the first projects of an independent process.

For climate change to be prevented less fossil fuels must be pulled out of the ground and soon – and no fossil fuels must be produced in the very near future. Creating a database is only a first step and it will be much easier to create a database than to close down coal mines, gas terminals and oil wells. But the reason to create a database of fossil fuel sources is that it forces all of us to GET REAL. It forces us to stop dancing around with pretend solutions, to stop avoiding the point because it is too uncomfortable. If we want to stop climate change then all over the world coal mines, oil wells and gas wells must be progressively closed down rather than opened up.

Another project for citizens would be to establish a new independent organisation to implement and administer climate policies requiring some form of global administration. This would be designed to avoid the flaws in the UNFCCC system – for example it would be charged with acting on behalf of humanity as a whole, including future generations. Such an organisation would set specific global science-based targets, whether in terms of concentrations of particular gases in the atmosphere, or of reductions in world emissions into the atmosphere of particular gases, or of increases in draw-downs to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere into sinks and biomass. It would have the capacity to design and administer global policies that are both effective to meet the science based targets and also socially just. States would be invited to endorse and legitimise its operations on their own territories.

We must also stop avoiding the truth about economic growth and climate change. Growth is incompatible with adequate mitigation because growth and carbon emissions cannot be decoupled to the magnitude required by technological change alone. With that in mind, we must also recognise that the current context of mitigation policy efforts is a crisis in the global economy. If, as now seems likely to happen, the financial markets wreck the real economy, then millions of people will want some solution. That, in turn, will create an opening for major
 economic and environmental policy transformations. In these major transformations a scheme that bans upstream producers from selling fossil fuels unless they have permits to do so, and where the number of permits is rapidly reduced year on year, could drive the creation of a new economy and help resolve the climate crisis at the same time; and then we might just stand a chance.

Overall, the only viable future for humanity is for us to evolve from the competitive ethos of the growth economy to a cooperative model of global governance. If the WRI project manages to trigger this evolution, it will have been of crucial importance.


2. Daniel H. Cole From Global to Polycentric Climate Governance EUI Working Papers No. 2011/30 June 6, 2011
3. Hoffmann, 2011 Climate Governance at the Crossroads – experimenting with a global response after Kyoto Oxford University Press.; Abbott 2011 The Transitional Regime Complex for Climate Change Electronic copy available at:

Featured image: Forging the iron. Author: Armin Hanisch. Source:

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