The Climate Commons and a Global Environmental Organization

From: Brookings Trade Forum
2008/2009
pp. 139-170

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Climate Commons and a Global Environmental Organization

Over the period 2000 to 2008, the United States maintained a largely hostile posture toward multilateralism, ranging from military adventurism to rejection of international norms for human rights and climate change. Its support for the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations was undercut by a failure to live up to global commitments to foreign assistance (the Millennium Challenge) and protectionist and retrograde 2008 agricultural legislation. If this experience shows America anything, it is that renouncing its role as a constructive multilateral leader (dating to 1945) has been a disaster for its foreign policy and the esteem in which it is held.

This desultory period is now at an end, and a fresh start can be imagined in which U.S. leadership over multilateralism returns. One of the most pressing challenges relates to global climate change and atmospheric carbon emissions. This issue is emblematic of environmental challenges that are transboundary in nature, in which sovereign nations must coordinate effective interventions with one another. These issues of global commons, of which the climate commons may be the most urgent, may provide an opportunity to push forward an agenda of institutional change. The specific change considered here is the creation of a Global Environmental Organization (GEO), which can give authority and responsibility to multilateral climate negotiations.

My argument is that the creation of new multilateral institutions responding to global environmental challenges such as climate change is imperative. Fortunately, though these institutions would be new, their rationale and even their structure can be guided by experience with multilateral trade and commercial transactions, notably the World Trade Organization (WTO) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) system and the International Labor Organization (ILO).1 Just as the GATT/WTO emerged from the postwar conferences [End Page 139] as a rules-based response to global commercial interdependence, and an earlier ILO from global labor solidarity, so multilateral responses to environmental challenges reflect a growing recognition of nations' ecological interdependence, and a need for rules to coordinate their responses to these global challenges.

This chapter is organized in five sections. First is a brief review of the trade-environment nexus and the rationale for global environmental rules over climate that can coexist with trade regimes. Second is a specific proposal for a GEO, a major responsibility of which would be to coordinate nations' responses to climate change. Third is an appraisal of the implementation of a GEO. Fourth is special consideration of the role of developing countries. A final section offers conclusions.

The Trade-Environment Nexus

In the last two decades, strident criticisms have been leveled at multilateral institutions such as the WTO, describing them as faceless international bureaucracies with programs harmful to the environment.2 Although hostile to multilateral institutions, these criticisms raise the question: If not these institutions, then what others? Though many criticisms of the global economy and global institutions may have merit, it is hard to think of a future in which trade and global institutions, or issues of environment, will play little or no part. Accordingly, the task is to redefine objectives in a global economy, and to restructure institutions to meet these objectives, especially the urgent challenge of climate change.

The climate change debate has played out, like many other transboundary environmental issues, as a multilateral negotiation over a protocol agreement, the Kyoto Protocol of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) adopted December 11, 1997, which entered into force in February 2005. As of May 2008, 182 parties had ratified the protocol, including 36 developed and 137 developing countries (the United States is the only developed country not to have ratified it). Kyoto commits countries to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases (GHGs) or to engage in emissions trading to offset such commitments. Partly due to a failure of leadership by the United States, and partly due to exemptions written into the agreement for developing countries, especially large GHG emitters such as China, the protocol has been roundly criticized. [End Page 140]

This chapter argues that successful multilateral environmental agreements on climate change, as well as many other transboundary environmental issues, may require...