International law & climate change

22 Nov

Would political leaders convening at Copenhagen be able to produce an international convention that will be able to combat climate change? According to Professor Gerry Simpson, this  question fundamentally concerns our faith in international law.

In ‘Why cant we all just agree?’, Simpson asserts that various factors including the possibility of states free-riding; states having no interest in signing the agreement; the problem of historical responsibility and state sovereignty may inhibit a much needed international agreement.

Despite these issues, he believes it is possible that negotiations may still lead to an important agreement (or at least a blueprint for future agreements) due to collective interest. After all, the history of international relations have shown that states can still reach a consensus even when obstacles abound (for example. the Montreal Protocol curbing CFC emissions).

While Simpson’s analyses pertain to the nature of international law making and enforcement, certain unresolved concerns are still inherent in his assumptions.

First, unlike other issues, climate change is a pressing problem that requires immediate action. For example, the safety zone to prevent CO2 from reaching 350 ppm (parts per million) in our atmosphere. If the negotiations lead to an agreement that is non-binding or too weak, we might end up assuming that much of climate change issues are being resolved.

Second, the issue of climate change extends to other areas such as human rights and business. For example, while we could ban CFC production with the Montreal Protocol, such a possibility is highly unlikely (though perhaps desirable) with banning coal production and burning since they  constitute an important energy-contributing sector. Climate change also affects other issues related to human rights such as food security. Given the complexity and the inter-relatedness of the issues, are states able to take these issues into considerations during negotiations?

Lastly, there are still uncertainties associated with current proposed policy mechanisms on dealing with climate change. For example, the emissions trading scheme in the EU has been criticised for  over-allocation, windfall profits, price volatility, and inability to meet its goals. While climate debt has been raised as a possibility to help developing countries manage climate change, there are still unresolved problems such as how much should each state pay and how such funds can be properly managed.

The above comments are not meant to disparage the importance of international law on how it can help reduce climate change impacts. Rather, it points to the complications of global warming.


3 Responses to “International law & climate change”

  1. Nature 5 November 24, 2009 at 3:56 pm #

    Lots of problems ahead. But if the science is correct (and I ‘believe’ it is), we have no option other than to act and to do so quickly.

  2. allen July 29, 2010 at 6:44 pm #

    In as far as the problem of climate change is concerned, there is need for moral obligation between and among states.I dont think international law can offer a better solution to that considering the nature of international politics.For example, if one is to consider the fact that countries can choose to be part of a treaty or not, and even if they are part to such treaties there are no effective mechanisms to monitor compliance.Unless and until states recognise climate change as a threat to every human being on earth, the world is going to suffer especially Third World Countries who do not have the economic muscle to adapt to the effects of climate change.The question of international law as being the solution to the problems of climate change raises the issue of whether international law is really law.

  3. Charles July 31, 2010 at 11:16 am #

    Whether international law is law per se is perhaps not as clear cut. On the other hand, the layman definition of law is based on domestic/national laws where the government acts as the enforcer of said legislations. While it is a valid criticism that such a mechanism does not exist for international law, it does serve certain functions such as shaming states that violate the treaties that they have signed. Again, whether it ‘works’ or not is highly contested.

    Given the current framework that we have, international law may not be able to coerce states to act on climate change but it does or could become a factor (amongst others).

    Climate scientists have pretty much built a consensus on this topic. So have popular beliefs. With the exception of sceptics and deniers, it is pretty much a given that people believe that climate change is a serious problem facing humanity. The question perhaps is this: why we are still seeing so much resistance?

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