Governing global problems under uncertainty: making bottom-up climate policy work

Abstract

With the failure of integrated, top-down bargaining strategies, analysts and diplomats have now turned to bottom-up methods such as “building blocks” and “climate clubs” to coordinate national climate change policies and to avoid persistent diplomatic deadlock. We agree that decomposition of the grand problem of climate change into smaller units is a crucial first step towards effective cooperation. But we argue that given the great uncertainty of the feasibility and costs of potential solutions, this bottom-up approach will only work if it is supported by institutions that promote joint exploration of possibilities by public and private actors along with the scaling up of successes. As politics precludes creating many of these institutions under the consensus-oriented decision rules of the UN system, engaged outsiders—including especially clubs or building blocks that can learn in the face of uncertainty—working in parallel with the UN diplomatic process will have to provide them.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    But see Helleiner (2014) on the contribution of local experiences in the US and various Latin American countries to the final outcome at Bretton Woods.

  2. 2.

    For the origins of the penalty-default concept in contract law see Ayres and Gertner (1989); for the difference between the penalty default and the related idea of bargaining in the shadow of hierarchy see Sabel and Zeitlin (2012a).

  3. 3.

    Note, however, that with respect to accounting for reductions in carbon emissions in connection with its implementation of UNFCCC requirements the EU’s system of bookkeeping has been anything but experimentalist, and has on occasion been an obstacle to practical problem solving. For discussion of Ireland and the problems with EU climate mitigation bookkeeping see NESC (2012) and O’Donnell et al. (2015).

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Acknowledgments

We thank Bob Keohane, Nat Keohane, Scott Barrett, Michael Oppenheimer, Dick Stewart, Tana Johnson, Johannes Urpelainen, Bryce Rudyk, Jim Bacchus, Steve Charnovitz, Alan Alexandroff, Joanne Scott, Detlef Sprinz, Dustin Tingley, Rory ODonnell and Jonathan Zeitlin for comments on a draft. Bob, Grainne de Burca, and Rick Locke organized an exceptionally helpful seminar at the Watson Institute of Brown University on experimentalist governance in November 2014 out of which this paper emerged and thanks to participants at a Princeton University seminar in June 2015. Special thanks to Linda Wong and Jackson Salovaara for extraordinary research assistance. Thanks also to Jen Smyser and Todd Edwards for related conversations. Chuck Sabel and David Victor acknowledge support from the Stanley Foundation. David Victor is also supported by UC San Diego, Electric Power Research Institute, and the Norwegian Research Foundation.

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Correspondence to David G. Victor.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on “Alternate Structures for Global Climate Action: Building Blocks Revisited” edited by Richard B. Stewart and Bryce Rudyk.

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Sabel, C.F., Victor, D.G. Governing global problems under uncertainty: making bottom-up climate policy work. Climatic Change 144, 15–27 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-015-1507-y

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Keywords

  • Montreal Protocol
  • Veto Player
  • Total Maximum Daily Load
  • Global Public Good
  • Trade Measure