Moral duties, compliance and polycentric climate governance

What is held in common by the largest number of people receives the least care. For people give most attention to their own property, less to what is communal, or only as much as fall to them to give. For apart from anything else, the thought that someone else is attending to it makes them neglect it the more.

Aristotle, Politics (Hackett Publishing, 1998), 1261b.

Abstract

Contributions to the climate governance literature have highlighted the importance of recognizing its new polycentric nature, which includes roles for non-state and subnational actors in climate change mitigation and in leadership for climate action. Yet, the literature is missing a normative cartography—that is, a mapping of the distribution of moral duties in the real world—which is tailored to a context of polycentric governance. This paper answers the question: how can moral duties be distributed in a context of polycentric climate governance such as to diminish the problem of non-compliance? This implies the following question: do duties change in situations of non-compliance in a context of polycentric governance, and if so how? Acknowledging polycentric governance is the key to an effective distribution of moral duties, as it allows for a more accurate mapping of non-state and subnational actors’ duties in leading the charge against climate change. Correspondingly, a normative cartography fitted to this context will be instrumental in showing how morally informed climate governance can diminish the problem of non-compliance. This paper focusses on the distribution of moral duties in a context of polycentric governance as a contributing factor to inducing agents to act according to the collective goal. It argues that a more fine-grained distribution of climate duties, tailored to polycentric climate governance, contributes to addressing the problem of non-compliance.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I borrow this expression from the similar notion of ‘conceptual cartography’ coined by Geoff Brennan and recently used by Laura Valentini.

  2. 2.

    This is a reference to an idea formulated by Bill McKibben who said ‘winning too slow is just another way of losing’ (2017, Chubb Fellowship Lecture).

  3. 3.

    I leave aside other first-order duties, such as duties of climate change adaptation. Second-order duties, i.e. duties that aim at increasing the fulfilment of first-order duties, are thus only considered insofar as they apply to climate change mitigation.

  4. 4.

    Notably by researchers associated with the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at the University of Indiana.

  5. 5.

    I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer at International Environmental Agreements for pointing this out.

  6. 6.

    This idea deserves a tangential examination, as the determination of moral duties opens the door to the identification of reasons for action in the short term. Moral duties and reasons for action should both be seen as essential features of a normative framework for climate action. This second notion is, however, beyond the scope of this paper, as it connects with key issues in moral psychology (Wouter Peeters, Lisa Diependaele, and Sigrid Sterckx, 'Moral Disengagement and the Motivational Gap in Climate Change', Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, (April 29 2019).

  7. 7.

    I focus here only on the principle of capacity. Other relevant principles—notably the principle of historical responsibility (for past emissions) and the principle of benefit (having benefited from past emissions)—could be summoned and applied to agents in particular. The principle of capacity is sufficiently weighty and applies to all agents in a polycentric context.

  8. 8.

    There is a rich empirical literature that makes sense of burden-sharing principles in practice, including how precise levels of emissions targets can be determined based on considerations of justice Per-Olov Marklund and Eva Samakovlis, 'What Is Driving the Eu Burden-Sharing Agreement: Efficiency or Equity?', Journal of Environmental Management, 85/2 (2007/10/01/2007), 317–29, Nicole J. Van Den Berg et al., 'Implications of Various Effort-Sharing Approaches for National Carbon Budgets and Emission Pathways', Climatic Change, (2019/02/14 2019). Just like burden sharing has benefited from empirical studies, modelling of duties in non-ideal circumstances would also greatly profit from empirical input.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Ben Cashore, Detlef Sprinz, Josh Galperin and Daniel Esty for comments on early drafts of this paper, as well as the Reviewers at International Environmental Agreements. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Institut Hydro-Québec EDS and Université Laval.

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Correspondence to Alexandre Gajevic Sayegh.

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Gajevic Sayegh, A. Moral duties, compliance and polycentric climate governance. Int Environ Agreements 20, 483–506 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-020-09494-4

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Keywords

  • Polycentric climate governance
  • Moral duties
  • Non-compliance
  • The Paris agreement
  • Climate ethics
  • Collective action