Review by David W. Thornton
David G. Victor’s slim volume is a timely publication, as its title characterizes accurately the current disarray in the international effort to combat what is considered by some to be the most pressing environmental threat of the twenty-first century—global warming. Victor’s book also has the virtue of pointing out the many flaws in that effort, chiding the diplomats for inhabiting what he calls “Kyoto’s fantasyland.” He is also to be commended for going beyond mere criticism by recommending an “architecture” that he believes combines the most promising elements of contending approaches to controlling the world’s emission of greenhouse gasses. But in the end the book disappoints those seeking to comprehend the most fundamental reasons that no effective international response to global warming is possible. This is because Victor falls prey to the same flights of fancy that had led the diplomats to come up with such unrealistic proposals in the first place.
Victor argues that the international efforts to control global emissions of greenhouse gasses that had begun with the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and were formalized in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol among 38 industrialized states, adopted a fatally flawed approach. Signatories to the Protocol agreed to set national targets for the period 2008-2012 below their actual 1990 emissions level (e.g. the U.S. agreed to cut its own emissions by 7%). Recognizing that some countries might well have grave difficulties in meeting such commitments, diplomats envisioned the creation of an international system of emissions rights that could be traded among states. Such a regime would allow countries with an excess of emissions to buy their way into compliance without having to impose measures that might cause greater economic dislocation and political turmoil. Those with emission credits to sell could use the proceeds to modernize industry and infrastructure, thus allowing more rapid economic development with fewer emissions.
Victor points out that the anticipated development of such a system was vital to the success of the 1997 negotiations:” Trading is the linchpin for the Kyoto framework.” He goes on to observe correctly that the diplomats left unresolved the crucial issue of determining the volume of emissions allowed for each country–what he calls “the allocation problem”—that would form the basis for any system based on permits and trading. The author also acknowledges explicitly that such a project would entail the creation of an entirely new class of extremely valuable property rights, and recognizes that international law is far too weak to be relied upon in adjudicating disagreements about their ownership and exchange. He further discusses the very serious difficulties that would arise in admitting the developing countries into a global allocation regime without effectively undermining the point of the whole enterprise—to impose meaningful constraints on the amount of greenhouse gasses put into the atmosphere
Yet having explained why a solution to the global problem of climate change produced by greenhouse gasses based on sovereign governments agreeing to cap and trade emissions can never work, Victor then devotes almost the entire remainder of his book to discussing the pros and cons of various trading systems. For example, much of the “Monitoring and Enforcement” (Chapter 3) deals with the relative merits of “buyer” versus “seller” liability in trading permits for greenhouse emissions, while the author’s own proposals in “Rethinking the Architecture” (Chapter 4) entails “a hybrid of emission trading and taxation”, in which “governments would set targets for emission quantities and also for prices” [of permits] . But in these discussions, he leaves untouched the question of how these democratic governments would acquire the political will and legal authority to commit their firms and consumers to an international agreement that would almost certainly entail serious limitations on economic prosperity and personal freedoms. This failure to consider the institutional and procedural realities entailed in ratifying and complying with international accords is an inexcusable omission in the case of the United States, whose participation Victor acknowledges as requisite to any viable international effort in this arena.
Why engage in detailed speculation concerning the details of an international regime based on unattainable foundations? In my view, Victor does this because he has failed to consider the international diplomacy that produced such unworkable proposals in its full economic and political context. By its very nature, the process of negotiation among governments is as much about appearance as substance, especially when it involves issues of extreme complexity having uncertain long-range ramifications. It should not be surprising that representatives of the United States and other nations would agree among themselves to prospective measures that would appear to address what may well be a serious global problem, while knowing full well that their deliberations and agreements commit their respective countries to nothing in terms of concrete policies. This is not to accuse the diplomats or their governments of bad faith or duplicity, but simply to recognize the tendency to promise collectively what cannot be delivered individually if the cost of making such promises is perceived as minimal. Indeed, it is remarkable that the Bush administration has been so frank in its acknowledgement that the 1997 agreement was really a charade.
So Victor has taken the results of the Kyoto negotiations much more seriously than they deserve to be, and thus has placed undue significance on the highly detailed and technical, yet thoroughly unrealistic discussion that took place there. And like those diplomats and international environmental policy activists, Victor is much more ready than many of those that would be expected to comply with any accords to simply accept the theory and evidence claiming global warming to be a real threat. Indeed, he relegates discussion of the science to a five-page appendix, and unsurprisingly finds it conclusive and deserving of a serious policy response. But neither the science nor the politics of global warming warrant such conclusions. On the contrary, they give little promise that anything viable can be salvaged from the effort.
David W. Thornton is Associate Professor of Government and Director of Government Studies at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. He is the author of Airbus Industrie: The Politics of an International Industrial Collaboration (1995).