International Climate Policy and the Collective Action Problem

The delayed time horizon and the fact that our climate is a public good make international collective action on climate difficult to muster. What can policy experts do to combat the problem?

Is the Paris Accord of 2015 working? The answers may vary, depending on the standard of measurement. A landmark global agreement on climate change, the Paris Accord vowed to prevent global temperatures from rising to above two degrees Celsius despite its non-binding nature. Never has there been such a widespread, watershed agreement to combat climate change.

However, most experts agree that the Paris Accord is not enough. Even if every country were to meet their goal, global temperatures would still rise more than two degrees Celsius, wreaking havoc around the globe and plunging the world into a new era of disastrous climate destabilization. Why is it so difficult for the world to lower their greenhouse gas emissions, especially when the science is telling us that disaster will strike if we do not? Why is there no sense of urgency?

International relations theory suggests that the problem lies in two key factors: the delayed time horizon, and the fact that our climate is a public good.

First, states, international organizations, and leaders tend to respond to major global events more immediately if their effects can be felt immediately. Take the current Ukraine conflict—the international community responded with instantaneous sanctions the moment Russia invaded Ukraine, triggering a refugee, humanitarian, and military crisis. In contrast, the most devastating effects of rising global temperatures will not be felt for another couple of decades, leading the international community to feel less of a need for immediate action, as it believes there are more pressing issues at hand.

Secondly, the global climate belongs to everyone. Because it cannot be privatized or owned by a specific organization or state, the international community feels less of a personal responsibility to care for it because they believe that other people will. Many smaller states believe that bigger powers and large historical emitters should shoulder more of the obligation to decrease emissions and protect the environment.

What can climate policy experts do to combat the collective action problem? Knowing that scientific and technological advances are not enough—policy experts must recognize the importance of international relations and diplomacy to implement emissions reduction strategies. The most worrying aspect of the collective action problem is that it may already be too late, and countries can only engage in reparations rather than preventative methods. However, there is still hope that we can turn around our current path.

Ultimately, what the international climate regime needs is enforcement. Legally-binding agreements with enforcement mechanisms are the only way to ensure that states are putting their money where their mouths are. Though the Paris Accord’s non-binding nature makes it more approachable and an easier climate pill for countries to swallow, there are no means of enforcement for its signatories, meaning countries can effectively fail to meet their climate pledges with few consequences. A legally-binding agreement of a similar nature to the Paris Accord may be possible yet, despite the seemingly impossible task of having countries agree to such hard climate law. The more urgent the climate crisis becomes, the more climate experts and country constituents lobby, and the more likely state leadership is to agree to harsher climate regulations.

It is also important to recognize the successes the international community has already achieved, such as the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Accord, both of which are breakthrough agreements combatting environmental harm. If we find ways to learn from these wins and remedy the failures, the collective action problem may not be so daunting in the future.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Sophia Bagg

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Sophia Bagg is an undergraduate student studying International Relations and East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Bagg is also a 2022 Undergraduate Student Fellow.