The COP22 meeting in Marrakesh has recently drawn to its close. Delegates from the UNFCCC participating countries have been tirelessly debating the best possible ways of implementing the Paris Agreement in a timely and efficient manner, trying to make sure it delivers on its hopeful promises. At the same time, however, a very imminent threat to the success of the Agreement has formed whose effect is beyond the control of the delegation. The threat is Donald Trump – or rather more precisely – what he represents.
The greatest problem that can bring the laboriously gained global efforts down lies in Trump’s utter unpredictability and untrustworthiness.
Over the first two weeks following his election, Trump has already managed to backtrack on the majority of his most emblematic campaign positions. He leaves the world hanging in midair with expectations of what his presidency will bring. But even if he does not eventually decide to leave the Paris Agreement, the damage has already been done. The greatest problem does not lie in his stance towards climate change as such (although it certainly does not help to have climate change deniers appointed as leaders of the government’s environmental bodies). The greatest problem that can bring the laboriously gained global efforts down lies in Trump’s utter unpredictability and untrustworthiness. In the mind of a businessman, making one’s actions unpredictable to one’s rivals on the market is an advantage. However, when it comes to protecting global public goods such as the environment, business models fall short of being useful; in fact, quite the opposite.
Due to the lack of an overarching supranational body, which would possess the capacity and legitimacy to enforce what has been agreed upon in major global deals such as the Kyoto Protocol or now the Paris Agreement, the key element upon which they are built is mutual trust.
Trump’s wavering and fickleness can potentially be the most harmful things to the hardly-fought global developments on climate change mitigation. Due to the lack of an overarching supranational body, which would possess the capacity and legitimacy to enforce what has been agreed upon in major global deals such as the Kyoto Protocol or now the Paris Agreement, the key element upon which they are built is mutual trust. Trust that others will abide by their pledges and not seek to gain a unilateral advantage by reneging on their commitments, because there would not be any punishment if they did. With environmental regulations, which do put some strain on certain industries, the incentives for countries to defect and enjoy their increased economic competitiveness as a result are high.
The analogy of prisoner’s dilemma can be used to demonstrate the nature of the danger here. According to the theory, two parties are always better off when they cooperate. However, if the pay-off for defecting is high or if the two players do not trust that they will not get backstabbed by one another, they resort to non-cooperation and end up being overall worse off. It can thus be concluded that uncertainty about partners’ actions is detrimental to the overall success of their common venture. This parallel can be applied to many situations in international relations, however, in the case of climate agreements its effects are amplified because the benefits of cooperating are largely intangible yet the gains from defecting are easily presentable. This problem, which is summarised under the term “free-riding”, has been widely pinpointed to be one of the core shortcomings of the existing international climate deals.
Adapting to the Brave New World
The new world, of which Trump is the high representative, is defined by renewed emphasis on tribal self-interest, trade protectionism and exclusive rather than inclusive vision of nations.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, much has been written about the changing world order. The new world, of which Trump is the high representative, is defined by renewed emphasis on tribal self-interest, trade protectionism and exclusive rather than inclusive vision of nations. From the declining volume of international trade to the Brexit campaign successfully fought on the basis of nationalism, the widespread backlash against globalisation is apparent. It is important to note that Trump, indeed, is not a cause of this change but rather its symptom. This development might even have been inevitable; as Business Insider recently wrote, the history moves in cycles of trust and after years of heightened trustworthiness following the end of the Cold War, we are currently heading towards the bottom of the trust curve. Whether or not we choose to believe this theory, it is clear that Trump’s evident unpredictability and generally adversarial rhetoric is paving the way for a more closed, mistrustful world. And a more closed, mistrustful world does not bode well for cooperative international agreements.
The election of Trump could be seen not as a disaster for climate, but instead as a useful impetus for more profound changes pertaining to how climate regulations are enforced – using Trump’s own policy.
However, the future does not need to be all grim. As has been said above, the problem of free-riding has been marring global climate efforts for decades. Perhaps the election of Trump could be seen not as a disaster for climate, but instead as a useful impetus for more profound changes pertaining to how climate regulations are enforced – using Trump’s own policy. American economist William Nordhaus has suggested a solution to the problem of free-riding in terms of establishing what he calls a “climate club”. Such climate club would serve as a voluntary group of countries choosing to comply with the established climate regulations. They would all reap the collective benefits by sharing the costs of preventing the deterioration of global climate. The outsiders to the club, those countries that refuse to chip in, would on the other hand be penalised for not sharing the burden. This penalisation could come in a way of trade barriers imposed by the participating bloc on the non-participating states – Trump would certainly understand this, after all, it is one of his favourite policy tools, at least rhetorically. Each country would thus think twice before reneging on their climate commitments.
To Trump’s liberal opponents, using his own rather aggressive approach might not seems as an ideal solution. And indeed, in an ideal scenario all parties would be the most better off if they cooperated based on mutual trust, not based on impending punishment. However, as we have witnessed, the approach of offering carrots has thus far not been able to generate the desired outcomes in climate agreements. Therefore, the environmentally-concerned international community might as well make the best out of an unfortunate situation and try using the sticks. Who knows, perhaps Trump will finally provide the much-needed sense of urgency and his presidency will herald the advent of a new era for global climate action.
Author : EUROPEUM