Post-Hegemonic Climate Politics?

Publication Date01 February 2009
Date01 February 2009
AuthorMatthew Paterson
Post-Hegemonic Climate Politics?
Matthew Paterson
The article argues that the effects of a new US president on global climate politics will be rather less
than might be expected. This is partly because the rhetorical differences between Bush, his prede-
cessor Clinton and President Obama mask great continuities in US climate change politics since the
early 1990s. It is also because, unlike in other issue areas, the EU has moved into a position of clear
international leadership, which is likely to provoke diplomatic conflict, both for standard reasons of
realpolitik but more precisely because of the different growth strategies pursued by each side and the
different implications of those strategies for climate policy.Finally, the emergence of a dense pattern
of transnational climate governance will increasingly constrain the options for either side in
pursuing new climate change agreements after 2012.
Keywords: climate change; Kyoto Protocol; hegemony; transnational governance
The election of a successor to Bush comes at a critical time in international climate
change politics. The central features of the current agreement in place, the Kyoto
Protocol on Climate Change, which elaborate the obligations of states to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions and a series of mechanisms to help states meet those
obligations, expire in 2012. Negotiations started in 2006 at the Conference of the
Parties (COP) in Nairobi for a successor agreement to Kyoto, and negotiators hope
to finalise an agreement in December 2009 at the COP scheduled then in Copen-
hagen. But with a new US president only in place in January 2009, this leaves very
little time to adapt to the preferences of the new administration. There are signifi-
cant hopes that the new president will ease the way back to multilateralism in
climate change politics, as in other areas of world politics, but given the negotiating
timetable and the internal dynamics of US politics, it is not clear that it will be
possible to realise this potential. It also begs the question, the subject of this article,
of how much change can actually be expected in the US approach to global climate
politics with the election of a new president.
Climate change has certainly been a key sticking point in EU–US relations during
the Bush years. Two authors go so far as to claim that ‘excluding the US interven-
tion in Iraq in 2003, climate policy is the most prominent example of a transatlantic
rift ... since WWII’ (Ochs and Sprinz 2008, 144). In March 2001 Bush announced
that he would neither be submitting the Kyoto Protocol to Congress, nor develop-
ing strategies to meet the US’ obligations under Kyoto. It was one of his several
famous ‘fatally flawed’ treaties. The administration expressed its scepticism regard-
ing the state of scientific knowledge about climate change, emphasised the costs to
the US economy of limiting emissions and made much of the alleged inequities of
The British Journal of
Politics and International Relations
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-856x.2008.00354.x BJPIR: 2009 VOL 11, 140–158
© 2008 The Author.Journal compilation © 2008 Political Studies Association
their having to act while fast-growing developing countries like China and India did
not. While the claims about the science of climate change have abated since around
2005, the other arguments remain dominant in US discourse.
Meanwhile, the EU has moved unquestionably into a position of leadership on
climate change (Christiansen and Wettestad 2003; Schreurs and Tiberghien 2007).
It has done so in part simply by filling the void created by the US withdrawal and
in part by actively deciding to go ahead in spite of US defection (see also Brunnée
and Levin 2008, 59). This leadership has a number of elements. First, as a result of
EU diplomatic activity—in particular persuading Russia to join, holding out World
Trade Organisation (WTO) membership as both carrot and stick—Kyoto came into
force in the first place. Second, the countries with obligations to reduce their
emissions under Kyoto look likely overall to meet their emissions reduction obli-
gations under the treaty. Admittedly, at the international level, this is at least in
part due to quirks of the Kyoto accounting system, in particular the ‘hot air’
available since ex-Soviet bloc countries were given more allowances than they
needed. Nevertheless, this has enabled the EU to maintain some sort of credibility
for the multilateral process. Third, the EU has worked hard to make the Kyoto
‘mechanisms’—emissions trading and particularly the Clean Development Mecha-
nism (CDM)—work. It made the running in the details of the development of
operational rules of the Kyoto mechanisms. It has also created, through the way it
has linked its own Emissions Trading Scheme to the CDM, the demand in the
market that has made these mechanisms such a success of the Kyoto Protocol, at
least in institutional terms. In particular, the CDM has gone from ‘Kyoto’s surprise’
(Werksman 1998) to an extraordinary success story in terms of institution building,
trading already by late 2007 over three times as much carbon than predicted for
the end of the Kyoto commitment period (2012). Significantly, this has produced
a wave of investment in projects in developing countries; investment in clean
energy through the CDM now dwarfs that going through the World Bank, for
EU leadership has helped keep up momentum to build further multilateral action
on climate change. As negotiations for a post-Kyoto regime have started, the EU has
announced a unilateral intention to cut its own emissions by 20 per cent by 2020,
as well as a series of ancillary targets to meet this goal. It has also announced that
this 20 per cent will automatically become 30 per cent should other industrialised
countries join in creating a multilateral agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.
Furthermore, it has announced its intention to keep linking its internal target to
international mechanisms for offsetting emissions and creating international invest-
ment in greenhouse gas mitigation in other countries (in particular developing
countries). So the EU is at the forefront of driving forward a multilateral process
within the UN system. EU members have also ensured the move of climate change
into other multilateral fora, most prominently perhaps with its place in G-8
summits at Gleneagles and Heiligendamm under UK and then German leadership.
By contrast, the US under Bush formed the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean
Development and Climate in July 2005, with Australia, Japan, China, Korea and
India (joined in October 2007 by Canada under its new Conservative government).
While many members of this have ratified Kyoto, and they claim not to undermine
© 2008 The Author.Journal compilation © 2008 Political Studies Association
BJPIR, 2009, 11(1)

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