I’m just back from a trip to Europe where, among other things, I talked to people about international climate policy. At one point, I was asked about differences between the United States and Europe in the realm of climate diplomacy. I observed that the biggest difference was that most Europeans remain focused on concluding a legally binding climate treaty, while most Americans advocates of serious action on climate change are far less attached to that particular outcome. I noted that one can have strong action without a treaty, and weak action with one, and then offered three hypotheses for why many in Europe remains so treaty-focused:
- Europeans are from Venus. This is shorthand for the claim that Europeans are instinctively pro-treaty, regardless of the problem at hand, stemming in large part from their experience in the twentieth century.
- Some key European countries are influenced strongly by Green parties, in substantial part because of proportional representation, and those parties tend to have adopted a focus on legal multilateralism. Germany (where I happened to be speaking) is usually invoked as the leading example of this phenomenon.
- International legal commitments are seen as a useful tool in intra-European bargaining, in climate and elsewhere. In particular, many believe that the existence of an international emissions cutting commitment from Europe as a whole imposes essential discipline on negotiations within Europe over how to divide the burden of reducing emissions.
As soon as I’d finished offering these suggestions, the most knowledgeable European expert on climate diplomacy in the room shot back: “Maybe,” she asserted with no hint of irony, “it’s just that we care more about climate change”.
And therein is the nut of the problem. Too often, the debate between legally binding treaties and other tools of international cooperation turns out not just to be a debate over methods, but also implicitly a debate over how much one cares about climate change in the first place. If this is the starting point, any discussion is inevitably asymmetric: the person who prefers treaty-based approaches to cooperation assumes that anyone who disagrees cares less about the climate problem; they’re thus less likely to take that other person’s arguments on climate change – including the argument that a treaty might not be the best way to go – less seriously. Alas, if this is the starting point, it’s going to be very difficult to have a particularly serious transatlantic conversation about the best way to pursue climate cooperation.