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Why Don’t States Cooperate More on Energy and Climate?

by Michael Levi
January 18, 2011

I spent Friday and Saturday at an excellent (largely academic) workshop on international institutions and global governance. In our discussions about why states do and don’t cooperate, I was struck by how absent states’ capacity to cooperate was from the discussion. In particular, when it comes to energy and climate, it’s one of the bigger blind spots in how both practitioners and scholars think about cooperation.

Here’s a simple example of what I’m referring to: People argue that international oil markets would function more smoothly if states would publish basic data on their domestic markets (supply, demand, stocks, etc). They observe that China (among others) doesn’t do that. The immediate conclusion is that Beijing doesn’t want to. The only policy recourse, then, is to pressure or persuade China to change tack.

But in more than one recent conversation, people have emphasized to me that Beijing doesn’t have many of the needed statistics itself (though it’s working on developing its capacity). Badgering them won’t change that; until they develop the capacity to collect the right statistics, cooperation will fail.

The same thing is true much more broadly. India, for example, won’t be able to force power plants to internalize pollution costs until it develops a serious environmental regulator. Brazil won’t get deforestation properly under control without stronger capacity to enforce the laws that it puts on the books. One might even argue that China won’t improve its IPR protection until its innovation system becomes much more capable of developing technologies itself. Our view of international politics, though, tends to focus much more on pure ambition than on these sorts of features that directly influence results.

I don’t want to take this too far. In many cases (perhaps most), states don’t do what they should on energy and climate because they don’t want to, not because they can’t. (The United States is guilty too.) Moreover, the decision not to have sufficient capacity to act is often quite a deliberate one. Many observers, for example, used to argue that China would never be able to join the WTO because it lacked the capacity to enforce obligations domestically. But it turned out that once Beijing decided that it really cared about WTO membership, it was able to develop the capacity that it needed.

Why is capacity such a blind spot? My guess is that it’s because it’s associated with weak states, and people still don’t think much about state weakness when it comes to big economic policy issues (aside from development). Capacity concerns have penetrated the security studies world – we hear constantly about how weak states provide safe harbors for terrorist groups, drug cartels, weapons smugglers, and the like. But people have a much harder time thinking about China, India, and Brazil as (partially) weak states than they do thinking about Afghanistan, Colombia, or Sudan that way.

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