Ever since the Copenhagen conference got going, and rapidly turned into an argument over wealth transfer from the rich world to the poor world, it has seemed to me that the exercise is best understood not as an argument about climate change, but instead about internaitonal economic development policy.
That is, the basic problem with international development policy is not the usual collective action problem. The usual collective action problem is that which bedevils a Copenhagen deal to replace Kyoto, if one makes the assumptions about the science that, apparently, is beyond question: even if everyone agrees as to the problem and the desirable collective solution, temptations to defect and to free-riding wreck it, either at the front end because no one agrees or at the back end. Everyone has an interest; you just can’t get them all past the prisoners dilemma (or variant thereof) problem.
Many clever international lawyer-academics have quite patiently explained to me how that problem is solved this time around; none of them has convinced me. On the contrary, my lens on this is not as someone coming to this from environmental law – but instead from watching iteration after iteration of crises at the UN that are, in each and every instance, something like the end of the world if the conference does not come to some agreement … and then it’s not.
The last time around for this pattern was, what, the 2005 UN reform summit. Anyone besides John Bolton, Kofi Annan, and me remember it? I realize that if you are an environmental law person or activist or student or etc., what happened at some unrelated UN confab does not seem at all relevant to a conference in which the Fate of the Planet Hangs in the Balance. But believe me, whatever this is as an environmental matter, it is also, just as importantly, a UN event. It follows, and is following as we speak, a certain UN pattern of “perpetual crisis” that never turns out to be the crisis that was foretold.
The institutional nature of the UN is an institution that follows a track of ‘punctuated equilibrium’. It lurches along, largely but not completely epiphenomenal to the real world, and then goes through periodic spasms in which all will be lost if the UN does not act. Sometimes it acts, which is to say, it puts words down on a paper. And that is largely the end of it, and it is considered rude and tactless to do, when the next crisis comes up, precisely what I am doing now, pointing out that the breathless sense of urgent crisis was the same five years ago. Again, I realize that if your point of reference is that this conference is about something different and unique and like no other in human history or at least UN history, then none of this will strike you as relevant experience. But bear in mind, again, that this is as much UN as climate, and the UN has a long track record of perpetual crisis that isn’t truly a crisis. The climate change movement has hitched itself to a process and institution that has its own history, own dynamics, and while the NGO activists think that they own it, it is just as much the other way around – hitched to the eternal nature of the UN, which is to be perpetually becoming but never actually getting there.
So this time around the collective action problem at the UN will at last be solved, though it was not solved in any earlier iteration of crisis. But then comes the argument over the climate change fund. It has a curious aspect to it. At bottom, seen not from the glorious standpoint of climate change issues, but just as money and from the standpoint of the developing world governments (and others) clamoring for money, it looks for all of that like a development program. A development program that involves transferring a large amount of money from rich governments to poor governments.
That is not a collective action problem, however, it is an altruism problem. The rich countries do not see anything in it for them at the hard core, realistic, practical level – yes, climate justice, etc., but at bottom it looks like an altruistic transfer. Those transfers don’t readily get made – they are even harder to manage than collective actions.
Seen as a development program, and ignoring climate change as such, then, the special feature about the Copenhagen talks is that they purport to get around the altruism problem by making it a problem of all the world – do this, or we all bake and fry and sizzle and simmer, together. Everyone is in this together, and voila, suddenly it is not altruism, it’s a collective action problem. That does not solve the collective action problem, which, even if it were true, remains as seemingly intractable as ever – but it recasts it as collective action, rather than altruism.
The problem, however, is that the rich countries don’t really believe we are really all in this together, and neither, come to that, do the poor countries. Regardless of the speechifying in Copenhagen, this is seen as a transfer from rich to poor. Which is to say altruism, not collective action. Which is further to say, it’s functionally a development program.
Now, if all that is the case – and maybe it isn’t, I’m just spinning out my sense of this as a student of UN processes as well as pretty hard-boiled development person, not a climate change person – then I wonder, whatever happened to the UN’s famous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? The famous MDGs, elaborated in 2000 by Jeffrey Sachs, the UN’s essentially command-and-control five year plans for cutting global poverty by leaps and bounds over a fifteen year period? I have a stack of books under my desk (I’m finishing a book on the UN) and one on my desk titled, Achieving the Millennium Development Goals, extremely dry and heavy reading, and until not long ago, and despite the failures of funding of the MDGs, I thought I should read the technical literature (Palgrave-UN University Press 2008, it’ll set you back $90-100, and face it, I’m very sorry I got the school library to buy it).
Today, the MDGs no longer look especially relevant. It looks, to my innocent eye, as though they are in the process of being replaced in Copenhagen. Because, in very round numbers, the amounts talked about in this climate change fund look somewhat like the kinds of numbers called for in Sachs’ MDGs – tens to hundreds of billions annually. So here’s my question … is the climate fund, looked at without regard to, er, climate, really just the latest, crisis-driven version of the MDGs – which in any case have pretty much failed for lack of funding?
Sachs had an interesting op-ed in the Financial Times today (probably behind sub wall) in which he lamented, more or less, the fate of the MDGs (without giving up on them, however), on the grounds that they were an exercise in altruism, and countries didn’t pony up the amounts they said they would. And he seems a bit surprised. So he says that the way to avoid this is to use “assessed amounts” – voluntary payments, in the sense that they are not formal UN dues, but still assessed, meaning that there is an obligation undertaken in advance by which each country agrees with each other on a multilateral basis how much it will contribute.
UN Peacekeeping Operations notably works this way, and works reasonably well (and, yes, it does, even with procurement fraud and the not-small matter of sexual abuse by PKO forces in the field and other problems; it is a bright spot at the UN). PKOs costs billions more than the regular UN budget, and it can’t work out successfully for precisely the reasons Sachs identifies, unless everyone knows in advance that the large sums needed as pooled sums are actually going to be there. It works in PKO for three fundamental reasons. First, although in one sense, it is altruism, in another sense it is seen by the donor states as outsourcing some basic global security functions that they would like to see performed, partly as altruism but partly as interest. And, second, because the US sees it as being in its interest as the (still) security hegemon, the extra-collective-security hegemon. Finally, conditioned by the first two reasons, there is a genuine aspect of reputation and repeat play in something, I stress, in which the basic condition of interest is met.
That was never true of the MDGs; one can call all one likes for assessed amounts, but the problem is much more fundamental, which is that these payments are seen as global altruism and not as essentially self-interested. Create an assessment mechanism and perhaps reputation and repeat play matter modestly more; but at bottom, it is just another multilateral agreement to be ignored. If one sees the climate change fund as a development program in that way, then Sachs’s idea of assessments for it has the same basic problem.
I suppose it is possible that the states involved will really see this as more than altruism, and so move the negotiations into the realm of collective action. The collective action problems are as daunting as ever. But with respect to transfers from rich to poor – my view is that it does not matter how much one recharacterizes them ideologically or as a matter of imagination, at bottom this is a development program, understood as altruism by donors and donees, and each will act accordingly. It does seem very much like the replacement program for the failed MDGs – and in some sense, Sachs today said as much.
(Note: Writing fast and I’m sure there some things I want to correct, but I will put this up and come back to it and make changes tomorrow. What I put in blogs is first draft; this is super-first-draft.)