Rethinking cooperation: inequality and consent in international climate change politics.

Author:Ciplet, David

This article analyzes how low-income state agreement has been produced for contemporary international climate change treaties. These treaties have dramatically weakened the legal framework for action on climate change, with likely unequal impacts in the poorest countries. The case demonstrates that theories of international cooperation are not fully equipped to explain the processes through which low-income states offer their consent to multilateral agreements. This article develops and applies to this case a neoGramscian framework of negotiated consent, which reveals three mechanisms in the production of low-income state consent: material concessions, norm alignment, and structural conditioning. This approach views international cooperation as a process of strategic power relations coconstituted by strong and weak states, in coordination with nonstate actors. As such, it is useful for bridging the agent-structure divide prevalent in cooperation theory and sheds light on the durable nature of inequality in international governance. Keywords: cooperation theory, climate change politics, global environmental inequality.


IT WAS 3 A.M. DURING THE FINAL PLENARY SESSION OF THE UN CLIMATE change negotiations in Copenhagen, 20 December 2009. Ian Fry, the lead delegate of the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu turned on his microphone and exclaimed to Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister and chair of the proceedings: "It looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future. Our future is not for sale. I regret to inform you that Tuvalu cannot accept this document." (1)

Fry was furious about what he and many other representatives of developing states considered to be a highly unequal and ineffective framework for addressing climate change in the newly introduced Copenhagen Accord and a decisionmaking process that violated UN procedure.

As part of the accord, developing states deemed particularly vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, such as Tuvalu, were being offered promises of dollars--US$30 billion over the coming three years, and $100 billion a year by 2020. Despite these financial promises, delegates of several countries, including Tuvalu, Sudan (on behalf of the Group of 77 [G77]), Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia, refused to offer their consent to the accord, and it was not adopted as a legal agreement in Copenhagen.

One year later at the negotiations in Cancun, the tide had dramatically turned. The main content of the Copenhagen Accord was integrated into the Cancun Agreements, which was adopted nearly unanimously. Only Bolivia refused to offer its support. In doing so, the international community set in motion a process, agreed on in Durban by consensus the following year, which would mostly replace the legally binding Kyoto Protocol, with a voluntary "pledge and review" mitigation framework. (2) As currently configured, the new framework will allow a temperature rise above what scientists predict will trigger catastrophic environmental events around the world. (3) This will likely have unequal impacts in the poorest countries, which experience climate-related deaths at a rate of five times the global average in climate-related deaths. (4)

In this article, I ask the following question: why have low-income states agreed to an emissions reduction framework that is both scientifically inadequate and inequitable and which transformed the course of international action on climate change? (5) While numerous studies have focused on the impediments to agreement on international climate policy, to my knowledge, limited attention has been directed toward understanding the seemingly unlikely outcome of 193 states agreeing on a framework that dramatically shifted the content and form of international climate action.

This case informs broader debates on cooperation theory in international politics. I argue that a sophisticated conception is lacking of how weak, vulnerable, or low-income states come to offer their consent, particularly when agreements do not represent their core interests. Scholarship in this area has tended to emphasize structural factors while neglecting agency of actors in conditioning cooperation outcomes, or vice versa.

I develop and apply to this case a neo-Gramscian framework of "negotiated consent," which reveals three main mechanisms in the production of consent: material concessions, norm alignment, and structural conditioning (see Table 1). This framework views international cooperation as a process of "strategic power" relations co-constituted by strong and weak states, in coordination with nonstate actors. As such, it is useful for bridging the agent-structure divide prevalent in cooperation theory. (6)

To analyze this case, I engaged in methods of process tracing and discourse analysis. (7) Data for this article were collected from diverse sources, including official UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) documents, archival video footage of negotiation sessions, academic publications, governmental reports, other official documents, international organizations' papers, press releases, and WikiLeaks documents. I collected interview and observational data at six separate UNFCCC negotiation conferences during the period of December 2009 through December 2014 and at a high-level meeting of officials from Least Developed Countries (LDCs) at the UN in New York in February 2011.1 also draw on informal conversations with numerous delegates and representatives of developed and developing countries, UNFCCC officials, civil society representatives, and academics as well as my experience as a researcher for the LDC Group chair in negotiations in Bonn and Durban in 2011.

The article is organized in four parts. First, I critically engage with relevant literature on cooperation theory and international climate politics. Second, I draw on neo-Gramscian theory to develop a three-part framework for analyzing the politics of consent in multilateralism. Third, I draw on this framework to analyze the processes by which the consent of states particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts has been produced in contemporary international agreements. In Table 2, I categorize and assess the gains by low-income states, and the extent to which gains are consistent with coalition demands. In this way, I offer an approximation of coalition gains in each area ranging from weak to high. In the conclusion, I discuss how these findings inform broader debates on cooperation theory. I argue that this analysis provides insight into the concrete mechanisms by which international inequality is reproduced in multilateralism.

Consent and Cooperation in Multilateralism

The literature on international climate change politics offers important insights into the forces that have shaped the UNFCCC regime. Areas of attention include the processes by which the structural conditions in the global capitalist system have hindered progress in the negotiations (8) and the importance of North-South worldviews, which have been shaped by a historical legacy of structured international inequality in conditioning willingness to participate. (9) Other works focus on the role of domestic politics in shaping participation and nonparticipation in the UNFCCC10 and the role of nonstate actors in international climate politics including civil society," development banks and cities, (12) private sector or elite actors, (13) and transnational advocacy coalitions. (14)

However, the focus of these and other works is largely on factors that have prevented North-South cooperation or have led to comparatively distinct domestic policies. Far less attention has been directed to understanding the processes that have facilitated the seemingly unlikely outcome of 193 countries agreeing on legal frameworks that have major implications for all involved, and potentially devastating impacts for low-income states in particular.

Few articles focus specifically on the engagement of low-income or small states in the contemporary climate change regime. (15) Importantly, to my knowledge there has been no attempt to investigate the particular mechanisms of low-income, vulnerable, or small state consent. This is despite the fact that these states far outnumber wealthy and newly industrialized states in formal votes in the UN climate regime. (16)

This shortcoming in the climate change literature reflects a weakness in the broader international relations and international political economy scholarship, which has often neglected the role of small, weak, and low-income states in various approaches to cooperation theory. Cooperation theory is concerned with the forces that constrain or enable collective action, cooperation, or multilateralism among states. (17) "International cooperation" is defined as "when actors adjust their behavior to the actual or anticipated preferences of others, through a process of policy coordination." (18)

The earliest iterations of cooperation theory by realists viewed international policy coordination as a temporary fleeting phenomena based on military alliances. (19) More contemporary versions of realism acknowledge the durability of international cooperation, but point to power capability differentials as determinants of cooperation in a largely atomistic and anarchic international system. While there is attention to specific mechanisms of compliance, such as the presence of a hegemonic power, (20) the use of side payments, conditional cooperation, (21) and repeated interaction, (22) cooperation of weak states is largely viewed as a product of a lack of material, military, or structural power.

Neoliberal institutionalist and regime theorists, while maintaining realism's focus on power differentials between states, point to the cooperative and mutually beneficial dimensions of multilateralism in terms of increasing absolute, rather than relative, power. (23) From...

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