Nicholas Chan’s contribution to the current issue of Ethics and International Affairs makes the observation that the Paris Agreement on climate change focuses on a “‘bottom-up’ structure, emphasizing national flexibility in order to ensure broader participation”–with the hopes that this nod in favor of national sovereignty will make it easier for governments to set and abide by emissions-reductions targets than if they were imposed by a central authority or multilateral treaty. The gamble here, as I noted in a companion essay for the Hague Institute for Global Justice, is that “most nations will choose to adopt more stringent targets and that national leaders will either be successful in convincing their populations to accept their share of the burden or will be willing to imperil their political futures to irrevocably bind their countries via domestic legislation.”
The Paris Agreement differs from previous protocols on climate change in that it does not seek to create a multilateral consensus but instead shifts the decision back to the national governments, although Article 3 mandates that targets that are selected must be “ambitious” and must contribute to making a significant reduction in emissions. The shift to this “bottom-up” approach is a recognition that in recent years publics all over the world have become much more suspicious of agreements or commitments that seem to be concluded without their consent and which seem to impose immediate costs but whose benefits are not so apparent. Particularly in post-industrial democracies, there are concerns that governments hide behind “international obligations” as a way to duck their supposed responsibilities to their constituents.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is finding herself in hot water after some blunt talk at the Conservative Party conclave, where she declared, ” … today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” She was roundly criticized for seeming to attack the basis of the cosmopolitan world view, that we hold obligations to people beyond our immediate Westphalian borders, and indeed to the planetary community as a whole. In particular, her comments that “you respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work. That means a commitment to the men and women who live around you, who work for you, who buy the goods and services you sell” seem to suggest a priority for state citizens over “outsiders.” Such a commitment would further mandate that governments should pursue policies that benefit the current generation of citizens of their countries at the expense of others and future generations.
Yet this is the paradox of democracy, which forces leaders “to balance two sets of competing and in some cases contradictory requirements: obligations to maintain and improve the welfare of the current generation of national citizens, versus obligations to future generations and to humanity as a whole.” In a democratic system, leaders must convince and persuade (or act and face the consequences at the polls). The Paris Agreement, if it in fact is going to be implemented as designed, will require national leaders to actively dialogue with their citizens and require a discussion of costs and benefits and reconciling short- and long-term time horizons. If the gamble works, it may produce more meaningful commitments that, in the case of both the developed as well as developing democracies around the world, are more likely to achieve the buy-in that is necessary for success.