Global policymaking in times of climate change uncertainty

Policymaking at the domestic level is generally straightforward; governments look at the available information, they consider different perspectives, they weigh the options and then of course, they calculate the economic and political ramifications of their choices. Inside their sovereign territory, governments have the monopoly on law and policymaking decisions. The process varies in time and efficiency, but well-run states usually go through it many times in a year.

At the international level, where no one has the monopoly on decision and where safeguarding national interests is the name of the game, policymaking is not as straightforward. The binding, law-structured, domestic policymaking process is replaced by an unbinding one, where Kyoto-like protocols that rely on the good will of its signatories are as good as it gets – the late 1980s Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer is often considered to be the only real successful international binding agreement.

With no world government to enact bills into laws or generate sound policies, in these times of climate change uncertainty, we are unfortunately left with a dreary perspective of our global ability to mitigate the potential climate-related impacts.

Climate change as a threat multiplier for instability

Some political scientists, most notably Thomas Homer-Dixon, have defined climate change as a potential “threat multiplier for instability” – where climate change negatively impacts global security by generating, for example, widespread migration, ecological disasters and resource scarcity, which in turn are likely to generate more civil and international conflicts.

This is a gloomy picture of the world filled with strife and violence, and fortunately the worst-case security scenarios have not yet materialised – although this year’s severe drought, which has caused a generalised famine in the Horn of Africa, is a powerful example of how climate-related catastrophes can affect millions of lives. Now, the world is facing another refugee crisis in an already unstable geo-political region.

From universal threat to the rise of a new form of governance

In these times of climate change uncertainty, security threats abound, and because climate change is a universal threat that could affect the physical fate of humankind, governments around the globe are almost universally worried with its potential impacts.

It is precisely this worldwide concern and the inevitable uncertainties that warrants the drawing of another picture - this time a slightly more optimistic one - in which climate change positively impacts global policymaking, which can be seen as slowly evolving into a complex but more efficient undertaking.

Climate change is generating a significant amount of cooperation or at least, global knowledge and technology sharing. Governments around the world want to mitigate climate-related impacts before it is too late and in the face of so much uncertainty, they call upon experts - other governments, NGOs, scientists, the private sector and industry - to put into place agreed guidelines and partnerships to manage risk and develop sound policies.

Take the Arctic for example. Dubbed globally as “our time’s canary in the coalmine” and described by Jonas Gahr Store, Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, as the “front-row seats for observing global warming” - ever since scientists have clued in that the Arctic ice is melting at a speed never observed before, the region entered a world of security scenarios, ranging from arctic cooperation to widespread conflict.

With the Arctic Ocean melting, some of its coastal states, particularly Russia, Norway and Canada, started seeing each other as potential threats. Nationalistic discourses and military exercises in the Far North increased. But instead of witnessing new conflicts, we have over time witnessed in the Arctic the continuous albeit strenuous rise of a new form of governance – networked governance.

In a Global Brief article entitled, Networks and the Future of the Arctic, Lloyd Axworthy and Dan Hurley defined networked governance as “a tool that recognises and allows all stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process. It supports collaboration across national boundaries, promotes multinational use of best management practices, as well as the adoption of successful protocols developed by the world’s best experts.”

In the North, this new form of governance started to emerge in 1996 with the creation of the Arctic Council. For the first time in an international forum, indigenous peoples were granted a permanent seat to discuss important multilateral issues with national governments. After fifteen years, within and around the Arctic Council, networks of private and public stakeholders with interests in the region have flourished. Although the Council has recently been neglected with the new “Arctic race” mentality of the last decade, the Arctic community that has evolved since 1996 is still firmly in place.

The University of the Arctic is a great example of how networks of universities, colleges and organisations have come together across national boundaries to share knowledge and expertise that can eventually influence policymaking decisions through education. The Arctic Council’s six expert working groups have also produced tremendous scientific work that have helped governments by providing them with useful information for national and regional policymaking; the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report in 2004, which provided vital information for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC)  fourth assessment report (the landmark report that concluded that climate change was real and that it was due to human activity), is a good example. The IPCC itself is another example of how governments are now relying on the sharing of expert knowledge to understand the uncertainties and make good policy decisions.

In Asia, climate change has also helped create networks across national boundaries. Tangible environmental projects are increasing maritime cooperation where multilateralism has not previously been welcomed. Under the Northwest Pacific Action Plan, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are currently implementing several joint activities in the realm of marine science, survey, forecasting, island and coastal area management. Since 2008, the Chinese central government has also been calling for more international cooperation in marine environmental protection, including for example, the forecasting of and planning for oceanic disasters, even in the contentious South China Sea.

According to the authors of the Global Brief article, “network-style governance is emerging – perhaps par excellence – in the environmental protection of designated regions. For example, several African states have formed the Congo Basin Forest Partnership to combat illegal logging and enforce anti-poaching laws. The partners include 12 countries, scores of NGOs, such as Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund, various private companies and a host of government agencies.”

The impact of networked governance on global policy making

In the Arctic, Africa and Asia, and of course around the globe, various networks are bringing together civil servants, scientists, academics, NGOs, indigenous peoples, the private sector and industry to discuss regional and global climate related issues. Through forums, workshops, education, technology and knowledge sharing, these networks are bringing about change in a much less antagonistic way. As this new form of governance rises, global policymaking in times of climate change uncertainty has never looked better.

To be sure, networked governance does not change the unbinding international framework and it does not change the nature of the international system, where most of the time, safeguarding national interests trumps collective beneficial outcomes. Binding treaties and protocols are still a rarity.

Much time is needed to change old ideas, but in the meantime, we can remain optimistic - for in times of climate change uncertainty, global knowledge and expertise are now being extensively shared between multitudes of networks. Helped by technology, global policy ideas are getting transferred regionally and locally, where, it must be said, the policymaking process remains significantly more straightforward.

François Perreault is a research associate at the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Foreign and Defense Policy. Based in Singapore, his current research interests revolve around Canada’s foreign and defense policy in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region.

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