Daniel W. Drezner

The globalization of gridlock

As I said last week, the emergence of gridlock between the legislative and executive branches of U.S. government is going to put political pressure on the unelected components of government. This isn’t just a national phenomenon, however — it’s also an international one. What happens if the big players on the global stage can’t agree ...

As I said last week, the emergence of gridlock between the legislative and executive branches of U.S. government is going to put political pressure on the unelected components of government.

This isn’t just a national phenomenon, however — it’s also an international one. What happens if the big players on the global stage can’t agree — either internally or externally — on new arrangements to solve a mounting policy problem? If the problem clearly needs fixing, then pressure inevitably builds up to use a pre-existing mechanism to address the issue. Some elites in gridlocked countries will welcome this kind of development, because it allows them to bypass domestic impediments to policy change. Because this new possibility is both suboptimal and less than democratic, however, it inevitably builds up global resentments against unaccountable international institutions.

For exhibit A of this phenomenon today, let’s wander over to John Broder’s New York Times story on the latest developments in fashioning a policy response to climate change:

With energy legislation shelved in the United States and little hope for a global climate change agreement this year, some policy experts are proposing a novel approach to curbing global warming: including greenhouse gases under an existing and highly successful international treaty ratified more than 20 years ago.

The treaty, the Montreal Protocol, was adopted in 1987 for a completely different purpose, to eliminate aerosols and other chemicals that were blowing a hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

But as the signers of the protocol convened the 22nd annual meeting in Bangkok on Monday, negotiators are considering a proposed expansion in the ozone treaty to phase out the production and use of the industrial chemicals known as hydro fluorocarbons or HFCs The chemicals have thousands of times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.

HFCs are used as refrigerants in air-conditioners and cooling systems. They are manufactured mostly in China and India, but appliances containing the substance are in use in every corner of the world. HFCs replaced even more dangerous ozone-depleting chemicals known as HCFCs, themselves a substitute for the chlorofluorocarbons that were the first big target of the Montreal process…

[T]he plan is not expected to be adopted this year. Large developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, object that the timetable is too rapid and that payments for eliminating the refrigerant are not high enough.

One advantage to using the Montreal protocol as a vehicle, supporters say, is that negotiations over the treaty have been utterly unlike the contentious United Nations climate talks that foundered in Copenhagen last year. Negotiators say that without legislative action on curbing greenhouse gases by the United States, little progress will be made when countries gather in Cancún, Mexico, late this month for another round of climate talks.

In a post-election news conference, President Obama noted that it was doubtful that Congress would do anything to address global warming "this year or next year or the year after."…

Daniel A. Reifsnyder, the deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and the nation’s chief Montreal Protocol negotiator, said that it might take several years to persuade the ozone treaty countries to back the plan.

In addition to pace and cost issues, some countries say that HFCs have little impact on the ozone layer and thus should be handled under the United Nations climate change talks. Mr. Reifsnyder dismissed that as a legalistic argument and said that the ozone treaty could and should be used to achieve broader environmental objectives.

"What we’ve found is that the Montreal Protocol has been a very effective instrument for addressing global environmental problems," Mr. Reifsnyder said in an interview. "It was created to deal with the ozone layer, but it also has tremendous ability to solve the climate problem if people are willing to use it that way."

If I was the policymaker in charge of pushing action on climate change forward, I’d be very tempted to agree with Reifsnyder. This might be a way of achieving a deliverable that would simply not be possible under the Copenhagen Accord or the United Nations effort to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

On the other hand… this is also an action that would inject political controversy into what was a ridiculously successful accord. It will push another governance process that’s already in critical condition into hospice care. Plus, I’m not sure it will work — China and India are going to stoutly resist this move.

My larger point, however, is that political paralysis in certain global governance forums is simply going to trigger a search for more suitable global governance structures. That search isn’t going to change the underlying disagreements, however, and it just might cause an erosion of faith in the few multilateral structures that do appear to work well.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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