Climate change creates virtual chasm between nations

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Amy Below

At the heart of Amy Below’s research project is a rarely asked question: What factors most influence a state’s environmental policy decision making?

Her search for an answer focuses on decisions by various nations to join the international climate change regime in the Americas. In particular, it analyzes the decision made by Argentina, Mexico, the U.S., and Venezuela to join, or not officially join, the Kyoto Protocol. The issue of climate change has developed rapidly into one of the most controversial topics in world politics, said Below, a Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of political science in OSU’s School of Public Policy.

“It has caused friction within nations and has created a rift between a number of developed and developing countries, creating a virtual chasm between some of the world’s most powerful and influential nations and, what may be, the future’s most powerful nations.”

While representatives from around the world have agreed that global climate change is an area of great concern and that action is necessary, what form that action should take and how it should be codified in international treaties is intensely debated. Hundreds of international representatives agreed to ratify the non-binding UN Framework on Climate Change in 1992, but the subsequent and stronger Kyoto Protocol faced a far more difficult road to ratification.

“The lion’s share of the tension stems from the fact that the Protocol divides the world into two groups—developed nations that must commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a specific percentage by a specified time, and developing nations that do not have to commit to more than making efforts to reduce emissions,” said Below.

The tension arises because rapidly expanding countries such as China and India are considered “developing” under the Protocol and are not required to make reductions though their emissions are expected to grow significantly, and even outpace those of developed nations. A number of developed countries, the U.S. in particular, see this designation as unfair and unproductive. As a result, the U.S. requested that developing nations volunteer to reduce emissions.

Of the countries included in this study, Argentina complied, Mexico considered but declined, and Venezuela outright refused to become party to the agreement until the last minute. What accounts for the varying behaviors of these countries when faced with the same proposition? . . . Conclusions could not only provide insight into how foreign policies, especially environmental ones, in the region are made, but also subsequently highlight avenues by which others could impact environmental foreign policy decision making.”

Below’s research includes analysis of such documents as United Nations reports, announcements and press releases, national reports and surveys, and popular media and academic publications. In addition, she has interviewed individuals closely involved in their nation’s decision-making process, including a former environmental secretary, national conference delegates, and non-governmental organization representatives.

“Results from my field research suggest that, in the case of the U.S., domestic forces were most influential. Economic, scientific and moral concerns, and the resulting division within the U.S. Senate, prevented the U.S. from ratifying the Protocol and forced the president to ask for voluntary reductions from developing nations. In contrast, developing nations Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela were more influenced by international forces, and in the case of Argentina and Venezuela, a combination of individual- and international-level factors.”

Each nation was acutely aware of its status both regionally in the Americas and internationally, said Below, and this played a powerful role in the different reactions of each country to the U.S. request. The president of Argentina wanted to keep good relations and hence cooperated. Mexico wanted to maintain its status as a regional environmental leader but ultimately resisted U.S. pressure. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela refused to ratify the treaty until it took effect and then praised it and chastised the U.S. for not signing.

The influence of the United States in such international decision making is unquestionable, said Below, “but its impact and ‘success’ in terms of getting what it wants and intimidating smaller states into doing what it wants them to is not guaranteed.”