Noted: Climate Change, Global Politics, and International Law

Earth Day is this Sunday and in both of my classes we are discussing the politics and international law of climate change this week and next. So I thought it might be a good opportunity to examine the recent news.

Fragmented Global Governance and Climate Change
A quick look at Reuter’s Diary on the Global Environment helps illustrate the continued fragmentary approach to these issues at the global level. Just in the next 7 days:

Regional Efforts
On a regional basis there is the Africa Carbon Forum, meeting in Addis Ababa; a “Public Forum on North America’s energy future” meeting in Canada; an “EU energy and the environment Minister’s meeting”.

Issue based efforts
Sweden’s “Stockholm+40” conference on sustainable development; The Fifth Annual Global Marine Renewable Energy Conference in Washington, DC

And if we look beyond the coming week, more of the same is happening in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, looking at linkages between climate and water, climate and birds, the use of solar energy, and desertification. The meetings are hosted by governments, UN agencies, and regional organizations. On the one hand, we might like the fact that so much attention is being paid to these issues. On the other hand, how do we organize a response to climate change in light of such institutional complexity?

Individual state efforts to combat climate change may create problems for global talks
In Europe
While we wait on a global solution, individual countries are creating and implementing their own approaches to the issues. One example of this is a European Union law to charge airlines for their carbon emissions (Reuters). Reportedly, US airlines will comply, but China and India want nothing to do with this. Says India’s Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan:

For the environment ministry, for me, it is a deal-breaker because you simply cannot bring this into climate change discourse and disguise unilateral trade measures under climate change…
I strongly believe that as far as climate change discussions are concerned, this is unacceptable.

Apparently, India is suggesting that this culd be a reason for them to boycott all future climate-change talks.

In the United States
Recently, in the US there was a suggestion that the Endangered Species Act could be used to require the US to control greenhouse emissions. Since those emissions create conditions that make polar bear’s habitats less habitable, there was arguably potential scope for regulation. While this has so far been used to target domestic emissions, one can wonder whether a success in using the Act this way could also lead to pressures to regulate the actions of foreign actors whose emissions can be said to have direct effect on our polar bears’ habitats. My guess: highly improbable. But it is interesting.

Issue Linkage: Climate Change and Conservation

Finally, there is an interesting piece by Elias Ngalame at AlertNet on how Cameroon is trying to get support for climate adaptation projects in order to protect its elephants from poaching. The claim is that elephants are wandering out of the protected parks due to drought and desertification brought on by climate change, leaving them more susceptible to poaching.

GEP Course Notes: Oil in Africa

Drilling Africa’s Arctic | Thought Leader.

The Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest Unesco World Heritage Site, is situated along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda.

It contains more species of mammals, reptiles and birds than any other protected area on the continent. It has an exceptional diversity of landscapes stretching from the glaciers of the Ruwenzori mountains, to indigenous rainforests, savannas, rivers, and lakes. It’s also one of the last places in Africa where mountain gorillas still survive.

Apparently a number of oil companies want to explore for oil here. Don’t know enough about this, but I knew it might interest some of you.

GEP Course Notes: Conservation in Africa, the Elephant

African elephants have been a major subject recently. News reports state that…

At least half the elephant population in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida reserve have been slaughtered because the west African nation sent too few security forces to tackle poachers.

Over at Africa Unchained, Julie Owono notes that there is a major capacity problem for Cameroonian authorities. But clearly another major problem is that there is global–and in particular Chinese–demand for ivory. Last summer, Deborah Brautigam blogged about how “When China and Africa Dance, the Elephants Get Trampled”, citing an article in Vanity Fair. But today, over at the New York Times, Bettina Wassener, sees this demand traced to Cameroon’s recent elephant massacre (“China’s Hunger for Ivory…”).

But not all of the news is pessimistic. Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe have agreed to establish the “world’s largest wildlife conservation area”, to be known as the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA).

GEP Course Notes: Game Theoretic Approaches

Scott Barrett’s Environment and Statecraft heavily relies on game theory to make its arguments about environmental treaty-making. But what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Well, first it is important to note that Barrett has a lot of company with his approach. A nice article written in the Atlantic Monthly back in 1993, “Can Selfishness Save the Environment?”, explicitly considers how game theory was used then to discuss environmental cooperation. More recently, The Scientific American described Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s use of Game Theory to predict the failure of the 2010 Copenhagen climate talks before they happened. And in 2011, some tried to use game theory to find ways pass the negotiating impasses at Durban: “Climate Change Solution Proposed by Scientists Incorporates Game Theory.”

In 2008, The Telegraph went so far as to say “Game theory could save the world.” That is nonsense, of course. Why? Well, while game theory does provide us with some useful tools for viewing strategic behavior (I’m not assigning Barrett without good reason!), it has a number of weaknesses as a basis for prescription, including:

  • It is only as good as its inputs, including assumptions about preferences which are rarely well understood
  • Some actors will choose to act ethically, rather than selfishly
    • However, that is not to say they are more likely to support solutions that also are in their self-interest!
  • There are a lot of limits to acting rationally… We’ll talk a bit more about this in class.
  • It is not really a theory. Rather, it is a set of analytical tools which require theoretical inputs.
  • All of which means that different analysts may come up with different predictions and prescriptions based on differences in their starting assumptions.

Noted: Climate Change Edition

Some good news:

But also some bad news, and some just not-so-great-news, on the climate front:

Ghana: Waste, lagoons, and deserts

Besides some concerns about oil’s impact on the environment in Ghana, there have been a number of other recent stories that remind us that Ghana’s environmental problems are far more widespread and diversified.

Waste Disposal

One of the biggest issues is the problem of waste disposal (or the lack thereof).As Fiona Leonard mentions in her blog, “A Fork in the Road”,Ghana’s beaches occasionally look pretty bad because of this. The Korle Lagoon in Ghana is particularly bad (a number of observers have called it one of the most polluted waters on the planet but I’m not sure whether there is an official measure of this). It is even called “Sodom and Gomorrah”. Nevertheless, there have been efforts to change the situation. Ghana’s Ministry of Housing and Works has contracted with International Marine and Dredging Consultants to do work to reduce pollution in the lagoon. However, some efforts (I’m not sure exactly who is behind these) have also created important social problems, including the eviction of squatters.

Fiona also mentions a great advertising campaign designed to bring attention to the issue (“The Picture the Ghana Tourist Board Doesn’t Want You to See”).

However, don’t take all of this as a sign that there aren’t good beaches in Ghana. Esi’s “What Yo’ Mama Never Told You About Ghana” blog has a nice rundown of great Ghanaian beaches that are worth visiting.


More pleasant, perhaps, is the news about a new grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and World Bank to combat desertification and drought in Ghana.

In case you missed it, last friday, June 17th, was World Desertification Day. Sponsored by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) the focus this year was on supporting the UN’s International Year of the Forests. In Ghana, the MTN Group sponsored at least a couple events.

The spread of norms and the UN vote to make access to water a human right

A friend from my Peace Corps days posted on Facebook the UN press release that the General Assembly has adopted a resolution “Recognizing Access to Clean Water, Sanitation as Human Right, By Recorded Vote of 122 in Favour, None Against, 41 Abstentions.”

This isn’t exactly getting major press coverage. And, indeed, just because the UN General Assembly calls something a human right doesn’t automatically make it so, though it can be important in the development of such a norm. Some, however, have argued that it already is a human right. Since we need water to live, and since a right to life is enshrined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, then perhaps there is already consensus on this? (See the post by Jennifer Vettel at Columbia’s Earth Institute). But 41 nations did choose to abstain, including (please note with appropriate shock) famed human rights-leading Canada. Of course, the US also abstained. As did, apparently, some developing countries who were concerned about incurring greater legal obligations for providing water to their citizens then they could possibly fulfill (see the Huffington Post on this).

So what is the significance of this General Assembly vote? At this point, it seems to me unclear that much will change if change requires politically costly choices. As Iman Kurdi suggests in his post on, it is unlikely that Israel or Turkey will change or reverse their dam-building, which has infuriated neighbors in the past. So I would expect others interested in building dams (Ethiopia, for instance) are probably proceeding without giving such human rights concerns a second thought. Possibly the biggest impact will be to act as a fundraiser for the UN’s various water and sanitation-related initiatives. As the International Law Observer reports, there is a clear non-binding appeal to states and international organizations to commit resources.

While the impact of the resolution is therefore limited. It does help bring needed publicity and international attention to an important problem. One of my students here at Wesleyan University, Oluwayimika Taiwo-Peters, is tackling this head-on in her home-country of Nigeria this summer. She is visiting local schools as part of a health education program she created, and installing a rainwater catchment system at a local school. Her activities remind me of my old Peace Corps days as a water and sanitation volunteer in Northern Ghana! But the bottom-line is that for many people in Africa — and close to a billion people worldwide — reliable access to safe water and sanitation is an important obstacle to development and happiness. So I will hold out the hope that this norm continues to grow.

And since we are talking about norms, this isn’t a bad place to mention Schrad’s recent book on The Political Power of Bad Ideas, which The Duck of Minerva reviews. The excellent point of the book is to explore how not just good ideas (we need clean water) but also bad ideas (prohibition counts as one of these, in his view) can be spread via advocacy networks. I haven’t read this yet, but Charli Carpenter’s post makes me want to!