Author: Johannes Urpelainen

Bilateral Climate Cooperation between China and the United States: What Should We Expect?

One of this weeks big news items in international relations was the progress that China and the United States had made in their bilateral climate talks (gated but free registration available). While it is too early to say if the talks result in concrete action, this is the first time since forever that the two largest emitters are recognizing their common interest in  cooperating to mitigate climate change.

What should we expect? It would be naive to believe that these talks break the gridlock of global climate negotiations. Regardless of what China and the United States discuss in the talks, the grim reality of American politics is that any legally binding climate treaty would have a tough time in the Senate. The domestic political structure of the United States makes federal climate policy, let alone treaty ratification, very hard in today’s polarized environment. Even if China accepted binding emissions targets — and that’s a big if — I would not expect Republicans to vote for, say, a national cap-and-trade policy. After all, Republicans are currently accusing the Obama administration for waging a “war on coal”.

More modest achievements are possible. Cooperation on low-carbon initiatives and renewable energy could contribute to decarbonization, facilitate technology transfer, and send a signal to the clean technology industry that there are new opportunities in the horizon. Even modest steps to this direction could encourage other countries to increase their offers in different negotiations, such as those among major emitters. While Obama’s hands are tied as long as the Congress remains polarized on climate, he has a proven track record of acting on climate through executive authority. The Chinese political constraints are less transparent, and I am not a specialist in this field, but Beijing certainly has strong incentives to deploy clean technologies to mitigate air pollution and reduce the country’s energy intensity and dependence on coal.

As long as we accept the constraints on global climate cooperation and expect only modest gains at the international level until a fundamental shift in the domestic politics of fossil fuels, the bilateral climate talks between China and the United States are welcome news. They’re not that surprising either. China’s increasing carbon dioxide emissions are changing Beijing’s position in the negotiations. While the average standard of living in China is still much lower than in industrialized countries, China’s status as the world’s largest emitter makes it difficult for the Chinese leadership to hide behind the developing country status much longer. On a good day, I would say that China’s increased willingness to negotiate is a sign of recognizing the need to for a new, more proactive strategy. The world’s two largest emitters are the most important countries in the negotiations by a wide margin, and much depends on their ability to cooperate.


Zucotti Park Redux: An Earth Day Field Report

“Frack Wall Street, Not Our Water”

“The People Are Rising, No More Compromising”

“Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Fossil Fuels Have to Go”

It’s Earth Day, and I am in Zucotti Park holding some parsley given to me by an unknown activist, chanting “oceans are rising, no more compromising!” with about 200 other people. It’s the beginning of Global Climate Convergence, and I decided to do some field research on the status of the grassroots climate movement. We started in the park, did a little tour of Wall Street and other notable locations, such as the office of the New York State Comptroller. We then returned to Zucotti Park and called it a day, feeling a little more cheerful and optimistic about the future.

So what did I learn? Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the event is the diversity of the movement. Since grassroots activism is not drawing huge masses of random New Yorkers, a typical activist event draws in just about everyone who is struggling against something. Just say “I oppose corporate power” and you are in. This itself is not a problem, as any activists understands that coalitions have to be formed and synergies found. But I was a little troubled when a representative of the Friends of the Soviet People — I am not kidding, they exist — gave me a flyer and kept shouting “Down with the Federal Reserve Bank.” That’s so far from why most of these people protest that it boggles my mind, and I’m not sure that this is the kind of ally that climate activists are looking for. But, it’s a public event. At any rate, I was there not to restore the glory of the Soviet Union.

On the positive side, the event was completely peaceful and very well organized. It was impressive how the lead activists were able to steer the motley crew of various warriors, attracting mostly positive attention — the Wall Street types were trying to avoid eye contact, but most people were supportive and took photos of us — and creating a fun and welcoming atmosphere. The group was remarkably diverse in every possible respect. Back in the olden days when I was out in the streets handing out flyers, the typical activist event had a huge female contingent and only male leaders. But this was not the case today, as many of the lead activists were women. That’s great news and gives credibility to the claim that it’s a people’s movement. Similarly, the racial and age distributions had a high variance.

What more can I say? Perhaps the most important question is whether or not this kind of action can lead to change. I am optimistic, provided the movement can grow. Moderate environmental groups working within the system need someone to truly challenge politicians and corporate leaders to change their policies and behavior. In an ideal world, the grassroots movement puts pressure on leaders to consider solutions provided by more moderate groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund. Then, politicians give in to the demands of the moderate groups to deal with the rising pressure. We are very far from this ideal, but one has to start somewhere.

I’ll finish this report with some snapshots from the event. They cannot possibly convey the lively spirits and great feeling of working together for a better world, but they’re pretty coool nonetheless. For more such action in your community, check out




Can Research Inform Climate Policy? A Columbia University Workshop

For me, yesterday’s main activity was a home game workshop on the policy implications of research on climate policy. I co-organized the workshop with Alex Ovodenko and Scott Barrett, both of whom are active in the climate policy research community. We had a group of about 30 people, both academics and practitioners. The six presentations focused on climate negotiations, carbon clubs,  and carbon markets.

Why such a workshop? As some of you may have noticed, one of my frustrations has been the disconnect between climate policy research and practice. While the fieldwork that I do on renewable energy in India informs policy and business practice without much effort, the same cannot be said of my research on climate policy. I have written several pieces on climate policy that specifically aim to contribute to the policy debate (for example, on dynamic climate governance, North-South technology cooperation, and climate finance), but my experience is that there is not a lot of demand for this kind of research outside the academic community. Partly this is probably because of my own lack of ability and insight, but I have long suspected that other, more prominent scholars of climate policy share the same concern. The problem is huge and the current political environment poisoned by fundamental disagreements, lack of trust, and blame games. If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, the climate negotiators are, as instructed by their political superiors, throwing temper tantrums while the world is burning.

So what did we learn? One interesting insight from the discussions was that researchers do not seem to share a common theory of transformative change that would inform their research. Here are different variants of how people believe their work could be relevant:

– Perhaps the largest body of research offers guidance for how climate negotiations could make progress. This group of scholars seems to share the assumption that negotiators are somehow missing important elements of the strategic problem. Different emphasis in negotiations or a move from the UNFCCC to carbon clubs can help. I am sympathetic but not optimistic about prospects of radical change in carbon trajectories.

– Another community of scholars emphasizes technology. For this group, new technologies can break new ground and change both the politics and economics of energy. I am also sympathetic to this group, but I do believe that technological transformations are social phenomena that require specific attention to politics.

– The third group, of which I identify with, focuses on the politics of energy. For this group, the key issue is the balance of political power between supporters and opponents of carbon pricing and clean technology.

All three groups can contribute to better climate policy, but scholars should be more aware of their theories of change. While the workshop was a step to the right direction, most papers still began with an academic question motivated by earlier literature and then paid lip service to policy implications. I would imagine that work that aims to address the problem should begin with a real policy problem that is actually confounding efforts to act, and then focus on solving that problem with academic rigor. In the case of carbon clubs, for example, it would be more useful to identify a specific benefit that a club approach could deliver, instead of talking about the generic possibility that carbon clubs could help. The benefit should then be connected to a theory of social change that results in a more sustainable world.

Yeah, I know – this is a order. It’s actually much easier to install solar panels in India and identify their treatment effects. On that note,  let me now write another grant application to fund more field research while the world burns, and burns, and burns.


Accountability in Public Service Provision: Lessons from a Film Festival

This Saturday’s highlight was the screening of the film Powerless at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale, where I was honored with the opportunity to participate in a panel on the film. Begin with the trailer, and then go see the entire film. It’s excellent.

The film depicts the desperate situation of the Kanpur Electricity Supply Company (KESCO) in Uttar Pradesh, India. Due to widespread electricity theft, the company incurs heavy losses and is unable to invest in power generation capacity to deal with daily power cuts. The urban poor refuse to pay their bills because of low incomes and the low quality of the service provided, instead acquiring electricity through illegal connections. Opportunistic politicians and corrupt bureaucrats do little to improve the situation, and those that try soon find themselves in a lot of trouble. The economic losses and human suffering caused by frequent power outages are not for the faint of heart.

In my opinion, one of key insights from the panel discussion that followed was the difficulty of solving the problem by focusing on any one aspect of the problem:

– Even if officials improve revenue collection, it is not clear at all that the poor benefit from improved electricity supply. The revenue could be squandered in useless “white elephants” or distributed to politically influential constituencies as patronage. So, why would the poor collaborate with officials to improve the system?

– Investments in more power generation and better distribution are hard to sustain without improved revenue collection. Even if the state or municipal authorities decide to fund an investment program in the power sector, KESCO remains financially vulnerable and cannot credibly guarantee a stable, adequate supply of electricity in the long run. Why should the state invest in a public company that will simply keep begging for more and more money in the future?

To me, it seems that any practical solution to the problem must address both problems. Revenue collection should be improved to tackle the problem of electricity theft, but the local communities must receive a credible guarantee that if they collaborate with the officials, they receive an acceptable level of service. For example, the officials could promise a certain number of hours of electricity as long as a certain percentage of people in a neighborhood pay their bills. This accountability system would provide both sides with clear incentives to act.

Would it work in practice? Probably not unless the top brass made improved public services a priority in their electoral strategy. If a committed leader wanted to make a difference and win the next election through improved livelihoods, however, such a strategy could be worth a try. I am certainly going to bring this idea up the next time I find myself in Kanpur – stay tuned.


How Should We Study Energy and Climate Policy? Critical Insights from an ISA Roundtable

One of the consequences of the ISA 2014 conference here in Toronto is that my extended blogging hiatus is coming to an end. Thanks to some experimental research in India, I haven’t had a lot of time to share my thoughts in the past few months. In fact, I haven’t had too many thoughts during this period either. However, now I have one.

On Wednesday, I was honored to participate in a roundtable on climate policy organized by Detlef Sprinz from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. My participation notwithstanding, the roundtable featured a great group of scholars: Detlef, Robert Gampfer, Xinyuan Dai, and Steinar Andresen. The idea of the roundtable was to discuss practical strategies for moving forward with climate policy and how social scientists should contribute to this process.

One of the striking features of the discussion was the lack of interest or faith in international processes. While many scholars have ignored the United Nations treaty process for years, there has been a lot of hype about “carbon clubs” and other alternatives (see David Victor’s great book for a recent example). Both the roundtable participants and the audience expressed a lot of skepticism about these approaches and their weak empirical record. With the exception of the EU, neither public nor private international initiatives have had much effect on anything.

The most important conclusion of the roundtable was that we need to pay much more attention to the domestic politics of energy and try to understand how the public and different constituencies in major emitter countries could be mobilized to support more effective and ambitious policies. We need to identify the political logic of investment in emissions reductions, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other relevant factors. While international institutions cam support these processes, they should not be expected to enforce any policy change or make reluctant countries to implement new policies.

To me, this collective recognition of the challenges that lie ahead is good news. The literature on climate policy has in the past years become too irrelevant to the key policy challenges. Studying the public’s preferences for various hypothetical treaty designs or constructing complex mathematical models of self-enforcing environmental agreements is fun and publishable, but these kinds of studies are not helpful for improving the effectiveness of climate mitigation. What we need is rigorous empirical studies of the political economy of energy in major emitters. I have worked with various collaborators, especially Michaël Aklin, to examine how critical energy policies are formed in different countries and what determines their political feasibility (see AJPS and GEC for examples), but these studies are at best a tiny first step toward an analytical framework that allows policymakers and activists to identify more effective strategies to promote sustainable energy transitions.

The group of scholars interested in climate policy has grown into a huge global community, but I have a feeling that the field lacks direction and will soon implode unless a new generation of projects strive to meet much higher standards of both rigor and relevance. If I were a graduate student interested in environmental and energy policy, I would work on ambitious projects that shed light on how governments make political decisions about energy policy at the national level. Studying these kinds of decisions is a daunting challenge and requires a concentrated effort (something I most certainly do not excel in), but the academic and practical pay-off is much higher than what the study of climate agreements promises.


What Is Policy Relevance, and (How) Should We Reward International Relations Scholars for It?

The subfield of international relations seems to suffer from an inferiority complex. While most subfields of political science do their research and trust that the results are relevant to policy for a good reason, many an international relations scholar complains that the subfield is not relevant enough. The latest example is Campbell and Desch, who worry that rankings of departments are biased against policy relevance in international relations scholarship. Not surprisingly, Stephen Walt chose the bandwagoning strategy in this case (gated content, sorry).

While I don’t worry about rankings too much (I am perfectly capable of judging the quality of academic research myself, thank you very much), I do agree with some of their claims. It is odd to exclude books from consideration in a ranking, given that many of the major ideas in international relations scholarship are presented in books even today (for examples of epic books that have changed our field for so much better, see here and here). Exclusion of interdisciplinary journals from consideration is also highly problematic, since solving the world’s most pressing problems require a combination of social and natural sciences.

Where I strongly disagree with Campbell and Desch is on the inclusion of non-peer reviewed work in the evaluation of departments and scholars. Publishing in Foreign Affairs, they believe we should reward publication in outlets that do not use peer review, such as… *drum rolls*… Foreign Affairs:

“One cut at trying to rank programs by the presence of their faculty in non-academic publications involved factoring in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy articles.

This seems wrong to me. Academics work at universities as scientists. Our research differs from that being produced by think thanks in that academic research must survive peer review by other scholars, and this peer review is based on scientific criteria such as theoretical innovation, the quality of the research design, and contribution to knowledge. Academics have only one advantage, and that is the scientific method. If it were not for the scientific method, I would not pay any attention to academic commentary. I have many good friends who work for think thanks, and they are much better informed about current events than I am. That is their advantage. But my research is more systematic than theirs, and that is my advantage. Both types of researchers are needed.

What about policy relevance? Are my standards a recipe for irrelevance and obscurity, as some claim? No, they are not. Good scientific research on important topics is almost by definition relevant to policy. The world is full of non-governmental organizations, social movements, and governments that desperately need rigorous research to improve their programs and policies. Academic policy relevance should be defined as the ability to use the scientific method to contribute to policy formulation. Insightful commentary based on a gut feeling or authority is not academic policy relevance. It results from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the role of academic institutions is in the global society. International relations scholars who feel the need to comment on current events based on their personal views or experiences can do so, but their policy relevance must be evaluated based on their ability to use the scientific method to add value.

I would not mind publishing in Foreign Affairs myself. I certainly would not mind if my academic salary were increased for all of my reports, consulting, and field projects that are changing the world out there even as I write this. I spend a lot of time doing policy relevant research, and I can point out to real change without using misleading proxies such as my name in Foreign Affairs or the number of times my corny jokes have been tweeted. But as an academic, I am more than happy to subject my work to peer review. If my arguments are logically flawed or my identification strategy weak, I should not be rewarded just because some policymaker out there wants to justify a policy by referring to an Ivy League academic who is of the same opinion. International scholars should work harder than ever before to do the kind of research that survives the difficult process of peer review. While peer review is capricious and the outcome noisy, I believe truly excellent and policy relevant research will find its way to a good journal.


How Much Would the World Pay for Biodiversity? Nothing, Really

Just a week ago, NPR’s Planet Money reported:

“The government of Ecuador has abandoned a plan that would have kept part of the Amazonian rainforest off limits to oil drilling. The initiative was an unusual one: Ecuador was promising to keep the oil in the ground, but it wanted to be paid for doing so.”

The deal was offered to the world by President Rafael Correa in 2007. Ecuador would leave oil under the Yasuni National Park, a biodiversity hotspot, in exchange for a payment of 3.6 billion US dollars. The country offered to save a global public good — biodiversity is not only cute, but also good for the global environment and a potential resource for biotechnology — in exchange for a payment to compensate the opportunity cost of not drilling the oil.

Why did the plan fail? The problem was that donors were not willing to pay. By the end of 2012, the fund set up for the payment had only 6.5 million dollar in it — less than 0.5 per cent of the total requested by Ecuador. This is not a particularly impressive achievement. There was so little money in the fund that Ecuador had no reason to expect a deal with the world.

From an international relations perspective, the problem is interesting. One possible explanation for the lack of a deal would be a commitment problem. Perhaps donors did not trust Ecuador’s commitment. Even if donors had a lot of faith in President Correa — this may or may not be true — it would be hard for him to tie his hands so that no future government of Ecuador would ever drill the oil. Even if the donors were willing to pay 3.6 billion US dollars for saving Yasuni for perpetuity, they would not do so if they worried about commitment.

The other explanation would be that donors simply were not interested. In today’s economic environment, money does not grow in trees, as Ecuador recently learned. Although 3.6 billion dollars is not a fantastic amount of money, it is enough that any government willing to contribute a large part of it would face tough questions at home in the current economic situation. So, Ecuador’s 2007 gamble may have failed because of the global economic turmoil of recent years.

Finally, I can also offer a self-serving explanation for this. In a recent paper, Patrick Bayer and I  analyze bargaining over global public goods between donor and recipient countries. In the model, a recipient offers the following deal to donors: “if you give me money, I will implement a project that generates global public goods, such as biodiversity conservation.” We show that if donors are organized multilaterally, recipients have incentives to gamble by making aggressive demands. Ecuador’s offer is expensive enough that it could have been a calculated gamble that failed because the Ecuadorian government failed to predict the financial crisis and the severe political constraints that prevent donor governments from being generous. That’s what we call “The Dark Side of Multilateralism.”

It’s important to remember that the three factors above could all be true at the same time, and that’s how I see the situation. On a more fundamental level, the current international system does not have the institutions needed to provide high levels of global public goods. This is not just an environmental problem. We don’t have the institutions needed to produce collective security, act effectively on global financial crises, liberalize trade to promote development, or mitigate climate change.


Does a Global Climate Agreement Require National Action?

At least since the Copenhagen summit of 2009, global climate negotiations have stalled. Both academic researchers and policy analysts have recently emphasized the need to develop innovative strategies to break the negotiation gridlock. One such argument is that if major emitters show ‘leadership’ by adopting ambitious national policies, they can build trust and move the negotiations forward. This argument was recently made in a joint report authored by Terry Townshend and Adam C.T. Matthews for the Climate & Development Knowledge Network and GLOBE International. They argue that “[n]ational climate change legislation is not just something that should underpin an international agreement after it has been reached, rather it is an enabler that creates the political space for a deal” based on an observed positive association between domestic legislation and climate policy positions.

There is an obvious flaw in this argument, given that both domestic legislation and climate policy positions could be driven by some third factor such as green public opinion or interest group pressure. However, the argument itself is worth considering. According to the report, domestic policy action could spill over to international climate negotiations and create a critical mass of key countries willing to commit to emissions reductions. The authors conjecture that ambitious national actions will ultimately prove popular and successful in their countries because they produce co-benefits such as improved energy security and energy efficiency, and this change allows national negotiators to engage in meaningful bargaining without crippling domestic constraints.

At the same time, domestic national actions can also undermine bargaining. David Victor argues in his recent book Global Warming Gridlock that if countries implement national policies that are unconditional, they give away their bargaining leverage. When the European Union chooses to reduce carbon dioxide emissions regardless of what other countries do, other major emitters have few incentives to negotiate with it. If Europe’s contribution to climate mitigation does not depend on what China and the United States do, the outcome could be that the latter two decide to free-ride on Europe’s actions.

Unfortunately, it is really hard to evaluate the balance of these two countervailing forces. This is ultimately an empirical question, and it is not as though there is a huge statistical database of past climate negotiations that one could build on. Evidence from other international treaties, such as the Montreal Protocol against ozone depletion, is also suspect because of differences in the context. The current debate is useful in that it characterizes the arguments and highlights the relationship between national action and international climate agreements, but I have serious reservations about declaring victory for any of the arguments based on the available evidence.


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