A Polycentric Approach to Addressing Climate Change

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Law professor proposes tackling climate change with a “bottom-up” approach.

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Climate change is one of the most pressing global issues facing the international community today. Yet, according to Daniel H. Cole, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, global governance programs have been largely ineffective in responding to climate change. In a working paper, “From Global to Polycentric Climate Governance,” Cole argues that the international community must shift away from a top-down, global climate governance system to what he calls a more polycentric approach comprising individualized national and sub-national efforts.

Although climate change is an inherently global problem – “the greatest collective action problem the international community has ever confronted” – Cole asserts that the disproportionate distribution of the costs and benefits of climate change and the pressures of global energy demands create systematic obstacles to global climate change agreements. He cites to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocolas examples of global governance programs with limited effectiveness.

According to Cole, a more polycentric approach, which provides various nations, governments and organizations with increased independence within a larger, interdependent system, would reduce the collective action problems faced by traditional global climate regimes.

A polycentric approach would allow nations, local governments and private organizations to develop tailored programs at their respective levels to address various issues such as emissions and deforestation. Cole suggests that this “bottom-up” approach would facilitate the development of realistic, substantive standards at each level, which would result in meaningful, collective reduction of environmental harm.

Although this approach could suffer from unequal participation from reluctant actors, Cole writes that adoptions of policies by key firms within a market could shift incentives at each level to favor implementation of effective environmental regulations.

Cole does not claim that a shift to developing and improving institutional mechanisms at the local and national level is likely to occur in the near future given the current dominance of comprehensive, global governance programs. Nevertheless, he states that the most meaningful changes in climate policy will come from domestic and small-scale international agreements over the next few years.