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American Responsibilities to the International Climate Regime

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Executive Summary

The United States must seek to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement with Congressional ratification, and expand its efforts toward climate action, monitoring, reporting, and verification. Without these steps, the United States is allowing climate change and resultant extreme weather phenomena that impose economic costs on the global economy and public health issues in disease and hunger. The following article establishes the imperative for climate action and details the steps needed to re-secure American participation in the international climate regime.

An Inconvenient Truth: The Impending Climate Crisis

Since the industrial revolution, the global economy has experienced unbridled growth, rendering a nearly $100 trillion increase in GDP since 1700.[1] This growth has resulted in serious externalities in public and environmental health. A short-run effect is demonstrated by the Great Smog of London in 1952, where 4,000 to 12,000 civilians dies as a result of pollution-generated smog.[2] The scale of this issue compounds in the long-run as extreme weather phenomena lead to widespread famine, pestilence, and migration, disproportionately affecting economically vulnerable populations.

There is a limited carbon budget to maintain temperatures 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as mandated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Paris Climate Agreement (PCA). Accounting for the various states and international actors that are demanding the ability to emit carbon dioxide against the limited supply of tolerable emissions, there is an imperative to internalize the costs of climate pollution to the international market.

With global temperatures already 0.9°C above pre-industrial levels, trends suggest that current consumption will approach 6°C by 2100 with costs of $17.5 trillion per year in the long run.[3] By 2030, the international community will be unable to attain PCA standards, rendering the effects of climate change irreversible.

A Bad Deal and International Law

Despite these harrowing figures, the United States confirmed its intention to leave the PCA in 2016 with official withdrawal beginning in 2020. This move comes from a long history of American polarization, Trump-era foreign policy, and the typical preferences of the Republican orthodoxy, rendering climate cooperation virtually impossible across parties.[4]

A strong root of the opposition to the PCA lies in its ties to President Obama. Entrance to the agreement was unilateral as the PCA was not submit to any domestic ratification. While this may have been an astute maneuver to bypass a Republican-dominated Congress, it firmly established climate action as partisan in the eyes of the Republican party, stunting the institutional potential and longevity of the PCA.

While conservative opposition to the PCA fails to accurately address both short-run and long-run costs of climate change, it is understandable in this context. For the PCA –or any other international legislation –to hold effect in the United States, it must endure domestic ratification and enter the PCA as a treaty, not a sole executive agreement.

Collective Action and Alternate Tactics

International action is imperative for climate policy because of its inherently collective nature. Local and regional policy will have its place in the short-run execution of lowering carbon emissions but without macro-level policy, the international community cannot coordinate its actions toward a unified goal. The United Nations provides centralization and third-party independence that allows for effective international policy.[5]

However, there is a gap between international visions and regional implementation. Situational awareness is necessary to craft policy that is effective and cognizant of local capacities. It is unclear the extent to which Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) and Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMA) under the PCA were able to affect carbon emission levels and greenhouse gases at large. Data from the 2018 Talanoa Dialogue under the PCA Conference of Parties (COP) report that existing NDCs are projected to achieve increases of 3 °C and with potential under-contribution, the path may lead to 4.7 °C.[6]

There is an obvious limit to the ability of international organizations (IO) to develop goals and execute them. The Liberian Civil War of the 1990s demonstrates the failure of the United Nations in administering a peaceful vision without the aid of local parties, where the Economic Community of West African States was instrumental in the eventual ceasefire.[7]Leveraging the speed and agility of non-state actors or regional bodies will overcome the typical costs to transactions, participation, and mobilization that IOs tend to face.[8]

Policy Recommendations

The United States holds the responsibility to address climate change on a national level, as does the international community. It is an existential issue that will have immediate consequences for the vulnerable and disenfranchised but will eventually plague all of humanity. Aware of this, the United States must:

1. Re-enter and Ratify the Paris Climate Agreement

The UNFCCC provides an international forum to discuss and coordinate international efforts toward mitigating climate change, which is a collective action problem that demands as such. The United States must re-enter the PCA. This must happen with Congressional approval to hold any legal binding in American policy.

2. Develop and/or Participate in Regional Monitoring Bodies

UN Regional Groups and UN Climate Change Regional Collaboration Centres (RCC) exist as bodies for capacity-building, technical assistance, and strategic networking on climate action.[9]RCCs also support NDC implementation.[10] The RCC’s need to expand their scope to facilitate inter-state regional efforts, including diplomatic efforts between states and the interaction of non-state actors with government for technology-based mitigations (carbon-sink technology, research and development, etc.). If this scope cannot be expanded, a new body must be developed under the UNFCCC or otherwise.

3. Develop a Grant Funding Scheme for Non-State Actors

With the Regional non-State actor dialogue of 2016 and Article 6 of the PCA, there is a niche established for non-traditional efforts toward climate mitigation.[11], [12] In conjunction with RCCs or similar bodies developed, the UNFCCC Conference of Parties should award grants to non-state actors that can facilitate the implementation of NDCs and provide technological or logistical support toward monitoring, reporting, and verification –a need expressed by member states.[13]


[1] Roser, Max. “Economic Growth.” Our World in Data, University of Oxford, 24 Nov. 2013, [2] Polivka, Barbara J. “The Great London Smog of 1952.” American Journal of Nursing, no. 4 (2018): 57. doi:10.1097/01.NAJ.0000532078.72372.c3. [3] Kompas, Tom, Van Ha Pham, and Tuong Nhu Che. “The Effects of Climate Change on GDP by Country and the Global Economic Gains From Complying With the Paris Climate Accord.” Earth’s Future 6, no. 8 (August 2018): 1153–73. [4] Kirby, Ryan. “‘U.S. Withdrawal from Paris Climate Accord.’” Towson University Journal of International Affairs 52, no. 2 (Spring 2019): 1–13. [5] Shackelford, Scott J. “On Climate Change and Cyber Attacks: Leveraging Polycentric Governance to Mitigate Global Collective Action Problems.” Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law, no. Issue 4 (2015): 653. [6] “Updated Overview of Inputs into the Talanoa Dialogue.” UNFCCC, 26 Nov. 2018, [7] Doktori, Daniel. “Minding the Gap: International Law and Regional Enforcement in Sierra Leone.” Florida Journal of International Law 20, no. 3 (December 2008): 329–52. [8] Lee, Francis L. F. “Internet, Citizen Self-Mobilisation, and Social Movement Organisations in Environmental Collective Action Campaigns: Two Hong Kong Cases.” Environmental Politics 24, no. 2 (March 2015): 308–25. [9] “Regional Collaboration Centres.” UNFCCC, n.d. [10] Ibid. [11] “The Paris Agreement.” UNFCCC, United Nations, [12] “Regional non-State actor dialogue on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement – Synthesis report.” Regional Collaboration Centres. [13] Ibid.

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