Tag Archives: international institutions

A Moratorium on Geoengineering? Really?

In the end of October 2010, participants in the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) included in their agreement to protect biodiversity , a moratorium on geo­engineering. This CBD moratorium came timely as the debate around geoengineering virtually exploded internationally with several high-profile reports being published by, amongst others, the British Royal Society, and the U.S. Congress. The IPCC has announced it will organize several expert meetings in 2011 to focus on geoengineering, to help prepare the next review of climate science, due for completion in 2014. 

But what does this “moratorium” really imply? This is not a trivial question considering the often acclaimed fragmentation of global environmental governance, and the fact that most geoengineering schemes would have impacts on additional planetary boundaries such as land use change and biodiversity. Two main (and highly simplified of course) interpretations seem to exist in a quite complicated legal debate.

One is that the CBD moratorium places a considerable limit on geoengineering experimentation and attempts. The only exception are “small-scale” controlled experiments that meet specific requirements, i.e.: that they are assumed in controlled settings and for explicit scientific purposes, are subject to prior environmental impact assessment, and have no impacts beyond national jurisdiction. Proponents of this position note that even if the CBD moratorium is not legally binding, governments launching large geoengineering experiments would “risk their credibility and diplomatic reputations”, a strong enough disincentive that effectively “blocks risky climate techno-fixes”. The Canadian NGO ETC Group elaborates this point here.

The second position instead highlights several points that undermine the strenght of the CBD moratorium. The first is that the agreement has no legally binding power, and that formal sanctioning mechanisms are absent. The CBD moratorium is “soft law” which implies that States  still could launch geoengineering schemes unilaterally. Note also that the United States has not formally ratified the CBD convention.

Second, even though the CBD moratorium might be seen as defining an upper limit on the scale of geoengineering experiments, key definitional questions remain to be teased out. What is to be defined as “small-scale” and  “experiment”? And what is its status compared to other related pieces of international law, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the London Convention, and the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, just to mention a few.

Third, as the US Congressional Research Service notes in its report, international agreements are best equipped to deal with disputes between countries, and not necessarily between one country and one private actor, or between private actors that may shift locations to suit their interests (pp. 29). And major private or semi-private actors and funders are out there, including the Bill Gates and Richard Branson $4.6 million Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Resources, Ice911, Intellectual Ventures (see WJS article “Global warming might be solved with a helium balloon and a few miles of garden hose”), Carbon Engineeering, Planktos Foundation, and GreenSea Ventures (featured in Nature here).

So, do we really have a real, effective global moratorium on geoengineering? Far from it it seems. Feel free to disagree in the comment field below.

Institutional Dynamics and Emergent Patterns in Global Governance

Can regimes really be viewed as complex dynamic systems? Oran Young makes a nice effort in his latest book “Institutional Dynamics – Emergent Patterns in International Environmental Governance” (MIT Press, 2010). While the study of environmental and resource regimes certainly has a strong track record in political science and international relations, Young makes a novel and detailed analysis of what he calls “emergent patterns” – patterns of institutional change that arise over time from the dynamics of complex systems (pp. 8). Young observes, and unpacks five patterns:

Progressive development: this patterns starts with a framework convention followed shortly by one or more substantive protocols that are amended and extended to accommodate new information. Example: stratospheric ozone, and the Montreal Protocol.

Punctuated equilibrium: this pattern occur in cases where regimes encounter periodic stresses which trigger episodes of regime building and change. Example: The Antarctic Treaty System.

Arrested development: here, regimes get off to a promising start but then run into barriers or obstacles that block further development. Example: climate change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Diversion: this pattern includes regimes that are created for one purpose, but later are redirected in a manner that runs counter to the original purpose. Example: International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

Collapse: this pattern includes cases where regimes have been in operation for some time, but then encounters external or internal stresses and transforms into a “dead letter”. Example: North Pacific Sealing Convention.

Young recently published an article [PDF] for Global Environmental Change on this topic. You can also listen to an interview with him here:

Interview with Oran Young [11.40]

The Crises of Nature, The Nature of Crises

by Victor Galaz

Maybe it’s just part of my personal PCSD (Post Copenhagen Stress Disorder), but it seems like one of the most interesting topics emerging in frontiers of the earth system governance agenda, is that of building global institutions able to deal with not only incremental environmental change (e.g. biodiversity loss, land use change, climate change), but also crises.

Crises events (i.e. unexpected, high uncertainty, cascading dynamics, limited time to act) pose from an institutional point of view, quite different challenges than those normally addressed by the global environmental governance research community. These are related to the need for early warnings, multilevel networked responses, and improvisation. In addition, crises forces us to reconsider the way we look at communication technologies in global environmental governance [e.g. “Pandemic 2.0” in Environment here].

Oran Young’s brief talk from 2008 on adaptiveness and environmental crises, is not about environmental regimes in the conventional sense, but rather about the importance of role plays, simulations, and deliberations around unlikely, but high impact, scenarios:

The Center on International Cooperation (New York University) in addition, just recently launched a report entitled “Confronting the Long-term Crisis – Risk, Resilience and International Order”, that pretty much reiterates the point that debates around global governance are moving towards an agenda that focus not only single global environmental stresses, but also on multiple, interacting social-ecological ones. This issue was also raised by Brian Walker and colleagues in Science last year, and you can watch an interview with him here.

* I owe the catchy title to my colleague Fredrik Moberg at Albaeco.

Part V. What Builds Adaptiveness? Social Networks and International Regimes

What builds a capacity to deal with change and stresses? And where are the research frontiers? While previous posts explored the challenges posed by multiple stresses and shocks, the need to understand planetary boundaries, and the role of innovation, this post deals with the features of adaptiveness at the local and international level.

Listen to an interview (by Eric Paglia at Think Globally Radio*) with Beatrice Crona from Stockholm University, as she elaborates the role of informal social networks in building adaptiveness. You can also listen to a phone interview with Prof. Oran Young from University of California (Santa Barbara) about a range of adaptiveness challenges posed for decision-makers at the international level, and the need to study the dynamics of international environmental regimes.

Beatrice Crona

Beatrice Crona is an assistant professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University), and has published extensively on the role of social networks in natural resources management (“Management of Natural Resources at the Community Level: Exploring the Role of Social Capital and Leadership in a Rural Fishing Community” in World Development,The role of social networks in natural resource governance: What relational patterns make a difference?” in Global Environmental Change).

Interview with Beatrice Crona [6:30]

Oran Young

Prof. Oran Young is a world leader in the fields of international governance and environmental institutions. His scientific work encompasses both basic research focusing on collective choice and social institutions, and applied research dealing with issues pertaining to international environmental governance and the Arctic as an international region. Among the more than 20 books he has authored are The Institutional Dimensions of Environmental Change (MIT Press, 2002) and Governance in World Affairs (Cornell University Press, 1999).

Interview with Oran Young [11.40]


* Think Globally Radio is a debate/discussion style radio program intended to help spread awareness and deeper understanding on issues of the environment and sustainable development. Each episode focuses on an important environmental issue, with experts invited to the studio to provide insight and expertise. Guests on Think Globally Radio typically come from academia, industry, the policy making sector, advocacy organizations, the scientific community, state authorities, and research institutes.

Part II. Adaptiveness and Missing Global Institutions

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Science Policy Forum

In the previous post, Melissa Leach elaborated the need to understand adaptiveness, as a capacity to deal with multiple stresses at the local level. But what about adaptiveness to multiple stresses and shocks at the global scale? Listen to an exclusive video-interview for this blog, with Brian Walker (CSIRO Australia), lead author of Friday’s Policy Forum article in Science “Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions”. What sort of novel challenges to adaptiveness are posed by interacting global crises? And what is the difference between “adaptation” and “transformation” really?

Interview with Brian Walker by Sturle Hauge Simonsen [9 minutes].

And yes, you can still comment on the previous post!