Friday, January 25, 2013
Sunstein's arguments for Unilateral U.S. Action on climate change: But would it really be unilateral? Would it really help achieve an meaningful international climate treaty?
In a recent opinion posted in Bloomberg news, Cass Sunstein argues that the United States should act unilaterally in addressing climate change. This is an interesting argument coming from Sunstein, whose scholarship has highlighted the economic costs of "unilateral
U.S. action. In his recent opinion piece, he acknowledges the economic objection, which he terms as the Sophisticated Objection, to unilateral action. He provides three responses to counter the objection. First, U.S. leadership will likely persuade other countries to follow. Second, regulation will spur technological development, as did the ozone depletion treaty. Third, not all regulation will be costly to the U.S.; some may actually prove beneficial.
Each argument is valid and has been made by those favoring U.S. action on climate action in the past. Also, Sunstein acknowledges that there is no guarantee that unilateral action will yield an international agreement. The question, however, is whether U.S. action can be construed as unilateral action at all. And, whether the current design for international action is viable.
To be sure, from a limited perspective of comparing the United States with China, the former's action would be unilateral. However, a handful of Annex I countries are already committed to multilateral climate action. If the U.S. were to join in a climate treaty, it would simply strengthen the existing climate pact, at least in terms of participation. If, on the other hand, Sunstein is referring to unilateral action outside the Kyoto Protocol, it is unlikely that such action will persuade an international agreement. It may spur more "unilateral" action.
And then there is the bigger question: is the Kyoto Protocol design suitable to address the complex problem of climate change? As I argued in a short essay published in the Environmental Law Reporter recently, developing countries may simply not be equipped to implement market mechanisms to address climate change. Achieving measurable emissions reduction may then prove futile.
Thus, while U.S. participation in the multilateral process to address climate change is critical and would be extremely beneficial to moving forward on the climate change debate, the long term multilateral legal solution to the problem requires much more thought.