Multilateral Approach to Climate Change


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What will it take for the US to embrace a multilateral approach to confront climate change? In your answer, please consider:

Overall US attitudes toward multilateralism and global governance
What terms for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol might the US find acceptable?

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (n.d.) (UNFCCC), climate change is a complex problem. It touches all aspects of our lives, be it environmental or our very purpose in this world. We need to educate one another on the impacts of climate change globally. The centre of this environmental issue as agreed by everyone is the need to reduce emissions. In 2010, the countries in the UNFCCC had reached a consensus that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced and managed in such a way that global temperature does not see any hike by more than 2 degrees Celsius.

It is clear that global warming is a serious issue. The American public and the rest of the world saw Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. So why did the US fail to legislate a policy on climate change? According to Skjaerseth, Bang & Schreurs, (2013), there are three possible explanations on this matter, namely, differences in agenda-setting privileges, potential for issue linkages and law-making procedures and formal leadership. Agenda-setting privileges refer to the setup of lawmakers in the US. The lawmakers have to tip the balance between promoting an agenda for greater good in the interest of the constituencies and getting a re-election. Issue linkages essentially involve a joint negotiation of two or more issues where it is believed that linkages can improve the chance of an agreement. Lastly, the law-making procedures, these are the political institution settings. The American setting is such that the bill sponsors or the leaders who champion the policy proposal have to trade off rules, procedures and norms in the legislature with the home state economics, in order to arrive at a winning coalition. The US Senate is represented by states which have different interests individually. For instance, coal, agricultural and manufacturing states are commonly against carbon pricing as it adds to their production costs.

One may tempt to accuse the US as pure selfish for not acting in concerted effort to stem global warming. The US is the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter and yet it refused to join the multilateral effort of the Kyoto Protocol (KP). 191 countries and the European Union signed the KP cooperation to curtail the average global temperature hikes and the consequential change in global climate. The developed member countries of the KP are legally bound to achieve a target in emission reduction in the KP’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. In December 2012, the Doha Amendment to the KP was adopted which launched a second commitment period, starting on 1 January 2013 until 2020.

KP was governed by the UNFCCC, see UNFCCC (1997). Because of the higher level of GHG emissions are caused by the developed countries, the KP is therefore binding on these countries to achieve those set target. The developed countries have contributed to more GHGs in the atmosphere since they have gone through more than 150 years of industrialisation, hence the heavier burden.

Why was the US unable to embrace multilateralism? Multilateralism can be defined as the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states, through ad-hoc arrangements or by means of institutions (Keohane, 1990). Since the commencement of the KP, the European Union (EU) has been successful in legislating KP in its member states. According to Skjaerseth, Bang & Schreurs, (2013), the EU, in December 2008, has passed a comprehensive legislation on the 20-20-20 targets. They called for a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emission, a 20% increase in the share of renewable energies in overall energy consumption and a 20% cut in primary energy consumption.

So why didn’t the United States become a party to the KP? US President Bill Clinton signed the 1997 KP but never submitted it for Senate consideration. This example of a failure by the US to ratify an environmental treaty is not exceptional. The US Department of State (n.d.)’s website reported of many major multilateral environmental agreements that had failed to achieve ratification from the Senate.

According to Hovi (2010), the way the KP was designed, it stood no chance of getting any ratification from US Senate. In 1997, five months before the KP meeting, the Senate passed the Byrd–Hagel resolution (Byrd–Hagel). In 2001, President Bush echoed the sentiments of Byrd–Hagel: ‘I oppose the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80% of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the US economy.

What would it take for the US to have a hand in the global governance of climate change? It has after all made itself the world’s policeman in some war-torn areas. It had negotiated responses to problems that affect more than one country. So clearly, the US has no qualm in embracing global governance then. Now, what would it take for the US to change its mind on joining KP in its second commitment period? Will it enter the fray if developing countries like China and India sign up? Or does it take an international embargo on these major GHGs to reduce their carbon footprints? Hovi & Skodvin (2008) concludes that any efforts to seek the US to sign up with the successor of the KP are likely to fail. One main reason is that the US cannot be threatened to sign on any trade or technology cooperation as the threat would just be unbelievable.

A common approach by the U.S. is “to act first at home and then to build on it at a global level”, see Purvis (2004). So instead of facing the divided government and upcoming elections, the US lawmakers can focus on its own internal environmental regime. This federal climate policy can mimic the KP’s requirement that is to reduce the GHG emissions to 7% below 1990. Successful policies were implemented nationwide on the renewable energy. While others agreed on cap-and-trade system aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emission from power plants. This way, perhaps the American public would be more inclined to push for the US’ role in international level.

The key to the success of the implementation of the KP lies on its effective compliance commitment by the member countries. Therefore the world leaders have to come together and decide if confronting the issue of global warming is indeed a priority. If they are worried about the loss of economic bargaining chips, the same can be said about the potential from creating renewable energy sources and making them available to the world. So KP is an excellent platform for the world communities to embark on this green mission to preserve planet earth.


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (n.d.). Background on the UNFCCC: The international response to climate change. Retrieved from:

Skjaerseth J.B., Bang G & Schreurs M.A. (2013). Explaining Growing Climate Policy Differences Between European Union and the United States. Global Environmental Politics Vol. 13, No.4. p. 61-80.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (1997). Kyoto Protocol.

Retrieved from:

Keohane, R.O. (1990). Multilateralism: an agenda for research. International Journal Vol. 45, No. 4. p. 731-764. Retrieved from:

US Department of State. (n.d.) Treaties Pending in the Senate (updated as of May 7, 2014). Retrieved from:

Hovi, J, Sprinz, D.F. and Bang, G. (2010). Why the United States did not become a party to the Kyoto Protocol: German, Norwegian, and US perspectives. European Journal of International Relations. DOI: 10.1177/1354066110380964

Hovi, J & Skodvin, T. (2008). Which Way to U.S. Climate Cooperation? Issue Linkage versus a U.S.-Based Agreement. Review of Policy Research. Volume 25, Issue 2, p. 129–148.

Purvis, N. (2004). The perspective of the United States on climate change and the Kyoto Protocol. International Review for Environmental Strategies 5(1). P. 169–178.