A Long-Time Participant and Observer Places the Climate Talks in Historical Perspective

With the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) having concluded less than two months ago in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, this is a good time to step back, and reflect on the history and evolution of these annual international negotiations, which began with COP1 in Berlin in March of 1995, following on the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  To do this, there’s no one I know who is better positioned to provide such perspective than Daniel Bodansky, the Regents’ Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. This is included in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  I hope you will listen to the complete interview and conversation here.

Bodansky, who served as Climate Change Coordinator for the U.S. State Department during the Clinton Administration, is the author of the 2010 book, Art & Craft of International Environmental Law.  Note that a second edition of the book will be published later this year by Oxford University Press. 

Dan says that the 2015 Paris Agreement was a promising step forward, but domestic political concerns have subsequently hindered international efforts to achieve meaningful action on climate policy.

“There’s … been an inability to really come up with a structure that everybody is on board with sufficiently, [so] that we can move from negotiations to an implementation phase. And I think that’s because the climate change issue is just a much, much bigger issue [than other environmental problems] in terms of its implications for a country’s economy, for the entire way it’s organized domestically, because virtually everything contributes to climate change. Virtually everything is affected by climate change. So, it has just a much, much, much bigger impact on a country’s domestic policies.”

Bodansky remarks that he considers himself “realistic” when contemplating the future of climate policy.

“I think that there has been progress, but it’s not nearly enough. I guess I’m doubtful that the Paris Agreement will be able to deliver on its expectation or hope of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees,” he says. “That’s why I’m actually quite interested in some of the other kinds of policies that might be able to be used to address climate change, including things like carbon dioxide removal, trying to reflect sunlight from the earth, because I think we may ultimately need them to avert catastrophic climate change. I hope that the Paris Agreement is enough, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it. So, I think we also need to be thinking about if it’s not enough, what are the other options that we could potentially try to use?”

Dan notes that climate clubs, in which countries voluntarily cooperate to combat the problem of “free riders,” could be an additional tool to slow the spread of global warming, but they too have their limits.

“I think if countries want to go further than other countries, then carbon border adjustments can be important in trying to protect their position to prevent carbon leakage to countries with weaker standards. But I think ultimately the carbon clubs aren’t going to be enough, because the biggest emitter right now is China,” he says, intimating that the world’s most populous country isn’t likely to participate.  

Daniel Bodansky, Coral Davenport, Zou Ji, and Robert Stavins participate in a Harvard University Forum Event in November 2015 focusing on that year’s Conference of the Parties in Paris.

Bodansky expresses optimism, however, that the youth climate movements taking place in many parts of the world will help keep the pressure on policymakers to take action.

“One of the functions of the climate conferences like the one that wrapped up in Sharm El-Sheikh in November is to focus attention on the issue, and put pressure on countries and leaders to do more to deal with the question. And so, I think the youth movement is an important part of that equation of trying to motivate countries to do more both at the international level and … also within the domestic political scene,” he says.

I encourage you to listen to this 43rd episode of the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy & Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.