Working Group III: Mitigation

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10.2.7 Political Science Perspectives

Game theory and other rational-choice approaches are used frequently in political science. However, political science research considers political processes in more detail and their findings complement the results presented above, at least on three major issues. Although these extensions have important implications for the conclusions here, the basic insights remain the same.

While game theory analysis usually models states as unitary actors, much political science research conceives of states as complex political systems. The behaviour of a complex actor can be seen as a function of three main determinants: the internal configuration of preferences, the internal distribution of influence and power, and the nature of political institutions (which specify the decision rules). Domestic decision-making processes often produce outcomes that differ significantly from those that maximize the net national welfare. Particularly relevant in this context are three findings that illustrate systematic biases.

First, in “baseline” circumstances, the measures that are most easily adopted and implemented are those that offer tangible benefits to a specific sector of the economy or organized segments of society, while costs are widely dispersed throughout society (Underdal, 1998). For most conventional environmental-protection measures, costs are concentrated while benefits are indeterminate or widely dispersed, which indicates that—unless the issue really mobilizes the general public—the odds favour opponents to the measures, particularly in the implementation phase.

Second, (environmental) damage that hits the “social centre” of society tends to generate more political energy than damage that affects the social periphery only. This bias is stronger the more skewed the distribution of economic and political resources. This suggests, for example, that damage suffered primarily by poor farming communities in developing countries generates a less vigorous political response than damage that hits the infrastructure of the “modern” sectors of the economy (e.g., as a consequence of extreme weather events).

Third, domestic political processes often generate political “friction” that limits the scope for international package deals and compensatory arrangements. Only compensation that benefits the domestic actor(s) who are blocking a particular solution–or more powerful actors–will be fully effective. Only a subset of the compensatory arrangements that make sense in terms of economic criteria will pass the test of political feasibility. These issues of national DMFs are explored in Section 10.1.

Most of the research reviewed above examines climate change policy in isolation, on its own merits only. In the real world, new issues enter a policy space that is already crowded by other problems competing for attention. In such an environment, the priority given to a particular issue and the chances that a particular option will be adopted depend on how well it combines with other salient concerns. As we have seen in, for example, the acid rain case, policy confluence and synergy can make a significant difference for some of the parties. However, although the causal mechanism itself is well understood, it is triggered by circumstances that occur more or less at random. Thus, the aggregate net impact in terms of the climate change regime cannot be predicted (even if issue linkage, as seen above, may be a powerful strategy).

The conventional assumption in game theory analysis is that each party aims to maximize its own welfare, defined—when dealing with environmental problems—in terms of damage and abatement costs. Political science research modifies this assumption in three different directions.

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