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The Politics of Climate Change Negotiations: Strategies and Variables in Prolonged International Negotiations

17 Sep 2014
reviewer Dr Larry Crump

Government leaders from around the world will meet in Paris in November 2015 in the latest attempt to secure an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After the failure of the much anticipated UN negotiations in Copenhagen five years ago, Paris is seen by many as the last attempt for nations to reach an agreement. This will not be easy.

Christian Downie’s book The Politics of Climate Change Negotiations explains why, but more importantly it examines the lessons that the long history of climate change negotiations hold for the future. Downie’s historical look at the United States and the European Union during the ‘Kyoto phase’ of the negotiations, which included the much celebrated Kyoto Protocol in 1997, offers a rich and compelling series of lessons to negotiators ahead of 2015, not least of which is the importance of domestic politics to international outcomes.

This book is not the first to examine the international climate change negotiations, but it is rare to find a program of research that follows a single negotiation over an extended period of time. It is significant in that many critical issues of global importance – security, trade, the environment – are managed via prolonged international negotiations. Downie develops a definition of such negotiations ‘that continue for five years or more’ and while the definition and time period are a bit arbitrary, there are insights from looking at the ‘temporal dimension’ of long negotiations, as he puts it.

For an international relations audience, the book makes a compelling case for the utility of a two-level game perspective for examining international negotiations, which was first developed by the American political scientist, Robert Putnam. The book is based on 105 elite interviews with government ministers, lead negotiators and interest group representatives, who took part in the negotiations during the 1990s and beyond. The presentation of the case material, with a focus on three sets of negotiations during this period is outstanding scholarship.  The book demonstrates that existing theories, including the literature on transnational relations and international regimes, are insufficient in explaining the fluid preferences of states in long negotiations. There is real utility in understanding why states are willing to sign up to an agreement one year but unwilling to make that same agreement the next year when many factors are held constant.

The most significant contribution of this book however, is to our understanding of international negotiations. The study effectively argues that internal factors, such as the level of engagement of actors and their domestic political incentives, and external factors, such as external shocks or the impacts of other international regimes, explain why negotiation positions change. The concept of an immature game and a mature game outlined in Chapter 7 is also an important theoretical framework and makes a significant contribution to the literature. This concept has been examined in linked bilateral negotiations – not with these concepts – but never in a multilateral setting.

The framework is not without its limitations and the arguments Downie makes about the temporal dimension would be strengthened by recognising that it is not just national positions that are fluid but party decision-making systems too. I appreciate that this additional dimension increases the complexity of a study that is already seeking to manage much complexity (and overall this book succeeds very well). Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect that decision-making systems will change over time with the mostly likely change being modifications around transitions in government leadership.

That said, The Politics of Climate Change Negotiations is an engrossing account of international climate change negotiations, which also makes a major theoretical contribution to the study of negotiations. Of course, the lessons are not just theoretical and one can only hope that those due to meet in Paris in 2015 heed the lessons of history.

Christian Downie, The Politics of Climate Change Negotiations: Strategies and Variables in Prolonged International Negotiations, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Crump, Griffith APEC Study Centre, Griffith University