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Climate Change and Collective Action: Troubles in the Transition to a Post-Oil Economy

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The question that animates this paper is, 'If the negative security and environmental externalities of oil dependence are manifest, why is the transition to a post-oil economy going so slowly?' Focusing on efforts to address climate change, the article draws upon collective action and public goods theories to emphasize: the nature of the problem, the challenges of institutional design and the fairness of the policy process. The article suggests that a multilateral-led planned transition to a carbon-free economy is politically and institutionally more complex than is often realized. Given the nature of the problem, the paper concludes that the initial institutional design of international climate fora has not been effective, though it has benefited from the legitimacy of universal state participation. The article then uses insights from collective action and public goods theories to sketch out what actions could be taken to facilitate a transition that has the best chance of political and commercial survival. The basic argument is that consensus-based multilateral fora of hundreds of heterogeneous nations, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are not conducive to significant collective action for pure public goods. Instead, smaller regimes are needed in order to obtain the convergence of preferences and interests required for collective action. Moreover, nation states' recognition, particularly by the United States, of self-interested motives for energy conservation (for energy security and industrial renewal) is likely to have more impact on emissions than a universal membership treaty apparatus.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-05-01

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  • The St Antony's International Review (STAIR) is the only peer-reviewed journal of international affairs at the University of Oxford. Set up by graduate students of St Antony's College in 2005, the Review has carved out a distinctive niche as a cross-disciplinary outlet for research on the most pressing contemporary global issues, providing a forum in which emerging scholars can publish their work alongside established academics and policymakers. Past contributors include Robert O. Keohane, James N. Rosenau, and Alfred Stepan.
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