An Interview with Political Scientist Harold K. Jacobson: Global Climate ChangeSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Robert S. Walters (Political Science, University of Pittsburgh) writes in American Political Scientists (1993): "Jacobson's research and writing are distinguished by their strong empirical foundations, extensive substantive knowledge . . . clear conceptual connections between power, politics and behavior in international organizations, and a strong normative commitment to human rights and the promotion of greater international cooperation." Jacobson spoke in December with Erin Desmond, an editor of the Journal.
J: From 1989-1994 you were the Chair of the International Social Science Council's Steering Committee of the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Programme. What brought about this study? I ask because when talking about global climate change, one would think "the human dimension" would go without saying.
Jacobson: It wasn't being brought into the fold. Global environmental change is something people began to focus on in the late 70s and early 80s. People became concerned about the climate first in 1979; the first world climate conference was held that year, from which developed the World Climate Research Program, a natural science research program. In 1986 they established the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program to study global environmental change. I went to the meeting of the International Social Science Council in December 1986; at that time I was an elected member of the ISSC.
I argued with them that we needed to have a program that would look at the human factors. Climate change is driven by human beings. But at that time natural scientists were making quite simple assumptions about what human beings would do. They were saying, these are the problems and humans have to respond. Social scientists could contribute to refining the assumptions about human behavior; doing something about climate change has to fit with what we're doing already. ISSC asked me to chair a committee in 1987. I also got a small grant from the National Science Foundation through the Social and Behavioral Division to organize a workshop here in the Institite for Social Research (ISR) in 1987. This workshop recommended that a series of things be done internationally and nationally, all which were eventually done, including the creation of a committee on the environment of the National Academy, which is a committee of the Social Science Research Council; and that the National Science Foundation develop its own funding program, which it did.
J: So has the consideration of the human activity changed the whole enterprise?
Jacobson: I think so. Now they're looking much more seriously at the human dimension from the perspective of many disciplines: psychology, sociology, political science, economics, and anthropology — what it is that leads us to do the things we do and the ways we do them. Scientists and scholars are explaining the ways we use energy, the way we use transportation system, the way we change the patterns of land use. We're also investigating what we know about the instruments we have for changing our behavior and what types of instruments are likely to be effective under what conditions.
J: The FCCC [Framework Convention for Climate Change] has provisions for education programs, public information programs and promotion of public participation. If a goal is to mobilize public opinion, what then are the obstacles to "ground-up," non-technocratic approaches to collective action?
Jacobson: I've headed a big project with Edith Brown Weiss, of the Georgetown University Law School ["Improving Compliance with International Environmental Accords: Findings and Suggestions," 1997] and we really did the project with the FCCC in mind.
I think the FCCC won't work unless in the end the U.S. and other major industrialized countries take the lead. Kyoto is going to involve mainly the European Union (EU), Japan and the U.S. The only way you can get these countries to do things is to engage the political leadership. The political leadership has to be convinced that climate change is important and that they have to spend their time educating the people. The FCCC's secretariat in Bonn can help, but the U.S. has so many more resources than a 100-person secretariat in Bonn has that it's really got to be done domestically.
Now, lots of things have happened in the last year that should have gotten the attention of the political leaders. The flooding in Minnesota, for example, should have been a signal that these things are happening and to some extent it was, although I don't think either Clinton or Gore paid much attention to it. Voting for political leaders who care about the environment is one of the most effective things individuals can do to help the environment.
J: Presuming that the Kyoto conference produces international agreements on targets and timetables for emissions reduction, what is the best strategy for insuring implementation and monitoring of, and compliance with, these standards?
Jacobson: We need relatively realistic targets and timetables that people really could meet. Then if they get something that they do and can do, then they'll go on to more difficult tasks. I think the worst thing would be a really extensive goal that no one would be able to meet; then the whole process will seem to be some sort of sham. Now, the key criterion is that countries regard targets as equitable.
J: You've consistently emphasized the need for equity, especially since the poorer, developing countries will bear the brunt of climate change. So if we're talking about modest goals, shouldn't the notion of modesty be variable according to the country and the resources that country has? For example, what is modest for the U.S. may be steep for another country.
Jacobson: I think it should be. The question is how variable. I think the level of energy intensity in the economy and level of carbon intensity within the energy sector has to be taken into account in setting these targets. Japan, because of nuclear power, is already a lot more energy-efficient than the U.S., therefore it will be a lot harder for Japan to make a deeper cut than for the U.S. On the other hand, when you look at the EU's proposal, they have Portugal increasing its emissions by 40 percent and Germany and the U.K. decreasing by some percentage that will allow compensation. I think people in the U.S. are not going to feel comfortable with a 40-percent increase in one country while we need to decrease in some way.
J: What about targets for individual gases? This is an important question of equity: carbon dioxide needs to and can decrease, whereas methane emissions from agriculture in less-developed countries are more difficult to decrease without jeapordizing basic rights of sustenance and subsistence.
Jacobson: True. Unfortunately, according to the FCCC, the developing countries do not formally have to take action at this stage, although they are going to have to make some pledge — otherwise the U.S. senate won't give its advice and consent to ratification. In the Berlin Mandate [pact reached by the FCCC which calls for policies and measures to decrease carbon dioxide emissions and for timetables for implementing reductions] it was agreed that developed countries should set targets. The U.S. would like developing countries to strengthen and increase their commitments beyond conducting inventories to understand how much they are emitting.
J: It seems that the U.S. administration is touting tradable permits [which would enable a country with high emission production to "buy" credits from a country whose emissions fall below its quota] as the most pragmatic way to reduce emissions. I know that you are skeptical about tradable permits. Could you say why?
Jacobson: I'm skeptical in that for tradable permits to work requires a relatively efficient and uncorrupt government. Most of the governments in the world don't meet those criteria. The permit system is too complicated and will be hard to administer. There needs to be a simple system, and straight regulation in some circumstances.
J: One special model of tradable entitlements is joint implementation (JI), which would provide credits to industrial countries that share emissions-reducing technology with developing countries. For example, the U.S. has helped Costa Rica build an energy-efficient electrical power plant, and has also helped Russia with reforestation. How viable is joint implementation?
I think the big advantage to JI is that people think that it may be a way to accelerate technology transfer. We have a lot more advanced technology in the North than in the South. Our technology is more efficient, pollution-free and so on; if our companies decided to get credit for limiting emissions by putting advanced technology in developing countries, this would accelerate technology transfers. J: Would it be fair to be suspicious about the kind of power relationship established between a host country and a consulting country through JI?
Jacobson: The practical matter is that multinational corporations are the engine of growth in the developing world. JI gives them another incentive to do that. We're not going to stop multinational corporations from doing this and there's not going to be a big transfer of public money to help reduce emissions. The potential disadvantage is that it may slow the North from doing things that it should do. It will be so easy to get credit for limiting emissions, especially if the projected emissions are terribly inflated because all this is saving against some estimate of what emissions would have been in the absence of JI — and there is going to be a temptation to inflate the projection. JI would reduce the pressure to take domestic action, and reduce incentive for technical advance and innovation.
J: How do you respond to the claim that any slowing of the international economic growth will harm developing countries, especially in the short term?
Jacobson: It's a hard trade-off. Any slowing of growth will be painful. There are a billion people in poverty, and the slower we are in doing things to pull them out of it, the longer they live in misery. We should be looking for ways to improve efficiency and to make growth easier. But in the end some slowing of growth is going to have to happen. Such a trade-off is inherently an issue of value. For example, sometimes when you have a new vaccine you can't innoculate everyone; you have to choose someone. All the expenditures of public funds have to help some and can't help everyone. This is a choice that has to be made and made on the basis of whatever we know at the time.
J: Are economic growth and a sound environment inherently incompatible at this point?
Jacobson: I don't think so, because the most developed countries are doing the most to protect the environment.
J: But also have done the most damage.
Jacobson: True, but for instance the Great Lakes are now a lot cleaner than they were, and that's at least partly because we're rich enough to be able to fix them. The problem is not so much economic growth as people; with so many people you're just going to do an awful lot of damage to the environment. If you have this many people, it's better to have people with a fair amount of economic resources than it is to have people who are just scraping by to live, because they will do things that are terribly damaging, they won't have the financial means to provide proper sanitation, and so on.
J: You'd say, then, that the environment Benefits from free international trade.
Jacobson: Well, economic growth is benefited, then presumably the economic resources can be devoted to the environment.
J: And international law monitors various activities that are damaging. Yet there are those that argue that the implementation of free trade has deleterious effects on the environment. I'm thinking specifically here of the Free Trade of the Americas, which Clinton wants on the much-discussed fast track. People opposed to fast track say that it could have bad effects on the environment and labor, for instance.
Jacobson: I think you have to have fast track because you can't negotiate otherwise. Fast track is a simple requirement to make an agreement possible. What's supposed to accompany fast track is a provision to involve all of the interested parties in the negotiating process. If that works properly, the U.S. negotiators at the table should include all the things that Congress wants. So in principle the Environmental Protection Agency wants all of the things Congress wants, and this should be put in to the agreement. I still think it's unlikely that other countries are necessarily going to agree to all of the process standards we would like them to agree to. That's what the argument is really about — and you can't force other countries to agree to things. There is a limit to what you can do.
J: Recent discussions about Kyoto in the media indicate that the administration is proceeding very cautiously with targets and timetables. Some environmental activists claim that the administration will lose credibility with people if it doesn't pursue climate change measures more vigorously.
A good environment and a depression economy—I think not. A booming economy is what makes the administration credible to the public, to a large degree. J: In the essay "Equity and Social Considerations," (Climate Change 1995, 1996) you and your colleagues write: "There are few, if any, ethical systems in which it is acceptable for one individual knowingly to inflict potentially serious harm on another and not accept any responsibility for helping or compensating the victim." It seems that monetary compensation for imposed climate-related damages is the wave of the future, although obviously there are losses incompensable by money: culture and diversity — human and otherwise. Can there be safeguards against this, or is it inevitable?
Jacobson: It is probably inevitable. The small-island states are the most vulnerable and will be submerged. One hundred thousand or more people will have to resettle in some community they don't find attractive. It's hard to know how that can be avoided — and hard to know how that can possibly be compensated. It's a very, very difficult choice we face.
J: We can anticipate warmer temperatures, more precipitation, more extreme weather events, raised sea levels. Will there be an era of environmental refugees, such as people from small island states?
Jacobson: Not in this country, but certainly in Africa, perhaps in some parts of Latin America. The numbers will not be huge, but I think environmental scarcities will put another burden on countries that already have huge social problems and will be another source of social and political unrest.
J: You have studied world conflict extensively. How will environmental instability, particularly the effects of climate change, increasingly affect conflict, both within states and among them?
Jacobson: I think it's actually unlikely that it's going to lead to interstate conflict. I think we've already done a very good job in dampening conflicts between and among nations. We've had relatively few interstate conflicts in the second half of this country, a really low number by historical standards. The various things we've put in place, such as making war illegal in 1945, have changed that considerably. In any case, wars between states are caused by great things like the conflict between Nazism and democracy, and communism and capitalism. I don't think they're going to be caused by arguments about water rights, for example, though arguments about water rights will certainly make solving existing conflicts harder. That's clear in the Middle East where you have a very difficult water situation. It's also clear in Southeast Asia where there are already conflicts about the use of water; water scarcity will increase, making these conflicts even more severe.
Although we've seen a lot of intrastate conflicts in the last decade — Rwanda, Zaire and Bosnia — it's not directly attributable to resource scarcity. But it could be; one can imagine such a scenario of conflict. Certainly the food scarcities in places like Somalia have been exacerbated by environmental degradation.
J: The UN's dedication to providing sufficient human habitat involves the provision of housing, water, and energy to many people throughout the world. Are international climate change initiatives ever at cross-purposes with those goals?
Jacobson: That's where the genius of the Bruntland Commission's Our Common Future [The U.N's 1987 report of the World Comission on Environment and Development] — the genius of sustainable development — comes in. I think that book and the concept of sustainable development focuses our attention not in terms of a single, isolated problem, but as part of trying to deal with many issues in a sustainable way. The concept of sustainable development is crucial because it tells us that we have to continue to work on solving problems of poverty and providing adequate housing and health care, but we have to figure out how to do it in a way that's sustainable.
J: It seems that there are often more creative efforts toward sustainable development in developing countries than in countries like the U.S.
Jacobson: I think we're becoming increasingly sustainable, though. I think the whole recycling movement is an effort to make us do things in a sustainable way.
J: You don't think we have incredibly profligate lifestyles that are unsustainable?
Jacobson: Less so than we used to. We're getting better.
J: The FCCC seeks to ensure non-fault-based dialogue in the international community, for obvious reasons. However, it's hard not to suspect that this strategy is convenient for rich industrial countries historically responsible for most emissions. It seems in fact that the language of climate change treaties is biased, with its use of the dichotomy "developing/developed," which implies a certain teleology: that the "good" model is an industrial country. Would you comment?
Jacobson:A good model is a country that provides good housing, adequate food supply, and good health care, so that individuals can realize their potentiality. To do all those things requires a fairly high level of affluence. I think actually all people aspire to that. I don't think anyone offered good housing, education and health care would choose anything different. It is a teleology and it does imply that. But in fact that's what the world wants now and it seems to me that that's where the world is going.
And my guess is that eventually, at the end of the next century, there will be a lot more equality in the standards of life across the world than there is now. I think we can believe that because of what's happened in places like Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Thailand, Indonesia and India for that matter — they're all making very remarkable progress. And if you've gone to any of these places over a long period of time, as I have, the changes are incredible, almost unbelievable.
J: So you would say that your optimism is grounded in your experience.
Jacobson: At this age, yes. But when I was younger it was an article of faith. And it remains an article of faith. I think we can fix it if we try hard enough.
J: Hmmm . . .
Jacobson: But at my age if it's not experience [that is the basis of my optimism], than I'm in trouble.
J: Despite the certainty of global warming, established by the very best science, it is apparently easy — for industry and other interest groups — to obscure the ramifications by pointing to the fact that at least on the local levels it is difficult to ascertain specific results of global warming. Is this true, and if so, is there international initiative to implement quite localized studies?
Jacobson:Sure. All of these natural science programs are trying to lessen the grid, to make the grid smaller so that they understand the local effects. The problem is that with the large-scale computer models they now have, the local effects are quite different. They come to almost contradictory local effects quite frequently. Getting more precise local data is the big push in natural scientific modeling.
J: The 1992 Rio Earth Summit affirmed states' sovereignty by conceding states' rights to exploit the environment. Do you foresee a scenario in which the value of sovereignty will no longer be as applicable, indeed sustainable, in terms of global environmental change?
Jacobson: That's a really big question. There are lots of ways of organizing political authority. But in the 17th century the world started moving toward organizing it on the basis of sovereignty, which means that political authority was concentrated in territorially defined units. That's had enormous benefits for the world because it means that within that system there is at least some kind of order, and a political force that protects life. From this, along with economic specialization, we've developed almost everything that we know about mass democracy in that framework. It's provided all kinds of benefits to us in the realms of social security, economics, and human rights.
Now, in some way it's true that we've modified sovereignty a lot in the 20th century, with sovereign states accepting commitments to abide by international standards. But we have hardly touched sovereignty in the core concepts; for example, only the sovereign government can tax or conscript and raise an army. So the basic elements of power are in the hands of sovereign states; despite all of the treaties that have been signed — except for the European Union treaty — sovereignty hasn't been changed. Sovereignty is different in a variety of very important ways, but still, only states can tax and conscript; therefore they are still the main actors in international relations. They're the ones who can make peace and war. I don't think that's going to change, but clearly what has been changing are the ways in which states have undertaken commitments to do things and the extent to which what goes on within states is subject to scrutiny from the outside. The whole effort now to have an international criminal court is to ensure that the international community will prohibit a sovereignty from doing certain things, while it maintains a good deal of freedom.
And I think we're moving in that direction with respect to climate change. The state is still independent to a large degree, but international agreements ensure things are done in a way that will not cause harm to the whole world. That's the way in which I think sovereignty is being transformed.
J: Sovereignty is still an operative term, then.
Jacobson: What would we put in the place of sovereignty? Not world government. It's altogether possible that the end of 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century will be a period like the 17th century, when we redefined political authority — and maybe in the EU we are redefining such things. There's a large unit for economic purposes, but one has different units for military purposes. And for political participation and cultural rights you have even smaller units than the former nation-states. What's going on in the EU is fascinating: the EU is developing, but Britain is also devolving its centralized power to Scotland and to Wales. The same thing is happening in Spain, for example, where regional governments like Catalonia have a lot more authority than was conceivable in earlier periods. So we may be shifting political authority around at the end of the 21st century.
J: You've said before that you think that we won't see the end of a fossil-fuel-based economy in our lifetime. There are so many promising technologies for alternative energy resources, and consequently much money to be made that I want to find it hard to believe this to be true, especially 30 years down the road when climate change will create conditions that can't be ignored by any country.
Jacobson: Well, there is nuclear power, of course. But the other possibilities — solar and wind — seem not to be able to move that fast or seem not adaptable under present conditions to present uses. If fossil fuel becomes a lot more expensive, then there would be a lot of incentive to do something else. But even as expensive as it is in Europe, people still don't have other ways of using them for transportation. Hydropower works, but the Norwegians, who rely heavily on hydropower, are going to develop natural-gas auxilliary facilities.
J: You are currently studying how and why nations will and will not be able to comply with emissions treaties. What are the trouble spots?
Jacobson: The rich democratic countries will do a better job than the poor undemocratic countries. If the United States accepts the treaty and doesn't do what it says it's going to do, someone will take the U.S. to court and tell the government they've got to do it. I think the biggest problems are going to be China, India, and Pakistan. It's not that they will start off intentionally not wanting to do it. Three years ago I met with the Vice Chairman of the People's Congress [of China], who is deeply concerned about the environment. He said that the Chinese government knows that China is vulnerable to climate change; they still suffer from sea-level rise and they will lose arable land. At the same time, they have 70 to 80 million people living in abject poverty. He wondered how much they should sacrifice the present generation to make things better for future generations.
These countries have very, very difficult problems and they have much harder choices than we do because we can lose half-percent of growth and will never notice it. If they lose a half-percent of growth, that will make a difference. And I think helping those countries do it right is going to be the biggest challenge we face.
J: In your work and writing, there is an abiding concern with morality, as manifested, for example, in your articles on human rights and equity. You stress the need to reflect on religion, philosophy, and the attendant questions of meaning and value. For example, in the essay "Equity," you and your colleagues state that there is a new concept in international law: "common concern of mankind." Do you feel that a new moral philosophy is being carved out, in the face of the truly global phenomenon of climate change?
Jacobson: As a political scientist, I'm a positivist and accept all the tenets of positivism. As a scholar, though, from the time I was in graduate school I've been concerned with moral issues.
Sustainable development is new and I think the notion that sustainable development is an obligation is really new and important. I think the concept will assume the same dimensions for us as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did. It seems to me the Declaration said there really are ways in which we have to treat each other, and our governments may not do certain things to us. I suspect in time we will say that the 1987 publication of Our Common Future was some sort of watershed and after that we will have taken on a new notion of stewardship with respect to the earth system and our planet. And that we have a new feeling different from that we had before about this planet and our responsibilities toward it. That will require us to make different decisions, different kinds of decisions than we've made in the past. This new feeling sets up a new set of criteria to judge what we do, and it will become increasingly important.
J: As well as serving on various international committees and researching international organizations, you are also an active teacher and indeed won the Amoco Good Teaching Award at Michigan in 1987. What are the skills students of political science most need today to address such international issues such as climate change?
Jacobson: Certainly there ought to be a specialty in international environmental issues. What would people need to do that? They would need more knowledge of natural science than they typically will get. Not because they are going to become natural scientists but because they will have to use the material put to them by natural scientists. Now, for them to have access to the natural sciences they're going to have to have all of the skills that they ought to have anyway, which are quantitative skills, writing and reading skills. But they really do need some basic knowledge about geology, biology, physics, atmospheric chemistry.
The way area specialists are trained may be a good model: the area specialist gets an undergraduate degree, then a masters in the area — where he or she has learned the culture and history of, and everything about, the area — and then he or she comes back into political science and does a doctorate. Ideally, it seems to me, that ought to happen with respect to environmental issues. There ought to be some broad environmental program at the master's level so that one can get a broad grasp of the things that are going on in the environment, and then go into a disciplinary specialty.
J: As a long-time student of climate change and researcher of the international community's negotiations of climate change, what are the important lessons you've learned?
Jacobson: I've learned how important it is to have people push for things that are not attainable. The whole political process wouldn't work if it weren't for a lot of idealists who say things should happen that people like me say can't possibly be done or is unenforcable. But if someone pushes hard enough, then some other people come up and say, well, maybe we could do this, and that pushes us along. What I'm most impressed with is how a certain level of conflict is productive for improving the human condition.
Harold Jacobson is a leading scholar of international organizations, foreign policy and world politics. He is the Jesse Siddal Reeves Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. His international academic experience is extensive. He has held numerous prestigious research fellowships and has served on the editorial boards of many professional journals. For his advancement of the study of international relations, Jacobson has won numerous awards. He was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990 and is presently a member of the Council for the Midwest Center and Co-Chair of the Academy's Midwest Consortium for International Security Studies. His recent research focuses on the human dimension of global environmental change: Jacobson was Chair of the International Social Science Council's Steering Committee of the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Programme from 1989-1994; a member of the Social Science Research Council's Committee on Research on Global Environmental Change; and a member of the National Academy of Science's Board on Global Change. For his work on global environmental change, he received the Award for International Scientific Cooperation from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995. He was Visiting Fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, 1997.