European Unilateralism and Involuntary Burden Sharing in Global Climate Policy

Powerful political actors in the international system quite frequently adopt unilateral
policies whose effects extend beyond their respective borders. Often, they do so to avoid lowest common-denominator outcomes in areas where they desire more ambitious international rules, and to motivate or coerce other countries to shoulder a part of the burden associated with problem solving. The European Union’s attempts to enlist non-EU countries in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the international aviation sector are a typical example.

While climate policy making at the global level remains in a state of paralysis the European Union is committed to move ahead unilaterally. Public support for such unilateralism appears quite high, despite the economic crisis in Europe. However, in particular areas of climate policy, where unilateralism might result in competitive disadvantages for European industries vis-à-vis non-EU industries, debates over appropriate measures for creating a „level playing field“ have arisen. Proposals for one such measure, carbon-related border adjustments – i.e. special tariffs on imported goods, based on their embodied carbon dioxide emissions – have been met with great skepticism inside and outside the EU and have not been implemented by any country.

Attempts to enact another measure that involves a level playing field challenge have been somewhat more successful. In 2012, the EU started implementing a policy that subjects all airlines operating flights between, from and to EU member countries to its cap-and-trade Emissions Trading System (ETS), no matter whether airlines are based in the EU or not. The new rules cover emissions during the entire flight, including those occurring outside EU airspace. This means that the EU is unilaterally applying its rules for aircraft emissions not only within, but also beyond EU borders. Emissions from aircraft have grown strongly in the past decades and climate scientists agree that there is an urgent need to reverse this trend.

In late 2012, in response to strong opposition from China, India, the United States, and a few other countries, the EU suspended the application of the new rules to flights from and to destinations outside the EU (but applies and enforces the rules within the EU). It also noted, however, that the (partial) suspension was only temporary, was meant to allow for the re-opening of previously failed negotiations on a global solution through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and would be lifted if global negotiations in the ICAO did not lead to an agreement on regulating airline emissions soon. Thus far, no progress has been made in ICAO, and it remains unclear what the EU will do if no multilateral solution can be found. Notably, it is unclear whether the EU could continue to apply the policy only to EU-based airlines and permanently exempt others, particularly if currently low carbon prices in the ETS, which make compliance rather inexpensive, picked up again.

Coming back to the potential effects of unilateralism on third countries, interesting questions arise. Will the new EU policy motivate other countries to adopt similar policies, unilaterally or via a global agreement negotiated in ICAO? Or will it result in negative responses, for instance retaliatory policies by other countries against the EU that could undermine the EU initiative?

Assuming that public opinion matters in climate policy, we should be interested in how the new EU policy regulating emissions of aircraft affects public opinion in non-EU countries that are directly affected by this policy. To find out we implemented survey embedded experiments in India and the United States, the two largest democracies (where public opinion should be particularly influential) outside the EU. We were particularly interested in the extent to which the public there evaluates the new EU policy based on economic cost and sovereignty concerns. The reason is that the new EU policy will increase air transport costs for companies and individuals, and that it could also be perceived as violating third countries’ sovereignty by regulating carbon emissions within their airspace.

The results show that both considerations matter. They imply mixed news for frontrunners in climate policy, particularly in areas where their unilateral policies affect other countries. High costs imposed on individuals in other countries reduce public support for the EU’s policy there, and they increase support for sector specific retaliation (e.g., higher landing fees for EU airlines in those countries). Framing those costs with polluter pays, climate risk reduction, or economic co-benefits arguments does not mitigate the negative effect of a high cost increase. Improved framing of the EU’s unilateral climate policy is, therefore, unlikely to reduce opposition by non-EU countries. These findings are clearly undesirable from the viewpoint of those hoping that the EU’s unilateral move could motivate – via positive effects on public opinion in third countries – other governments to follow up with similar policies at national and/or international levels, or at least to refrain from trying to undermine EU climate policy for the airlines sector (as the U.S. Congress has done with a law barring U.S. based airlines from complying with the EU’s rules).

The more positive news, from the perspective of those seeking stronger measures against climate change, is that our high cost treatments in the survey experiment are at the extreme end of current expert estimates of cost implications for airlines and passengers from non-EU countries; and only the most extreme and explicit sovereignty treatment induces significant negative reactions. In addition, we observe very little support for non-sector specific retaliation, which could impose high costs on Europe if it escalated into a trade war. This means that in what we think is a more realistic scenario, with moderate cost and sovereignty implications, publics in non-EU countries are unlikely to push their respective governments toward aggressive responses that could not only prevent a reduction of emissions from aircraft in non-EU countries, but could also undermine the EU effort as such. By implication, this also means that opposition from voters and consumers in third countries against the unilateral EU policy is likely to remain rather weak unless the airline industry and governments in those countries succeed in whipping it up via extreme (and arguably unrealistic) statements about cost implications and violations of sovereignty. Overall, and particularly in view of currently low carbon prices in the ETS, which create low compliance costs, this suggests that ambitious unilateral initiatives by frontrunners are feasible.

More democratic legitimacy through civil society involvement in the UNFCCC negotiations?

This post is co-authored with Robert Gampfer.


International climate negotiations have become almost unimaginable without the participation of civil society organizations (CSOs). In 2011, 1490 organizations were accredited as observers; most of which were environmental groups, research institutions, and business associations (see the UNFCCC page on civil society participation). Moreover, 70% of national delegations to the COPs (2011) included CSO representatives among their members.

One of the main advantages of civil society involvement is ostensibly that it improves the democratic legitimacy of global climate governance, as both activists working in these organizations and political scientists agree. Legitimacy is often thought to be low since negotiations occur on an intergovernmental level far away from most citizens, despite the potentially large consequences a global climate agreement has for individuals through its implementation in domestic energy policies, carbon taxes, etc.

Civil society involvement can improve legitimacy by affecting both the process and the outcome of negotiations. First, CSOs can increase transparency of the process thus providing citizens with better information to hold their governments accountable (e.g. through elections) for their international policy. Second, CSOs may create a more balanced representation of society’s various interests regarding climate change. And third, CSOs often have expert knowledge on environmental issues that can help achieve outcomes potentially more effective in addressing global warming.

However, the question remains whether individual citizens actually agree with this account and perceive climate governance as more legitimate if civil society is involved. After all, CSOs might simply advance narrowly-defined special interests instead of improving overall representation. Furthermore, having a multitude of different organizations, in addition to governments, at the table could hamper and impede agreement on an effective climate treaty. Even though the behavior and influence of CSOs in the UNFCCC negotiations has been examined by many scientific studies (Bernauer and Betzold 2012, Schroeder et al. 2012), their effect on legitimacy has not been investigated. We have conducted several survey experiments with a large international participant sample via Amazon Mechanical Turk to answer this question (Bernauer and Gampfer 2013). The main results are summarized below.

In a first experiment, we asked participants which organizations they would include in their national delegation to the next COP. They had to pick representatives from a diverse pool of government agencies and CSOs. Most participants included government and CSO representatives more or less evenly (two or three each in a five-post delegation). Interestingly, there was no difference between treatment groups primed either with information that negotiations should be transparent and representative, that they should yield an effective outcome, or with no information at all. This suggests that individuals think civil society should be involved in global climate governance, but not necessarily because of reasons of transparency, representation, or effectiveness.

Principles of Political Science: A New Introductory Textbook

(This post is co-authored by Patrick Kuhn and Stefanie Walter)

The second edition of our introductory textbook to political science was just published.

In view of the already saturated market for introductory textbooks to political science, several colleagues asked us: “Why another textbook?” and “Why in German?” Here are some answers that also convey the main conceptual and pedagogical ideas underlying our textbook, and that may also be useful for political scientists teaching in other languages.

After consulting and/or using various alternative textbooks in our introductory classes to political science, we ended up being rather unhappy with existing options. First, most textbooks are considerably narrower in scope than their titles suggest. They focus predominantly on one subfield of political science, such as Comparative Politics, International Relations, or the national politics of the country they are mainly marketed in. Second, most of them introduce the main theoretical concepts in an overly abstract fashion, divorced from their use in current research. Finally and most importantly, most textbooks are overly descriptive and do not systematically and extensively connect theory development and empirical analysis, which is in fact the core of modern political science research. Our goal was, therefore, to write a textbook for the German-speaking market that addresses the mentioned shortcomings of existing textbooks, covers the fundamental concepts, approaches, and research areas of political science, and remains accessible to entry-level students.

The book’s coverage is very broad. We deal with all main aspects of: domestic politics in the three German-speaking countries (i.e., Austria, Germany, and Switzerland); Comparative Politics by comparing those three countries with each other and with many other countries as well; International Relations and globalization; and European integration. Since entry-level students are usually most familiar with the political system of their own country, we believe that it makes sense to take newcomers to political science to the right “cruising altitude” by confronting their existing local knowledge with a scientific approach to the analysis of politics. Systematic comparison of the three German-speaking countries helps in introducing and illustrating fundamental concepts in a “hands-on manner”; and doing so in the students’ mother tongue is likely to make their first encounter with political science easier, perhaps even more pleasant – though it is obvious that students will have to read lots of scientific literature in English and perhaps also other languages later on.

To systematically connect theoretical reasoning with empirical research throughout each of the substantive chapters, we have structured the book as follows. The first three chapters familiarize students with the research process. This begins with developing interesting research questions and constructing (causal) theoretical arguments that address research questions, and leads to empirically testable hypotheses and to research designs that enable researchers to assess hypotheses empirically. These chapters provide students with the vocabulary and tools to evaluate and discuss the theoretical arguments and empirical results presented in the subsequent twelve chapters. Each of these chapters focuses on a particular political institution, issue, or research area of political science; that is, political regimes, democratic forms of government, elections, referenda and initiatives (direct democracy), parties and party systems, mass media, interest groups and social movements, legislatures, government and public administration, constitutional courts, international relations, and globalization. After a brief introduction of relevant concepts, each chapter discusses the respective political institution or issue in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and the EU, pointing out similarities and differences. It then focuses on important research questions, theoretical approaches and discusses empirical findings, with an emphasis on how existing research is linking theory and empirics. At the end of each chapter we provide a list of books and articles for further reading. The book is accompanied by a website that offers questions for exams or self-assessment, a glossary, and other materials that may be of interest to students and professors.

In brief, our answer to the questions above is: Because it is important to have a textbook for German-speaking newcomers to political science that: builds on pre-existing local political knowledge and confronts this knowledge with a scientific approach to the analysis of politics; is broad in its coverage; and systematically connects theory with empirical analysis.

Coping With the “Power of Towers”

In November 2009, 57.5% of Swiss voters, in a fit of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, accepted a direct-democratic initiative against minarets. Ever since, article 72 para 3 of the Swiss constitution states that “The construction of minarets is prohibited.” Soon after, representatives of Muslim communities in Switzerland took the issue to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, the supreme court in Europe for such issues. The court issued its verdict in early July of this year (ECHR documents no. 65840/09 and 66274/09).

In a decision many legal experts had expected from the start, the court dismissed the case and left it open whether the Swiss ban on minarets violates the European Convention on Human Rights. This Convention guarantees the freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination of religious communities. The court argued that the complainants were not victims in the sense of the European Human Rights Convention, primarily because they had not been prevented by Swiss authorities from building a minaret in a specific case. A valid case, in the court’s view, would involve a formal request to a local authority for permission to build a minaret, refusal by the respective authority to issue a construction permit, and unsuccessful appeals within the Swiss national legal system. The ruling of the ECHR in the minarets case is clearly in line with the court’s role as a judicial decision-maker in specific cases of suspected human rights violations. The ECHR does not act as a constitutional court that can evaluate and formally invalidate national laws.

The most appropriate (because democratic!) way of getting rid of the shameful and disgraceful provision in the Swiss constitution would be to launch a follow-up initiative. This requires support from 100,000 eligible voters. Such an initiative could propose to reverse the earlier decision and remove the minarets provision from the constitution. It is very unlikely that such an initiative will be launched anytime soon, and its fate, when put to a vote, would be uncertain.

The best approach – from the perspective of opponents of the minarets ban – in the foreseeable future is to take the problem through the courts, rather than democratic politics. In view of the ECHR ruling, this means that someone has to set up a specific construction project for a minaret in Switzerland. After lengthy legal proceedings from local courts all the way to the ECHR, this is likely to leave Switzerland with an “emasculated,” i.e. non-implementable, provision in its constitution. The Swiss constitution may, de jure, still ban the construction minarets. But once the ECHR has approved an appeal in a specific case, local Swiss authorities and courts will be much less likely to refuse construction permits for minarets with reference to the respective provision in the Swiss constitution. The reason is that they know that appeals are very likely to succeed in higher-level courts.

How to set up such a construction project in order to maximize the chances of then winning the legal battle? For an almost guaranteed winner, look at this picture:

This building, including both towers, is real. Trust me! It is located in Chania, the second largest city on the Greek island of Crete. It was first built as a Christian church in 1320. In 1645, it was taken over by the Turks under the Ottoman Empire and converted into a mosque (with a minaret added). In 1918, it was transformed back into an Orthodox Christian church. Unfortunately, the eventual Christian occupants were not interested in sharing the building with Muslims – most of them were in fact deported in the infamous 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey. But, interestingly, neither of the two types of occupants dismantled the tower of the other over the centuries.

Inspired by the building in Chania, I would suggest that a Christian and a Muslim congregation in Switzerland join forces and submit a building request for a combined church-mosque with two towers, to be used by both congregations for their respective services and rituals. I find it very hard to imagine what kinds of reasonable and defensible arguments a court could use to prohibit such a project symbolizing mutual religious tolerance, respect, and cooperation.

And if any of the two congregations using the joint church-mosque had, at some later stage, second thoughts about this arrangement, its skeptics could simply take a little walk around the building, as I did in Chania. Amazing, how this can change your perspective!

As a Muslim, you might be pleased to observe the building from this side.

And, as a Christian, from this side…

This, at least to me, appears to be a more civilized way of coping with the “power of towers” than including blatently discriminatory rules in an otherwise wonderful national constitution.

Returns on investment from public development aid

The German development aid minister (Dirk Niebel) has recently argued that every Euro of bilateral development aid creates a return of 1.80 Euros for the German export industry. (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 17 Januar 2011 (p.17) If development aid indeed creates an 80% return on public investment for the German export industry I really wonder why Germany does not invest much more of its taxpayers’ money into development aid. Could it be that the ROE estimate is, self-servingly, inflated…

Weapons of Mass-Citation

How can it be that a winner of the Fields Medal (the equivalent of the Nobel Price in Mathematics) has an h-index of around 7, whereas some top researchers in microbiology have an h-index of 70 or more and 500 or more ISI listed publications. There are, obviously, great differences in publication culture that account for huge differences across scientific disciplines, and even huge differences across research fields within individual disciplines. If you are interested in what some non-political scientists think about the h-index, I recommend:

The h index – help or hype?      Meyer, Veronika R.. Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials, Testing and Research, St. Gallen, Switz. Chimia (2009), 63(1-2), 66-68.

Bibliometrics as weapons of mass citation.      Molinie, Antoinette; Bodenhausen, Geoffrey. Maison de l’Archeologie et de l’Ethnologie (MAE), Universite de Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Defense, Nanterre, Fr. Chimia (2010), 64(1-2), 78-89. 

The follies of citation indices and academic ranking lists a brief commentary to ‘Bibliometrics as Weapons of Mass Citation’.      Ernst, Richard R.. Laboratorium fur Physikalische Chemie, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switz. Chimia (2010), 64(1-2), 90.

Bugs at UN Headquarters

Renovation work at UN headquarters in Geneva over the past few years has turned up a considerable amount of bugs. Now there is another bug problem at UN headquarters in New York.

Whereas the Geneva bugs were of the eavesdropping kind (biologists might call them Cimex auditorius) the bugs in New York were of an entirely different kind, namely Cimex lectularius. These bugs, commonly called bedbugs, are, according to Wikipedia, “small parasitic insects […] that prefer to feed on human blood […] The name ‘bedbug’ is derived from the insect’s preferred habitat of houses and especially beds or other areas where people sleep. Bedbugs, though not strictly nocturnal, are mainly active at night and are capable of feeding unnoticed on their hosts.”

I always thought that New York is a city that never sleeps. Never mind. But the bugging of UN headquarters is surely a wonderful natural experiment. Insect specialists of the world, unite! And help political scientists find out which parts of the UN administration and which UN conferences are the most bug infested ones. Controlling for other factors this will allow us to determine where in the UN the real action is – there is, supposedly, an negative correlation with bug infestation rates.

First Study on Publication Activity of Swiss Political Scientists Published

The slogan “publish or perish” is certainly appropriate in the sense that, in most countries and universities, becoming a professor is impossible unless the respective candidate has published. This slogan does not tell us, however, how many publications of what type are required to make it into and survive in academia. There are, of course, no absolute standards. As in any competitive situation, how good is good enough depends on how good your competitors are. Fair enough. But can we really compare in any meaningful way political scientist A with political scientist B or any given peer group of A? Can we compare political science department A with department B? Can we compare academics and institutions in country A with those in country B, strongly differing national academic traditions, requirements, and capacities notwithstanding?

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Climate Change and Security

Research on the security implications of climate change started in the mid-1990s and has by now become one of the most productive interdisciplinary activities in which political scientists cooperate closely with natural scientists, engineers, and economists. One major result so far is that claims by many policy-makers and also some scientists that climate change increases the risk of civil wars or even interstate wars rests on very shaky empirical foundations. Ongoing research suggests, however, that climate change may increase risks of (non-state) communal violence. While research on the climate change – security nexus is making good progress in collecting and analyzing data on the past, efforts are under way to also couple climate and hydrological models with political and economic models to understand risks that climate change may create for socio-economic wellbeing and conflict over the coming decades.

If you are interested in catching up on the state of the art in this research area: many of the most productive researchers in this area have recently met in Trondheim, Norway, at a conference organized by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters and the Peace Research Institute Oslo. You will find the program and most of the papers here.

Ethics rules and procedures for political science research

Most funding agencies, professional associations and universities have established ethics rules and procedures for research (see e.g. here and here). By and large, and in global comparison, these rules and procedures are weaker with reference to political science than the life sciences. The main reason is that lab and field experiments affecting humans have become more popular in political science only in recent years. As to Switzerland, which I know best, I can’t think of any political science research project in recent years that voluntarily or involuntarily went through formal screening by a governmental or university-based ethics committee. (Note that I am not talking about codes of conduct concerning authorship, plagiarism, etc., but rules and procedures designed to protect the targets of research activity against negative effects that may result from such activity).

In my view, it is only a matter of time before some political science project in Switzerland runs into trouble on this account. Think of field-experiments in which politically contested information treatments affect political behavior, where privacy issues arise, or where informed prior consent is not possible.

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