Climate Change – A Polycentric Approach


In today’s context, climate change is an issue in which every person is a stake holder; therefore, it is a problem that requires a multi – level approach. Since greenhouse gas emissions produced in any location have the potential to impact people and ecosystems around the world, issues of equity and global responsibility are brought into question. This paper will discuss the power relations that are inherent in the global / local nexus with a focus on both the international climate regime and actions that are taken at a state or local level. The interplay between these levels of jurisdiction will be discussed in relation to socio-economic, political and cultural processes and how these serve particular groups of interests. Using a case study comparing the United States of America to the Maldives regarding the difficulties faced in developing binding and equitable international treaties, the role and importance of local action as well as global action will be explored.

Climate change is a global problem therefore; responses to the issue require a global and collective effort (Stern, 2007, p. 1). However, there are many challenges constraining global action on climate change which are directly linked to power relations within the local / global nexus. When the issue of climate change first appeared on the political agenda in the late 1980’s it was framed as a ‘global’ matter due to the fact that both its causes and consequences transcend the boundaries of any single nation (Mazmanian and Kraft, 2009, p. 201). Given this, it has been widely assumed that the only way to tackle climate change is through international cooperation in the form of multilateral agreements. Nevertheless, decades of negotiations have yet to result in an effective and binding global treaty (Ostrom, 2010, 550). Although, intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have been established, significant progress has been constrained by the diverse and varying interests of state level actors (Mazmanian and Kraft, 2009, p. 201). This interplay between national and global interests regarding climate change can be demonstrated using the ‘Two Level Game’ theory which was coined by Robert Putnam in 1988 (Siebert, 2003, P. 207).

According to Putnam’s ‘Two Level Game’ theory, governments play two ‘games’ and have two agendas, one on the domestic level and another on the international level. Only one decision is made and therefore preferences and interests on one level are constrained by the other level and vice versa (Siebert, 2003, P. 207). Action on climate change at any level takes place within a hierarchical power structure and therefore, acts to mitigate climate change on an individual or local level are often controlled by international institutional processes, regulations and social norms (Adgera et al, 2005, p. 78). Often, as is the case with climate change negotiations, the domestic interests of particular nations are at odds with global aims. For example, if the national interest of any given state is to ensure continued economic growth, it is unlikely that state will give up its sovereignty to commit to a binding treaty that will potentially damage its financial situation. It is important to remember that negotiators and politicians who agree to international climate change policy have to be accountable to domestic voters and must also take into account the cultural, socio – economic and political dimensions of the nation and of particular localities (Siebert, 2003, P. 207). Given this, it is extremely difficult to develop global solutions to an issue such as climate change which is so broad and involves so many actors and conflicting interests from different levels of jurisdiction.

In addition to the tensions evident between the national and global spheres, there are also conflicts between states and their competing national interests, particularly with regard to climate negotiations (Paavola and Adger, 2006, p. 594). Seeing as the problem of climate change originated from a vastly unequal world, this topic begs the question ‘who is to blame?’ The issue of climate change presents frightening threats to justice and equality for the international community, with some nations potentially benefiting at the cost of others (Paavola and Adger, 2006, p. 594). For the most part, anthropogenic climate change is the result of greenhouse gas emissions produced in developed nations. However, it is the poorer developing nations that will be disproportionally burdened with its impacts and consequences (Paavola and Adger, 2006, p. 594). Along with this, global climate change negotiations are strongly influenced by the ‘…capacity and potential of countries to articulate their viewpoints’ which means that small developing countries have less bargaining power and are disadvantaged in the process of international negotiations (Rosa and Munasinghe, 2002, p. 2).

The complex issues surrounding equity and global climate responsibility are evident when comparing the United States of America with the small island archipelagos of the Maldives which are located in the Indian Ocean. Small and relatively undeveloped nations such as the Maldives contribute very little to climate change and yet, they are among the most vulnerable to its impacts including sea level rise, and increased severe weather events (Huq et al, 2004, p. 27). This is in contrast to the United States, a highly developed nation which produces extraordinarily large quantities of greenhouse gasses every year. Given the size and wealth of the United States, it has both the adaptive capacity to cope with the effects of climate change and the ability to influence international negotiations on the matter (Klein, and Huq, 2003, p. 159). However, as Klein and Huq (2003, p. 159) outline, the US has not used its bargaining position and high adaptive capacity to lessen the gap between developing and developed nations, asserting that all nations should bear the burden of addressing climate change.

When looking at the difference between the Maldives and the United States in regards to their position in the international climate regime, there are many socio – economic, political and cultural processes that come into play. Both nations signify vastly different economic interests and cultural practices and are thus not represented equally on the international stage (Witthaus, 2012, p. 3). Given the unequal nature of the international structure, and the difficulties faced in developing a binding and fair global treaty for all parties involved, it can be argued that action drastically needs to be taken to mitigate climate change on all levels ranging from the individual to the international (Ostrom, 2010, p. 550). Although it is widely agreed that global action is necessary to combat climate change, any international efforts will essentially fail if not backed up by a variety of steps taken at national, regional, and local levels. In addition to this, seeing as the development of international treaties is such a long and complex process, comprehensive and effective actions need to be taken at local and state levels immediately, rather than waiting for a solely global solution. In essence, the principle of “thinking globally and acting locally” needs to be applied in response to the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change.

Whilst many of the effects of climate change are indeed global, the causes of climate change are a direct result of the actions taken by individuals, states and corporations. It is for this reason that a polycentric (multi- level) approach is required to combat the problem of climate change. To effectively solve climate change in the long run, the everyday activities of ‘…individuals, families, firms, communities, and governments at multiple levels must change substantially’ (Ostrom, 2010, p. 551). Over the last decade, eco – localisation has emerged in many societies and communities as a response to the threat of climate change. Essentially, supporters of the eco – localisation movement oppose the loss of local autonomy ‘…associated with neoliberal globalisation’ (North, 2010, p.587). They disagree with far away elites making overarching decisions with little knowledge of the local communities that are affected through their decisions. In practice, localisation means establishing local autonomous economic institutions, local energy production and community gardens and restaurants (North, 2010, p.587). In a sense, along with being environmentally sustainable, local efforts to mitigate the severity of climate change can be more culturally sensitive than global efforts as they are able take into account the unique sociocultural aspects of a particular region (Adgera et al, 2005, p. 78). This is primarily the case with small and developing nations such as the Maldives, as many unique cultures and traditions are currently being threatened by large scale treaties and globalised multinational corporations.

As well as being seen as more culturally sensitive than global initiatives, actions taken across local levels of jurisdiction have the ability to ‘…enhance innovation, learning, adaptation, trustworthiness, increase cooperation’ and lead to the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes (Ostrom, 2010, p. 552). Localised community responses are also more likely to foster the social capital that is necessary to cope with the threats of climate change, and aid both mitigation and adaptation strategies (Bizikova et al, 2008, p. 306). Participants in local or state level action on climate change have the advantage of applying local knowledge to specific areas of environmental concern and are also more likely to mobilise the public to act on a local level if they feel that their communities are threatened. Because climate change is set to effect communities at a local level, region specific mitigation and adaptation measures need to be implemented to reduce the vulnerability of any given locality (OCED, 2010, p. 136).

Renowned sociologist C. W. Mills has highlighted the difference between ‘…the personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure’ (Mills, 2000, p. 8). As an essential aspect of the ‘sociological imagination’, this distinction between private troubles and public issues is relevant to our discussion about climate change. According to Molnar (2010, p. 2), the most effective resolution of problems lies within the individual, their scope of influence and the social setting in which they have direct experience. This means that, regarding climate change, specific localised solutions and community efforts can be seen as more effective than general, overarching global initiatives. Despite this, localised responses on their own will also be insufficient in dealing with the multitude of problems faced by climate change (Hopkins, 2011, p. 53).

When considering the breadth of the issue and its potentially devastating impacts, climate change is not an issue that can be addressed using only one method. As stated by Adger (2001, p. 921), ‘Global climate change is a significant challenge to structures of governance at all temporal and spatial scales’. Due to this, responses need to be enacted in every nation and at all levels of authority. Along with this, initiatives that are governed by the international regime are often executed at a local or state level. For example, Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM’s) established at a global level are implemented at state levels via the restructuring of energy systems in various nations (Van den Berg and Feinstein, 2010, p. 212). To meet the needs of our planet that have been outlined by climate scientists, action needs to be taken at all levels. However, action taken at a local or global level is intrinsically linked to actions taken at all other levels. Because of this, care must be taken in order to ensure that initiatives to mitigate dangerous climate change are not just environmentally effective, but also socially and culturally sensitive. It is essential that when addressing climate change, the needs of diverse cultures and societies are considered and the positions of small island nations such as the Maldives are not forgotten or exploited (Pulhin et al, 2010, p. 146). This is particularly pertinent considering the vulnerability of smaller nations and the extent of the changes that are required. Because many indigenous or marginalised cultures are distinct from mainstream society, actions and policies implemented by the majority, ‘…even if well-intended, may prove inadequate, ill-adapted, and even inappropriate’ (Nakashima, 2012, p. 7).

Overall, given the immensity of the issue of climate change and the problems faced in developing effective international solutions, it has been argued that actions taken at all levels can provide options for mitigation. Climate change is such a difficult issue to solve in that its causes and consequences are so diverse and far reaching. Along with this, climate change involves issues of economics, power, and resource distribution. Therefore when attempting to implement solutions on any level, cultural sensitivity and global equity need to be considered. This paper has endeavoured to show that an effective response to climate change incorporates actions that are across all levels. Through comparing the United States with the Maldives, the inequalities of global power structures are highlighted. By combining a local and global response, communities are better suited mitigate the effects of climate change through building sustainable ecological frameworks as well as fostering the social capital necessary for adaptation.


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  1. Great article! I think the question of responsibility is an interesting one when it comes to climate change, particularly given the current global financial turmoil that states worldwide face in 2013. Whilst social capital should be fostered throughout communities to mitigate against the impacts of environmental degradation, the question to be answered is when will states actively shift from a narrow view of economic growth to acting in a positive way for humanity. Constantly people of small island states live in fear for the survival of their traditional customs and way of life. Hopefully, in light of recent research highlighting the dangers faced by these small states, governments such as America and Australia can proactively engage in limiting their emissions and impact on the environment.

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