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date: 25 July 2021

Climate Change in Foreign Policyfree

Climate Change in Foreign Policyfree

  • Amy BelowAmy BelowSchool of Public Policy, Oregon State University


Climate change emerged in the late 20th century as a topic of global concern and thus a prominent foreign policy issue. Academic scholarship on the international community’s response to the environmental threat was not far behind. Scholars apply a number of theoretical constructs in their search to explain why states behave the way they do in their coordinated approaches to addressing climate-related activities. Of these, systemic theories such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism figure prominently. State-centric theories that consider changing power dynamics in the international system, the importance of evolving coalitions, as well as the role of hegemonic and leadership states, provide contending explanations. Nonstate actors, especially the climate regime itself which has received substantial attention, are similarly considered important variables affecting foreign policy. Constructivist arguments emphasizing the influence of ideas, norms, and identity have become increasingly common, especially as they relate to developmental disparities, “common but differential responsibilities,” and climate justice. While there has been less focus on the role of individual actors, domestic-level variables such as concerns for economic growth, reputation, and capacity to act, as well as multivariable explanations, continue to provide insight. In contrast to the diversity of explanations proposed, the young field is relatively homogeneous in terms of methodological approaches, with qualitative case studies or small-N analyses being most common. If history is a trustworthy guide, however, as on-the-ground, practical approaches to global climate governance evolve, so too will scholarly approaches to its study.


  • World Politics


The phenomenon popularly and contemporarily referred to as climate change has been a topic of international cooperation long before it became a political concern and cultural catch phrase. In the 20th century, it evolved into a prominent foreign policy concern wherein heads of government, nonprofit environmental organizations, and concerned citizens alike joined climate scientists in global summits intended to produce outcomes protective of the Earth’s climate. As acknowledgment of the climate’s impact on human health, national security and economic stability grew, climate change became an issue that “cannot be ignored by the foreign policy community” (Ott, 2001, p. 279), nor could it be or has it been ignored by the academic community.

Under the broad umbrella of global climate change there is a vast literature relevant to policymaking circles. Many books and articles analyze international climate policy formulation, implementation, and evaluation and have focused on issues such as carbon taxes, emissions trading, and technology transfers, and on whether policies should be based on carbon intensity or total emissions, or should be analyzed sector by sector or policy by policy, for example (Boyd et al., 2009; Hovi, Sprinz, & Underdal, 2009; Streck & Terhalle, 2013). Additionally, there is a vast literature on international diplomacy, negotiations, and strategies therein (e.g., Depledge, 2013; Dimitrov, 2010; Sweet, 2017). While these works are pertinent to a country’s foreign policy (and to the international community’s ability to successfully address climate change), the focus here is rather on the political aspects of climate change and, on the country or nation-state as the proper unit of analysis. In other words, this investigation centers on the forces that compel states to behave the way they do in the international system—how key variables help explain a state’s climate foreign policy.

Not all climate change research discussed herein focuses explicitly on “foreign policy” per se, however. Analyses do not always clearly use international relations theory, and few conspicuously adopt a levels-of-analysis framework. This is largely because the study of global climate politics is vastly interdisciplinary in scope. The diversity of approaches makes for a rich body of scholarship, but it also means the application of diverse terminologies and scenarios wherein scholars ask similar questions but do not directly engage across disciplines. The underlying assumption here is that action should be taken to address global climate change and that scholars should seek to understand why most efforts have yielded few (or insufficient) behavioral adjustments. Most scholarship, however, stops well short of climate advocacy and remains neutral in its prescriptions.

Though there is variety in disciplinary backgrounds and within the specific research questions posed, notable themes have emerged. As Barkdull and Harris (2002) observed, scholarship in the 1980s, especially in the United States, preferenced the parsimony of systemic explanations. (It is important to note that these observations were of environmental change and foreign policy in general and not specific to climate change, as the study of climate as foreign policy was not yet prevalent. Yet, the trend is generally applicable.) In contrast, scholarship in the 2000s paid greater homage to works from the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized rich, detailed analyses characteristic of foreign policy analysis and comparative politics. Since approximately 2009, however, and the events at the Copenhagen conference, realist and other systemic explanations have experienced a resurgence. This is likely a result of shifting dynamics in the international system around that time.

Similar trends are visible in methodological approaches, most notably the popularity of qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, research. Likely because of the complexity of climate change itself, few scholars have attempted to quantify and otherwise operationalize potential explanatory variables. Most research, instead, adopts case study (single or comparative) approaches or utilizes small-n datasets. Some adopt interview, survey, or participant observation methodologies (commonly conducted at global summits), the latter popular in anthropological or sociological research.

Common and Unique Characteristics

In many ways, the dynamics of climate foreign policy resemble those of other foreign policy concerns such as global trade or nuclear arms proliferation. In many ways, they are notably unique, making their study both vital and instructive. Perhaps the most obvious distinction is that climate foreign policy falls under the heading of environmental policy, which is commonly considered “low” politics. Traditionally, environmental issues are considered to lack direct and visible links to human health, economic growth, or national security and, thus, in a competitive policy marketplace, these issues fall low on the list of national and international priorities. Many environmental issues are similarly challenged to gain attention because they operate on long-term time horizons as opposed to other policy concerns with more immediate causes and effects.

Historically, climate change has been especially burdened (as opposed to global efforts to address the disappearing ozone layer, for example) by both characteristics. Especially for decision makers in many industrialized countries, the potential impacts of climate change are perceived as distant in both time and space. For others, impacts range from eminent to extant. According to the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, however, every region of the world is already being impacted by the changing climate (IPCC, 2014). Partly because of this fact, for some climate change has evolved into a “high politics” issue where it has become a top priority at G8 summits and UN Security Council meetings, for example (Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008).

This brings to light the issue, another dominant characteristic of climate foreign policy its truly global nature. Beginning in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was unveiled, an international agreement ultimately ratified by 197 nations, the international community acknowledged that all countries had vested interests in the future of climate policy. Protection of the climate is a global commons issue. Written into the UNFCCC was the requirement that signatories would convene annually at the Conference of the Parties (COPs) to discuss the future of the climate treaty. These COPs have evolved into major international events. For example, the 2015 Paris Summit (COP 21) hosted approximately 20,000 credentialed participants, including 147 heads of state and government (Howard, 2015). COPs also increasingly garner serious media attention that provides world leaders a highly visible policy platform.

A characteristic that differs from some other foreign policy issues is the reduced relevance of military power. As opposed to traditional security issues, a popular focus in the study of foreign policy analysis, a country’s hard power as measured by the size of its military or the amount or sophistication of its weaponry carries little weight in international environmental diplomacy. This helps level the playing field and reduces the dominance of military superpowers. The primary beneficiaries are smaller developing countries without strong militaries but with much at stake when it comes to the impacts of climate change. For example, small island developing states (SIDs) have had a noteworthy impact on international negotiations, “much more so than the a priori power distribution would predict” (Betzold, 2010, p. 131).

The global nature of climate change and the resulting global summitry, coupled with the empowerment of less powerful states, suggests that climate foreign policy embodies a somewhat unique and challenging power balance. Given their numerical dominance, developing nations have been able to band together against industrialized countries. Codified by “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) in the UNFCCC and perpetuated in COPs since, developing countries have argued that industrialized countries are not only responsible for historic emissions that have caused climate change to date and, thus, should reduce their emissions, but they have the capacity to do so. In contrast, developing countries are not culpable and thus should not be required to reduce emissions. (A few developing countries have argued that they are willing to reduce emissions but only voluntarily.) Additionally, developed countries should assist developing nations via technology transfers and flexibility mechanisms, for example (namely, the Clean Development Mechanism, CDM) in helping them reduce emissions, reduce their vulnerability, and/or adapt to climatic changes. This divide has been the source of much disagreement and stalemate in negotiations over the years.

While it is true that countries in the Global South have had significant impacts on negotiations and resulting agreements, this does not mean that traditional forms of power are immaterial. For example, although military power may be of diminished value, many military powers are also economic powers, and countries with large economies have wielded considerable power in climate negotiations. Countries like the United States and China as well as the European Union have been some of the biggest contributors to historic greenhouse gas emissions and, as is especially the case with the United States and China, express grave concern for what reducing those emissions could mean for their economies. The fear of economic strain, however, is not reserved for economic powerhouses alone. Many countries have expressed concern for the negative impact of emissions reductions or, conversely, the impact a changing climate might have on their economies, especially when considered in terms of economic competitiveness. In other words, many countries (regardless of developmental status) continue to view climate policy and economic policy as mutually exclusive, if not competing or contentious concerns.

As such, the “great powers” in climate foreign policy resemble those in other policy arenas, including the growing emphasis on emerging powers. If measured in terms of economic strength, global political influence and contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, traditional powers like the United States, Japan, Canada and the EU hold considerable sway. This list has evolved to include countries such as China, India, Brazil, and Russia as their economies and, subsequently their potential future emissions, grow (Brenton, 2013). Thus, while the list of great powers may no longer resemble that from the 20th century, the list of great powers in climate change politics does resemble that of the 21st century. In this way, the dynamics of climate foreign policy resemble that of other foreign policies. As Brenton (2013) points out, major foreign policy choices in the climate regime are made by prime ministers and other state leaders, not by environmental ministers specifically. In other words, climate foreign policy has become part of a country’s broader foreign policy strategy. It is not seen as a singularly environmental issue.

Systemic Considerations

Power and Realist Explanations

According to realist theories, the anarchic nature of the international system and the subsequent emphasis on self-preservation and the drive for relative gains dictate that power is both the means and the ends of state behavior. States wield power in order to maintain and/or acquire more power. The state with the preponderance of power (the hegemon) dictates and monitors the behavior of others in the system. This depiction of the key motivator in international relations has not always been popular among international environmental scholars. Because of some of the unique characteristics of global environmental challenges, structural and hegemonic power theories have not managed to provide a complete account of international environmental negotiations (Dimitrov, 2013; Falkner, 2005). Powerful countries have not wielded unchecked authority in the climate regime, and small and medium powers have managed substantial influence.

While not completely discrediting this reality, the 2010s saw a willingness to reengage with structural arguments, though not all were explicitly linked back to realist theorization.1 In an attempt to explain the stalemate of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, scholars looked to changes in the structure of the international system. The Copenhagen Accord, the only agreement to result from COP15, was negotiated by Brazil, South Africa, India, and China (or the BASIC countries); the United States joined at the tenth hour, and the EU was not included. Negotiations were closed, meaning the agreement reflected the interests of just five countries. As a result, the agreement was not the comprehensive replacement for the Kyoto Protocol many were intending it to be. Scholarship focused on trying to explain why.

From a systems perspective, the Accord and the emergence of BASIC as the key negotiating block reflected a new balance of power. The Accord was a symptom of the shift in hegemonic power from the West to the East and South (Roberts, 2011) and represented the flattening of the “old” power hierarchy, with the United States losing relative power and China and other emerging powers gaining; it represented a threatening multipolar system. This new reality led to two interesting dynamics. One was the “great power contestation” between the United States and China and, by extension, between the Western, Westphalian system and its challenger (Terhalle & Depledge, 2013). China was able to present itself as a new leader in the regime and impart its preferences on what could become the Kyoto Protocol’s replacement and the new international standard.

The other dynamic was the broader “new world (dis)order” (Roberts, 2011). In addition to the U.S.-China struggle, the European Union was struggling to maintain its international power and the G77 negotiating block showed increasing fissures. On the ground, this translated into an EU that was basically locked out of negotiations and the separation of four of the most powerful developing countries from the rest of their once steadfast allies. Out of this system that no longer wielded legitimacy (Terhalle & Depledge, 2013), a new great power structure was bound to emerge (Brenton, 2013).2 The result was BASIC and the Copenhagen Accord. Though summit leadership pushed for a new global treaty, oppositional forces promoted an agreement that represented the key interests of just four emerging powers and, in the end, was not adopted (only officially taken note of) when the summit concluded.

Though most often not directly related back to realist theories or explicitly acknowledged in literature, state sovereignty has played a substantial role in climate negotiations and the climate regime. During negotiations, both industrialized and developing nations have sought to protect themselves from external intrusion into the domestic decision making process, domestic institutions, and national economies. A prime illustration is how international agreements (from Kyoto to Copenhagen to Paris) set or ask for emission reductions or other commitments but issue no specific directives for how each country is meant to implement or fulfill those commitments. Signatories must submit evidence of action, but they have considerable agency in the form that action takes. Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions, or NAMAs (part of the Bali Action Plan) are a prime example as they were created primarily to incentivize greater commitments from developing countries but, in respect for common but differentiated responsibilities, permit great flexibility and individualization. Additionally, actions are voluntary, nonbinding, and not subject to international monitoring and verification.

Another application to the study of climate foreign policy is that of game theoretic models and conceptualizations. Though overall not very prevalent, applications date back to the early and mid-1990s (Ward, 1993, 1996) and seek to find solutions to collective action problems and overcome the free-rider problem. More specifically, assuming states to be rational, self-interested actors, scholars have sought to explain the presence or lack of cooperation in the regime (especially in negotiations) and compliance and/or noncompliance with treaties and other agreements. Applications have varied and include noncooperative game theory, prisoner’s dilemma, coalition formations, and coordinated games (Barrett, 2003; DeCanio & Fremstad, 2013; Grundig, 2009; Wood, 2011).

The few applications have met with strong criticism for being overly simplistic or otherwise inappropriate. Summarizing a number of relevant criticisms, Dimitrov (2013) highlights how the majority of climate negotiations involve more than two actors (and thus more than simple game theoretics account for) and include scenarios wherein actors do not have perfect or even adequate information. Similarly, most applications are theoretical and have not been applied to actual negotiations and do not adequately capture the negotiating process, instead focusing primarily on outcomes.

These and other criticisms aside, theoretical applications have yielded practical recommendations to improve cooperation and compliance. In searching for a solution to Underdal’s (1980) “law of least ambitious program” problem, Victor, for example, borrows language from game theory to make the argument for smaller group sizes. The UN system has too many actors, and smaller existing groups like the G8 are often “too skewed” in representation (2006, p. 101). New, small institutions should be created to avoid obstacles to collective action. From their application of noncooperative game theory, Hovi and Areklett conclude that, in order to improve compliance, consequences for noncompliance should be “relatively severe” and address both individual and collective rationality (2004, p. 21).


Discussions of leadership in the climate regime sometimes explicitly, but often implicitly, acknowledge the dynamics of structural arguments.3 As the United States eventually abdicated its early leadership position, a power vacuum emerged that has yet to be successfully filled, at least in any permanent and universally accepted way. While there has been no shortage of leadership contenders, no clear leader has emerged (Karlsson, Parker, Hjerpe, & Linnér, 2011). This is despite efforts by the EU to fill that role. The result is a fragmented leadership landscape (Parker, Karlsson, Hjerpe, & Linnér, 2012) and “a vibrant body of research on leadership” (Dimitrov, 2013, p. 342).

Recognized as the global hegemon, the title of climate hegemon or climate leader was the United States’ to lose. To many, because of its economic prowess and its status as the world’s top emitter, the United States’ leadership was fundamental to successful international action. As Roberts (2011) found, most individuals close to negotiations believed U.S. leadership to be necessary. In fact, smaller countries thought action without the United States’ cooperation would be pointless. By 2001, however, the United States’ announcement that it would not be ratifying the Kyoto Protocol created a power vacuum. Paradoxically, it was the nation’s global hegemonic status as both the economic and political leader that allowed it to decline the hegemonic position in the climate regime (Fisher, 2004). While the United States continued to negotiate multilaterally, it was criticized for acting unilaterally and otherwise operating outside the UN process in competing organizations (i.e., the Major Economies Forum/Major Emitters Forum (MEF/MEM) and the Asia-Pacific Partnership).

Having been an early leader and rival of the United States, the EU was the logical replacement for the abdicating hegemon. In addition to bestowing upon European leaders a compelling rationale for deepening regional integration (Jordan, van Asselt, Berkhout, Huitema, & Rayner, 2012), becoming the climate leader was well suited to further the EU’s broader geostrategic goal of global leadership (Jordan et al., 2012; Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008; Volger & Bretherton, 2006). The EU also had one of the largest economies and, thus, many trading partners to leverage. To do so, the EU elected to pursue a “soft” leadership strategy (Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008) using diplomacy, support of multilateralism, and leadership by example (namely, the example of the world’s first cap and trade system, the EU Emissions Trading System or ETS).

EU leadership, however, has seen its highs and lows. Since the early 1990s, it pushed for stringent emission reductions—more stringent than what ended up in the Kyoto Treaty wherein the U.S. position of caution prevailed. After the U.S. abdication, though, the EU was credited “without question” for making sure the Kyoto process was not derailed (Volger & Bretherton, 2006, p. 3). After the creation of the ETS, the EU became an ever more credible leader, and conditions looked favorable for its continued leadership (Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008). This was until 2009 when BASIC (and the United States) virtually shut the EU out of negotiating the Copenhagen Accord. At least for the time being, the leadership vacuum was filled by someone else. Though the EU regained some leadership status in Durban as it attempted to be a bridge builder between the United States and China (Bäckstrand & Elgstrom, 2013), questions about its ability to lead outright remained. Especially if countries are turning away from large-scale summitry, the regime might be turning elsewhere or “elsewheres” for leadership, for example, toward China and other emerging countries.

Alliance Structures and Coalitions

While seldom analyzed in climate literature as an academic topic of its own merit (with the potential exception of negotiation studies), literature on the climate regime explicitly and implicitly acknowledges the complex and evolving system of alliances and coalitions that have permeated international climate dynamics. Given the universal nature of the problem and desire to be part of the solution (or at least not be left out of the discussion of a solution), it is not surprising that countries have grouped themselves into multiple, sometimes overlapping, and often competing, coalitions that represent the various interests and identities present in the international community. Since the early days of the regime, these alliance structures have continued to evolve, reflecting changes in leadership as well as changes in domestic and systemic conditions.

Some of the earliest groupings included the EU, JUSSCANNZ (developed countries that are not part of the EU: Japan, the United States, Switzerland, Canada, Austria, Norway, and New Zealand) and the G77.4 JUSSCANNZ eventually became the Umbrella Group when the United States began separating itself from those that pushed for more climate action and other countries joined the alliance. Existing coalitions of developed countries, like the G20 and G8, have also been active in the climate regime, particularly as these countries meet in the years between climate summits (wherein climate is but one of a list of agenda items) as a way to potentially come to consensus and/or to persuade members toward compliance. Presidents Bush and Obama of the United States convened the Major Emitters Forum (MEM) and its successor the Major Economies Forum (MEF), respectively, in a similar attempt to coordinate developed countries. The MEM was viewed with great suspicion as it was seen as an attempt to undermine the UN system; its replacement was less suspect (Happaerts & Bruyninckx, 2013).

Alliance structures among developing countries have become increasingly complex as existing differences are being exacerbated by increasingly disparate levels of and trajectories of development. According to Roberts (2011), the early solidarity shared due to a lack of wealth in these countries has given way to more varied concerns, such as who is responsible for climate change, who has the capability to act and help others, and how vulnerable countries are to the impacts of climatic change. The result is that while the G77 remains the primary negotiating bloc for non-Annex I countries, over a dozen subgroups have emerged, groups that represent the heterogeneity of the Global South and the fluidity and dynamics of any attempt at categorization (Joshi, 2013). This reality includes contestation within the G77. A good example is the “worst of friends” relationship between the G77 and OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) wherein OPEC’s priorities (of high oil prices and a weak or no climate treaty) conflict greatly with other members’ objectives (Barnett, 2008). Within this context, Aarts and Janssen (2003) posit that there are three general subgroups: oil exporting countries (primarily represented by OPEC), small island states (represented by the Association of Small Island States or AOSIS), and all others.5

Perhaps the most analyzed coalition of developing countries is BASIC. This informal alliance began at the suggestion of India which had already been coordinating with Brazil and South Africa via the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) Dialogue Forum on other policy issues. Together with China, which was already singled out with the common reference to “the G77 and China,” these four countries shared similar domestic conditions (including development and energy challenges), as well as similar pressures from the international community to reduce emissions and develop sustainably (Hallding, Jürisoo, Carson, & Atteridge, 2013). At the same time, the BASIC countries hold different positions on a number of specific issues and thus have not coalesced into a permanent and dominating negotiating bloc. In addition to common pairings within the group (often China and India go against Brazil and South Africa), each country continues to foster strong relationships with numerous other countries (both developed and developing). Each also continues to highlight its membership in the G77.

Realism and rational self-interest can explain this strategic behavior—the desire to form a new bloc and yet not severe ties with the “old.” On the one hand, embracing the emerging power status and increased negotiating strength can bring many benefits, ranging from economic to diplomatic to reputational. Each country has something to gain from joining forces and from collaborative efforts. On the other hand, each country retains the safety of developing nation status by continuing to ally with the G77 and other non-Annex I countries. Doing so protects them from having to take on greater responsibility akin to that of industrialized nations. The fact that the coalition is relatively weak simultaneously protects each country’s sovereignty.

Nonstate Actors and Liberal Explanations

Liberal theories have a robust history in international environmental politics scholarship. The same holds true for the study of climate change. Though it is true that, as realism dictates, states have been the primary unit of analysis for much scholarship, this determination is not ubiquitous. Similarly, while states have been the main focus of diplomatic efforts and states are the only signatories to the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol, and all treaties and agreements since, they are not the singular focus of study. As liberal theories assert, nonstate actors matter. They matter because they influence state behavior. They exert an independent effect in the international system.

A prime example of an impactful nonstate actor is the climate regime itself. Adopting methods of inquiry and proposed explanations in line with early regime scholars like Keohane (1982), Krasner (1983), and Haggard and Simmons (1987), as well as scholars like Young (1982, 1991, 1999) who write about regimes in general and environmental regimes specifically, this literature describes and/or explains the birth and evolution of the climate regime (Andresen & Agrawala, 2002; Bodansky, 2001), criticizes the regime, and highlights its weaknesses (Depledge, 2006; Gupta, 1997). Implicitly or explicitly stated, the prominence of these works is an artifact of how the international community has chosen to address climate change (via a global regime) and supports the argument that self-interest, manifest in mutual and absolute gains, compels states to cooperate.

Said literature therefore aligns with liberal institutionalism by stressing the influence institutions (both the climate regime as a whole and formal organizations that comprise it, environmentally related or otherwise) have on state behavior. Dai (2010), for example, writes about the indirect influence institutions can have on national climate policies and domestic behavior, even institutions with weak enforcement power. The case of Russian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is a common example. Hoping to improve relations with Europe, the carrot of World Trade Organization (WTO) accession (that the EU leveraged) arguably influenced Russia’s change of heart toward ratification (Henry & Sundstrom, 2007).

Given the inherently transnational nature of the phenomenon,6 climate change has been conceptualized historically as a global challenge demanding a commensurately global solution. At its core, climate change is a classic collective goods problem that necessitates that the entire international community participate. This was the predominant mindset throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Beginning in 1985 with the Villach Conference and especially since the unveiling of the UNFCCC in 1992, multilateralism has been the dominant political strategy. The idea is to invite all interested and affected parties to the table, discuss, come to a consensus as to how the community will proceed, and implement those decisions. Representatives, typically specialists, meet throughout the year to have detailed discussions in focused sessions (including workshops and roundtables), and at the end of the year all parties convene for international negotiations (COPs). Ministers and heads of government/state attend these latter meetings (usually at large plenary sessions) to hammer out treaties and/or comprehensive agreements and sign them in preparation for ratification and the formation of new international law.

How did such a regime come into being? While there are recurring themes in the literature, no universal consensus has been reached on the forces that drove regime formation. Adopting a power-based explanation, some argue that the United States, as global hegemon, is responsible. Strong evidence of this argument can be seen in the contents of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol and their clear reflection of U.S. interests, to the detriment of other actors’ preferences (Antunes, 2000; Betsill, 2000). An alternative perspective is that power is, instead, imbued in veto states that obstruct formation (Volger, 2002; Young, 1989). As is commonly the case for international environmental issues in general and climate change as an especially illustrative example, regimes have not been the result of pressure from commanding hegemons. There is no one hegemon that continually conducts the business of the regime. With this conceptualization, climate change is a typical global commons problem wherein every actor must contribute to the good to ensure its delivery/protection; even a moderate greenhouse gas emitter can prevent the regime from taking shape. In this scenario, the “lowest common denominator problem” or, as Underdal (1980) terms it, the “law of the least ambitious program” emerges: the contribution of the whole is delimited by the contribution of the least willing/capable/interested. All this being true, the climate regime did emerge despite veto states.

Interest-based explanations then provide plausible alternatives. A prominent option and direct extension of the failure of hegemonic stability ideals lie in the influence of entrepreneurial leaders (Andresen & Agrawala, 2002; Young, 1991). As is the case with the climate regime, the hegemonic United States participated in early efforts to organize but abdicated the position, leaving others, namely, European countries, to step in. In this alternative conceptualization, climate is not a classic collective good, as an absolute veto state does not exist. Groups of states can make a difference (Hochstetler & Viola, 2012). Leadership can also come in the form of nonstate actors, including the United Nations Environmental Programme and epistemic communities (Miller & Edwards, 2001), both credited with assisting in climate regime formation.

Compared to theories of formation, the majority of the literature on the climate regime is devoted to evaluating its effectiveness. Perhaps the most obvious way to measure effectiveness is by assessing goal attainment or problem solving. Has the regime reduced greenhouse gas emissions? Has it slowed or in some way ameliorated humans’ impact on the climate? Has it helped vulnerable countries mitigate impacts? Other ways to assess the regime’s effectiveness are (1) to determine whether and to what extent the regime encourages compliance with its provisions and (2) whether the means adopted by the regime are the best way to accomplish the goals set out by participants (Antunes, 2000).7

In response to the first criterion, the climate regime is not unlike other international regimes that suffer from collective action and other cooperation problems and fail to encourage member compliance. As such, many arguments for the regime’s difficulties are rooted in the application of Mancur Olson’s (1965) logic of collective action and, thus, in the sheer number of actors involved. In essence, the regime is considered a “large group” of actors wherein no one major player is willing to bear the entire burden to ensure that the collective good (a protected climate) is provided and wherein the selective incentives for other actors to contribute in a significant way are weak or otherwise ineffective (Harris, 2007). In such large groups, there is also an increased possibility of obstructionist states that do not share in the collective aim and that would like to see little progress or no progress toward providing the good (Depledge, 2008).

In regards to the second criterion, a constant critique has been labored against the structure of the climate regime and how the means by which the international community has approached the problem are ineffective and/or inappropriate. For example, despite the centrality of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the UNFCCC, the regime is constantly criticized for lacking comprehensiveness. As Keohane and Victor describe it, the regime is comprised of “loosely-coupled sets of specific regimes” instead of “a comprehensive integrated regime” with a central core or clear hierarchy. They label it a “regime complex” (2011, p. 7). This makes the goal of attaining a comprehensive treaty (such as the Kyoto Protocol) difficult. If such a treaty does emerge, it is unlikely to be successful or, as described by Brenton, the result is “deeply dysfunctional” as the attempt to create a universal agreement for disparate actors and interests “was always unrealistic” (2013, p. 546). Thus, these criticisms not only argue against the means, but the intermediate ends manifest in the goal of global agreement. Other criticisms detailing the regime’s lack of effectiveness include the regime’s failure to learn or facilitate learning among its members. While Antunes (2000) found learning to be a strong measure of effectiveness, Depledge argued that learning has not been characteristic of the climate regime.8 Instead, she argued that the regime has ossified (2006).

Such criticisms have developed into criticisms of the entire approach to global climate change. A prime example is Hoffmann’s (2011) characterization of the first 20 plus years of efforts as singularly and unquestioningly preferencing “megamultilateralism.” The failure to adequately consider its appropriateness or efficacy has stymied progress. Governance is also highly fragmented and duplicative, with overlapping institutional arrangements (within the climate regime and with other international environmental and nonenvironmental institutions) (Zelli, 2011). The inability of the regime to produce the eagerly anticipated agreement in Copenhagen at COP15 emphasized these shortcomings in architecture and approach, at the same time leading to further fragmentation between regime members (Zelli, 2011).

Despite the many criticisms, some have pointed to notable strengths in the regime’s complex structure. Keohane and Victor (2011), for example, argue that regime complexes have inherent benefits such as flexibility and adaptability that mediate the lack of comprehensiveness. In specific regards to the perceived failures in Copenhagen, Dimitrov argued that, while Copenhagen signaled the further deterioration of the UN multilateral process, it simultaneously heralded the continued growth of a “vibrant multilevel policy” approach or “aggregate” approach to climate governance (2010, p. 796). Herein, countries are more apt to engage in bilateral or smaller multilateral or regional agreements, the patchwork comprising the governance structure.

These rebuttals point to an interesting paradox inherent in the regime. It is simultaneously criticized for being too comprehensive and not comprehensive enough. This criticism has led to calls for a new regime or governance structure that is more bottom-up as opposed to purely top-down (Dai, 2010), more democratically deliberative (Stevenson & Dryzek, 2014), or is comprised of “building blocks” (Falkner, Stephan, & Vogler, 2010) or an “orchestra of treaties” (Sugiyama & Sinton, 2005).

Another nonstate actor that receives extensive attention is the EU. Strict adherence to realist thought would not acknowledge an independent role for the EU in climate governance. As a supranational entity, it also is not an orthodox international institution, yet it has often been ascribed state-like characteristics. Nonetheless, the EU has been an active participant in the climate regime since its origin and has been the focus of numerous studies, primarily for its rise and (relative) fall as a climate leader. The EU declared its intention to be a leader early on and played an active role in negotiations, but many argue that it failed to maintain that status in Copenhagen (Bäckstrand & Elgstrom, 2013; Falkner et al., 2010; Karlsson et al., 2011; Oberthür & Roche Kelly, 2008). Nevertheless, in a study of perceptions of leadership conducted at COP14, Karlsson et al. (2011) found that the EU was the actor most commonly recognized as being a leader.

Climate governance literature (as opposed to regime literature) similarly recognizes the importance of a number of nonstate actors.9 Prominent examples include nongovernmental organizations (Betsill & Corell, 2001) and epistemic communities (Raustiala, 2001), as well as substate actors (Rabe, 2007). The growing study of transnational climate governance is an effort to study this broad conceptualization of “actorness.” Such works add to this list regional governments, corporations, government agencies, and public-private partnerships, among others (Andonova, Betsill, & Bulkeley, 2009; Bulkeley et al., 2012, 2014).


Although climate change is commonly thought of as a scientific phenomenon, the accumulation of research on the power of ideas suggests that it is simultaneously a social one. In line with the work of constructivist scholars like Wendt (1992, 1999) and Hopf (1998), many international climate scholars make the case that structure is important, but not as defined solely by the distribution of material constraints and capabilities. The structure of ideas, identities, and norms matters. Though likely not intended as a constructivist argument, in their characterization of obstacles to adequately addressing climate change Stevenson and Dryzek wrote that “[g]overnance often seems paralyzed by deep conflict about what should be done and who should do it” (2014, p. 4, italics added). This statement perfectly captures the subjectivity that plagues the regime, a multidimensional subjectivity that complicates coordination among an already diverse group of actors. There is no single understanding about who is responsible and what they should do.

At a most basic level, constructivist arguments like those put forward by Pettenger (2007) challenge one’s very understanding of what climate change is and, especially, how the ways it is talked about affect one’s understanding of preferred responses. Taking issue with positivist understandings of climate change, Pettenger (2007, p. 2) argues that climate change is socially constructed. It is not “a ‘problem’ that can be analyzed and solved”; it is not an objective fact, but is defined by scientists [including epistemic communities] and policymakers. Additionally, those with power (in this case material power) not only create the knowledge people tend to take for granted, but work to perpetuate their hegemonic discourse.

The United States, for example, took advantage of its ability to frame the climate change conversation early on so that others would similarly believe in scientific uncertainty and that reducing emissions would impose unacceptable economic costs. In contrast, the inability of small island states to control the narrative or otherwise define climate change according to their preferences has constrained progress (Barnett & Campbell, 2015). In illustration of the dynamism of meaning, as more science and a better understanding of economic realities emerged, the United States’ frame lost favor and countries became increasingly willing to commit to emission reductions and mitigation measures (Betsill, 2000). The United States’ control over climate discourse waned, as did the accepted working definition of climate change.

The importance of norms, or shared expectations of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, has similarly become the focus of an expanding constructivist literature. The intent of international cooperation and a primary reason the climate regime exists is to instigate behavioral change. Just what that behavior is has become increasingly problematic. Thus, the fundamental goal has been to develop new universally accepted norms to help narrow the possibilities. In theory, with agreement on what should be done, negotiating over the details would become less complicated.

In many ways, norm development has been successful; in other ways, the incongruence of meaning and expectations has created nearly insurmountable obstacles. One example of a relatively “successful” norm is the meta-norm of the value of international negotiations. It has become generally accepted that the UN-led structure is the preferred venue for tackling climate change. States should participate in global climate summits and sign international treaties at their conclusion. States are obliged to participate in this process to give the appearance that they are actively working to address an issue of international concern (Betsill, 2000). They are compelled to perform their legitimacy in the international community by engaging in the regime. (In this way, constructivist and liberal institutionalist arguments are mutually beneficial. Institutions help develop and diffuse norms.)10 Beginning around 2009, however, this norm has shown signs of stress. Given that the Copenhagen Accord ushered in a new era of flexibility with NAMAs wherein countries determine their own actions (as opposed to the Kyoto Protocol that dictated specific reductions, timetables, and mitigation measures), it is likely that new norms of decentralized governance are emerging.

A set of contestable norms, whose lack of universal acceptance sits at the very foundation of the negotiation stalemate, surround the ideas of equity and justice and, by extension, responsibility and need. For example, the very documents that serve as the basis of the regime, the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol, are laced with the word “appropriate,” thereby inserting a high degree of subjectivity into any interpretation of their “mandates.” Concepts such as sustainable development and “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDRRC) are also integral components of the agreements. The Convention and Protocol would not have been approved without them. At the same time, the ambiguity has created a great divide between signatories and postponed greater action.

One of the key characteristics of the UNFCCC and Protocol was the creation of Annexes. In both, countries are divided into two primary groupings depending on level of development. Annex I countries, industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (as of 1992), and economies in transition (post-Soviet countries) are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (though these amounts vary by country), while non-Annex I countries, developing countries, are not required to make such commitments. This distinction was intended to officially recognize different domestic conditions (i.e., historic emissions, technological capabilities, etc.) and acknowledge that countries would not all be held to the same standard. It was an attempt to impart fairness.

But who determines what is “fair” or what treatment is “just”? Adopting Pettenger’s (2007) argumentation, the materially powerful do. Annex I countries do. They have vastly different interpretations than do developing countries, however (Roberts, 2011). This contestation is borne out in increasingly prevalent discussions (especially since Copenhagen) about “climate justice,” what it is and how to best attain it. Developing countries argue that they are not responsible for historic emissions and, thus, the present problem, nor do they have the capability to adapt to the impacts to which they are disproportionately exposed. Developed countries have officially accepted the associated norm of CBDRRC,11 yet many continue to push for developing countries to make greater emission reduction commitments. As Roberts and Parks argue, these “diametrically opposed perceptions of ‘climate justice’ among rich and poor nations . . . pose a serious threat to political resolution and pollute a diplomatic atmosphere already teetering on the edge of disaster” (2006, p. 4). Thus, it is a difference in perceptions that prevents greater progress on climate governance or, more specifically, “disagreement about the principles used to allocate responsibility between countries” (Gupta, 2012, p. 631).12

Especially in the context of climate justice, how decision makers and countries place themselves within the North-South developmental dichotomy matters. A prominent and illustrative example is that of a Third World identity.13 Countries in the so-called Third World are subject to similar material constraints, yet it is their shared interests that coalesce into a collective identity. Worries that mitigation measures will force them to curtail development and the resulting desire to promote sustainable development; a concern for their vulnerability to climate change; the insistence that funding mechanisms be a part of any international agreement; and the shared desire to promote equity, for example, unite the collective sense of self in opposition to industrialized countries (Najam, 2005; Williams, 2002).

It is not just constructions of equity and justice that affect a state’s position on climate change, but their underlying construction of self and related concerns for image, reputation, and role. In this way, behavior in the regime is strategic not just for economic reasons, for example, but for how it affects how a country sees itself and how others perceive it.14 For example, Henry and Sundstrom (2007) and Andonova and Alexieva (2012) posit that Russia’s behavior in the regime can, at least partially, be explained by its desire to improve its image as a cooperative international partner. This desire could explain Russia’s ratification of the Protocol in 2005 (which helped the Protocol attain enough signatures to officially enter into force). Doing so awarded Russia improved international prestige, with the spillover effect of facilitating its entry into the WTO.15 Reputational or image concerns have also affected countries like India (Hochstetler & Viola, 2012), China (He, 2010; Heggelund, 2007), and regional powers in Africa (Nelson, 2016), for example.

Related concerns for the role a country plays in the international community have also been considered and suggested as explanations for state behavior. For example, Aarts and Janssen (2003) consider the roles of oil exporting countries, including facilitative to obstructionist roles. Below (2015) argued that concerns for role in some Latin American countries explain variations in the timing and manner of ratifying the Protocol. Hochstetler and Milkoreit (2013) consider how role expectations and conceptions have affected the emerging BASIC powers.

A similar constructivist argument explains the emergence of BASIC where identity and role converge. At its most reductionist, the four countries’ shared identity as major emerging powers brought them together as a negotiating group. In other words, BASIC is the manifestation of a joint identity (Hochstetler & Milkoreit, 2013). These countries, however, have made clear that they are still members of the G77. They still identify with the larger bloc as they share similar concerns about equity and justice and support CBDRRC. At the same time, especially prior to their “debut” in Copenhagen, they wished to be seen as “responsible global stakeholders” and not to be blamed for any negatively perceived results coming out of the summit (Hallding et al., 2013, p. 612).

National-Level Variables

The previous discussion of literature on state behavior in the climate regime has emphasized the influence of systemic conditions and international-level variables. Those studying state behavior, however, have also furthered many national-level explanations. Working under the assumption that states have agency and that systemic conditions are not wholly deterministic, scholars have opened the opaque box of the state and looked inside for answers. What they find are interest-based explanations where the proper unit of analysis is the state (or substate units) and where states’ analyses of costs and benefits determine international behavior (Hochstetler & Viola, 2012; Sprinz & Vaahtoranta, 1994). The popularity of such explanations is evident from the prevalence of comparative case studies and the publication of in-depth studies of the causes and consequences of singular countries’ climate foreign policy.

The utility of such an approach was recognized early in the study of international environmental problems by scholars such as Haas, Levy, and Parson who wrote that “[i]nternational conferences and institutions are only as effective as governments choose to make them. International efforts to promote environmental protection have been most effective when they enhance governmental concern, provide a forum for governments to harmonize international policies, and improve national capacities to cope with environmental threats” (1992, p. 2). Their recognition of the importance of national governments in problem solving is reflected in the work of scholars who investigate the obstacles and facilitators of either promoting domestic practices abroad, implementing international policies domestically, or other causes of action in the global climate regime. There has been an additional focus on national-level variables, with the suggested (and observed) turn away from UN-led, top-down, comprehensive summitry and the subsequent refocusing on the merits and necessity of bottom-up efforts. Scholars like Lachapelle and Paterson impart a normative element by arguing that this should be the focus and is a “necessary first step to begin to flesh out the new geopolitics of climate change” (2013, p. 567).

The benefit of such an emphasis on national-level determinants is the flourishing inventory of variables that have been used to explain state behavior. On the other side of the coin is the reality that the inventory is composed of a long list of potential factors, with little consensus as to which are most influential under which circumstances. The most discernible distinction that can be made is between key variables in developed versus developing countries, though scholarship on determinants in the latter (including determinants of behavior in international climate negotiations) is modest (Kasa, Gullberg, & Heggelund, 2007). Some of the most common variables are similar to those used to explain other types of foreign policy behavior. Others, to varying degrees, are unique to climate foreign policy.

For example, a country’s national interest, defined as a guiding desire for economic growth, is a common explanation for foreign policy that is particularly relevant in the case of climate change. For countries from the United States to Russia to Saudi Arabia, including developing and industrialized countries alike, prioritization of economic growth has affected decisions to promote international climate policy as well as whether to implement policy domestically (Andonova & Alexieva, 2012; Roberts, 2011; Volger & Bretherton, 2006). An economic concern specific to climate is the anticipated cost of pollution abatement, most prominently the result of international emission reduction commitments. Conversely, economic concerns have also manifested themselves in economic opportunities. Flexibility mechanisms built into the Kyoto Protocol have presented participation inducements (intentionally so) for both Annex I countries like Russia that can benefit from emissions trading and non-Annex I countries like China and India that can benefit from CDMs and REDD programs (Elena, 2001; Kasa et al., 2007; Michaelowa & Michaelowa, 2012).16

Variables relating to democracy and decision making, common in foreign policy analysis literature, have also received attention, often as they interact with each other. For example, some scholars point to the impact of various actors in the process and how decisions are made on the domestic front. Particularly in the early days of the climate regime and in developing countries, media and public attention to climate as a policy issue was minimal. This gave national governments, especially those with strong executives, the leverage to make largely unilateral decisions regarding their country’s level of international participation and commitment (Andonova & Alexieva, 2012; Below, 2015). This was often reflected in highly centralized decision making processes. With time, interest in the phenomenon grew, and more actors, including media, environmental organizations, and the public at large, became vested in their governments’ behavior, thereby altering (and opening) decision making processes. Such was the case, for example, in Brazil (Hochstetler & Viola, 2012). Bailer (2012) similarly writes about the impact of interest group pressure in democracies. She argues that the more democratic a country is, the less likely it is to use hard tactics in climate negotiations, though when interest groups apply pressure, these tactics can harden and governments can become less cooperative.

Domestic politics, particularly in democratic countries, has played a similarly influential role in the development and evolution of climate foreign policy. An often cited example is the United States wherein conflict between the executive and legislative branches and between Democrats and Republicans has continually prevented the country from adopting bolder emission reduction commitments (Assuncao, 2003; Below, 2008; Falkner et al., 2010). The very presence of presidential elections has also, arguably, affected countries’ climate positions. Such was the case with former environmental minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva in Brazil, who helped increase awareness and interest in Brazil’s position. Behavior in the international regime can also be attributed to a government’s desire for greater domestic political legitimacy, as a positive impression can help governments better meet other national goals (Nelson, 2016).

Another set of domestic considerations relates to various national capacities. Hochstetler and Viola (2012) argue that Brazil’s increased institutional capacity (specifically more effective law enforcement capabilities) to address deforestation was a critical development in the country’s decision to argue for a stronger position internationally. Elena (2001) similarly writes about the influence of institutional capacity building in the evolution of Russia’s climate foreign policy. The creation of a national emissions inventory and reporting system eventually made it easier for the government to implement international requirements that facilitated bolder international gestures. Similarly, China began experimenting with a national carbon market before being willing to acquiesce to a global carbon market (Huang & Bailis, 2015). The enhancement of technological and scientific capacity, particularly in developing/non-Annex I countries via flexibility mechanisms and technology transfers, has also facilitated a greater convergence of countries toward addressing climate change both domestically and internationally (Stokes, Giang, & Selin, 2016).

Mitigation capacity, climate vulnerability, and energy concerns have been proposed as additional domestic-level interest-based explanations that are specifically germane to climate politics and policy. Writing about environmental issues in general, Sprinz and Vaahtoranta (1994) argued that a country’s perceived ecological vulnerability (as well as the economic costs of pollution abatement) helps explain a state’s proclivity toward international environmental regulation. A new or enhanced sense of a country’s climate vulnerability, namely, due to greater scientific certainty or newly published reports, has been similarly argued to be a consideration for decision makers when debating the extent of their participation in the climate regime (Aarts & Janssen, 2003; Michaelowa & Michaelowa, 2012). When writing about the potential for the Plus Five countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa) to adopt more stringent climate policies in line with growing international norms in the post-2012 environment, however, Rong (2010) found mitigation capacity to be a more crucial factor than ecological vulnerability. Concerns about energy (i.e., increased demand, stress on supply, or achievements in energy efficiency) have also been noted commonly as influential considerations in developed and developing countries alike (Andonova & Alexieva, 2012; Masters, 2013; Michaelowa & Michaelowa, 2012).

Multivariable Explanations

Just as climate change is considered a “super wicked” problem (Levin, Cashore, Bernstein, & Auld, 2012), the variables that explain a country’s foreign policy in the climate regime can be equally complicated. Most proposed explanations speak to an inherent complexity in decision making and highlight interactions between variables and/or theories. For example, a number of studies adopt explanations that combine material and ideational as well as domestic and international factors. More specifically, some cite interactions between domestic, material interests (such as the desire for economic growth, energy security, or political legitimacy) and more subjective concerns for international pressure or prestige (Aarts & Janssen, 2003; Andonova & Alexieva, 2012; Heggelund, 2007; Nelson, 2016). In this way, literature on climate foreign policy often adopts notions of Robert Putnam’s (1988) two-level games theory by arguing that negotiations and decision making take place on both domestic and international levels (Fisher, 2004; Hallding et al., 2013; Hochstetler & Viola, 2012). Rong (2010), however, points out that domestic-level negotiations may not take place in countries that are not liberal democracies, such as China. Thus, Rong proposes a two-level interest-based model in its place and uses it to explain the behavior of the “Plus Five” countries.

Other common explanations are those that integrate material or interest-based explanations with international relations theory, such as Joshi’s (2013) work with structuralism, or those that pull from more than one international relations theory at a time like Roberts, Bradley, and Vasquéz’s (2004) use of both institutionalism and structuralism. Another common application, though scholars may not call it out by name, is that of Peter Gourevitch’s (1978) second-image reversed. Such explanations emphasize the influence international events and pressures have on domestic conditions and decision making, and the mechanisms are diverse. Dai (2010), for example, argues that international institutions can have indirect impacts by mobilizing and empowering domestic stakeholders. Kasa (2013) highlights how the broad regime complex can impact interest groups’ and others’ domestic preferences. Cass (2007) and Stevenson (2011) weave constructivist theorizations into the second-image reversed in their arguments about the importance of framing and salience in the process of norm diffusion.

Individual-Level Variables

The role of individual actors is often included in complex explanations, though individuals are rarely credited with having a deterministic impact on foreign policy behavior. Individuals are mentioned in summit descriptions or the rehashing of negotiations, but instances are mostly anecdotal or narrative in nature. Few studies focus on the influence of key individuals from an analytical perspective. As a result, there is little theorization on the influence of individuals. When they are mentioned, the most influential people cited tend to be national politicians such as heads of state or key ministers or uniquely active diplomats and delegates. It has been argued that such key individuals had an impact on the positions of India (Michaelowa & Michaelowa, 2012), Russia (Andonova & Alexieva, 2012), Mexico (Below, 2015), and the United States (Karlsson et al., 2011), for example.


Although climate change is, in many ways, a unique policy problem, it shares many similarities with other foreign policy issues, and much can be learned from studying how the international community has addressed it. Doing so adds to our understanding of international and global forces, the generalizability of existing theories, and the utility of common methodological practices. It also emphasizes the explanatory value of domestic-level variables, many of which are familiar in the literature and others less so. Overall, however, there is not much consensus in the literature as to which theories or variables provide the most explanatory power. For example, there is little consensus as to whether states, as agents, have control over their behavior or whether overarching structures are deterministic. Even less is known about the role of individuals in affecting global climate politics and policy.

These limitations are endemic to climate change and are a result of how the policy and academic communities have chosen to respond to and study the phenomenon. On the one hand, because climate change is a global issue, it has drawn a global response. Nearly every country on the globe participates in climate politicking. What follows is the difficulty agreeing that one theory or variable explains all countries’ behavior. The actors are too diverse. Perhaps, instead of working toward grand theories, midrange theories are most applicable. This would require expanding scholarship to include the study of countries other than the United States, Russia, the BASIC countries, and the European Union. Though valuable research on other countries does exist, more would be beneficial. Existing literature has spent time considering how development issues and the North-South divide affect climate behavior, though developing countries are commonly considered in the aggregate or in groups and not as individual actors. This calls for an expansion of the scope of study.

On the other hand, our collective understanding of climate behavior is also an artifact of how the international community and policymakers have elected to address climate change. Because the majority of international political efforts have been “megamultilateral,” the majority of research has focused on regime dynamics (Okereke, Bulkeley, & Schroeder, 2009), specifically under the auspices of the UN. While this has contributed greatly to academic understandings of regime formation, evolution, effectiveness (or lack thereof), and the collective action problem in general, one could argue that it has limited the ability to look beyond multilateralism as a “solution.” As often happens, however, questions arise in the scholarly community when they arise among policymakers. In a post-Copenhagen context, both communities have questioned the utility of this approach and have looked to new options. The growth of works like “Transnational Climate Change Governance” (Bulkeley et al., 2014) and Conceptualizing Climate Governance Beyond the International Regime (Okereke et al., 2009), as well as the increasing number of bilateral and smaller multilateral discussions between nations, suggest that the way both communities conduct and study climate foreign policy will continue to adapt and evolve over time.


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  • 1. Of note was a special issue of Climate Policy. The introduction by Streck and Terhalle presents the issue’s focus on the changing geopolitics of both the international system and the climate regime. The articles shared an underlying assumption that “great powers will be the major power in global environmental politics” (2013, p. 534).

  • 2. Terhalle and Depledge write that “the current order lacks systemic legitimacy” (2013, p. 575). While this comment likely references the broader international system, given the article’s central argument the comment could also be a reference to the UN-led system that dominated the climate regime since its inception. In the Copenhagen era, both were contestable.

  • 3. Scholarship on “leadership” in the climate regime primarily focuses on the leadership of nations, less so on individuals.

  • 4. Volger and Bretherton (2006) argue that these first two groupings stood as the two primary poles in early negotiations, pitting the EU and its allies against the United States and its allies. This evolved into the EU and its allies versus the United States.

  • 5. The “others” category includes groups like the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the Environmental Integrity Group, the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA), the African Group, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations.

  • 6. Neither the sources of climate change nor the repercussions typically adhere to national boundaries. For example, greenhouse gases are transboundary pollutants. This means Country A can emit gases and not feel immediate or severe impacts, while Country B, potentially not even one sharing a border, will feel the impacts. This can be amplified if Country A is less vulnerable and Country B is more vulnerable to potential climactic shifts.

  • 7. For thorough analyses of effectiveness in international environmental regimes, including additional evaluative criteria, see Miles et al. (2001) and Young (1999).

  • 8. Antunes’s research had a narrow focus on the effectiveness of the Activities Implemented Jointly/Joint Implementation flexibility mechanism. His conclusion should not necessarily be interpreted to speak for the regime in its entirety.

  • 9. Okereke, Bulkeley, and Schroeder (2009) use the term non-nation-state-actors or NNSAs.

  • 10. Paterson (2001) argues that liberal institutionalism provides the best framework for discussions of climate equity and justice because of the theory’s emphasis on norms.

  • 11. Harris (2000) argued that the Clinton Administration supported this norm, even though discrepancies (with other countries and within the administration) were present. The United States has consistently pushed for developing countries to do more.

  • 12. Whether the construction of Annex and non-Annex I parties created this partition or accentuated an already existing/inevitable divide is a matter of debate and likely requires a nuanced argument beyond the scope of this discussion. The bottom line is that the legal and conceptual divide has been the source of extensive friction and controversy between signatories and has undoubtedly contributed to states’ decision making.

  • 13. See Escobar (2011) for an historical account of the emergence of the identity and its construction via discourses of development and underdevelopment.

  • 14. This discussion could be arguably situated with rationalist arguments as having a particular reputation could be within a county’s rational self-interest. It could also be located with liberal or other interest-based interpretations. This section also considers identity, image, reputation, and role together but acknowledges that they are all separate concepts with separate literatures and theorizations. Placing them here is an acknowledgment of their similar relationships to constructivism and is not meant to conflate them or disregard their differences.

  • 15. The EU was willing to support Russia’s bid to join the WTO in return for Russian ratification. Thus, ratification potentially had both reputational and economic benefits. In fact, Russia delayed ratification until after the United States announced it would not ratify, thus providing Russia with increased political leverage as the only remaining country whose ratification was necessary for the Protocol to take effect. Nevertheless, reputational concerns remain relevant.

  • 16. REDD or “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” mechanisms were only loosely considered in the original Kyoto Protocol. More robust programs have been under negotiation since 2005.