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Scott Barrett is Not Hopeful About Climate Change, But He is Determined

By Alicia Gorecki

scott barrett
Scott Barrett is vice dean at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, a member of the Earth Institute faculty, and the Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics.

Scott Barrett is a scholar on transnational cooperation, looking at a broad range of global issues, including climate change. He is a vice dean at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, a member of the Earth Institute faculty, and the Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics.

We spoke for an hour at his office about the various institutions and solutions available to address climate change. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I read that the Montreal Protocol was a catalyst for your work. Can you describe where you were in your life and studies when that happened?

I was a student at the London School of Economics doing a PhD in Economics. I remember very distinctly going to get the newspaper, and seeing on the front page of the broad sheets that an agreement had been reached in Montreal to limit CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons]. I was really quite stunned by that because what I’d been taught told me that that wouldn’t happen. I started looking into it and the more I learned, the more I thought, ‘There is something quite different here.’

All my work shows that [the Montreal Protocol] has been a success, and what I’ve learned is very important in this area of international cooperation, because the successes are quite rare, and those are the ones we should focus on. In a way, to understand how you might succeed in addressing climate change, it would pay you to look at how the world has succeeded in addressing other issues, of which Montreal Protocol is one example.

And what would you say are those lessons we can take from Montreal?

Montreal is unusual, because the people who negotiated it got it right. Actually, they got it right almost from the start. Which made everything look really easy, but I don’t think it was at all guaranteed that that’s how it would all turn out.

I’ve looked at lots of global issues to understand what it is that countries are able to achieve for their collective interest when they also are looking always at their national interest. The one major insight I have of what works is that countries are good at what I call coordination. What they’re very bad at is voluntary cooperation.

My view about climate is that for 25-plus years we’ve been asking countries to do what they’re bad at, when we should be asking them to do what they’re good at. When you try to cooperate voluntarily you’re kind of going against the grain of sovereignty and national interest. When you ask countries to coordinate you’re pretty much going with the grain.

What is the difference between voluntary cooperation and coordination?

With voluntary cooperation, each country has an incentive to cut back on its own contribution, no matter what the others do. Of course, as countries see others scale back their contributions, each feels more justified in cutting back on its own. It’s the incentive arrangement more than the behavior of others that causes all countries to contribute very little.

The Paris Agreement is a voluntary cooperation agreement. It asks countries to pledge to cut their emissions knowing that other countries will not punish them should they fail to fulfill their pledge.

With coordination, what each country wants to do depends strongly on what others do or can be expected to do.

The Montreal Protocol is a coordination agreement because it not only asks countries to reduce their use and production of CFCs; it also makes trade in CFCs contingent on joining the agreement. If a country doesn’t join, it can’t import CFCs from or export CFCs to parties. If a lot of countries are in the agreement, being out is costly. Countries would rather do what the others are doing and join the agreement.

What else did the Montreal Protocol do right?

In the Montreal Protocol you’re asking countries to do two things: They’re going to limit their production of CFCs, and they’re going to limit their consumption of CFCs. So what that means is, if you’re a country that uses CFCs but you don’t produce them, you still have to act.

By the way, the climate agreements never worked this way — they’re all about limiting your consumption of fossil fuels and your emissions of CO2 on your own territory. There’s nothing in any climate agreement that’s ever limited the production of fossil fuels. Very different design.

Another thing about Montreal is that it imposes a trade measure. This is the real architecture of this agreement. Where the countries that are in the agreement restrict trade with countries that are outside the agreement. What they’re doing is they’re phasing out a whole chemical, or group of chemicals, and by doing that they’re creating an incentive for innovation and investment in alternatives. So you’re bringing about a transformation in a market. That’s what was achieved in the Montreal Protocol.

One other thing that Montreal did that was very important is that it got the poor countries to come in and accept real responsibility, but in exchange the richer countries accepted their responsibility by paying for the compliance by the poorer countries. So a fund was created that’s been financed, never short of money, that the rich countries pay for poor countries to act.

All these different things I’ve described make for an extremely successful regime. The climate regime doesn’t look like this. And it’s not as if you could copy Montreal for climate.

The answer is not that climate should look like Montreal, the answer is that climate should have pursued an approach that, like Montreal, exploited countries’ natural inclination to coordinate. Rather than ask them to cooperate voluntarily, when that impulse is not very reliable.

Is there a way to bring this approach to climate agreements?

We actually have one coordination agreement on climate. This is the Kigali Amendment, which is actually an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, but that will help to address the problem that Paris was trying to address. The Kigali Agreement phases down a chemical called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are a greenhouse gas. They are kind of like CFCs that were phased out with the Montreal Protocol, but they don’t destroy the ozone layer. So the Montreal Protocol had no business, in a way, in trying to limit HFCS.

What that tells us is that this approach can work. We need to develop other coordination agreements that can be adopted to serve the aim of the Paris Agreement, even though they are negotiated outside of Paris.

In a way it’s kind of good that the world’s spotlight stays on Paris. Maybe we can get smaller groups of countries to negotiate agreements on different sectors and different gases. These would be non-political negotiations. They would be more technical. They would involve industry. Really they would be of a very different character than Paris. I think they could also be more successful.

So you see a large amount of small technical solutions that would then solve the greater problem?


To bring it to the most recent climate talks, COP24, did you see any successes from that?

It’s a pretty minor step. You have a basic architecture for Paris which involves countries making pledges. And where you’re going to track progress for fulfilling pledges and other countries can express their approval and disapproval about this progress. But where it’s understood by everyone that this arrangement is completely voluntary and that there will be no enforcement mechanism, it will just be naming and shaming. The reason the agreement is successful is that countries can say and do what they want.

So what I don’t want the world to do is to go down this road, and have more meetings and do more blah blah blah blah blah, and meanwhile we’re not addressing the issue. Which is what is happening right now. We’re not addressing the issue.

You look at the projections from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If countries do what they’ve pledged — and I can tell you, my research suggests we should not rely on that — but if they do what they’ve pledged, global emissions will keep rising. Which means we will be in a much worse situation by the time these pledges come due in 2025 or 2030. So it’s obvious that this approach is not going to solve climate change. And we need to look for other approaches. I don’t think we can solve this problem through conventional means.

What are some unconventional means?

Now there are two other ways of thinking about it. Well, maybe three.

One is we’re going to adapt. That’s for sure. And that will be universal. But that’s not a solution.

“Every day is another opportunity to solve this problem, or to make progress on climate change.”

But there are two other technologies that are important. One is called direct air capture. Which means rather than only try to reduce how much extra CO2 we put into the atmosphere we also reach directly into the atmosphere and take CO2 out. This actually has some attractions to it, because it doesn’t require changing behavior worldwide.

The other technology that I want to mention is called solar geoengineering.

We’ve not only changed the abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we’ve also changed the planet’s reflectivity. One way we do that is by burning fossil fuels, which not only add CO2 in the atmosphere, but also little particles. And many of these particles reflect light away from the earth and cause cooling. So actually, the current situation that we observe is not the full amount of global warming to be expected. It’s less than that, and the reason is that these other particles are reflecting light away from earth and cooling the planet. So as those particles get cleaned up, which they should be, because they’re air pollutants and kill people, you’re going to get extra warming.

The question is, can we have a form of particle that won’t kill people, and could limit temperature? And this is the idea of throwing particles into the stratosphere that would reflect light. And this is an area, an idea, that horrifies almost everyone. Because what we’re doing now is we’re inadvertently affecting the climate. And this other idea is to do it deliberately. And people don’t like that.

I can understand that. But people shouldn’t think that the alternative to geoengineering is some perfect world in which we’re going to address this problem. Instead, if we don’t use geoengineering, we may end up experiencing very difficult and possibly catastrophic climate change. And I think we’re moving into a future world in which we will have those kind of choices. Between one, let’s say, bad outcome and another. And that’s very different from sitting back today and saying ‘I’m opposed to solar geoengineering.’

Deployment of solar geoengineering is different from the behavioral changes required to reduce emissions, because geoengineering can be done unilaterally. It’s very cheap. So the biggest issue around this is what’s called governance. Because it’s basically who gets to decide. If you put particles up there, you’re determining the temperature for the entire world. Who has the right to do that? Who gets to decide?

So how do you stay hopeful about the future?

It’s very funny that you say “how do you stay hopeful?” because I’m not hopeful. We have not succeeded, and we have tried. I’ll just say that, when I did my first research on this in the late 1980’s, I saw right away this was going to be a colossal problem. So I expected it to be difficult, and it has been.

One thing I don’t agree with, people will say “we only have so many years” or “this is going to be the end of everything.” It’s not going to be like that at all. What’s true is that every day is another opportunity to solve this problem, or to make progress on it. I’m not hopeful but I’m completely determined.

We have a lot of important problems, but I think climate change is a fundamental problem for the whole planet and the future. To address it we need to change our institutions and our technologies, and we should be trying to bring about those changes as quickly as we can. And I don’t think the problem has been a lack of effort on the diplomatic front, but I do think there’s been a lack of creativity.

What piece of advice would you give to those working on climate change?

Well, I think first off, I’m with them and they should continue working on climate change. Because ok, why would you not want to work on the hardest problem? I mean, if you’re looking for immediate gratification, like every day, and your ultimate aim is to stop climate change, then this is not the career path for you. But if you’re like me, you should work on this because it’s hard.

I don’t want a single student to be cynical. If you believe it can’t be done, then it won’t be done. But believing it can be done won’t make it happen either.

Working together we can achieve great things. The ultimate human aspiration is for all of us together to do something that will help everyone and endure.

Alicia Gorecki is studying energy and environmental policy in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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Jean-Marie Grether
4 years ago

This is a wonderful interview. Many thanks to Alicia and Scott to provide such clear and fundamental insights to people who are ready to tackle the hard problems, Just bright!

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