International law and the environment


in Daily updates, Law, Oxford, Politics, Science, The environment

Morning walkers, South Parks Road

Next Wednesday, I have volunteered to give a presentation to my international law seminar on the following questions:

  1. Why has the regulation of CFCs been a success while the Kyoto Protocol has failed?
  2. Should the USA join the Kyoto Protocol, and if so, why?
  3. What roles have been played by Governments, NGOs and international organizations in the development of international environmental law? What is the basis of their authority in this field?

Substitute persistent organic pollutants (POPs) for Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and it is a very good match for my thesis.

To give very short answers:

  1. Because there were substitutes readily available, the science was strong, and the cost of dealing with the problem reasonable, in the case of CFCs. Climate change is more difficult on all counts. (See the paper I wrote on the Stockholm Convention for my First Nations politics class in 4th year.)
  2. Yes, because it is a first step on the way to an agreement or collection of agreements that will stabilize GHG emissions, in the medium term. Ultimately, doing so will be much cheaper than suffering climate change, and will not carry the same terrible social and ecological costs.
  3. Their authority is based on expertise and legitimacy. See my thesis, in 88 days’ time for a more comprehensive answer.

Reading some more of the international law involved should be both interesting and useful. This is probably the first time the environment has been specifically addressed in any course that I have taken at Oxford.

PS. Much as I hate to reveal a fact that I might later win bets with friends about, I feel compelled to tell one that I learned earlier today from Kate. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus), has black skin: a feature that helps it to absorb energy from the sun, and thus keep the bear warm.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 24, 2007 at 11:36 pm

Sorry to not be overly entertaining at the moment. The bored can have a look at:

1) Pages of interest I have come across lately

2) Changes (mostly thesis related) that have been happening on the wiki

Pippa January 25, 2007 at 8:58 am

Dear Milan,

As an economist, there is also an issue with the collective costs involved. Maintaining a clean and unpolluted environment is a public good (its overall utility to the many is greater than the sum of the utility to any one individual/state, in this case).
The problem with the US agreeing to the Kyoto Protocol is that the costs of cleaning up production for US firms are immediate, definite and real, whereas the returns are much more long-term, indefinite and accrue to everybody (not just the US).

I think economists would also look at these agreements (or even trade/production agreements – re OPEN cartel) in terms of game theory – if everyone adhered to them, in theory everyone gains, but if any one player breaks ranks, they can make immediate savings (or returns, in the case of OPEC) and undercut the competition.

I don’t think governments’ roles are based on expertise – in my view, that is more the role of academia, to act as independent experts who can challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. The only mandate governments and International Organisations (IOs) can claim is that of multilateral agreement.
Unfortunately, in the case of environmental law, multilateral action is exactly what breaks down – noone is prepared to accept the very real, immediate costs (for those that sign), in the face of only indefinite returns (for everyone).

Popular opinion is driving Tony Blair/Gordon Brown in the UK to at least pretend that they are pushing for these issues. When oh when will the same thing happen in the States, or is another Hurricane Katerina necessary to convince them that climate change is real and happening?

Just a few thoughts – this is a socio-economic-political problem – good luck with the thesis!

My best wishes,


Hilary January 28, 2007 at 7:52 am

i’m actually quite surprised that you didn’t already know the polar bear skin thing. You do know that penguins and polar bears don’t live together though i hope. ;)

Milan January 28, 2007 at 3:29 pm


You’re right about the applicability of game theory to environmental negotiations (trade negotiations, also). The disjoint between immediate costs for future and uncertain benefits will certainly be mentioned in the presentation.

Anon @ Wadh January 29, 2007 at 3:12 pm

What’s the status of your presentation?

Milan January 29, 2007 at 6:46 pm

Some notes on the presentation are now on the wiki.

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