Climate Change: A Compliance Crisis

Alexandra Piechowicz

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2020

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations issued a special report on the impact of global warming. The report shared extensive research about our changing atmosphere and issued a grave warning: we must act immediately. The harrowing news came just over one year after President Trump ordered the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017. This begs the question:  how will changes be made when the world’s most powerful and impactful hegemon refuses to cooperate?

The United Nations’ Attempts to Mitigate Global Warming

In 1988, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC assesses research regarding climate change compiled by scientists all over the globe to be able to assist governments in developing their own policies to curtail climate change.

On December 12, 2015, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established the Paris Agreement. The goal of the Agreement is to “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change” by aiming to keep the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) in this century and to attempt to further limit the temperature increase to one and a half degrees Celsius. The Agreement also attempts to help countries prepare for and deal with the already-present impacts of climate change. Parties demonstrate their efforts through “nationally determined contributions (NDCs)”, which are essentially voluntary.

The United States Hampers Efforts

On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. He stated that the U.S. would discontinue implementing NDCs and financially contributing to the efforts. The announcement came after President Trump had long expressed his skepticism about climate change, even on the campaign trail.

The current administration, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Pruitt, has close ties to the fossil fuel industry with especially close associations to energy magnate Koch Industries. While withdrawal from the Agreement would surely benefit Koch Industries and many others, the President has furtherexpressed his disapproval of the Agreement, stating that it undermines sovereignty and negatively impacts the economy.

“Global Warming of 1.5 °C” and the Future

On October 8, 2018, the IPCC released “Global Warming of 1.5 °C,” a special report regarding the current status of climate change. The report highlights the harrowing reality of the human impact, primarily in the form of CO2emissions, on the planet. It details the extreme effects of a global temperature rise on plant and animal diversity, focusing on the dwindling ability of ecosystems to adapt to acute changes to the environment. The implications of global warming are grave, profoundly affecting economies and even humanity itself.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the report is the IPCC’s ominous warning that we, as a planet consisting of hundreds of sovereign states, have until 2030 to reduce carbon emissions or face irreversible damage that will affect every aspect of our lives. Inducing those hundreds of states to cooperate will be nearly impossible.

There is no global government that has complete and total power over all states on the planet. The closest entity to a global governing body is the United Nations (UN), which consists of 193 member states. The UN serves as more of a forum rather than a global policy maker. As demonstrated by the Paris Agreement, cooperation is voluntary, raising fears of non-compliance and ineffectiveness.

The only way to ensure that states unite to reduce carbon emissions and soften the effects of global climate change is for the UN to impose a formal policing system with consequences associated with non-compliance and to make non-compliance a bona fide violation of international law. This way, States can be held responsible for their actions regarding carbon dioxide emission and abatement by the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ), which has jurisdiction over international law. Currently, there is no way to hold states accountable as efforts are voluntary. Unfortunately, membership and participation in the UN is also voluntary and a formal system is likely to raise concerns about invasions of state sovereignty.

When a hegemon like the United States, the second largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions, pulls out of a climate change mitigation agreement, it sends a very somber message to the rest of the world. Our planet is fragile and making sure that we are able to maintain it is an effort that requires cooperation by all the constituencies of the world whether they are powerful and established or young and developing.