Global Climate Change and the Law

July 16, 2012, 9:16 pm
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Climate change, like Earth’s atmosphere, does not respect territorial borders. Greenhouse gas emissions from one sovereign state, although they affect the whole planet, may not be proportional to the severity of problems that the state itself experiences from climate change. For example, the world’s poorest states emit negligible amounts of greenhouse gases but are often the most vulnerable to changes in sea level, precipitation, major storms, heat waves, and spread of infectious diseases. Moreover, multinational corporations tend to locate operations that emit large amounts of greenhouse gases in sovereign states like China and India where the infrastructure is sufficient to support such operations, but where the environmental regulations are less restrictive than in developed states.

Because private enterprise in a free market cannot adequately address the problem of global climate change, governments have the right and responsibility to do so. The extent to which governments assume this responsibility, however, varies with their national interests. Some sovereign states(political associations with independent authority over a geographical area and its human population) behave as free riders, whereby they make little effort to abate greenhouse gas emissions yet reap benefits from the abatement efforts of other states; free riders avoid the cost of greenhouse gas abatement and thereby can produce products for less and attract additional business. The solution to the free-rider problem is collective action that penalizes such behavior.

Global climate change is, by the very nature of its causes and effects, an issue that requires the cooperation of many sovereign states. Enactment and interpretation of international treaties to address climate change rely on conventions, customs, general principles of law, and judicial decisions. Compliance with and enforcement of such international treaties depends on monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions and a clear procedure for bringing violators back into compliance. Also important are procedures for peaceful resolution of disagreements or disputes among sovereign states. Three international treaties concerned with global climate change are the United Nations Law of the Sea, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The United Nations Law of the Sea intersects with climate change in several ways: Higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase the acidity of oceans and endanger sea life, carbon capture and storage in the oceans threaten fragile deep-sea ecosystems, and rising sea levels and melting sea ice open additional waters to navigation and extraction of natural resources. The Montreal Protocol presents a timetable to phase out and eventually eliminate the production and consumption of chemicals that deplete Earth’s ozone layer; some of these chemicals (CFCs and HCFCs) also are potent greenhouse gases. The Kyoto Protocol establishes limits for greenhouse gas emissions from some sovereign states and methods for these states to trade emission credits. There is general agreement that the Montreal Protocol has been the most successful of the three treaties because of its narrow scope and the easily envisioned consequences of a failure to take effective action.

This is an excerpt from the book Global Climate Change: Convergence of Disciplines by Dr. Arnold J. Bloom and taken from UCVerse of the University of California.

©2010 Sinauer Associates and UC Regents



Bloom, A. (2012). Global Climate Change and the Law. Retrieved from

1 Comment

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David Cordon wrote: 12-02-2010 05:59:39

I do not believe your assessment of the facts. Even if your conclusions are correct that does not give any person or organization control over any other person or organization in the name of carbon dioxide doom and disaster. Here are some facts that I can measure myself. Sea level is not rising. General temperature is not rising. In history during times of warmer climate on earth it meant calmer weather and fewer storms. In these times of warmer climate it was a boon to mankind in production of food crops. The two largest causes of pollution are transportation and heating if the climate warms it will reduce pollution caused by heating. Warm weather stimulates plant growth which increases carbon dioxide absorption for use by plants. A warmer climate will cause the antarctic icecap to increase due to greater amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere leading to more rain and snow which will freeze there. Give me provable facts not doubtful theories. It is not enough for you to convince those in government who stand to benefit in terms of regulatory power, you must convince me the average man of this theory of global doom and disaster caused by the advancement of mankind through the use of fossil fuels.