Yesterday, the leaders of the G8 countries announced a break-through (of sorts) on international climate change policy. In exchange for getting the United States to agree to the relatively modest goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2050, the other members signed on to a statement that developing countries -- including China (now the leading producer of carbon emissions), India, Brazil, and Mexico -- need to cut their emissions as well.
But therein lies the rub. The developing countries do not feel that they should be required to cut their emissions, as they did not contribute to the current problem. In a statement, the five major developing countries announced that "It is essential that developed countries take the lead in achieving ambitious and absolute greenhouse gas emissions reductions," and that they rejected the notion that all should share in the 50-percent target, since it is wealthier countries that have created most of the environmental damage up to now.
This might be true in a moral sense. Certainly, the developed economies of the Western countries have produced more carbon that have those of the developing nations. But morality doesn't count for much in politics. If the developing countries refuse to cut their emissions, political theory tells us that the developed states will be hesitant to do so, for fear of losing their edge and seeing their relative power diminish. Ultimately, the environment is a massive tragedy of the commons, in which the absence of over-arching regulatory authority means that a public good gets overused, as no actor will restrain his use of the commons while other actors remain free to exploit it. Why should the US damage its own economy if China remains free to pollute? China will enjoy the gains of a better environment, without paying the costs, while the US will pay the costs without reaping the full benefits, due to China's continued polluting.
The international arena is not the best venue for producing global environmental change. The collective actions problems, as well as other barriers to action, are simply too large. As states like California have recently developed, the best strategy is to focus on local change, and to allow other mechanisms to spread the successful innovations and developments to other parts of the country and the world. The international system is far too anarchic and power-based to expect any real progress.