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Abstract

Climate change is a topic that permeates today’s scientific, political, and social discourse. It is a term that is both widely known and hotly debated across the country and across the globe. While an ever-increasing majority of the scientific and political realms has come to the conclusion that meaningful climate change regulation is necessary to prevent negative repercussions across the globe, there is little consensus on what that regulation should look like or how to bring it about. The nature of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, makes international cooperation a must if the world hopes to prevent and avoid the experts’ predictions of widespread negative environmental effects. Because each state only incurs a fraction of the total cost of its own emissions, as GHGs act on a global rather than regional scale, the emission of GHGs has created a tragedy of the commons: each state has an incentive to overuse, even though the optimal solution is for each and every state to limit its emissions. States acting in their own best interests will therefore continue to emit GHGs unless they can be sure that all other states will agree to and adhere to meaningful regulation. In the abstract, this solution seems simple enough: in order to prevent the negative effects associated with climate change, all states must agree to limit emissions and each state must be assured that all other states will not defect. However, on the international level where each state is sovereign, there is no enforcement mechanism to guarantee that states refrain from defecting. Therefore, in order for GHG regulation to succeed, there must be some mechanism by which the incentive to defect is replaced by an incentive to cooperate. In order to determine what type of mechanism is most appropriate for the regulation of climate change, one must examine the international system to understand how and why states act as they do. While it is generally assumed that states act in their own best interests, many theorists believe that these interests are shaped and informed by social and cultural norms. According to this understanding, it is possible to influence state behavior by changing the social and cultural norms of international society. As applied to the issue at hand, this means that the incentive to defect might be transformed into an incentive to cooperate if the social and cultural rules require states to cooperate when it comes to GHG emissions. Scientists predict that time is running out for meaningful regulation, and that absent some drastic change GHG emissions will create a negative feedback loop in which the negative effects of climate change will become unstoppable. If the world hopes to change this outcome, one or more states must adopt meaningful climate change regulation and hope that in so doing they will be able to affect the social and cultural norms of international society, thereby incentivizing states to cooperate rather than defect on GHG emission regulation. This Note suggests that the optimal state to take this leadership role is the United States. Still, even if the U.S. were to take this role beginning tomorrow, its chances of success remain dismal. Essentially, it must race against the clock to change the norms of international society, while incurring the costs of GHG regulation, and hope that such actions will lead to international cooperation. While the U.S. may determine that this slight chance of success is not worth the cost, absent the strong leadership of one or more countries actively advocating for all states to adopt GHG emissions regulation, meaningful climate change regulation is a hopeless endeavor.

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