National Interest vs. Altruism in Climate Change Negotiations: How to Reach More Effective Agreements

by Kyong Mazzaro

Reaching consensus to allow states to effectively address climate change at a global level has been incredibly challenging. From the 1988 World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto to this year’s Bonn Climate Change Conference, the difficulties of reaching agreements around environmental regulations and greenhouse emissions are evident.

In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, the literature on state decision-making in international negotiations has traditionally relied on paradigms of rational choice and national interest. As a main driver of state behavior, rational choice has proven effective in explaining why states are not always interested in working cooperatively to make climate change a top policy priority. Although it is both an environmental and an economic issue, the need to advance national interests by promoting economic growth eclipses the urgency of addressing the long-term environmental consequences of climate change. This is one of the main reasons why states choose to avoid being constrained by international environmental regulations that can impair their range of economic action.

However, the rational choice paradigm has failed to explain cases of high degrees of cooperation and altruistic behavior among states – which are inherent to not only international climate change negotiations but also to sustainable development, labor, and trade negotiations, among many others.

To address this gap, van der Pol, Weikard, and van Ierland (2012) recently presented a new theoretical model that explores the role of more pro-social or other-oriented behaviors by studying the effect of altruism on the stability of climate change agreements. Focusing on two types of altruism: (1) impartial altruism or when countries share a concern for all other countries, and (2) community altruism or when their concern only extends to coalition partners, they explain that when countries have altruistic preferences, larger coalitions tend to arise. These coalitions are more likely to encourage individual states to pursue common strategies in climate change negotiations, hence providing a framework for more solid international cooperation.

Researchers also argue that community and impartial altruism tend to have different effects on the stability of the coalition: altruism is more effective in cases where the concern is limited to signatories or members of the coalition as opposed to cases where altruism is broader and unrelated to an actual partnership. Interestingly, altruism is not only less effective in cases where the concern is extended to all countries indiscriminately (community), but it can also impair the emergence of effective cooperative frameworks in climate change negotiations. 

Although further research is needed to test the assumptions of the model, it raises important questions about the complex nature of altruism in explaining negotiator behavior and constructive international cooperation, which is essential to reaching effective climate agreements.

van der Pol, T., Weikard, H. P., & van Ierland, E. (2012). Can altruism stabilise international climate agreements?. Ecological Economics, 81, 112-120.