Prisoners of the Wrong Dilemma: Why Distributive Conflict, Not Collective Action, Characterizes the Politics of Climate Change
29 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2018 Last revised: 30 Oct 2020
Date Written: July 21, 2020
Climate change policy is generally modeled as a global collective action problem structured by free-riding concerns. Drawing on quantitative data, archival work, and elite interviews, we review empirical support for this model, and find that the evidence for its claims are weak relative to the theory's pervasive influence. We find, first, the strongest collective action claims appear empirically unsubstantiated in many important climate politics cases. Second, collective action claims -- whether in their strongest or in more nuanced versions -- appear observationally equivalent to alternative theories focused on distributive conflict within countries. We argue that extant patterns of climate policymaking can be explained without invoking free-riding. Governments implement climate policies regardless of what other countries do, and they do so whether a climate treaty dealing with free-riding has been in place or not. Without an empirically grounded model for global climate policymaking, institutional and political responses to climate change may ineffectively target the wrong policymaking dilemma. We urge scholars to redouble their efforts to analyze the empirical linkages between domestic and international factors shaping climate policymaking in an effort to more empirically ground theories of global climate politics. Such analysis is, in turn, the topic of this issue's special section.
Keywords: climate change, climate policy, collective action, distributional conflicts
JEL Classification: Q54, F55
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation