Will We Learn to Govern in the Long Term?

By Tamara  L. Slater

Climate change is a massive and multifaceted problem, so much so that it tests our modern regulatory and law-making structures in fundamental ways. The world has been developing international institutions for the purpose of peace and collaboration for nearly a century. And, despite the many successes,[1] there remain deep structural challenges that hinder and delay effective international action on issues of global importance such as climate change. As Jerome Whitington (2016: 9) aptly puts it,

“This inherently planetary status of carbon dioxide as a pollutant is not totally unprecedented – refrigerant gases damaging to the ozone are both planetary in their effects and subject to an impressive global regulatory regime. Yet it is enough to provoke an historical discontinuity.”

Climate change poses what is arguably a classic, albeit global, free-rider problem. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of government rulemaking is when society is faced with exactly this sort of problem: one where individual actors are not incentivized to fix the problem themselves. However, unlike, for example, a national highways system, there is no single governing body able to step in and demand action. Not only are individuals and corporations able to be free riders on climate action, but national governments are as well.

The primary policy challenge faced by the world’s governments in the face of climate change is therefore not only to develop a legal mechanism that would aid in effectively mitigating and adapting to climate change, but to develop a legal mechanism that somehow encouraged participation and discourages free-riders. At the 2015 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) held in Paris, France, 196 countries finalized the “Paris Agreement”[2] – which was opened for signature of April 22, 2016 and will remain open for one year – a document that clearly represents a compromise.[3] The agreement is worth celebration, but those who are fighting for their health, their livelihoods, their lands, and their communities see all too clearly its limitations.[4]

I believe that one major flaw in the legal process has been short-term thinking on the part of many impacted parties. In Whitington’s (2016:11) piece, he noted the following:

“[T]he urgency of the moment means that ecological actors need alliances with unlikely bedfellows. Whereas scientists might prefer strong-minded conservationist regulations, they instead put themselves in the compromised position of forging working relations with industry, local landowners, the rural poor, and agricultural capitalists to maximize ecological possibility.”

While the scientists may have put themselves in a “compromised position” from the perspective of a theoretical purist, I would argue that one of anthropologist’s most crucial roles in the fight against climate change is to show that true collaboration is actually the only viable way forward through proof that the interests of all parties do in fact converge in the mid- to long-term given the devastating global consequences of climate change unchecked.

The law is only as good as lawmakers and their constituents. Law on all levels – local, national, international – comes out of the interests of those with power. Sometimes that means those with money, but sometimes people create power in their communities through collaboration, direct action, targeted campaigning, and organized voting. Like many legal issues, the path forward depends on people pushing the world down that path. Academics of many disciplines play an important role in first understanding the forces that inform law, policy, and human behavior, and then helping society shape those forces to reflect what we want.


[1] While the value of international institutions is often up for debate, there have certainly been strong, long-lasting institutions effectively established and embedded into the global political and economic system. A brief sampling includes the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the International Criminal Court.

[2]The Paris Agreement,” UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (accessed July 27, 2016).

[3] See, generally, Bodansky, Daniel, “The Paris Climate Change Agreement: A New Hope?” American Journal of International Law vol. 110 (forthcoming).

[4] See, for example, Hansen, Terri, “Paris Agreement 1.5° C Climate Limit Denounced by Indigenous as the Red Line to Catastrophe,” Indian Country, April 23, 2016; Chism, Rachel, “Environmentalist Naomi Klein Calls Paris Climate Accord ‘woefully Inadequate’.” The Hub, 2016, Accessed July 27, 2016.


headshot-sep-2015Tamara L. Slater just concluded a Fellowship at the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law. She received her B.A. in religion and political science from the University of Rochester and J.D. from Washington University School of Law, where she focused on international and environmental law.


Recommended Citation

Slater, Tamara L. Will We Learn to Govern in the Long Term? PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 08 September 2016, https://polarjournal.org/will-we-learn-to-govern-in-the-long-term/