Political science?

Someone needs to help me out. I am have trouble following the climate change debate over the past couple of days.

To begin, let me accept a premise: scientific experts know what they are talking about and we should accept what they say in respect of their disciplines. So when I read this, quoting IPCC lead author Professor Andy Pitman …

“The science is uncertain, but it’s uncertain in the range of 25 to 50 per cent, not 5 per cent or 10 per cent or 15 per cent,” he said.

“It needs to be much deeper than that if we want to avoid dangerous, anthropogenic climate change.”

… I figure that is what the world needs to do to avert the problem; although I also figure that will be for the future and not immediately as IPCC says that climate change is already occurring and will take many decades to reverse.

But when the same person says this …

Professor Pitman said Australia should be leading by example.

“We actually do need international leadership,” he said.

“I think it is an opportunity for Australia to show that leadership, I think we’ve missed that opportunity in the short term.

“But that doesn’t stop the Prime Minister showing that leadership perhaps in Copenhagen later in the year.”

… that seems like a statement from political science or negotiation science. It is not a statement from climate change science. Professor Pitman isn’t an expert in that. In hundreds of publications not a single one related to that question.

But perhaps he is making that statement on the basis from someone who is. So here is my question: is it true that a small country by sacrificing much in the name of ‘setting an example’ can actually get the world to follow? I can’t think of a single instance in any arena of international negotiation let alone a systematic analysis of successful and unsuccessful leadership strategies in this field. But I am not an expert in political science, leadership or a field that might inform on this issue and so am happy to be guided towards that evidence.

12 thoughts on “Political science?”

  1. I think you have answered your own question, Professor Gans. Of course it is senseless for a country as small as Australia to try to sway the whole world by setting a self-sacrificing example. It is rather like that spoof western movie where the bad guy, having run out of hostages, holds the gun to his own head and threatens to shoot himself if the good guys don’t meet his ‘demands’.

    As to professor Pitman commenting on politics/negotiation, again you are on the right track. Having spent years in the Commonwealth working on science policy, I can tell you that the only thing worse that politicians who think they understand the science, is scientists who think they have any clue about politics.


  2. “We actually do need international leadership” – I think that is a fairly self evident statement, with the “we” being both Australia and others. Yesterday was an opportunity for Australia to show leadership and I think it’s fairly safe to say we didn’t do that but that we still could at Copenhagen – so I don’t see this as the Professor treading beyond his jurisdiction. It’s a fact that without international leadership this isn’t going to end well. Australia could have helped with that, we haven’t so far, maybe we still should?


  3. You have phrased the small country issue in a rather odd fasahion – why should we assume sacrifice? Other small countries have taken the lead in pursuit of alternative energies – Denmark is a prime example in terms of wind. This move has certainly helped them to develop leading firms in this market (e.g. Vestas). The various countries and cities putting their hands up to participatein the “Better Place” electric car consortium have been targetted because they are “small” and thus suited to change (see a discussion here: http://internationalbs.wordpress.com/2008/12/11/friedman-and-i-get-wired-an-electric-combination/).

    It strikes me that Australia needs to decide once and for all whether it is “big” (geographically, resource-wise) or “small” (economically).


  4. A small nation giving leadership to other nations:

    how about….

    New Zealand – vote to women….
    Scandinavia – paid maternity leave
    Switzerland – plant rights
    Singapore – implementing an NBN

    Small nations can hit above their weight through the symbolic meaning tied to their action.

    There are probably equivalent examples for:
    – slavery
    – legal impact of smoking
    – abortion

    These are all changes that require society to rethink their values. Small nations can more completely work through the competing interests and resolve them to move to a new stable position than a large nation. Small nations can LEAD THE WAY.


  5. The Cairns Group, whose formation was initiated by Australia, has had some success in influencing international trade negotiation.

    On the question of “small countries”, Australia is the 19th largest nation by national GDP (PPP) out of the 229 listed by the CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2001rank.html.

    Joshua, can you replace the word “small” in your question by the words “large but pathetically timid and insecure”.


  6. The examples given at 4 and 5 are not particularly convincing.

    Votes to women and paid maternity leave are not really examples of a small country “sacrificing much”. I don’t know enough about the Swiss and Singapore cases to know if this is the case here.

    Likewise, would be interested to know more about the details of the “success” of the Cairns group.

    A more convincing example would be if cutting tariffs on our manufacturing had led to other countries such as Japan, the United States and in Europe cutting their agricultural protection …

    While it is plausible “Small nations can more completely work through the competing interests and resolve them to move to a new stable position than a large nation” it is less plausible that large countries will act against the own interests of a local pressure group as a result of an action of a smaller country.

    Though again could be convinced by some stronger or more specific examples.


  7. Unilateral tariff reduction is a poor example. Tariff cuts benefit the nation making the cuts; unilateral carbon cuts do not.

    Likewise for the other examples provided by Richard.


  8. There are many examples in behavioural game theory where altruistic behaviour by one party is motivated by reciprocity on the basis of altruistic endeavor (even if unsauccessful) by another. Several papers now exist applying these ideas to climate change – one by yours truely.

    If countries are not small then ‘moral suasion’ effects in inducingh coooperative behaviour can be induced by reduced options for carbon leakages when extra countries mitigate.

    Many of these results however are for individuals – for groups it is not so obvious.

    The tariff debate is not so relevant here David. A single country gains by unilaterally cutting tariffs. That’s not necessarily the case w.r.t. carbon controls.


  9. Encouraging investment in renewables by reducing the cost of capital can be shown to increase total economic benefit to a country. Pricing is one approach to encouraging renewables. Reducing the capital cost is another.

    Australia can lead the way by adopting a dual approach. Others will follow because it is in their economic interests to do so.

    Listen to this podcast on one way to reduce the price of capital.

    [audio src="http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/current/audioonly/pve_20081216.mp3" /]


  10. I know that unilateral cuts to tariffs (and other forms of protection) would benefit the country involved. However, countries maintain substantial levels of protection so it must be the case that influential (by some form) parts of the society believe that it would be damaging to themselves if tariffs were cut.

    It is a bit different to carbon controls in that different parts of the world may benefit from mitigating climate change. So even if the world is better off, Australia may (though it may not be) worse off with carbon controls.

    However, I think the protection story still illustrates Joshua’s main suggestion – that little countries undertaking actions that damage themselves (or in my example an influential section of their economy) cannot influence large countries to follow suit.


  11. I seem to have vague recollections of Canada having a large part to play in the anti-landmine and anti-ozone hole international agreements? They seem to be a constant example of middle-power diplomacy used to make the world a better place.

    I think it does all add to the critical mass, even if Australia is a tiny player. And given the moves we have taken we have shown we are prepared to do better than the big guys (on a per capita basis).


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