The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) occurred in Glasgow, Scotland, in October and November 2021. The main goal of the summit was to foster collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society and to propel action to tackle the climate crisis.1
The conference was widely reported in both traditional media and nontraditional media. As discussed in Chapter 12: The Media, traditional media is characterized by mass communication efforts and professional journalism. The main traditional media outlets include newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. With increased use of the internet, smartphones, and social media platforms, nontraditional media has become increasingly powerful. Whereas professional journalists cover the news for traditional media outlets, nontraditional news coverage may be led by any individual with a smartphone and internet access. Nontraditional outlets, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, are particularly salient with specific niches of the public. That the results of the COP26 were reported on in traditional outlets like CNN, the Associated Press, the BBC, and Al Jazeera as well as nontraditional outlets like TikTok, Twitter, Instagram (more than 318,000 posts are tagged #cop26),2 and Facebook (more than 160,000 people have posted using the hashtag #COP26) suggests that the public is concerned with the environment.3
The COP26 summit produced an official agreement, and governments pledged to commit to adaptation, mitigation, and conservation efforts on methane, coal, transportation, and deforestation. These pledges could help the world prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, a goal the majority of climate scientists involved with the COP26 consider challenging but possible.4
While some governments have agreed to tackle the climate crisis, others have avoided making any commitments. Governments play the “commitment vs. avoidance game” because environmental policy, like every other kind of public policy, requires costs to achieve benefits.
For example, certain types of environmental regulations—the body of taxes and tariffs, quotas, subsidies, and regulations governments issue to promote environmental protection—increase the costs of industrial production. In a globalized economy, higher production costs make it more difficult for firms to sell their products in a competitive international market, especially if the regulations are adopted domestically but not internationally. In situations like this, a factory that cannot compete may be forced to close its doors, and if this happens, workers become unemployed5—that is, workers pay a high cost.
On the other hand, environmental regulations promote environmental quality. If a factory emits fewer pollutants, the quality of the surrounding environment increases. The community in the factory’s vicinity reaps the benefits of less pollution. Better environmental quality contributes to improved health conditions.
However, the causal impact of this environmental regulation in the promotion of a healthier environment is difficult to prove. The connection between the extent to which changes in pollutant emissions can improve or exacerbate the health of community members is complex. Many variables impact both environmental quality and the community’s health. To make things even more difficult, if you consider the market share of this factory in a country and compare it to the global market, the proportional environmental benefit of this environmental regulation may seem small.
Environmental regulations present a tradeoff: they promote environmental quality,6 but they may cause unemployment, at least in the short term. Environmental quality is a widespread benefit. The entire community profits from it, even if each element of the community profits only a little bit. On the other hand, unemployment is a localized cost, and unemployed workers lose a lot. As a result, labor unions, workers, and business parties commonly refer to environmental regulations as “job-killing regulations” and thus tend to oppose them.7 In short, because environmental policies redistribute economic costs and environmental benefits across different groups in society, they face strong opposition, even if, as responses to the COP26 indicate, the general public is concerned about the environment.8
Given the complexity of designing environmental policies, governments consider the redistribution of costs and benefits and play the “commitment vs. avoidance game” based on how much their constituents, or voters, stand to win or lose with environmental regulations.
The ways in which public policies redistribute costs and benefits across domestic and international actors are at the core of the study of international political economy (IPE). This chapter presents a panoramic view of the development of the field from the 16th century to the present. The discussion begins with a brief historical overview, which is then followed by an analysis of some of the most debated issues in the field.