Breaking Down The Final Two 2022-2023 Topic Choices: My Concerns About The Multilateral Climate Change Regimes Topic

The final round of voting for the 2022-2023 national high school policy debate topic is nearly complete. The two resolutions on the ballot are:

1. Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its support of multilateral greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes.

2. Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in one or more of the following areas: artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cybersecurity.

Which one is better? I’ve had a difficult time deciding. Both have serious problems. In this post, I will explain my concerns about the climate change topic. In a subsequent post, I will do the same for the NATO topic. If you haven’t voted yet, I hope you will find these posts helpful as you deliberate over your final choice.

The biggest issue confronting voters is that the climate change topic paper does not support the wording of the resolution. Originally submitted to the college topic committee, the paper proposes the following resolutions:

Resolution 1: Elegant, broad
The United States Federal Government should substantially increase restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Resolution 2: Carbon price
The United States Federal Government should impose a substantial carbon price in the United States.

Resolution 3: Cap-and-trade + Carbon price
The United States Federal Government should substantially increase restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade and/or carbon price.

Resolution 4: Less elegant, potential debates over agent
The United States Federal Government should enact a domestic climate policy, at least
substantially increasing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Resolution 5: Less elegant, potential debates over agent, list
The United States Federal Government should enact a domestic climate policy, at least substantially increasing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade and/or carbon price in the United States.

Resolution 6: Zero-Carbon economy
The United States Federal Government should require a transition the United States to a zero-carbon economy.

The paper supports resolutions one and especially two:

The primary focus of each resolution will be forcing the affirmative to actively restrict emissions. Unlike policies that have a downstream effect of limiting warming (e.g., painting roofs a lighter color, planting trees, building high-speed rail systems, etc.), topical affirmatives must impose a direct restriction on greenhouse gas emissions.

Resolutions number one and two are my preferences. Number one is broad, allowing affirmative teams a variety of mechanisms by which they could restrict emissions. It entirely encompasses resolution two, and also includes regulatory mechanisms like amendments to the Clean Air Act or enhanced policing via the Environmental Protection Agency. It could target specific sectors, and there is no reason to believe that the affirmative would be required to defend a specific agent. I would imagine that resolution number one would elicit concerns that it is too broad; however, resolution two may resolve those criticisms.

Resolution two is more narrow than resolution one; but, I believe that it has a more balanced division of affirmative and negative ground. The carbon price resolution would allow the negative team to read regulatory changes as counterplans, while the affirmative team would defend its specific pricing mechanism versus those changes. These would be good debates, because there are strong defenses of a price: it is the clearest signal to businesses and fossil fuel producers, it can be imposed on imported goods to change global emissions prices and it is an efficient way to modify consumer preferences. Thus, affirmative teams under resolution two would have ample opportunity to refute the regulations counterplan. It is possible that resolution number two would elicit concerns that it is too narrow. However, for over two decades there has been an intense debate about the viability of a carbon tax and cap-and-trade, including dozens of articles comparing the two against each other. Although the debate may be narrow, it is deep and rich, and it would encourage debaters to research varying nuances of each mechanism. For example, should a cap-and-trade be upstream or downstream, should the permits be traded or auctioned, what should the cap be set at, should it be linked to the global market, etc. Similarly, should a carbon tax be imposed at the point of production or consumption, what should the revenue be spent on, should it be revenue neutral, should the tax apply to all goods at the border, etc. These are concerns that economists and environmentalists have been addressing for years; hopefully, debaters on the topic would walk away with a strong understanding of these varying nuances.

This is a convincing case in favor of the carbon price resolution, but that’s not what high schools are voting on. Indeed, the word “multilateral” appears only twice in the topic paper; both mentions are in a card (Stavins 97) tagged “Domestic policy is defined as direct regulation of firms or individuals in the US—international policy is distinct, and includes global tax harmonization.” The author begins by distinguishing between domestic and international climate change policies:

Two distinct categories of policy instruments need to be considered to address global climate change. First, there are fundamentally domestic policy instruments, intended to enable individual nations to achieve their specific targets or goals. Second, there are international (bilateral, multilateral, or global) instruments that can be employed jointly by groups of nations. By necessity, I investigate both domestic and international instruments, but it should be acknowledged at the outset that although there is abundant precedent for national environmental policy actions, there is much less experience with successful environmental initiatives at the international level.

The author then summarizes domestic and international policy instruments as follows:

2.2 Domestic Policy Instruments
The most frequently employed approach in virtually all countries of the world for addressing a variety of environmental problems has been to set standards and directly regulate the activities of firms and individuals: so-called command-and- control instruments (Table 2). Conceivably, such approaches could be employed in the greenhouse context as well. By mandating standards, governments could ban or attempt to alter the use of materials and equipment considered to be damaging. For example, standards could be applied to buildings (energy efficiency), fuel use by motor vehicles, energy efficiency of household durables, and the content of fuels. In contrast, market-based instruments have recently been employed by governments to alter price signals to ensure that polluters face direct cost incentives to control emissions. The primary market-based instruments to be considered for greenhouse management are taxes and tradable permits. Under a true emissions tax, a charge is imposed per unit of pollutant discharge.9 A closely related application would be a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels. As an alternative, under an emission trading scheme, sources receive permits to emit, and can then buy and sell these permits among one another.10 Because these market-based instruments have the effect of inducing decision-making units (typically firms) to choose control levels at which their marginal abatement costs are the same, overall pollution abatement costs will, in theory, be minimized.11 That is, market-based instruments can, in principle, be cost effective.

2.3 International Policy Instruments
Climate change is truly a global commons problem. The location of emissions of greenhouse gases has no effect on the global distribution of damages, and so free-riding problems plague unilateral or multilateral “solutions.” Further, nations will not benefit proportionately from greenhouse-gas abatement policies. In fact, some countries — such as Canada and Russia — might experience no benefits from control, since they actually stand to gain from global climate change (due to the effects of increased temperatures and precipitation on agricultural production). Thus, for some countries, costs of control may exceed benefits. This means that to be successful an international (voluntary) agreement needs to include a mechanism for transferring gains to countries that would otherwise not benefit from joining an agreement. This is a central challenge for any international policy instrument that is to allocate responsibility among nations. It is at least conceivable that standards could be employed that are uniform among countries participating in an international emissions reduction agreement. It would be difficult, however, to achieve wide agreement about any large set of specific instruments, because such approaches would place severe limits on individual countries’ domestic policy choices. An alternative regulatory approach would involve countries agreeing on fixed national emission levels. But marginal abatement costs would then vary greatly among participating countries, and so total global abatement costs would be much greater than necessary. Instead, some degree of aggregate cost effectiveness could be achieved if market-based instruments were employed internationally. Four possibilities stand out. First, if countries agreed to apply the same level of domestic greenhouse taxes (harmonized domestic taxes), marginal abatement costs would tend to be equalized among countries. Second, a uniform international tax on greenhouse emissions could be employed, with the total tax revenue being allocated among participating countries according to some set of rules. A third potentially cost-effective approach would be a system of international tradable permits, in particular, a system of tradable carbon rights, the total allocation of which would reflect the overall emissions target. International permit trade would establish a market price — an implicit international tax rate — which would equate marginal abatement costs among countries, leading — in theory — to a cost-effective solution. Within the context of such an international tradable permit scheme, participating countries could then use whatever domestic policy instruments they chose to achieve their permit-determined targets. They might employ domestic tradable permits, domestic taxes, or conventional regulations.12 A fourth market-based instrument, closely related to the concept of international tradable permits, is joint implementation, essentially bilateral trading arranged on an ad hoc basis. This policy mechanism, which we also consider below, has received considerable attention from policy makers and others in the past few years.

This evidence is quite old and is not defining any of the relevant terms in the proposed high school resolution. Does “increase its support of multilateral greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes” mean the affirmative is limited to international policy instruments? Or can domestic policy instruments (like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program) increase the U.S.’s “support” of multilateral regimes? Is this an international topic, a domestic topic, or both?

Here is the official synopsis of the topic and problem area provided by the NFHS:

Climate change is a pressing global crisis that has the potential to dramatically change life on earth. Many of these risks, such as desertification in the Middle East and Africa and disparate health outcomes in urban America, can be seen today. Unfortunately, our students are already dealing with the consequences of these issues. A 2019 poll found that the prospect of devastating climate change is causing fear, anxiety and anger among a “solid majority” of American teenagers. The same Post-KFF poll found that Black and Hispanic teens expressed the strongest sense of urgency, because “they are more likely to live in vulnerable areas and less likely to be able to insulate themselves” from the drawbacks of the changing environment. There are a variety of people and groups with proposed solutions, ranging from de-growth of the industrial economy to more tech growth with energy efficient solutions. Some believe regulatory fixes similar to the Clean Air Act can solve the problem, while others think we may need to geo-engineer the earth itself. Although each solution is similar in that it attempts to address the problem of climate change, each comes with its own unique benefits and

This topic provides a fair division of affirmative and negative ground. On the affirmative, teams can use international regimes as a basis for affirmatives. Affs will require a command and control and top down approach to climate regulation. Negatives will have a variety of economic and political based disadvantages. Negative ground also includes unilateral counterplans and counterplans that focus on private sector solutions. Finally, there are a ton of relevant kritik arguments ranging from identity based arguments to arguments about neoliberalism.

Despite the importance of the climate change debate, fewer than half of K-12 teachers discuss the topic with their students When it is discussed, it is most frequently taught in science classrooms, which, although important, misses the social, economic and political elements of the topic. This reality is reflected in national polling, which found that “the number of teenagers who say they are being taught in school how to mitigate climate change appears to be on the decline.” Thus, a debate topic focused on the contributing factors, harms and solutions to climate change has the potential to address a significant pedagogical gap in our nation’s educational system.

Only the second paragraph is about the actual resolution and how it might be interpreted. In the rest of this post, I will break down its claims.

This topic provides a fair division of affirmative and negative ground.

Hopefully, but I guess we’ll see.

On the affirmative, teams can use international regimes as a basis for affirmatives.

This is self-evident, but it doesn’t explain how affirmatives can “use” international regimes.

Affs will require a command and control and top down approach to climate regulation.

Why is this true? What word in the resolution establishes this requirement? It seems like this statement is based on the resolutions proposed by the topic paper, not the resolution on the ballot.

The only word that might establish this requirement is “support,” but why does “increase its support of” multilateral climate regimes mean “adopt a command and control and top down approach to (presumably domestic) climate regulation”?

It seems like this statement is assuming not only that domestic policies are topical, but that only domestic policies — and a particular subset of domestic policies — is topical. I can’t find any evidence to support this assertion.

First, dictionary definitions of “support” are quite broad: “agreement with and encouragement for an idea, group, or person” (Cambridge), “help and approval that you give to a particular idea, politician, organization, etc.” or “money that is provided to a person or organization in order to help them to do their work or to achieve a particular goal” (Macmillan), “approval that you give to somebody/something because you want them to be successful” or “money or goods that you give to somebody/something in order to help them” (Oxford).

Second, the word “support” seems to have a relatively broad definition in foreign policy discussions. For example, here’s a back-and-forth from a background press call with the NSC from earlier this year:

Q Thank you for doing this. As you know, anti-corruption activists periodically urge the U.S. government to use its various assets and capabilities, including the intelligence community, to expose specific cases of corruption overseas, to name and shame corrupt officials — and the arguments they make are familiar — but also include not only, you know, a deterrent to corruption, but also a possible contribution to the promotion of democracy.

Does the does the memorandum — does the program include any component that connects with that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I can say on that front is that the memorandum includes components of the intelligence community. So, the work on that front, in part, remains to be seen, but they are included — the Director of National Intelligence and Central Intelligence Agency.

And so we’re just going to be looking at all of the tools in our disposal to make sure that we identify corruption where it’s happening and take appropriate policy responses.

And I’ll take the opportunity to mention that we’re also going to be using this effort to think about what more we can do to bolster other actors that are out in the world exposing corruption and bringing it to light.

So, of course, the U.S. government has its own internal methods, but, largely, the way that corruption is exposed is through the work of investigative journalists and investigative NGOs.

The U.S. government — to my point earlier, in terms of the support we’re already providingin some instances provides support to these actors. And we’ll be looking at what more we can do on that front as well.

Q What does the word “support” mean in that context?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, sometimes it boils down to foreign assistance. There are lines of assistance that have jumpstarted investigatory journalism organizations. What comes to my mind most immediately is OCCRP, as well as foreign assistance that goes to NGOs, ultimately, that do investigative work on anti-corruption, as well.

Q Thank you.

This is consistent with other references to the broad range of actions that can be included under the banner of “support”:

The word “support” has a precise meaning within the trade-policy community. The OECD, for example, refers to support when discussing its aggregate of subsidies and transfers to producers created through artificially high prices (i.e., market price support), the producer support equivalent, or PSE. Domestic support and aggregate measurement of support are terms used in reference to obligations under the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture.

In the political sphere, however, “support” is highly imprecise. When a government declares it “supports” a particular technology, industry, or sector, that “support” can mean anything from simple well wishes to suitcases of money.

This seems to be the case in the climate context as well. For example, the Brookings Institution’s “How the United States can return to credible climate leadership” report begins with this introduction:

The United States is rejoining international efforts against climate change in a crucial year. All members of the Paris Agreement are obliged to submit updated pledges for emissions reductions prior to a global climate meeting in November. President Joe Biden wants to re-establish U.S. leadership on climate. Doing so will require the United States to make an ambitious but achievable pledge and to assist other nations in doing the same. The political landscape for enacting climate legislation in the United States is still tricky, but U.S. subnational actors have continued emissions reduction efforts during the Trump administration and will be a key part of efforts going forward. These subnational actors can share their skills and ambition with their counterparts abroad. The United States also has an opportunity to lead through its role in the global financial sector. It can encourage greener investing by requiring disclosure of climate risks and support global efforts to finance emissions reduction and climate adaptation in developing countries.

Which of these proposed policy changes would “substantially increase [the USFG’s] support” of the Paris Agreement? Contextually, it seems like the authors think the answer is “all of them.” Here’s the “Policy Recommendations” section:

Against this backdrop, the United States can and should re-engage fully with the international community to support global action. To do so, it must act in five linked ways.

Embed climate action into U.S. society. The core project for the United States this year, and for years to come, is to develop and implement a national climate strategy that brings to bear all possible areas of policy action. In many ways the U.S. is playing catch-up, but one important advantage developed during the Trump years. As the federal government dismantled its climate efforts, the subnational community substantially increased its climate commitments. As a result, the United States has highly motivated and experienced actors outside the federal government. Federal action to catalyze and encourage these local efforts will be a key part of a bottom-up climate strategy, enabling more robust policy through oscillating political cycles at the national level.

Subnational actions are key, but some actions must take place at the federal level. New legislation is a first potential contributor. Given the current makeup of Congress, actions rooted in tax credits, investment, and stimulus are likely to have some traction in the near term. Other policies will have to be evaluated in light of their potential support. A second possible contributor is administrative actions that can be implemented by the executive branch, including regulatory actions under existing laws. Such administrative actions are less durable than legislative outcomes, but remain on the table as options.

Advance subnational diplomacy. While not all countries are structured like the United States, bottom-up leadership and implementation are central to success in some form in all countries. The United States can use its non-federal actors in its diplomatic efforts to support and bolster climate action around the world. For this, U.S. cities, states, and businesses can collaborate with their counterparts in other countries to discuss opportunities and strategies, supported by the U.S. diplomatic effort. Such efforts could take place through a U.S. State Department Office of Subnational Diplomacy, as recommended by Anthony F. Pipa and Max Bouchet in their brief for this series.

Announce an ambitious yet credible U.S. nationally determined contribution. As a central pillar of the Paris Agreement, countries around the world regularly offer their NDCs and report on progress. Each country’s NDC is viewed as an indicator of the country’s overall climate ambition. The U.S. target will likely have an outsized impact on overall global action this year.

President Biden has committed to offer the next U.S. NDC at a leaders’ meeting that he will host on Earth Day, April 22. In parallel with developing the national climate strategy, Washington will be undertaking an assessment of the possible emissions reductions associated with such a strategy. International perception of the U.S. domestic commitment is important; the commitment must be seen as sufficiently ambitious to unlock the other diplomatic opportunities available to the United States. The goal of achieving emissions reductions of approximately 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 is receiving a great deal of attention, but is highly ambitious for the United States. Achieving such a target would be a challenge, but the whole-of-society approach described above could improve the probability of reaching such a goal.

Revisit U.S. domestic financial regulations and international climate finance. Mobilizing new sources of finance to support a rapid economic and technological transition is central to addressing climate change. Here too, the United States provides an important link between domestic and international actions. Domestically, the U.S. financial system leads the world, but U.S. financial regulations do a poor job of requiring disclosure of climate-related risk, including the physical risks associated with climate change. Recent movement toward addressing these issues can be accelerated. For example, the Federal Reserve recently joined the Network for Greening the Financial System and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made clear in her confirmation hearing that she believes climate change is a risk to the financial system. Through its outsized influence on the global financial system, the United States can encourage greener investment. Greater disclosure of climate risks would allow investors to direct funds to low-carbon and resilient assets, potentially moving the needle in areas where policy lags behind.

The United States must also exercise leadership in marshalling the financing that developing countries, especially the larger emitters, will need to raise their climate ambition, and to help poor and vulnerable countries adapt to the already evident impacts of climate change. This includes ensuring that developed countries live up to their commitment to mobilize $100 billion per year in climate finance, a central tenet of the climate accords. For the United States, meeting its commitment to the Green Climate Fund, established under the U.N. climate framework a decade ago, will be an immediate litmus test. The United States must also play a leadership role in unleashing the potential of the International Monetary Fund and the multilateral development banks in supporting more ambitious climate action. These institutions can play a role beyond their own financing by catalyzing private investment through reducing and sharing risk. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to “build back better” by tackling the interrelated challenges of job growth, climate change, pollution, and biodiversity.

Support international efforts and national strategies. The United States can employ its substantial foreign policy apparatus to engage with key countries, partners, and allies around the world. In doing this, the United States can first communicate how it will achieve its own ambitious goals, then seek to understand how other countries anticipate delivering on their own goals and work with them bilaterally or multilaterally to support their national climate strategies. Finally, it can work with partners around the world to ensure that there is broad support for a strong outcome at the climate conference later this year.

Fundamentally, the climate challenge requires pushing the technological frontier in a dozen key sectors, from electricity to cars to building materials. In every sector the challenge is different, and in every sector there are different arrays of international partners, such as national and subnational governments and pioneering firms. The United States should ally with the U.K. government as it advances key “campaigns” that reflect this sector-focused approach to deep decarbonization. The effort should identify a few sectors, such as cars and electricity, where the United States is at the frontier and can particularly shape the global effort.

This suggests that the U.S. has a wide range of policy options at its disposal that would “increase its support” of multilateral climate regimes: enact or administer domestic climate regulations or policies, encourage sub-national climate regulations and/or diplomatic efforts, increase its nationally determined contribution, change domestic and international climate financing regulations/systems, increase climate funding/financing directly or via a multilateral institution, and increase diplomatic efforts related to climate change.

Could the negative craft a topicality argument that limits the term “support”? Perhaps, but I’m not optimistic. As far as I can tell, “support” is not a term of art with a well-defined meaning, and it is often used colloquially to refer to a broad range of actions and policies.

Negatives will have a variety of economic and political based disadvantages.

This depends on whether the scope of topical affirmatives is limited. As explained above, I don’t think this is likely to be the case.

For example, what is the economic disadvantage against a case that encourages sub-national diplomatic participation in climate summits? What is the economic disadvantage against a case that requires greater transparency in U.S. climate financing? What is the economic disadvantage against a case that increases diplomatic engagement with developing countries related to multilateral climate agreements? Against some cases, the economic disadvantage may be strong; against many others, it will be weak or non-existent.

I am less concerned about political disadvantages; they exist regardless of the topic (and regardless of whether or not they make sense). But the kinds of affirmatives that dodge economic DAs will also be able to sometimes dodge politics DAs, and relying on the existence of a strong politics DA to guarantee good negative ground is a terrible idea.

Negative ground also includes unilateral counterplans and counterplans that focus on private sector solutions.

I don’t think this is true. Regarding private sector solutions, federal policies to encourage or incentivize private sector action seems like it can reasonably be defined as “support” for multilateral climate regimes. A “private sector do it” counterplan would be competitive, but historically this type of negative fiat is generally considered theoretically illegitimate.

Understanding why the unilateral counterplan is not realistic requires a deeper dive.

As far as I can tell, there were no references to the term “multilateral greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes” on the internet before this resolution was released. Presumably the term “greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes” was chosen to distinguish multilateral regimes that are primarily about climate change from multilateral regimes that have some relationship to climate change. Arguably, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the only “multilateral greenhouse gas emission reduction regime:”

The foundational treaty of the international climate change regime – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.1 Its signatories agreed to ‘achieve… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.2 The states that have ratified the UNFCCC meet annually at the ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) to assess and review the implementation of the convention.3 The COP has negotiated two separate treaties since the formation of the UNFCCC: the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Agreement in 2015.4

The Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 parties at COP21 in 2015 and entered into force less than a year later.5 The goals of the treaty are to keep the rise in the global average temperature to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’, ideally 1.5°C; enhance the ability to adapt to climate change and build resilience; and make ‘finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’.6 The agreement adopts a ‘bottom-up’ and non-standardized approach, where parties themselves set their national emission reduction targets and communicate these to the UNFCCC in the form of nationally determined contributions (NDCs).7

However, the resolution’s use of the plural regimes seems to suggest that more than just the UNFCCC is included. If this is true, there are a wide range of multilateral “regimes” that could arguably be called “greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes,” including:

A number of established multilateral regimes offer important avenues for climate mitigation efforts complementary to those of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC ). Tackling discrete dimensions of the climate challenge in regional, sectoral and other global venues can yield action on multiple fronts, contributing toward closing the gap between national pledges and the UN FCCC goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This brief examines ongoing and potential efforts in the International Maritime Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Montreal Protocol, and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

It seems like one can quickly go down a rabbit hole when attempting to define “regime” in the climate change context:

2 What Is Global Climate Change Governance?

Before embarking on a domain-mapping exercise, it is important to be explicit on the definitional boundaries of that domain. Climate change has emerged as a priority issue within the broader framework of global environmental governance over the past four decades. Pluralization of authority beyond the nation state is a key feature of this domain, where ‘reconfiguration of authority across various actors and multiple levels of decision-making’ is a longstanding feature (Hickmann, 2017). More broadly, scholarly efforts to grapple with a globalizing climate governance arena exemplify a rapidly developing cross-disciplinary convergence across a highly diverse body of social, technical and geophysical scholarship (Coen and Pegram, 2018). However, as a useful point of departure, global climate change governance can be defined generally as, ‘all purposeful mechanisms and measures aimed at steering social systems towards preventing, mitigating, or adapting to the risks posed by climate change, established and implemented by states or other authorities’ (Jagers and Stripple, 2003: 385).

A focus on ‘all purposeful mechanisms and measures’, as well as the implementation prerogatives of ‘states or other authorities’ provides the coordinates for this Element’s mapping exercise. We build upon this definition by differentiating among key definitional elements along the dimensions of types of actors (state and non-state), scales of governance (global-to-local), as well as functional domains (regime complexes). The concept of regime complex has become a prominent lens through which to examine increasingly dense clusters of ‘partially overlapping and non-hierarchical institutions governing a particular issue-area’ (Raustiala and Victor, 2004: 279). Climate change is no exception. The UNFCCC-centred multilateral system constitutes an international regime in and of itself, understood as ‘principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations’ (Krasner, 1982: 186). However, it also forms part of a larger regime complex for climate change spanning diverse formal and informal arrangements (e.g. private regulations, clubs, transnational initiatives) operating within this issue-area which together constitute a system of loosely coupled regulatory elements that are only partially organized hierarchically (Keohane and Victor, 2011: 12). Crucially, understanding climate change as a regime complex acknowledges that international institutions are themselves embedded within broader institutional frameworks. Opening up inquiry into the causes and consequences of overlaps and intersections among different regimes with an authority claim for a particular issue area (or territory) presents a significant departure from earlier work which tended to focus on discrete regimes ostensibly designed to govern discrete problems (Alter and Raustiala, 2018: 330).

So who knows? The term “multilateral greenhouse gas emission reduction regimes” will probably provide some limit, but not a particularly strong one.

The bigger problem is that the term “multilateral” is not as meaningful as one might think. Most importantly, the distinction between a “multilateral plan” and a “unilateral counterplan” is not straightforward at all.

For one thing, consider the policy proposals in the Brookings report above. Many are “unilateral” U.S. policies that nonetheless “support” multilateral climate change regimes. The affirmative will be able to produce compelling evidence to prove this claim for nearly any domestic or international climate policy.

Second, consider this critique of the term “multilateral” in the climate change context:

Before turning to the Paris Agreement in particular, let me start with an admission. As a lawyer for the U.S. State Department for over thirty years (and the lead climate lawyer for over twenty-five), I was involved in negotiating many of the most significant multilateral environment agreements of the past few decades. But I have never been wild about the term “multilateralism.”

For one thing, I have found a lack of clarity when it comes to its meaning:

* To a lawyer, it’s confusing. When people talk about a “multilateral” approach, they might mean it in its literal sense (i.e., involving three or more parties), in its fullest sense (i.e., a global regime), or in a sense that is more political than legal (i.e., in contrast to “unilateralism” or “nationalism”).

* It is often not possible to motivate States to agree on a “multilateral” approach unless one State (or a small group of States) catalyzes such a solution by first acting unilaterally. When an international body reaches agreement, but was only able to do so because of a unilateral action, is that an example of multilateralism?

* An agreement might be “multilateral” in one respect but not necessarily in another. For example, a multilateral agreement might set an environmental standard but be silent on enforcement; if a State opts to enforce the standard through a trade measure, such as an import restriction, is that trade measure “multilateral” or “unilateral?”  If a multilateral environmental agreement requires Parties to restrict trade with non-Parties, is the trade measure “multilateral” vis-à-vis the State that did not join?

* Even within the context of a global regime, there can be gradations of “multilateralism.” The international climate change regime is arguably at the extreme end of the spectrum; not only is there near-universal participation, but decisions are taken by consensus. However, a global agreement could operate in a different way. The Montreal Protocol, for example, is global in terms of its membership but can take decisions by less-than-global super-majority voting, in some cases binding all Parties.

For these reasons, I think it is wrong to conceptualize the “unilateral counterplan” as a core negative generic. Most cases that do not have a “multilateral key” advantage will not include multilateral language in their plan. Consider a plan that enacts a domestic carbon tax, for example. To answer topicality “support,” the 2AC will argue that this domestic policy increases U.S. support for the UNFCCC. But the negative cannot respond with a competitive unilateral counterplan; there is nothing multilateral to “PIC out of” in the plan, and there is no “multilateral advantage” to impact turn.

Cases that do have a “multilateral key” advantage will also pose problems for the unilateral counterplan. For one thing, the same issues with the plan text and competition are likely to arise. A plan to increase diplomatic engagement with Brazil related to its UNFCCC commitments, for example, can’t be done “unilaterally;” that the affirmative has an advantage about the UNFCCC does not mean that a counterplan to “do the plan, but don’t support the UNFCCC” is competitive.

In addition, it will be difficult for the negative to construct a unique “multilateral climate regimes bad” disadvantage to pair with the unilateral counterplan. Setting aside link uniqueness — which will be difficult for the negative to prove — most policies which attempt to mitigate climate change will “support” the UNFCCC in some way. Even an explicitly unilateral counterplan — “The USFG should unilaterally reduce its climate emissions, but explicitly state that it is not doing so to support the UNFCCC” — probably “supports” the UNFCCC — or at least the affirmative could present evidence that suggests as much.

The “multilateral vs. unilateral” division of ground makes intuitive sense in the abstract, but the nature and ubiquity of the existing climate change regime makes it difficult to implement in practice.

To be a viable functional limit on the topic, it would need to be a competitive counterplan with a winnable generic disadvantage that links to the resolutional mechanism. My prediction is that the unilateral counterplan-based strategy will fail to meet both criteria: the negative won’t generally have a competitive counterplan nor a mechanism-based generic “multilateral bad” disadvantage. That seems like a recipe for a very bad topic.

Finally, there are a ton of relevant kritik arguments ranging from identity based arguments to arguments about neoliberalism.

“Identity-based arguments” and “arguments about neoliberalism” exist on every topic, so this isn’t helpful. I do think there will be strong kritik ground on the climate change topic, but there isn’t a core generic kritik that seems likely to establish a functional limit on the topic in the way that the abolition kritik did on the criminal justice reform topic. Instead, there will be a variety of climate-related kritik arguments; most will link to some but not all affirmatives.

That said, the kritik ground seems like it will be the best part of the climate topic. Perhaps this is enough to sustain a year’s worth of debates, especially because some affirmatives will choose to read “big” cases that give the negative a lot of ground. Empirically, climate change debates can be excellent; the carbon tax topic that was proposed by the topic paper would have been great.

However, can we count on this topic playing out like that? Will affirmatives be limited enough in their case selection to make negative preparation manageable? Will cases need to be controversial/significant enough to provide good negative ground? Is there a central topic controversy that can sustain a year of high-quality debates?

Based on my preliminary research — and without a properly-vetted topic paper to convince me otherwise — I am reticent to answer “yes” to any of those questions.

Is this still the better choice of the two topics on the ballot? Perhaps. I’ll explain my concerns about the NATO topic in a future post.

One thought on “Breaking Down The Final Two 2022-2023 Topic Choices: My Concerns About The Multilateral Climate Change Regimes Topic

  1. Pingback: Breaking Down The Final Two 2022-2023 Topic Choices: Why I Am Not Voting For The NATO Emerging Technologies Topic | The 3NR

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