It is probably uncontroversial to say that climate politics is usually conceptualized as a collective action problem structured by free-riding concerns. In this model, countries fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently because they only want to do so if others cooperate. Yet states (or their leaders) are trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma. They would love to see cooperation occur, but they live in the mutual fear of free-riding. In the absence of robust ways to monitor and punish non-compliance with an international agreement, so the logic goes, leaders will remain stuck in a world in which everybody emits greenhouse gases.

This paradigm has dominated climate governance research. In fact, climate change is often used as the canonical example of global public bads and the problem caused by fears of free-riding. Nobel laureate William Nordhaus argued that “it has up to now proven difficult to induce countries to join in an international agreement with significant reductions in emissions. The fundamental reason is the strong incentives for free-riding in current international climate agreements.”1 Similar claims have been repeated many times by prominent political scientists, economists, and climate specialists across fields.

Rarely has such a dominant theory been accepted with so few attempts to falsify it. The argument seems so compelling and fits facts so well that its validity has been broadly accepted. As a result, thousands of hours and thousands of pages have been devoted to free-riding deterrence. Substantial intellectual energy has been invested into finding the optimal design of international institutions and address free-riding once and for all.

But what if the problem lies somewhere else?

This special section offers a provocation against the idea that free-riding is the dominant constraint on climate governance. In the opening article, Michaël Aklin and Matto Mildenberger argue that free-riding models find little support in the data. And even when they do, evidence is consistent with alternative, and more parsimonious, models. Instead, they argue that thinking about distributive conflicts offers a more powerful theoretical lens. National climate policymaking is constrained by domestic interests (voters, firms, etc.) and not because government actors lose sleep over free-riding.

Having troubled free-riding as the primary constraint on climate policy, the other articles in this special section contribute to our understanding of distributive politics in global climate governance. Patrick Bayer and Federica Genovese explore domestic audience preferences in the shadow of weak international institutions. They show how public preferences for global climate action are shaped by perceptions of distributive wins and losses. Kathryn Harrison explores supply-side opposition to fossil fuel development in Canada and the United States, comparing the domestic drivers of climate advocacy in comparative perspective. Finally, Thomas Hale explores the implications for international institutions of taking distributive conflicts seriously. Far from robbing them of any meaning, a distributive approach helps open up new ways to think about how international organizations and actors can help address some of the pressing issues of our times.

The climate focus of the special section continues in the research articles, which offer a full range of analyses of the actors and political processes shaping the current global response to climate change. In “Following the Leaders? How to Restore Progress in Global Climate Governance,” Joshua Busby and Johannes Urpelainen take the oft-discussed issue of global climate leadership and turn it on its head, offering an analysis of different types of followers in global climate politics. They demonstrate how grasping the motivations of different categories of followers can provide better collective action strategies for moving multilateral climate governance forward.

In “Experiments in EU Climate Governance: The Unfulfilled Potential of the Covenant of Mayors,” Ekaterina Domorenok, Giuseppe Acconcia, Lena Bendlin, and Xira Ruiz Campillo offer another perspective on climate governance through focusing on new experimental forms of sub-state governance within the EU. Through an analysis of the EU Covenant of Mayors (CoM) program, they examine whether this experimentalist governance architecture that targets local authorities is able to achieve its policy goals. Specifically, this article looks at the extent to which the CoM has increased the political commitment of local authorities to the EU climate agenda as well as their engagement with enhanced recursive goal setting, monitoring and learning.

In “Big Oil and Climate Regulation: Business as Usual or a Changing Business?”, Irja Vormedal, Lars H. Gulbrandsen, and Jon Birger Skjærseth examine the interests and competition driving major fossil fuel sector corporations: dynamics that are often invoked in analyses examining when states lead and follow. The focus here is on when and why fossil energy companies support carbon pricing. They find that, rather than the conventional wisdom that such support is essentially greenwash or hedging, large oil companies are supporting carbon pricing as part of their transition to natural gas companies and as part of their competition with coal. The article is an important reminder to disaggregate the fossil energy sector when analyzing the political economy of climate change.

Widening the lens to look at transnational corporations more broadly, Daniel Witte’s article “Business for Climate: A Qualitative Comparative Analysis of Policy Support from Transnational Companies” addresses which factors explain why some companies support climate policies while others oppose them. Using fuzzy set qualitative comparative analysis, it assesses how various combinations of factors identified in previous studies interact to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for support of climate policies. The article’s strongest finding is that lack of exposure to fossil fuels or engagement in transitioning to a low-carbon business model is a necessary condition for policy support, with the opposite combination being necessary for opposition. While these findings support other research on major emitters, it also supports the importance of these factors in other sectors, including retail, technology, and telecommunications. The authors also find that combinations of several factors in the institutional environment in which transnational companies operate, in combination with other factors, are sufficient for climate policy support.



Nordhaus, W., 2015. Climate clubs: Overcoming Free-Riding in International Climate Policy. American Economic Review 105(4), p. 1339.