Climate Change Policy and Equity (Global Justice) in a Cross-Cultural Perspective: The Role of Moral Capacities in Global Negotiations and Political Responses of Industrial Countries to Climate Change


This project is the successor to an earlier cooperative research project funded by the Tamaki Foundation (United States), which compared environmental policy in Japan, the USA, and Germany, spotlighting environmental justice and equity.

The focus of this follow-up project has shifted to issues of distributional and global justice in climate change policies related to the interplay between national climate policy in various countries, international negotiations, and international regimes. The countries included in this study at present are Germany, Japan and the United States; from 2010 onward, the study will be expanded to include Australia, Canada, Switzerland, China, and probably India. The project starts from the supposition that international fairness is strongly impaired due to the patent imbalance between “polluters” and “sufferers.” Undisputed is the fact that the advanced industrialized countries are primarily responsible for effecting climate change whereas the developing countries will suffer most from its impacts. This situation can be described as the North-South asymmetry in global climate change.

In light of the North-South asymmetry, many developing countries have called upon the wealthier industrialized countries – the latter to date have been the largest producers of green house gases (GHGs) – to take responsibility for addressing this problem. Among other things, the rich nations are asked to provide developing countries with advanced technologies and financial support to help them abate growing GHG emissions and to adapt to environmental changes already taking place as a result of these and other detrimental impacts. The rich countries are also called upon to take the lead in mitigating further climate change, especially by reducing their own GHG emissions drastically. Increasingly the developing countries and their proponents (for instance, many international organizations and transnational NGOs) base their claims on moral/ethical norms derived from the notion that the atmosphere is a global common good, and that in a globalized world of global interdependencies, there should be global regulation based on global public interest.

A further supposition of this project is that the moral/ethical framing of international climate negotiations will intensify in the so-called post-Kyoto negotiations and afterwards. In this project we therefore explore the interface between global climate policy negotiations (that is, the developing and legitimizing of global justice norms) and the developing of national justice norms with respect to climate policy. Thus far only very few studies consider the forming of climate justice norms at the national level and their role in national policy making and target setting; even fewer studies explore the interconnections between the national and international level. This is despite widespread understanding that a country’s value and norm systems constrain or increase its institutional and practical room for political maneuver and thereby frame the national “spaces of political capability” (determined, so to say, by a country’s moral capacity which evolved through a complex historical process).

In the first phase, this project addresses the question of moral capacity-building in global climate policy by analyzing the climate-related policies and discourse in selected advanced industrial countries. The sample includes so-called pioneers as well as laggards in climate policy. The research design combines normative and empirical approaches in order to overcome what we claim to be the biggest deficit of the current research, namely, isolated studies of normative and positive factors related to climate policy. The focus will be first on national situations because we suggest that general justice and related norms like equity/fairness, equality, or solidarity are shaped by national systemic characteristics and tradition (political institutions and culture). Thus the approach will be informed by theoretical strands like “historical institutionalism,” but it will also make use of policy-analytic methods, discourse analysis, and rational-actor theory. To understand how justice-based arguments matter in global climate change policy, one must understand the actual discursive role of justice norms and their preconditions at least in the most important individual countries involved.

A further postulation of this project is that there is currently much more “speculation” about the moral capacities of industrial countries to assume those burdens unavoidably attached to fair global climate policy, than there are empirically based studies on the related issues of accountability, redistribution, reciprocity, and empathy. We approach these questions as empirically as possible, for instance, using surveys on public attitudes and preferences, individuals’ willingness to pay, etc., and analyzing successful and unsuccessful cases of national policies related to climate protection and adjustment to climate change.

In the initial phase of this cross-national project we concentrate on Germany (as a climate policy “success story” albeit with some flaws), the USA (as a laggard, well behind in the development of a cogent and effective climate policy), and Japan (as an ambivalent case). These three countries are characterized by having quite different perspectives on global justice and its relation to national public interest. In a subsequent phase of investigation we plan to expand the project, researching these same questions in Switzerland, Australia, Canada and China. We already have an informal network of researchers including students from most of the countries mentioned. In a number of meetings, including three ECPR workshops, the guiding research questions, approaches/methodology, and forms of organization for such a joint endeavor have been discussed. As of 2010 we plan to set up a formal research network managed by a steering group consisting of the Environmental Research Centre (FFU) of the Free University of Berlin (FU)(represented by Prof. Miranda Schreurs) and the WZB (represented by Dr. Helmut Weidner, PD).

Relationship to the Research Unit’s Program

This project relates to the first core thesis of TKI’s research program in the following way: the increased influence of transnational governance on climate policy measures in turn affects the degree of expectations and number of demands put to the highly industrialized countries. This is the subject of our investigation. We expect rising discontent in national societies and opposition to some decisions stemming from growing supranational demands and challenges – in particular, non-transparent decision making and the often not fully understandable decisions and agreements about how the burden is to be shared globally have been the subject of criticism. This is expected to reverberate at international level where greater challenges will also have to be met for other related international agreements. Concerning the second core thesis of TKI’s program (viz. politicization), this project considers whether and to what extent global redistribution regimes – negotiated within not very transparent international organizations – will be accepted by those impacted most by these decisions. The project also tries to determine a threshold (i.e., country-specific sensitivity for internationally generated redistributional effects) for setting the process of politicization in motion. Generally, the issue of fair climate policy is framed as global norm building process.

Main content

Selected Publications

Weidner, Helmut and Burkard Eberlein (2009), Still Walking the Talk? German Climate Change Policy and Performance, in: B. Eberlein and G. Bruce Doern (eds.), Governing the Energy Challenge: Germany and Canada in a Multi-Level Regional and Global Context. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Helmut Weidner and Lutz Mez (2008), German Climate Change Policy: A Success Story With Some Flaws, in: Journal of Environment & Development 17: 356-378.

Weidner, Helmut (2008). > Klimaschutzpolitik: Warum ist Deutschland ein Vorreiter im internationalen Vergleich? Zur Rolle von Handlungskapazitäten und Pfadabhängigkeit. WZB Discussion Paper No. SP IV 2008-303.

Weidner, Helmut (2007). Außen hui, innen pfui? Zur Gerechtigkeitslücke in der deutschen Klimapolitik, in: Martin Führ, Peter von Wilmowsky (Hgs.), Umweltrecht und Umweltwissenschaft. Festschrift für Eckard Rehbinder, Berlin: Erich Schmidt-Verlag, S. 625-651.

Helmut Weidner (2005), > Global Equity versus Public Interest? The Case of Climate Change Policy in Germany, WZB Discussion Paper No. SP IV 2005-102.