Climate Cascades: IOs and the Prioritization of Climate Action

The forthcoming article “Climate Cascades: IOs and the Prioritization of Climate Action” by Richard Clark and Noah Zucker is summarized by the authors below.

International organizations (IOs) are increasingly focusing their policymaking and rhetoric on issues of climate change. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has called for ambitious climate policies including carbon prices and debt relief for climate-vulnerable countries. The World Bank announced plans in the late 2010s to significantly ramp up lending for climate change mitigation and adaptation. These pivots to climate are notable given the halting pace of domestic and interstate action on the issue. The most powerful stakeholders within these institutions vary widely in their climate ambition, which prior work suggests should impede institutional reform. Why, in light of this, are we nonetheless seeing IOs increasingly prioritize climate? 

Classic theories of institutional change focus on top-down or exogenous forces, such as shifts in principal preferences or sudden shocks like war. We advance a novel theory that attributes institutional reform not to these high-level pressures, but rather to an endogenous process of staff learning and rotation. International financial institutions, foreign ministries, aid agencies, and other political bureaucracies regularly deploy staff overseas to carry out their institutional mandate. We argue that when staff are sent to countries where climate vulnerabilities are especially severe, such as low-lying island states, those staff should learn about the impacts of climate change and come to see climate as germane to their institution’s mission. As those staff are then rotated to new countries or promoted, they should carry these new beliefs with them, leading concerns about climate to diffuse horizontally and vertically through their institution. 

We develop this argument in reference to the IMF, which frequently deploys staff to member states to conduct routine economic surveillance and consult with local stakeholders; staff write reports that document their findings and offer policy recommendations. These missions typically concern “bread-and-butter” macroeconomic issues for the Fund, such as levels of public debt and currency regimes. We hypothesize that when staff are deployed to especially climate-vulnerable countries, they should come to see climate as a “macro-critical” issue — something deserving of the Fund’s attention alongside those conventional metrics. 

To test this theory, we collect original data on the IMF’s attention to climate in economic analyses and the career paths of individual bureaucrats. We find that these staff learn from local experiences of climate disasters while on assignment overseas, and that these lessons stick as the staff move between countries. The presence of a “climate-attuned” bureaucrat in a country, someone who previously came to see climate as macro-critical, makes it nearly twice as likely that the IMF will consider climate in its analysis of that country. 

Our findings suggest that seemingly weak states, such as small island states, may be able to advance their climate interests by hosting international bureaucrats. Scholars might examine whether states strategically work to persuade bureaucrats like those sent by the IMF. Our results also offer reason for optimism around the future of climate governance; IO staff may be able to spur greater climate action even when powerful states are divided on the issue.  

About the Authors: Richard Clark is an Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University and Noah Zucker is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Their research “Climate Cascades: IOs and the Prioritization of Climate Action”  is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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