Webcast Recap

Much of the activity to address climate change in Canada and the United States is happening at the subnational level of government, said Stacy VanDeveer of the University of New Hampshire at an event hosted by the Wilson Center's Canada Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program. VanDeveer and Henrik Selin of Boston University discussed the major themes and findings of their recently published book, Changing Climates in North American Politics, which examines and compares political action for climate change across North America at levels ranging from continental to municipal. The collected authors in Changing Climates argue that the lack of coordination on policy initiatives in states, provinces, cities, large corporations, NAFTA bodies, universities, and private firms, limits the effectiveness of multilevel climate change governance.

Action from the Bottom-Up

The federal governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico are currently engaged in building domestic and international institutions to mitigate their carbon emissions. However, no NAFTA member can claim it has taken serious, substantive action to address climate change at the federal level, noted VanDeveer. The most innovative efforts to mitigate carbon emissions come from North American states, provinces, and municipalities. VanDeveer noted that subnational actors have employed a wide range of policy tools to lower their emissions, including command and control regulations, enacting carbon taxes, as well as creating new carbon markets and subsidies aimed to support the creation and development of green technologies.

According to VanDeveer, states and provinces have been able to share best practices to reduce emissions by increasing networked collaboration between private and public sector actors. Several important forums have been established to facilitate this dialogue including, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and the Climate Registry. The development of these networks, argued VanDeveer, influences climate policy developments in four ways:

  1. Strategic demonstration of action feasibility
  2. Market creation and expansion
  3. Policy diffusion and learning
  4. Norm creation and promulgation

Such networks are critical, said VanDeveer, particularly since local level policymaking is likely to influence future federal legislation. Federal leadership in all three countries must improve for North America to make significant emissions reductions. VanDeveer maintained that a range of potential scenarios exist for future multilevel climate governance in the United States. Depending on the level of federal involvement and future policies implemented, he said, subnational climate policymaking could either decline or remain the driver of U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The Prospects of Continental Climate Governance

It is very much in the interest of the United States, Canada, and Mexico to use a continental approach to address climate change, said Selin. Nevertheless, serious talks to develop a trilateral framework to lower North American emissions have thus far been absent. Selin explained that NAFTA members could reap economic efficiency gains if they adopted a continent-wide carbon market rather than implementing three separate national climate strategies. The development and governance of a continental approach could be achieved through existing economic forums, such as NAFTA, he said. A larger market would also foster greater competition for the development and deployment of low-cost green technology.

North American leaders may benefit from looking to policy lessons learned by their European counterparts in developing continental climate policies. Selin noted that the European Union currently has the most developed and progressive regional climate policy framework in the world. Many, though not all, of the lessons learned and climate policies used by the EU in its climate framework are transferable to North America, said Selin. He maintained that a regional approach may also allow North American leaders more leverage in developing climate policies that can be adopted as a world standard. Selin said the EU has already learned this and pushes its own regional policies to influence global discussions on how to address climate change.

In addition to economic benefits, a trilateral climate framework would help NAFTA members prepare for adaptation challenges in several areas, including ecosystem health, fresh water, coastal erosion, forestry, and agriculture, said Selin.

Despite potential benefits, several obstacles remain in moving toward a North American policy framework to address climate change. Foremost among them, noted VanDeveer, is overcoming fears that joint policymaking ultimately equates to a loss of sovereignty to handle environmental issues nationally.

Drafted by Ken Crist.


  • Stacy D. VanDeveer

    Associate Professor of Political Science, University of New Hampshire
  • Henrik Selin

    Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Boston University