Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Multilateralist's Manifesto

Multilateralism[1] may be out of fashion as a way of addressing our global environmental problems, but the way forward is in its reform, not its abandonment. 
Failures at Copenhagen climate summit, and more recently at Rio+20 have led to a loss of faith in the multilateral system throughout society.  I was at both of these summits, and the disappointments of multilateralism are all the more potent when you are personally engaged.  But despite these emotional roller-coasters (which are mostly downs), I believe in multilateralism.  I believe in multilateralism because there are no real proven, realistic or fair alternatives.  I believe in multilateralism because as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, I am reminded of how the recipe of international environmental agreements can work once we use the right ingredients.
                In fact, it is the only real logical recipe to apply to our global problems.  On a basic level, international ecological issues like climate change are a “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968) and it is widely accepted that such collective action problems require cooperative solutions and decision-making (Ostrom, 1990).   The basic economics of “public goods” logic suggests that collective action must be organised at the scale of the problem or externality that must be addressed (Olson, 1971).    In other words: global problems require solutions organised at a global level.  The most effective and proven method of doing so, while building up trust and reducing free-riding, is through multilateral frameworks.   Despite this, the political inertia within environmental negotiations has proven overwhelmingly disillusioning.  We are facing a death by a thousand conferences.
                However, multilateralism as an idea is not out of date, our processes and institutions are.  Consensus is an archaic decision-making tool, our methods of negotiating and diplomacy lack transparency or effectiveness and the bureaucratic structure of the UN and other international institutions are clearly lacking.  We need to resurrect multilateralism, not bury it. 
                Despite this logic, it is still a rare day that I’m not questioned, by friends or colleagues on the validity of multilateralism and the pointlessness of negotiations.  Even at a recent seminar panel one of the other speakers, a world renowned climatologist whom I deeply respect, couldn’t help but declare that the time of multilateral environmental treaties was over and we were better off solving climate change through a nation-based “green” industrial revolution.  It seems a little odd (although poetic) to attempt to solve a problem with the same thinking and processes that created it in the first place.  The Industrial Revolution was driven by greed and competition and resulted in the perverse and pervasive structural inequalities which now plague the world.  This is a mismatch with sustainable development which must be based on cooperation and a thorough repair of our unbalanced structures.  Even if we did solve climate change through such a state-based, business-focused paradigm, what about the other problems like biodiversity loss? 
This bottom-up revolution is also short-sighted.  We are already locked into some degree of climate change, and it is unlikely that such an approach will foster the form of cooperative, cohesive governance that is needed for international society to adapt to the coming environmental changes.   But then the multilateral sceptics point to the numerous states, provinces and nations that have adopted carbon prices despite the absence of a global climate treaty. Well that is just fantastic, but how have overall global emissions been going?  Oh right, record levels…  
                I don’t say this to detract from the bottom-up approaches.  Minilateralism and regional forums have proven useful (look at the EU’s environmental policy, or the outcomes of the recent APEC summit), but not all regions have integration and those that do still require global coordination.   Civil society is also a great tool, but I have yet to see a trans-boundary pollution problem which has been solved primarily by NGOs. Regional governance, local initiatives and non-state actors (both NGOs and businesses) are valuable as contributors to a larger international framework, not substitutes.  The bottom-up is not antithetical to the top-down.   On the contrary, the bottom-up feeds into the top-down, creating the necessary momentum and pressure to construct effective international agreements.  Yet some wish to stop this momentum, and they are the exact same states blocking the process.
                While I usually believe that it is important to address the message, not the messenger, in this case it is important to look at the proponents and their motives.  The proponents of a bottom-up (particularly a pledge and review) system within climate change are the primarily the US, Canada and Australia.  Those who wish to persist with a multilateral approach: The EU, and the least developed and most vulnerable nations (small island states, the African Union etc.).  In the red corner we have the laggards and in the blue corner the leading progressives with the highest targets and most to lose.   The contrast is telling to say the least…..
                Let’s take a lesson from the birthday convention- the Montreal Protocol, which provided a holistic approach to a complex problem.  Effective compliance mechanisms, skilful political leadership (surprisingly from the US), efficient decision –making procedures (double qualified majority voting), incremental membership (we don’t need to have everyone’s involvement to start with), the support of businesses, clear scientific advice, mass NGO pressure and an adequate financing system are what solve global environmental problems, not by giving in to the laggards by primarily focusing on the lowest levels of governance and promoting ‘flexibility’. 
                I write this defence of the multilateral approach of international treaties not out of a personal or academic endearment.  I don’t even do so on the grounds of procedural justice and international ethics (although there are some valid points here).  I stand by the multilateral approach because it offers us the best hope of managing both our current international environmental crises’ and rectifying the inequality that exists in the world.  The principles of Sustainable Development declare that one cannot be done without the other and I see no evidence to suggest that the flexible, bottom-up approaches can solve either, let alone both.  The future lies in persisting with multilateralism and its reform with courage, innovation and political skill.  Perhaps, with that, in another 25 years the Montreal Protocol may not be the only successful treaty with cake at the table. 


[1] In this case I refer to multilateralism as the top-down approach of international treaties and frameworks of an essentially globally nature.  Not the classic definition of "three or more state acting in a collaborative fashion to achieve goal x".

Reviewing Rio: Lessons for the Future

Rio may be considered a failure in terms of the outcomes, but the lessons that can be taken from negotiations mean that the conference could prove to be a success in the long term.
                While I despise the general media portrayal of Rio+20 as a complete and utter failure, I do essentially agree.  The outcomes of the conference fail to put the international community on any kind of track towards a sustainable society and economy within the time-frames needed.   My issue is that the media (who may I add didn’t help at all by providing little coverage and failing to catalyse any public pressure) loves to paint Rio+20 as a failure but doesn’t give any analysis as to why or how we can move forward.
                Of course, this was expected.   The mainstream media is a shallow and profit driven always opting for controversy over useful commentary.  So, I’ll attempt to do provide some such commentary now, because there is much to learn from Rio.
                The negotiations display some of the key actors and leverage points in the international system.  The first lesson is one that is not unique to Rio, it is a problem that has plagued many international treaties- the US.
                One of the main points of discussion at Rio+20 was whether to transform the United Nations Environment Programme (an out-dated, under-funded UN programme with little international authority) into a World Environment Organisation (WEO).  The idea was consistently rejected by the US on the basis that the creation of a WEO would require ratification by the US- something they cannot do.  Long story short, the US requires a three-quarters majority vote in the senate to ratify any international convention or treaty.  As one can imagine, with the republican presence in the senate, this is basically impossible, hence why the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified.
                We have to finally address the elephant in the room.  We need to leave the US behind and forge ahead with progressive international treaties and conventions.   It is pointless to continuously water down international agreements to suit a failing superpower who probably won’t ratify them anyway (ahem, Kyoto).  A- to borrow an American term- ‘coalition of the willing’ would be better advised to go ahead and create innovative and ambitious agreements and institutions without the US.  Once they have their domestic politics in order (hopefully soon) they can ratify and jump on the bandwagon.
                The second issue is another powerful actor (or group of actors) that are increasingly becoming a blockade to progressive outcomes.  The G-77, a group of developing countries around the world, was a hindrance to many issues at Rio+20 including the establishment of a WEO, a global ombudsman, and basically anything to do with the Green Economy.
                The problem is that this massive group of over 130 countries functions on the basis of consensus.   This means to get agreement they almost always take the lowest common denominator- the least ambitious position.  It is a somewhat morbid system where small island states like the Maldives will often be forced to take the same negotiating lines as Saudi Arabia.  This makes lobbying and pressuring nations difficult, since it can be unclear who within the G-77 is acting as a blocker.  The group also serves to entrench the antagonism of the developing-developed country split, a divide which is no longer as clear as it used to be. 
                The solution here is simple.  We break the G-77.  While doing so may not be straight forward the benefits are clear.  It will be easier to isolate blocker nations and leverage international and public pressure against them.  The break-up of the G-77 will also allow for the emergence of useful, regional forms of governance, like the African Union, to further prosper and move the world beyond the now defunct developing-developed divide.   Granted, this would not be as necessary if the group abandoned the ridiculous notion of consensus, something that the entire international system should do. 
                Rio+20, like most international conferences in the last decade, has highlighted the need to change away from the regressive method of decision-making known as consensus.  A case in point was the issue of reproductive rights at Rio+20.  The inclusion of a reference to reproductive rights was strongly supported by civil society and the vast majority of states. Except for one:  a non-secular ‘state’ of roughly 800 people, also known as “The Vatican”.   The Holy See despite widespread opposition was successful in deleting any reference to “reproductive rights”.  The main reason was consensus, which effectively gives every party, including the Vatican, a veto. 
This has been an Achilles heel in climate change negotiations which has led to many nations calling for a change to majority voting.    Mexico has become a leader in pushing for this both in the UNFCCC and even the recent international arms controls negotiations.   And why not? The Vienna Convention on O-Zone protection, the poster-child of environmental agreements, operated on three quarters majority voting, not consensus. 
             I shall briefly mention one last topic, which my next (and final) article will centre upon- the role of civil society.  Civil society, particularly the youth, have a vast potential to influence negotiations in a myriad number of ways from providing political pressure through to helping to facilitate creative compromise.  Despite many successes , the missed opportunities and fragmentation of the youth group at the end Rio+20 show that there is some to go before the youth within civil society becomes the unified, strategic force that is needed.
              While Rio+20 may not have given us the future we want, a closer look gives us some hints on how to achieve that future.  As in everyday life every setback represents a learning experience.  Either we learn from our mistakes and adapt or are doomed to repeat them.  The current track record of negotiations would suggest little has been learnt from the past.   Let us no longer lament on outcomes but focus on perfecting our strategies for the future.   Let the environmental movement take heed of these lessons and rise from Rio.

The Phoenix Effect

                Looking back through history and Rio+20 it becomes apparent that international society may have to face crisis or collapse before the necessary progress on sustainable development can be made.  
Rio+20 has drawn to a close, and has inevitably been accompanied by a chorus of media voice.  The majority (even conservative ones) have been singing of failure.   I’d say the outcome is not so clear cut- it really depends upon your criteria for success.  Based upon reasonable expectations it really isn’t all that bad.  Some good progress was made on oceans, Sustainable Development Goals and certain areas of the green economy (e.g. education).  Based upon what science suggests is necessary to avoid ecological catastrophes it was woefully inadequate. 
Although, what did we really expect- a conference that saved the world?  Hasn’t anyone learned from Copenhagen?  A single summit, regardless of how many heads of states it attracts, is unlikely to provide the silver bullet for sustainable development issues.  Any negotiator at RioCentro would be more than happy to remind us that the multilateral process is a slow and incremental one.  I agree and I think that given another a hundred years or so of this snail pace progress we probably could address many of our current problems.  Unfortunately our global environmental problems require urgent and radical action.   The nature of the solutions does not match that of multilateral negotiations currently.  The process needs a metamorphosis.
 Most of the major changes (especially institutionally) to global society have spurred on by a crisis of some form or another.  The Bretton Woods Institutions and current international financial order were catalysed by the destruction of WWII.  The rise of the UN required the complete collapse of the League of Nations.  On a smaller scale many of the greatest steps forward in climate change negotiations have occurred after failures, like at CoP6 at The Hague.   Transformations away from the status-quo often require a stimulus of crisis.    Such a crisis could take three main forms within our current world- environmental, social or political.
Environmental disasters could be effective in creating the necessary political will to move forward negotiations.  The O-zone Hole and subsequent Montreal Protocol showed nations are not pleased and will act quickly when their citizens are threatened by mass deaths.  However, the O-zone issue had immediate impacts, climate change, biodiversity and other problems lack this urgency in impacts.  Secondly, by the time any ecological disaster could occur we would already be past the point of no-return.  Social crisis such as a global (or semi-global) revolution are also unlikely to occur quickly enough.  Occupy World Street will not be the answer unless it gains traction (and unity) fast.   This leaves us with one last form of crisis- political.
What shape or form could such a political crisis take?  The failure of the multilateral process could be one.  I don’t mean perceived failure as in Copenhagen or Rio+20, but an actual complete collapse of negotiations.  The break-up of the Group of 77 of developing countries, who are playing an increasingly regressive role (as in Rio), could be another. 
Common rejections of this could be that the complete collapse of the process could disillusion the public to the extent that they move away from the multilateral process.  Another may be that such a crisis could actually set negotiations back by many years.  Both are partially true, but the progress we need will require some risk- Who Dares Wins.  As John F Kennedy once famously noted ‘crisis’ in Chinese is made up of two characters- danger and opportunity.   More importantly people are already losing faith in the multilateral system.  The sad lack of public interest and media coverage at Rio+20 is ample evidence of this. 
So if we need a political crisis to catalyse the current process we just have to wait and watch the fireworks right?  Not quite.  The problem is that any such incident will likely require some courageous action by certain parties.  It will need the short term sacrifice of the multilateral process and the image of certain states, states that will likely be the most ambitious of international actors.  Yet, the most progressive countries are also those who are least willing to see the multilateral process collapse.   It was apparent in the EU refusing to walk away from signing the Rio+20 text despite Brazil treating the bloc like a spoilt child, deleting many of its proposals and refusing to reopen the text (more on this in my next article).  The EU and others care too dearly for multilateralism to see it injured in any way.   They will need to learn that the best outcome in the long-term for the current system will involve some ‘tough love’. 
We need to take a lesson from the mythical phoenix:  an old and damaged bird may need to be burnt so that a renewed body can rise from the ashes.  We may need to be ready to watch the multilateral process fail, or other catastrophes unfold before we can expect a positive revolution.   We need to be ready that when the crisis takes place we can seize the opportunity and are not be blinded by the flames.  Without such a spark it looks as though our future may face a death by a thousand cuts [or conferences]. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Facts and Fuss about the p-value

The p-value is extensively reported throughout the medical literature although its use is highly debated and not always well understood. While it is much less commonly referred to in science media articles, statistical significance testing does play an important role in interpreting research results and this post is dedicated to a (hopefully) simple explanation of what the p-value is, its uses and limitations.

So what is the p-value and why do we use it?
The p-value is a statistical measure which assesses whether one particular value is statistically significantly different from a reference value which indicates no change. That’s a textbook definition, but like most statistics it is much easier to ignore the definition and focus on an example of how it is used.

In our example let’s say we are interested in looking at whether there is a link between exposure to asbestos (a fibre commonly used as insulation in old (and not-so-old) buildings) and the development of lung cancer.  In science experiments you start by outlining two scenarios: a ‘null’ hypothesis (remember this simply as the null hypothesis usually means no change) and an ‘alternative’ hypothesis (the alternative hypothesis is the idea or question that you are interested in testing). For our example the null hypothesis is that there is no association between asbestos and lung cancer (no change), and the alternative hypothesis is that there is an association between asbestos and cancer. 

Imagine that in our hypothetical study we found that people exposed to asbestos were two times more likely to develop lung cancer than those people who were not exposed to asbestos. How can we then be sure that this is a real finding (even if other possible contributing factors, or ‘confounders’ such as smoking have been taken into account)? How can we be sure that this result didn’t happen purely by chance? To explain the role of chance, I’ll employ the familiar example of the results of a coin toss. We know that there is a 50:50 chance (or 0.5 probability) that when you toss a coin, the head-side will land face up. In practice however, if you toss a coin ten times, the head-side may land face up, by chance, seven out of ten times, but if you toss a coin 100 times, the number of times the head-side lands face up will come closer to 50 (or half).

Assessing whether a finding is ‘real’ or whether it could occur by chance is where the p-value comes into play. The p-value is the probability of obtaining this finding given that the null hypothesis is true (i.e. there is no association between asbestos exposure and lung cancer). A p-value that is small suggests that the result is unlikely to be due just to chance and this provides some evidence that the null hypothesis is incorrect. Conversely a large p-value indicates that it is likely chance could be playing a role and that there really is no association between asbestos exposure and lung cancer. This may seem black and white: a small p-value equals a real finding; a large p-value indicates equals no real finding. So what is all the fuss about?

The grey zone
There are three main limitations or criticisms of the p-value:
  • It is common practise in medical research to use a cut-off significance level of 0.05. Again using our example, this means that if our hypothetical study described above had p-value of 0.049 the finding would be ‘statistically significant’ and we might conclude that exposure to asbestos is associated with lung cancer. However, if this same study had a p-value of just two points more (0.051) it would then fall into the category of being ‘statistically insignificant’ and we may therefore falsely claim that the evidence does not indicate that exposure to asbestos is linked to lung cancer.
  • The p-value depends on sample size. In our example let us assume that exposure to asbestos is linked to lung cancer (current evidence suggests that this very much is the case); if we did an experiment to test this and used only a small number of people (small sample size), the p-value may be larger than 0.05. This means that even though the alternative hypothesis is true, due to the small sample size the p-value is larger than the cut-off for statistical significance and we may falsely conclude that the null hypothesis is true (that there is no association between exposure to asbestos and the development of lung cancer). If we were then to re-run the same experiment exactly the same again, but this time use a larger number of people the p-value would be smaller, possibly indicating that the results are now significant.
  • Another criticism of the p-value is again related to the cut-off significance level of 0.05. This cut-off means that 5% of the time the p-value will be false. This means that in up to 1/20 tests a p-value could indicate a result is statistically significant even if it’s not.
Why use it at all?
The p-value along with other statistical tests (such as confidence intervals – more about those later) can be a useful tool to help researchers and others interpret research results. Medical research plays an important role in health policies, doctor advice or practices and general public health advice. Before research is translated into policy or practice changes, it is important to understand if a study result might be due to chance or if it could be a real finding. It is also important to keep in mind the limitations of the p-value and to assess these in terms of the study design. 

Post wrap-up
I drafted this post during attendance at a weekly writing group. When I briefly outlined what the post was about two of my fellow writing group members immediately pointed my attention to an amusingly but aptly named article on the p-value and its limitations. For those who are interested in reading more, the article is called ‘The Earth is Round (p<.05) and is by Jacob Cohen (PDF).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Welcome to undressing science.  

We're bringing sexy back (Timberlake- please don't sue).  We are about to have science give you a long, fulfilling strip tease.  No it won’t be like the quick and easy flash that most mass media gives you.  This is going to be slow and methodical and not just skin-deep.  Most importantly this is going to be an honest and accurate undressing.  

Like my co-blogger AFour I will be using a pseudonym (Fenix) in order to maintain relative anonymity.  However unlike AFour  I will be revealing my address, credit card details and phone number (ladies…) thus giving you a good reason to keep visiting the site.  But for now you’ll have to settle for a few of my other more basic details.

I am a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.  My research is focused upon the design and reform of international environmental institutions.  However my interests range far and wide from political philosophies and international relations through to the realm of nutrition (particularly intermittent fasting).  Perhaps the most interesting and frustrating issue in regards to my research interests is the serious amount of disinformation and misunderstandings that are all too common in public perception.  Just take a look at the media and climate change for a case in point.  

Consequently, I am passionate about communicating research to others, and more importantly showing them how to critically assess research and its (often manipulated) portrayal in the media.   The majority of this will be through research reviews (coming soon will be a review of the connections between climate change and obesity- say what?).  Why put the time and effort into these reviews?  Because as a democracy in modern times it is every citizens responsibility to understand the latest developments in policy and research.  Critical thinking is really just learning to be an informed citizen.  And because science really is sexy, once you get to know it…

As you can probably tell already I am overly reliant upon sexual innuendo- get used to it and stay tuned...