The Failure of Copenhagen: A Neo-Liberal Institutionalist Perspective

Brad R. King


Climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing the world today, an issue that requires a global solution. It is for this reason that a UN Conference on Climate Change (COP 15) was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, with the objective of producing a legally binding international climate change agreement. The purpose of this paper is to determine the extent to which the theoretical perspective referred to as neo-liberal institutionalism, explains the failure of the Copenhagen Summit—as it is commonly known—to produce a binding international agreement. This paper argues that, within the neo-liberal institutionalist framework, it is quite possible to provide a compelling explanation regarding the failure of Copenhagen. This, it is argued, is due to the fact that two ‘situational dimensions’ identified by the proponents of this theoretical perspective, as ‘affecting the propensity of actors to cooperate’—the payoff structure and the length of the shadow of the future —provide useful tools for determining why cooperation broke down at the conference; and, thus, why a binding agreement was not produced.


Copenhagen Summit; COP 15; UN Conference on Climate Change

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