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Epistemic Institutions and Epistemic Cooperation in International Environmental Governance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Timothy Meyer*
University of Georgia School of Law, Athens, GA, United States (US). Email:


Under what conditions should epistemic institutions (institutions that provide policy-relevant scientific advice) be integrated into international legal institutions – for example, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change? Following work in law and economics on the theory of the firm, this article argues that where states will not implement environmental policies absent a collective decision to do so, greater hierarchical control of epistemic institutions by legal institutions may be necessary to ensure the credibility and availability of a usable scientific record. Hierarchy creates credibility because it allows all states necessary for cooperation in the legal institution to oversee the production of the scientific record that provides the basis for international legal rules. Hierarchy thus enhances the effectiveness of international law as a coordination tool, even at the expense of the autonomy of the scientific process. By contrast, where collective action is not necessary because states will unilaterally regulate an environmental problem once scientific uncertainty has been reduced, epistemic and legal institutions should be fragmented to ensure the unbiased production and dissemination of scientific information. In such situations, the credibility of the scientific record is demonstrated by decentralized adoption of science-based regulation.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013

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1 Wittgenstein, L., On Certainty (Oxford University Press, 1969).

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2 My use of the term ‘institution’ is not meant to convey any particular kind of organizational form, such as an independent institution. Rather, my definition is functional. An epistemic institution is a body that collects, formats, directs, or applies basic scientific research to legal or policy problems.

3 Ayal, A., Hareuveny, R. & Perez, O., ‘Science, Politics and Transnational Regulation: Regulatory Scientific Institutions and the Dilemmas of Hybrid Authority’ (2013) 2(1) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 4568.

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4 New York, NY (US), 9 May 1992, in force 21 Mar. 1994, available at:

5 Although in this article I focus primarily on scientific and technical research, the framework I propose could be applied to other kinds of expert body, such as the International Law Commission (ILC), that provide advice to lawmaking authorities.

6 See Ayal, Hareuveny & Perez, n. 3 above.

7 See Williamson, O.E., The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (Collier Macmillan, 1985).

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8 This is not to say, of course, that states always sincerely wish to resolve uncertainty or that states do not behave opportunistically. In some situations, states’ incentives may not depend at all on the resolution of uncertainty. But, as discussed in Section 3 below, institutional form can be used to mitigate the possibilities for opportunism with the aim of coordinating environmental policies to the mutual advantage of states.

9 See Ayal, Hareuveny & Perez, n. 3 above.

10 Underdal, A., ‘Science and Politics: The Anatomy of an Uneasy Partnership’, in Skodvin, T., Underdal, A. & Wettestad, J. (eds.), Science and Politics in International Environmental Regimes (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 121.

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11 T. Skodvin & A. Underdal, ‘Exploring the Dynamics of the Science-Politics Interaction’, in Skodvin, Underdal & Wettestad, ibid., pp. 22–34; Haas, P.M. & Stevens, C., ‘Organized Science, Usable Knowledge, and Environmental Governance’, in Lidskog, R. & Sundqvist, G. (eds.), Governing the Air: The Dynamics of Science, Politics, and Citizen Interaction (The MIT Press, 2011), pp. 125–61.

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12 E.g., Burke-White, W., ‘International Legal Pluralism’ (2004) 25(4) Michigan Journal of International Law, pp. 963–79; Krisch, N., ‘Pluralism in Postnational Risk Regulation: The Dispute over GMOs and Trade’ (2010) 1(1) Transnational Legal Theory, pp. 129; Benvenisti, E. & Downs, G.W., ‘The Empire’s New Clothes: Political Economy and the Fragmentation of International Law’ (2007) 60(2) Stanford Law Review, pp. 595632; Helfer, L., ‘Regime Shifting: The TRIPs Agreement and the New Dynamics of International Intellectual Property Lawmaking’ (2004) 29(1) Yale Journal of International Law, pp. 183.

13 See Williamson, n. 7 above, at pp. 29–32.

14 E.g., ‘regulatory science’, in Selin, H. & Eckley, N., ‘Science, Politics, and Persistent Organic Pollutants: The Role of Scientific Assessments in International Environmental Co-operation’ (2003) 3(1) International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, pp. 1742, at 21; and ‘usable knowledge’, in Haas & Stevens, n. 11 above, at p. 128.

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15 Haas & Stevens, ibid.

16 Ibid., at p. 129; Selin & Eckley, n. 14 above, at p. 19.

17 Haas, P.M., ‘Introduction: Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination,’ (2013) 46(1) International Organization, pp. 135, at 3.

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18 Jegende, A.S., ‘What Led to the Nigerian Boycott of the Polio Vaccination Campaign?’ (2007) 4(3) PLOS Medicine, pp. 417–22.

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19 International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ‘Biennial Report of the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics for the Period 2010–2011’ (2011), Part 5, at p.2, available at:

20 Stockholm (Sweden), 22 May 2001, in force 17 May 2004, available at:

21 Rotterdam (The Netherlands), 11 Sept. 1998, in force 24 Feb. 2004, available at:

22 Punta del Este (Uruguay), 15 Apr. 1994, available at:

23 See Report of the Secretary General on the Ad Hoc Inter-Agency Task Force on Tobacco Control, UN Doc. E/2012/70, 9 May 2012, para. 16, available at:; see also Arts. 9 and 10 FCTC.

24 See Section 4 below.

25 ILC, Fragmentation of International Law: Difficulties Arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law, UN Doc. A/CN.4/L.702, 18 July 2006 (Report of the Study Group) (ILC Report), para 6, available at:

26 Montreal (Canada), 16 Sept. 1987, in force 1 Jan. 1989, available at:

27 Hunter, D., Salzman, J. & Zaelke, D., International Environmental Law & Policy (Foundation Press, 2011), at p. 582.

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28 E.g., Krisch, N., Beyond Constitutionalism (Oxford University Press, 2010); Young, M. (ed.), Regime Interaction in International Law: Facing Fragmentation (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Benvenisti & Downs, n. 12 above; Cohen, H., ‘Finding International Law, Part II: Our Fragmenting Legal Community’ (2012) 44(4) New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, pp. 1050–107.

29 See Berman, P.S., Global Legal Pluralism (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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30 ILC Report, n. 25 above.

31 Vertical fragmentation, as I use the term here, is related to but differs from the concept of multilevel governance. Studies of multilevel governance usually focus on the fragmentation of lawmaking authority among different institutions (e.g., federal and state institutions or national and international institutions): e.g., Krisch, n. 28 above; Petersmann, E.U., ‘International Economic Law, Public Reason, and Multilevel Governance of Interdependent Public Goods’ (2011) 14(1) Journal of International Economic Law, pp. 2376. Although clearly possessing a vertical dimension, the issues raised by multilevel governance are thus more akin to the issues raised by what I refer to as the horizontal fragmentation of international law. By contrast, I focus on the fragmentation of the stages in the lawmaking process, and specifically the decision to separate or integrate the fact-finding process and the lawmaking process at a single level of governance, the international level.

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32 A notable exception is the UN Security Council, which has the authority to punish threats to international peace and security.

33 Again, there is variation in this kind of vertical fragmentation. Some institutions create their own tribunals, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Montego Bay (Jamaica), 10 Dec. 1982, in force 16 Nov. 1994, 1833 UNTS 3, available at:

34 See Benvenisti & Downs, n. 12 above.

35 See, e.g., Haas & Stevens, n. 11 above.

36 S. Andresen, ‘The Whaling Regime’, in Skodvin, Underdal & Wettestad, n. 10 above, pp. 37–69, at 45.

37 Underdal, n. 10 above, at p. 5.

38 Ibid., at p. 11.

39 Ibid. (noting that the question of whether autonomy for scientific bodies is compatible with responsiveness to political processes is ‘a complex one, and calls for a somewhat different kind of analysis than we can offer here’).

40 Gilligan, M., ‘The Transactions Costs Approach to Understanding International Institutions’, in Milner, H.V. & Moravcsik, A. (eds.), Power, Interdependence and Non-State Actors in World Politics: Research Frontiers (Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 5065.

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41 Bodansky, D., ‘A Tale of Two Architectures: The Once and Future U.N. Climate Change Regime’ (2011) 43(3) Arizona State Law Journal, pp. 697712.

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42 There are, of course, many possibilities in between, such as long-term contracts.

43 See, e.g., Underdal, n. 10 above.

44 Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), 14 May 1966, in force 21 Mar. 1969, available at:

45 ICCAT, Art. VIII(1)(a) (emphasis added).

46 Montreal (Canada), 29 Jan. 2000, in force 11 Sept. 2003, available at:

47 ICCAT Standing Committee on Research and Statistics, available at:

48 Constitution of the World Health Organization (Oct. 2006), Art. 2, available at:

49 The value of the information would also vary with other factors, including, e.g., how widely available similar information is.

50 Williamson, n. 7 above, at p. 78.

51 More precisely, asset specificity is low when the investments made to support a particular transaction – that is, the investments in producing the asset for which the parties are transacting – can be redeployed relatively easily to another equally valuable use: ibid., at pp. 54–5.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid., at p. 78.

54 Ibid., at p. 91.

55 Technically, the asset and the investments supporting its production can be deployed to another equally valuable use.

56 These two forms represent extremes. There are, of course, many hybrid forms of organization that combine different features of market transactions and institutionalized transactions: Williamson, n. 7 above, at pp. 131–62. The same is true of epistemic institutions, in which independence can be thought of as a continuum. A relationship’s place on the continuum is a function of a number of different features of institutional arrangements, including legal control (the ability to direct a subordinate to take a particular action); personnel control (the ability to choose another entity’s managers and staff); and budgetary control.

57 Ibid.

58 Ibid.

59 Ibid.

60 See Morrow, J.D., ‘Modeling the Forms of International Cooperation: Distribution versus Information’ (1994) 49 International Organization, pp. 387423.

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61 Barrett, S., Environment and Statecraft: The Strategy of Environmental Treaty-making (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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62 Guzman, A. T., How International Law Works (Oxford University Press, 2008), at p. 33.

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63 This is not to deny that scientifically usable information affects decisions made by states in situations in which collective action is necessary for regulation. For example, information produced by an epistemic institution may change states’ views about the desirability of regulation, spurring them to create an international legal institution. Notice, though, that even the act of creating a legal institution is a form of collective action. The specific value of usable scientific information flows from the fact that, in order to affect regulation, the information must be tailored to the rules and dynamics of a specific, collective decision-making process, even if part of that process involves institutionalizing the decision-making process at the international level.

64 See Linos, K., Benchmarks from Abroad: Selling Voters on Health and Family Reform (Cambridge University Press, 2013), at pp. 75–7.

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65 See Morrow, n. 60 above.

66 Andresen, n. 36 above, at pp. 42–4.

67 Ibid.

68 Geneva (Switzerland), 13 Nov. 1979, in force 16 Mar. 1983, available at:

69 Selin & Eckley, n. 14 above, at p. 25.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 Paris (France), 4 June 1974, in force 6 May 1978, available at:

74 Paris (France), 22 Sept. 1992, in force 25 Mar. 1998, available at: The OSPAR Convention unified the Paris Convention and the Oslo Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft (Oslo Convention), Oslo (Norway), 15 Feb. 1972, in force 7 Apr. 1974 (available at: into a single convention governing efforts to control marine pollution in the North-East Atlantic.

75 J. Wettestad, ‘Dealing with Land-Based Marine Pollution in the North-East Atlantic: The Paris Convention and the North Sea Conferences’, in Skodvin, Underdal & Wettestad , n. 10 above, at pp. 70–94.

76 Ibid., at p. 82.

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid., at p. 72.

79 SPS Agreement, n. 22 above, Art. 3.1.

80 Wettestad, n. 75 above, at p. 91.

81 Selin & Eckley, n. 14 above, at p. 25.

82 Ibid., at p. 32.

83 Ibid.

84 Andresen, n. 36 above.

85 Ibid., at p. 45.

86 Ibid., at pp. 42–5. Later years have seen an increase in the internal capacity of the Scientific Committee as well as the inclusion of scientists from non-whaling nations, resulting in improved credibility for the work of the Scientific Committee: ibid., at p. 51.

87 Meyer, T., ‘Global Public Goods, Governance Risk, and International Energy’ (2012) 22(3) Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law, pp. 319–48, at 330.

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88 See Ayal, Hareuveny & Perez, n. 3 above, at p. 57. The UNFCCC does not institutionally control the IPCC. Thus, while the strategy of hampering epistemic work is the same, the mechanism used in the IPCC example was not legal control of the epistemic institution.

89 Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), 5 June 1992, in force 29 Dec. 1993, available at:

90 Marrakesh (Morocco), 15 Apr. 1994, in force 1 Jan. 1995, available at:

91 Burleson, E., ‘Energy Policy, Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer to Address Climate Change’ (2009) 18(1) Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, pp. 6994, at p. 70.

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92 See IRENA Working Paper, ‘Renewable Energy Technologies: Cost Analysis Series’, Vol. 1, June 2012, Preface, available at:

93 T. Inajima, ‘Japan Draws Curtain on Nuclear Energy Following Germany’, Bloomberg, 14 Sept. 2012, available at:

94 UNEP, EPO and ICTSD, ‘Patents and Clean Energy: Bridging the Gap between Evidence and Policy’, 2010, at p. 58, available at:

95 Ibid.

96 OECD, Factbook 2011–2012: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics, available at:

97 Ibid.

98 Statute of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA Statute), Art. II, Bonn (Germany), 26 Jan. 2009, available at:

99 Ibid., Art. IV.

100 Other renewable energy initiatives are either nestled within larger organizations, such as the IEA’s renewable energy programmes, or are non-governmental organizations, such as the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP).

101 IRENA Statute, Arts. I and IV (‘The Agency shall analyse, monitor and, without obligations on Members’ policies, systematize current renewable energy practices’).

102 See, e.g., IRENA, ‘Renewable Readiness Assessment for Mozambique’, 2012, available at:

103 IEA/IRENA Global Renewable Energy Policies and Measures Database, available at:

104 Interview with M. Isaka, International Renewable Energy Agency (Mar. 2012) (on file with author).

105 IRENA, ‘Proposed Work Programme and Budget for 2012’, 30 Jan. 2012, at p. 38 (IRENA 2012 Work Programme), available at:

106 Isaka, n. 104 above.

107 Ibid.

108 International Institute for Sustainable Development, ‘Summary of the IRENA Workshop on Renewables – Competitiveness and Innovation’, 6 Oct. 2011, available at:

109 See IRENA 2012 Work Programme, n. 105 above, at p. 37.

110 ‘The Case for an International Renewable Energy Agency’, German Government White Paper, 10–11 Apr. 2008 (The Case for IRENA), available at:

111 T. van de Graaf, ‘How IRENA is Reshaping the Global Energy Architecture’ (2012) European Energy Review, available at:

112 Ibid.

113 The Case for IRENA, n. 110 above, at p. 9.

114 Ibid., at p. 7.

115 See Van de Graaf, n. 111 above, at p. 2.

116 The Case for IRENA, n. 110 above, at p. 10.

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