May 13, 2010
Part II: Climate Realpolitik and the End of Postcolonialism
How could tiny Tuvalu monkey-wrench global climate talks? By operating in a highly undemocratic institution, one that has re-created the most dysfunctional and outmoded aspects of the United Nations General Assembly. When climate change emerged as an issue in the late 1980s, greens logically looked to an institution equally disconnected from national political economies, which they viewed as part of the problem. But lacking any ability to alter energy trajectories, the UNFCCC became an agency with the effectiveness of UNESCO. The rise of Climate Realpolitik -- confronting global warming in more appropriate institutions under a more appropriate framework -- gives hope that, one day soon, climate policy will be treated as a question of technology and economics, not religious mania, nostalgia, and ideological posturing.
If you were looking for a fitting illustration of why the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was doomed to fail you could have hardly asked for a better demonstration than the show put on by Tuvalu in Copenhagen last week.
For two days the tiny island nation of 12,000 successfully halted negotiations and demanded atmospheric carbon levels be kept to lower levels (350 parts per million) than what the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended (450 ppm).
"Tuvalu raises the bar," screamed the leading liberal climate blog, ClimateProgress.org. "Tuvalu Roars," said another. "The big takeaway from the day: it's clear that there are some countries here that will not be afraid to walk away from these talks," wrote Ben Jervey
of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) at the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) OnEarth blog. Tuvalu wants 350 ppm and "they're not going to accept anything less," Jervey warned observed. (Correction: Jervey notes in the comments below that he did not actually endorse the Tuvalu resolution in his post)
It is hard to say what is more amazing, that Tuvalu -- a former British colonial possession whose economy is virtually entirely dependent upon foreign aid and whose constitutional monarch, the Queen of Tuvalu, is better known to the rest of us as Queen Elizabeth II -- could single-handedly disrupt global climate change treaty negotiations, that prominent greens could keep a straight face while hailing Tuvalu's parliamentary monkey-wrenching as an act of great political courage, or that conservatives could possibly fear that such a farce could ever conceivably result in one world global government.
That Tuvalu has the same power as China to shape global climate negotiations is a pretty good sign that whatever else happens in Copenhagen, the UNFCCC is unlikely to have much impact on the future of climate.
Two nations, the U.S. and China, create over 40 percent of the world's emissions. Twenty nations collectively comprise over 80 percent of total global carbon emissions, 85 percent of global GDP, 80 percentage of world trade, and two-thirds of world population. Whatever progress we may make toward addressing climate change will be determined by these very few nations, representing the vast majority of humanity, not the cacophony of voices at the UNFCCC representing virtually no one.
And yet, animated by a lofty, early-20th Century idealism, the United Nations General Assembly -- which is effectively what the UNFCCC has recreated to negotiate a global climate treaty -- remains for many liberals in the West a powerful symbol of humankind's shared global destiny. In reality, the General Assembly has become a kind of lobbying association for development, not a place of significant weight. Great questions of war and peace are, under the best of circumstances, negotiated by the Security Council, while the shape and trajectory of the global economy are negotiated by the G20, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank.
Climate change was supposed to be different, an environmental problem that transcended national boundaries. Bolstered by the success of the Montreal Protocol in phasing out CFC's globally, the U.N. asserted itself as the primary venue where a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would take shape.
But saving the ozone turned out to be a relatively tame problem compared to global warming. By the time international negotiations reached an agreement to phase out CFC's, cheap alternatives were already readily available and were needed for a relatively small number of uses.
Global warming, by contrast, is, as Steve Rayner and Gwyn Prins noted in their landmark critique of the UNFCCC, "The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy," a "wicked" problem, one that reflects "open, complex and imperfectly understood systems." Global warming is perhaps the largest wicked problem, touching virtually every sector of the global economy through energy consumption, agriculture, and forestry.
Given this reality, any functional framework to address global carbon emissions must revolve fundamentally around basic questions of political economy in a way that a CFC phase-out does not. Unfortunately, the United Nations, in its very makeup, is profoundly ill-suited to address such questions.
While policy makers in major economies continue to give lip service to the UNFCCC process, the real action has already moved elsewhere: to the G20, the Major Economies Forum for Energy and Climate, the Asia-Pacific Clean Development and Climate Fund, and perhaps the World Trade Organization in the long-term.
This does not mean that the UNFCCC will disappear. Every year Tuvalu will continue to roar and affluent developed economies will likely tithe some small portion of their wealth to help poor nations adapt to climate change under the auspices of the UNFCCC. In this capacity, the UNFCCC will end up looking a lot less like a new global regulator of emissions and a lot more like UNESCO.
Stuck in a Post-Colonial Past
Created in the years after World War II as the embodiment of self-determination and global democracy, the U.N. has always attempted to serve dual and often conflicting roles. The U.N. both attempts to resolve conflicts between nation-states while at the same time representing the universal interests of humankind. These conflicts proliferated in the years after the U.N.'s founding when decolonization and expressions of ethnic self-determination resulted in a near quadrupling of member nations over the last six decades.
The massive expansion of U.N. membership did not lead to a more representative or democratic institution. Quite the opposite. Only in a highly undemocratic institution could 12,000 people (Tuvalu) be given equal weight as 1.3 billion (China). Liberals who complain that the Senate is undemocratic for granting small states like Wyoming (pop.: 533,000) the same representation as big states like California (pop.: 37 million) are, bluntly put, hypocrites when they valorize Tuvalu over China (or the U.S., for that matter).
To be clear, the problem at the U.N. is not a reflection of the impossibility of transnational action to address global objectives. Other post-war transnational institutions -- the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the G20, the U.N. Security Council -- have profoundly shaped present day global relations and the global economy. Indeed, the U.N. General Assembly is arguably the least effective of the international institutions created in the wake of World War II due in no small part to the presumption that nation-states, no matter how small or virtual, have intrinsic value and power and as such should be afforded an equal voice in shaping our global future.
The result has been the worst of all possible worlds. In the name of transcending the nation-state in service of our common humanity, the UN has in fact legitimated the proliferation of nation states and elevated the voices of the few and the marginal above the interests of the global majority.
Detached from the basic dynamics of the global political economy, the General Assembly devolved into a kind of ideological screen, one upon which an endless loop of charged ideological battles - cold war-era posturing, endless condemnations of Zionism, colonialism and post-colonial protest - could be projected with no discernible effect on the lives of most people.
What better forum, then, to have endless, ideologically charged debates about climate change divorced from the actual reality of economic development than the UNFCCC?
But of course, the real world goes on. Global emissions rise. China and India develop along similar trajectories as the West. Environment ministers talk sustainability while energy and economy ministers jockey to secure the world's oil, coal, and gas reserves. And western publics affirm their concern for the environment, increasingly ostentatiously, all while enjoying the fruits of their fossil-powered wealth.
The UNFCCC offers a simulacrum for debates over highly abstracted issues like intergenerational equity, the debt that rich owe the poor, and whether we must return to pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon - all in a perfect disconnection from the actual trajectory of energy and emissions.
Islands in a Post-American World
Like the General Assembly, the UNFCCC is an artifact of mid-century post-colonial political correctness. The rise of non-aligned nations in the 1950's and the creation in the sixties of the Group of 77 (G-77), a coalition created to assert the interests of developing nations, set a template that has defined U.N. deliberation in the decades since.
Over 40 odd years the G-77 would grow to comprise 130 nations including tiny Maldives at one extreme and massive emerging economies like China and India on the other, all lumped together as "the developing world." They would form a bloc of nations defined by a shared presumption of poverty and victimization at the hands of European colonizers or American imperialists.
Alas, the distinctions no longer make any sense. China, India, and Brazil are global powers. China will soon be the largest economy in the world, a phenomenon Fareed Zakaria calls the "post-American" world, not because the U.S. is in decline - it may or may not be -- but rather because of the "rise of the rest."
To be sure, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies are still much poorer per capita, but they are all also booming. They are economic powers in ways that they simply were not fifty, thirty, and even just 10 years ago. They can no longer be treated as recently released wards of their former colonizers. China, for example, demands status as a "developing" nation even though it is the single greatest economic competitor to the U.S., Europe, and Japan. It is the single largest holder of U.S. Treasury debt (about $800 billion). It is driving global development and may soon drive security and energy.
The UNFCCC charter assumes that "developed nations" like the United States will transfer wealth and technology to "developing" nations like China. But China has won the clean energy race and the U.S., under Obama, seems uninterested in challenging it beyond its rhetoric. And so, if there is technology transfer, as the U.N. calls for, it will be from China to the U.S., not the other way around.
Meanwhile, China is the world's largest polluter. Yet the UNFCCC charter enshrines the principle that the burden of reducing emissions fall entirely upon "developed" economies like the U.S.
Even putting aside the basic emissions math, Western developed economies are not, in a million years, going to underwrite the development of their primary economic competitor. Nor will they adopt pollution regulations that further disadvantage their already struggling industrial economies.
Nonetheless, in the name of moving beyond colonialism and imperialism, the UNFCCC continues to reify these very colonial era categories. There is clearly an urgent need for a substantial increase in development aid for the global poor, but in the context of the UNFCCC, the whole endeavor has the feel of a post-colonial shakedown. Developing nations, large and small alike, demand deep emissions cuts from developed economies. Rising nations like China avoid binding emissions reductions and keep emissions reduction obligations firmly targeted on competitors in the West. For poor, aid dependent nations like Tuvalu, the point is to threaten emissions reduction negotiations in order to extract more aid. For both, the idea that any of it has anything to do with reducing emissions or saving the planet is a barely disguised conceit.
From Pilgrimage to Funeral Procession
Unable to change real world emissions or warming, Copenhagen has become a religious event -- a pilgrimage run by environment "ministers" complete with Jeremiads by national leaders, rituals by 46,000 jet-setting greens, journalists and others paying their respect to a dead faith in a frozen landscape.
Appropriately enough, greens went to church at Copenhagen's Lutheran Cathedral. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, offered an ostensibly optimistic view: "We are not doomed to carry on in a downward spiral of the greedy, addictive, loveless behaviour that has helped to bring us to this point," he said. A psalm was read by Desmond Tutu. Bill McKibben blogged, "I sobbed for an hour."
The pilgrimage had become a funeral procession. But those inside the climate simulacrum know not for what they cry. They imagine that it's for a dying planet -- "small, shriveled ears of corn from drought-stricken parts of Africa," Bill McKibben wrote -- or poor nations under threat, like Tuvalu.
In fact, they mourn the death of a thousand millenarian fantasies: that global warming would bring us together to fundamentally change our way of life; that the meek and marginal -- the Tuvalus and Burkina Fasos of the world -- might inherit the earth; that the interests of Nature -- transcendent and everlasting -- might prevail over the greedy, addictive, and loveless schemes of a teeming and conniving humanity; and that ever-pure Science, and "the laws of physics and chemistry," hard and unbending, as McKibben so often reminds us, might triumph over the forces of ignorance, indulgence, and irrationality of the global multitudes.
It should come as no surprise that a green ideology that denies the political and economic conditions that make ecological consciousness possible -- and that imagines that climate models and drowning polar bears could alter the development path of billions of people -- would gravitate towards an institution and process that are profoundly undemocratic and completely unmoored from basic political and economic realities of the planet.
Once the smoke clears and the tears are wiped away, what remains is a motley collection of dead religions, failed states, and post-colonial protectorates offering resolutions and psalms to a world that pretends to listen politely while hurrying on along its way -- a more fitting epitaph for the UNFCCC could hardly be written.
The Rise of Climate Realpolitik
The death of the UNFCCC heralds the end of the delusion that nation-states will radically alter their energy, forestry, and agricultural paths through pollution regulations and a massive and extremely complicated global carbon market managed by Wall Street firms. It will mark the end of the belief that serious action on climate is better negotiated with representatives from 193 U.N. member nations in the room, rather than bilaterally or between a handful of large economies, which generate the bulk of emissions.
It should also land a death-blow to the dark fantasy that we'll solve global warming by restricting economic growth. Climate change is not, as anti-growth green activists like the Archbishop of Canterbury would have it, the result of "greedy, addictive, loveless behaviour."
It is none of the above. Global warming is a consequence of humans altering the earth through agriculture and burning fossil fuels to create a decent standard of living for all people. Indeed, raising every human on earth to the standard of living enjoyed by men like the Archbishop should be seen as a profound act of love. In ascribing dark motives to development, greens have created the perception that dealing with climate change requires downscaling our way of life, rather than new technologies to power it.
A more appropriate forum will allow major economies to more easily advance their collective self-interest through real actions, such as energy and agricultural technology development, rather than United Nations-certified acts of altruism, such as more development aid or purchasing fake emissions reductions in the form of offets. Climate realpolitik must function in a larger context of trade and technology innovation, both of which have historically created win-win opportunities between nations.
The rise of climate realpolitik will divide the green movement between those who are serious about pursuing economic win-wins in a world where fossil fuels are cheap and low-carbon power is expensive, and those who would rather preach the end of the world and moralize against economic growth.
Climate realpolitik will divide the conservative movement between those who oppose any state action to decarbonize economies and those who support strategic state investments in energy technologies as long as they are done to advance the national interest in terms of economic welfare and national security.
If we're lucky, the historians of the future will look back at Copenhagen as the beginning of the secularization of climate policy, a time when the religiosity, pomposity, and mania of efforts to reduce emissions were asked to take a back seat by serious nations who had left the simulacrum to do the hard and vital work of shaping a new, real world.
In case you missed it, read Part One: "Contrivance in Copenhagen" here.