October 23, 2007EconomyForeign AffairsPublic Policy

The tragedy of climate change geopolitics

Why we can’t expect meaningful international co-operation on tacking climate change

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Those who think that the world has begun to address the problem of climate change point to how it has risen to the top of the global agenda, and how there are technological and policy solutions to mitigate or adapt to global warming. The Nobel Peace Prize, that great barometer of geopolitical fashion trends, has passed this year’s verdict: the Nobel committee has joined the American Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognising Al Gore’s contributions. Now that most people know how big a danger global warming is to almost all of us, won’t the countries of the world join together and tackle this threat to humanity?

Not necessarily. There are plenty of global problems which are both on top of the international agenda and which have available solutions. Global poverty? There’s free trade. Human rights? There’s democracy. Nuclear war? There’s universal disarmament. And now climate change? Well, reduce or roll back greenhouse gas emissions. Geopolitics as we know it, it turns out, is not very good at choosing the right solutions. So we have tariffs and subsidies, our” bad dictators and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). We’ll probably have something equally bad for climate change—like, perhaps, the World Bank prescribing environment policies for developing nations.

The world has never been good at solving collective action problems. What makes it especially bad for climate change is that it requires unprecedented international co-operation at a time of geopolitical flux. International institutions—from the United Nations, to the Bretton Woods institutions and the G-8 do not reflect the current and emerging distribution of geopolitical power. Being left out of the club makes the emerging powers distrustful of the legacy powers. Legacy powers, for their part, know that cooperation involves not only allocating losses of power (does the European Union need two seats on the UN Security Council, and a right to appoint the IMF chief). But also, it involves allocating losses of income (in the form of climate change mitigation/adaptation policies). All this makes international co-operation extremely unlikely.

As a case in point, instead of cooperating to make the international market for energy more competitive, foreign policies of the major powers do the opposite: corner oil and gas concessions and by building pipelines. The result is a lose-lose and tragedy for both energy security and the global environment.

So is it all doom and gloom? The immediate ray of hope is unilateral domestic action: states may be compelled to adopt sustainable environmental policies driven by a largely domestic cost-benefit analysis. Like how New Delhi managed to reduce its smog problem. Like China (probably) beginning to realise that its economic growth is likely to be undermined by environmental degradation. But will moving at own time, own target” suffice? It’s hard to say. But the answer is no, if you were to ask Al Gore. The other ray of hope is that the world will achieve multipolar stability fast enough, and that the need to tackle climate change will hasten this outcome.

These are long shots. In the meantime you can expect How will you solve the problem of global warming?” to crop up at the next Miss Universe contest, replacing How will you bring about world peace?”. It’s tragic, really.

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