The future of negotiation and action on limiting climate change seems likely to be characterised by Realist considerations of state interest and power, but with new understandings of state interest (in the West, but also to a lesser extent elsewhere) shaped by international communities of moral pressure. Hopefully, this will lead to a new form of enlightened self-interest in time to save us all from disaster, Valdai Club expert Anatol Lieven writes.
The Valdai report on climate policy in a global risk society highlights a tragic paradox that has also been emphasised by the experience of the Coronavirus pandemic: that of humanity in general facing challenges in a world that is dominated by strong and independent sovereign states. Clearly these are issues that should lead to the creation in response of new international institutions and international co-operation.
Whether this will really happen however is extremely doubtful. At the time of writing, the response to the pandemic has been overwhelmingly by individual states; to some extent necessarily so, since only states could impose lockdowns, close borders and mobilise national health services.
Worse still, the pandemic, which would have been predicted to bring the great powers together, has actually increased hostility between them. This would probably not have happened if it had originated in some neutral country; but the Trump administration’s vicious attempt to divert attention from its own incompetent response by blaming China, and the aggressive (and often mendacious) Chinese response have badly damaged the World Health Organisation, one institution that has always been held up as the greatest United Nations success story.
The point is that the WHO functioned for decades in such an effective and consensual way because no major power had a national interest either in maintaining infectious killer diseases in the world, or in gaining control of the WHO.
This is not a simple contrast between democratic and authoritarian systems: not just authoritarian China, but democratic Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have all performed magnificently, while several authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states around the world have performed poorly. Rather, it is a question on the one hand of state efficiency and willingness to intervene and regulate, and on the other of disciplined populations that are prepared both to accept this kind of state regulation and trust expert advice.
The experience of the USA, Britain, Italy and Spain in the face of the pandemic does not set a good precedent for their future behaviour if faced with state demands for sacrifice in the struggle to limit climate change — and indeed, the rejection of expert advice and state regulation by many Americans in the area of climate change denial was precisely replicated by those same sectors of the US population in denial of the pandemic and rejection of measures to control it. However, in much of Europe, Canada and Australia people have accepted a degree of restriction on their personal behaviour that would have been unthinkable a year ago, and this could provide an important precedent for future willingness to accept restrictions on consumption and movement in the cause of the effort to limit carbon emissions.
The report draws an inspiring picture of the impact of climate diplomacy on the part of international activists like Greta Thunberg and international movements like Greenpeace. The direct impact has however mostly been limited to Western democracies. Thunberg first came to public attention by picketing the Swedish Parliament. Picketing the Chinese parliament, even if it were allowed, would hardly have the same effect — if only because it does not really exist. Yet China is now the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter by far, and its share will grow further in the years to come.
The real problem about climate diplomacy so far is not that it has been carried out by states — in the end, who else could have negotiated international agreements leading to state action? Statements by activists like Thunberg that governments cannot take part in saving the world from climate change are inherently absurd, and the activists do not really believe it themselves when they stop to think. Thunberg picketed the Swedish parliament in order to help persuade Swedish parliamentarians to pressure the Swedish government.
The weapons of international activism are public information moral pressure on political elites, or to put it more bluntly shame; and that is also in essence the role of international bodies like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). No international institution or law however has the power to compel an important state to act, or punish it (other than morally) for not acting. This alas has been demonstrated again and again in the history of the UN over the past 75 years.
Analogies between the potential power of international climate regulatory bodies and the power of international sports bodies are unfortunately largely mistaken. Sports bodies have punitive power because they can deny access to a small number of extremely prestigious and valuable sporting events; and the USA and Russia cannot shoot their way into the Olympics or the World Cup. No international body can deny China access to the world economy, or compel wealthy nations to hand over large sums in climate aid to poorer ones. For such a thing to happen humanity would have to be already suffering from a catastrophic climate crisis.
My sense is that the most important developments in climate diplomacy in the near future will be along different lines: not global but multilateral and often bilateral. And this is no bad thing. The attempt to reach global agreements on reducing emissions has in many ways been a disastrous distraction, allowing blocking action by individual spoilers which are responsible for only tiny proportions of emissions — like Brazil, which last year was only responsible for about one percent of emissions, but which as the report mentioned, played the leading role in frustrating the Madrid negotiations; or the endless blocking role of poorer developing countries with their morally justified but practically hopeless demands for massive financial compensation from the rich.
For the truth is that more than two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for by only six countries (treating the EU as one country); and more than two fifths are accounted for by only two, China and the USA. In other words, an effective agreement between just these two would have far more effect than if all the rest of the world agreed. The key question therefore is whether the Chinese and American governing elites can become convinced that the long-term risk of climate change to their states outweighs the short-term risk of economic loss and political unpopularity.
Negotiations between the USA (with to a lesser extent the EU and India) and China are likely to be characterised by competition, coercion and cooperation in that order. The government team of President-elect Biden has already made clear that it will present action on alternative energy to the American people as an essential feature of economic, technological and geopolitical competition with China — fairly enough, since the Chinese government has long made clear that it regards its own development of alternative energy technology through this geopolitical lens.
Some of its members have also stated that they intend to link new tariffs on Chinese goods to Chinese action or inaction on reducing emissions; if only because they see that this is the only way of making US climate action acceptable to many Americans. Incidentally, by imposing higher prices for consumer goods on the American public, this also introduces (by way of a geopolitical, new cold war back door, so to speak) the principle that Western consumers should pay for the reduction of emissions in producing countries by limiting their own consumption. The EU is very likely to follow suit, and combine this with new tariffs against Indian goods (something that the Biden administration will find it much more difficult to impose given their desire for closer partnership with India. Such sanctions will not compel the Chinese to adopt radically new policies, but they may push them into moving faster with policies that they have already adopted.
The future of negotiation and action on limiting climate change seems likely therefore to be characterised in the main by Realist considerations of state interest and power, but with new understandings of state interest (in the West, but also to a lesser extent elsewhere) shaped by international communities of moral pressure. Hopefully, this will lead to a new form of enlightened self-interest in time to save us all from disaster.