Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Hammer And The Screw

The recent meeting of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen appears to have been something of a disappointment. We might ask if we could have expected much more from the meeting. It was billed as our last best hope of addressing climate change before we reach a point at which we are locked into global temperatures rising to a point where we have really ruined our own habitat. This is likely to prove in time to be hyperbola – climate change and global warming are incremental issues that aren’t really given to deadlines. However, the meeting has demonstrated how far we need to go in order to reach a common agreement to tackle global warming and climate change.

As part of our recent project that looked at the issue of creating a sustainable future (see below for link to the final report), we specifically reviewed the possibility of reaching an international agreement to address climate change. Climate change is one of a number of key problems that are arising in the world where the traditional methods of solving them – a framework of international agreements - are unlikely to work. Those problems include, obviously, global warming and climate change, but also include issues such as the regulation of global trade, the globalisation of crime, the relief of global poverty, and global security. It is instructive to consider what attributes these issues have, that makes it difficult for the present arrangements to solve them.

Perhaps the issue of global security might be instructive. The infrastructure of globalisation (the Internet, global communications, the ease of global travel) have assisted the development of non-national agents of insecurity. These agents might be labelled as ‘terrorist’ (e.g. Al Qaeda) or they might be organised trans-national criminal gangs (the global networks of people smugglers spring to mind here). Either way, they present a problem that no single nation can solve on its own. Indeed, they present a problem that groups of nations in concert cannot solve. In order to resolve the problems of global security, national agents have to globalise in order to resolve them.

When national agents globalise, they pool part of their national sovereignty in return for a greater benefit. This is a process of moving from modernity to post-modernity. The architecture of modernity is the international agreement, where a group of nations commonly agree a course of action that is to their mutual benefit. The problem with this is that there is a large incentive to cheat upon the agreement if the benefits are shared by all, but the costs are borne individually. The architecture of post-modernity is something different. In this case, the parties to the agreement pool their sovereignty and commonly meet the costs of the agreement – which are detached from the potential benefits received - in order to share the benefits which are received jointly (end equally) by all.

This model explains why it has been so difficult to reach a common agreement on global trade and why the Doha Round of trade talks is likely to be stuck for some time to come. The benefits of general tariff reductions are enjoyed by all. However, in order to achieve those tariff reductions, some nations will have to sacrifice part of their key interests in reaching that agreement. This is a price that those nations are not willing to pay. And yet the EU has managed to achieve a general tariff reduction between member states. It has done so by embracing the architecture of post-modernity, where the nation states pool their sovereignty to achieve a result that is better than they could have achieved on their own.

When we apply this model to the issues of global warming and climate change, three conclusions become immediately apparent. First, the UN is using the modern architecture of the international agreement to approach the problem. Second, this is the wrong tool for the job because global warming and climate change are post-modern problems. And third, it is not surprising that those nations which are proving to be the most obstructive to the process are those which are highly nationalistic actors in the international arena (nationalism being a trait much associated with modernity).

It is no surprise that three of the most nationalistic actors – the United States (“we don’t want to pay for it!”), China (“we don’t want any limits placed upon us!”), and India (“surrendering our sovereignty is a form of neo-colonialism!”) – along with South Africa have reached an accord on carbon emissions. The rest of the world ought not to be perturbed by this because the accord is unlikely to survive the first speed bump. Like all vestiges of modernity, it is not built to last. A lasting solution would realise that national sovereignty is incompatible with finding a solution to the post-modern problems of global warming and climate change. A more lasting solution would need a post-modern agreement. To try to do otherwise is to use the wrong tool for the job, which is what happened in Copenhagen.

In Copenhagen world leaders failed by trying to use a hammer to fix some screws.


Creating A Sustainable Future:

© The European Futures Observatory 2009

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