The inevitability of international climate change politics

Happy New Year to you all! In between all the various merry making this is something I pondered over the holiday period.

If you frame your starting point appropriately, almost anything can look inevitable, I suppose. Certainly, given the powerful and enduring head-in-the-sand strands of parochialism and “I’m alright, Jack” in American politics, it is perhaps no great surprise that the US has not been a constructive player in UNFCCC negotiations. Even less surprising is the naked self interest of states sitting on major reserves of fossil fuels such as Saudi Arabia, Australia (previously) and Canada (more recently). But in the really big picture these are details, accidents almost, of history and geography. However, that the confrontation between the developed West and emerging powers such as China and India should play out also in climate change politics recently struck me, in a rather Fukuyama-ish and Jared Diamond kind of way, as almost a pre-ordained outcome of the great historical forces and economic interplays.

I am talking about one of the big sticking points in the diplomatic negotiations; that whilst China may now be the number one greenhouse gas emitter in the world, with India not that far behind, the West is responsible for a much greater historical contribution, and that is what is primarily driving climate change today. More to the point, according to India and China, the West got rich off all these carbon emissions, so the West should be the first ones to front up with some cash, call them carbon reparations if you will, to put it all right.* Then, just maybe, once we’ve shown our virtuous sides, the Indians and Chinese will consider coming to the party. It is a powerful argument rooted in social justice, of the sort that evinces pangs of guilt from angst-ridden Europeans, but goes down just marvellously with all those rich and powerful conservatives in the good ol’ US of A. Comparatively ill-informed I might be, but I could detect little optimism coming out of Durban that this was still anything other than a deal-breaker.

My insight, such as it was, is simply that from what we know of the science of climate change, and the broad brushstrokes of history, the diffusion of technology and modes of economic production, that whoever first made the breakthrough into the industrial age, whether they were British, Botswanan or Burmese, that such a clash would be inevitable. The first couple of centuries of carbon emissions were never going to be enough to move the climate dial much, and certainly not in a way that could have been detected with the science we had at the time. Thus it is, with all the inevitability of a great global version of a Greek tragedy, that the spectre of climate change should be raised just as historically less developed countries are on a big drive to industrialise as rapidly as possible, and thus ill-disposed to make further sacrifices (as they see it, after centuries of economic exploitation) to the decadent rich, who just happened, however unintentionally, to have fouled up the world.

Mike Shanahan from Under the Banyan, recently mused on the deep religious underpinnings to many people’s reactions to climate change. Which got me to further thinking, is climate change not the perfect fin de siècle apocalypse for our age? The grandest forces set in motion millennia ago by whichever deity or deities in which you believe, now come together to trigger a great dénouement?

This being the case, it would be easy to take a pessimistic point of view, that we’re all doomed, but, romantic that I am, I prefer the heroic vision; of the great crisis of our time and destiny calling for humankind. For if this always was inevitable, then it is almost in some ways comforting that we have now come to this great crossroads, and have an opportunity to choose. As both a hopeless romantic and an optimist I believe that eventually we will choose the right way … I just hope not before it is too late to save much that is good in this world. (Corny, I know, but it was the season for corniness.)


* p.s. There is a potentially important counter-argument to this that I have little heard. It follows the exponential nature of growth. Of all the people who were born since the start of the industrial revolution, some one third are alive today (based on data from here), and a big chunk of them are Chinese or Indian, so it is possible that, very rapidly, that historical inequality in carbon emissions could disappear. Has anyone ever calculated, based on current expectations and models of economic growth, when is the break even point? At what point will we find that the old rich, the OECD, will not have emitted the majority of greenhouse gases? I’d wager it is probably not that many years away. Then conservative politicians in the West will not have to resort to those insidious and frankly amoral self-justifications which are little more than thinly disguised versions of the “It’s your fault that you’re poor” line of argument.

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