On climate change, the world’s major economies are playing a game of chicken. It’s like a nuclear stand-off, with the difference that if things stay just as they are, catastrophe is guaranteed.
The science could not be clearer on the consequences of inaction. Yet each year at around this time, the world’s diplomats wait for someone else to blink first as they stumble over the same questions — who is most responsible for reducing emissions? Who should pay for efforts to avoid and adapt to climate change? How do we know national commitments will be honored, and what happens if they’re not?
This is not due to failings of diplomacy. Rather, it is the inevitable outcome in a situation where countries engage like vying businesses, keen to avoid the loss of any competitive advantage. Carbon dioxide emitted anywhere damages the climate everywhere. Common sense would suggest the need for engagement based on cooperation and solidarity, to the mutual advantage of all. Yet negotiators cannot escape what has become a “collective action problem.”
Climate deniers in high office like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro threaten the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. But in a sense, they are the logical extension of a zero-sum negotiating process in which increased ambition on reducing emissions, or honoring commitments on climate finance, is treated only as a concession to others.
The following should be obvious to any observer: wealthy, advanced economies are disproportionately responsible for the carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere through their centuries-long industrialization and high consumption, and have the resources — due in part to that very industrialization — to cut emissions most quickly with the least impact on their people; the poorest and least advanced economies — many still recovering from the legacy of empire — have the least responsibility for climate change yet are often most vulnerable to its effects; large emerging economies have an obligation to improve the lives of their people yet must rapidly curb their growing emissions to avoid catastrophe; there is vast inequality within as well as between nations, with the lifestyles of elites responsible for a massively disproportionate share of global emissions in almost all countries.
But what should be obvious is rendered practically unsayable in the world of competitive negotiations. And struggling to acknowledge basic realities as a starting point, it becomes impossible to reach agreements that satisfy everybody, or that come close to locking in what the scientists tell us is necessary.
So how do we get out of this mess?
The neoliberal approach is to take self-interest as the starting point and design transactional models (think carbon markets) that try to engineer good outcomes from baser motives. Yet such approaches reinforce the notion that responsibility is something to be traded, evaded, avoided. As market mechanisms’ patchy record illustrates, they do not work because it is too easy and too tempting to print get-out-of-jail-free cards.
Another approach is to simply exhort countries, businesses, and people, to be better, to do the right thing. This rests on the hope that knowledge of the impacts of climate change will be enough to shift behavior. Again, there is little evidence to show that this works. The last few months have seen multiple landmark reports, the IPPC’s Special Report on 1.5 Degrees, the Met Office’s UK Climate Projections, and the United States’ Fourth National Climate Assessment. These reports are essential to help understand the level of action needed. But knowledge alone is not enough to spur that action into life. Look at the UK government — which launched fracking within days of the IPCC’s report, and failed to even mention climate change in the annual budget.
The truth is that we can only bring about the change we need through political systems that are truly representative of and responsive to the public interest, and in which democratic ownership and decision-making is extended far into the economy. That means intervening in the economy to support workers in carbon-intense industries through the energy transition.
It means planned, long-term decision-making in industries set up and regulated to deliver public goods. Reducing our collective impact while guaranteeing a good quality of life will only be achievable if inequality is reduced dramatically. And it is only realistic to expect changes in behavior and shifts to less carbon intense lifestyles to the extent that everybody — the wealthiest included — play by the rules.
Fundamentally, we need to move away from competing over the right to pollute, where the debate is how to allocate remaining portions of a carbon budget which we are already on course to blow. Rather, we should operate according to the old principle — from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. There’s a word for that, and it’s socialism. And that is the basis — perhaps the only basis — from which international cooperation and solidarity on climate change can be built from the bottom up.