Politics of a Dying Earth: A COP24 Preview
The United Nations dropped a damning brief on humanity’s desk last month. The message was clear: average global temperature warming of 1.5˚C beyond pre-industrial levels will spell disaster for all human life. The systematic changes required to prevent such environmental destruction must be “unprecedented in terms of scale,” and they must be put into motion before 2030. The group in charge of organizing the policy effort to avoid calamity is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which meets annually at a Conference of the Parties (COP). Their next meeting - and perhaps the last to make a serious push for resolution that can come in time for the 2030 deadline - is COP24 in Katowice, Poland, this December. Clearly, despite the triumphant accord signed at COP21 three years ago known as the Paris Agreement, some governments remain skeptical the increasing damage to the planet is concerning, or even a reality. This remains the most important political project of our time, and as our elected officials flounder to take serious action, one might be compelled to ask: why has implementation been such an abysmal failure? Can anyone emerge to lead the world to success? The answers may require a fundamental reconsideration of who “leads” and who “follows,” for the sake of us all.
The barriers to global climate cooperation, especially in Western Liberal Democracies, tell a story of self interest and apathy run amok. Isolationism is perhaps the worst political disposition for nations to take on in an age that requires deep empathy and cooperation, yet it seems more and more to be the normal mode of operation in powerful nations. Scholarship at the intersection of environmentalism and public policy increasingly finds a correlation between right-wing populism and climate change denial. The most influential nations with the highest CO2 emissions nations on the planet have no interest in shaping domestic policies to reflect the reality of a changing earth — let alone to cooperate over solutions that work for everybody. Additionally, the political-spectrum-wide affinity for business with fossil industries renders honest efforts to curb emissions impossible. The progressive liberal order can tout a stated concern for the planet, but actions speak louder than words. Just a few months ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempted to play financier to a pipeline owned by petro-giants Kinder Morgan to expand capacity for oil transport from inland Western Canada to the Pacific Coast. These two hurdles are symptomatic of a larger political dichotomy at hand: the fundamental tension between climate responsibility and current models of economic development. From Canada to Russia, oil extraction is big money, and for all, burning fossil fuels powers economies. Any hard cuts to emissions could similarly infringe on the bottom line, and as such enforcement mechanisms to do so are sorely lacking. An inherently universal problem begets a universal solution, but as egos grow and interests clash, this seems more and more distant. In order to make changes of “unprecedented” magnitude, ways of life and politics must change unprecedentedly first.
As traditional leadership fails us, it is natural to seek guidance from elsewhere, and nations of the Global South have long been at the fore of serious solution-making for climate justice. It’s not a secret that climate change is more debilitating to developing nations: poverty pairs poorly with natural disasters and food price volatility. An under-recognized truth, however, is that impoverished nations, those in Africa especially, have also well outpaced old global leaders in climate cooperation. The Conference on Climate Change and Development in Africa, which took place last week in Nairobi, reported a focus on both domestic energy solutions and methods for international leadership in the face of growing incompetence and unwillingness. African experts and policymakers in attendance outlined key priorities for the upcoming COP24 talks which challenge Europe and North America to keep pace with the commitments of Paris in the same way that African nations have. Whether they heed this challenge is left to the voters and citizens of powerful nations to decide. It remains an exciting prospect that cooperation and pressure from the Global South may emanate to the rest of the world as nations and citizens begin to realize that a commitment to climate justice is possible.
With each passing conference, however, it becomes more difficult to feel hopeful amid the statistical projections of the planet’s fate. Climate politics, as an existential turning point for the earth, may just as well be an existential turning point for “the normal way of things” in international relations.