Angus Soderberg & Evan Wagner
Nations across the globe put aside their differences and come together around solving the climate crisis. Their expert scientists lament the reluctance of government to address it and project doom if action is not taken. Energy grids, supply chains, mass agriculture: none of their economic systems are spared from scrutiny. As the participants begin to discuss financial details, their reimagining of the entire world soon gives way to questions of practicality. In the end, the conference produces nothing but a series of unsubstantiated plans and pledges.
This description is equally apt for the 1992 Rio summit which established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), last year’s 26th conference of the parties to that agreement (COP26), and everything in between. For many countries and climate activists, COP26 was just another series of plans and pledges.
Despite its inability to address coal effectively and the disappointment in the conference reported by the media, the climate conference made progress on three main objectives. First, financial mobilization greatly increased, with 500 companies pledging to move $130 trillion towards achieving the Paris goals and developed nations agreeing to raise funding for vulnerable nations and communities for mitigation. Progress was also made on methane emissions and deforestation. The E.U. and U.S. plan to cut methane emissions by 2030, and countries representing 90% of the world’s forests pledged to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030. Thirdly, fossil fuels were explicitly agreed to be phased “down” (but not “out” after objections to the word choice by China and India), signaling a greater shift away from fossil fuels.
Currently, global warming stands at 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and, prior to COP26, was anticipated to rise to at least 2.4 degrees by 2100. After incorporating the agreements reached during the conference in Glasgow, climate scientists anticipate a best case scenario of 1.8 degrees warming by 2100. Even at 1.8, we will still see shifting rainfall patterns, more intense storms, and sea level rise. The President of COP26, Alok Sharma, described the conference’s outcomes as keeping hopes for 1.5 alive, albeit with a “weak pulse.” As Barbados’s Prime Minister put it, “1.5 is what is needed to survive” for small island nations and countries bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.
Underlying COP26, and climate change more broadly, are difficult questions of justice and responsibility for the climate predicament our world faces today. Youth and populations in the global south felt largely excluded from the conference, despite standing to lose the most if developed countries in the global north do not act. For them, it’s a haunting realization that all agreements at COP26 are voluntary and no formal channel exists to hold the countries responsible for our warming world accountable. If the world finds a path through the climate crisis, it will be forged by sovereign nations acting in their own interest. Climate efforts will be loosely coordinated and their enforcement decentralized, creating an international dynamic of uncertainty and hostility; to what degree remains to be seen.
The international climate scene is convoluted and imbued with problems of justice and power. Geoengineering, legal action, and great power cooperation are only a few of the forces that could shape the future of climate change. Yet, despite the frustratingly innocuous promises of the world’s leaders, the only way out of the woods is through nations somehow coming together to establish coalitions and work out solutions. It’s time for the international climate change equilibrium to be punctuated. Action must come in abundance and fast.
THE ENVIRONMENT AS A HUMAN RIGHT
Weeks before COP26, on October 8th, 2021, the UN Human Rights Council recognized a clean and healthy environment as a human right for the first time. The WHO estimates that just under 12.6 million people die annually from pollution and other environmental risks. For decades, environmentalists have been fighting for the environment in one form or another to be enshrined in human rights law and this recognition is the first major step toward meaningful action. This resolution gives prominence to what over 100 countries have already enshrined in national law and the E.U. is taking into consideration as well. U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions are non-legally binding, so the enforcement of the right to a healthy environment is severely limited. Yet, what the resolution does is establish the connection between a healthy environment and the “enjoyment of human rights.” In doing so, the framework provided by the resolution can be used to shape the future of climate litigation by allowing the incorporation of human rights violations into climate suits. The Colombian, Nepalese, and other supreme courts have ruled in favor of the constitutional right of future citizens to a healthy environment. These countries struck out on their own, but now the U.N. resolution provides a common set of standards that governments can consult when establishing environmental laws. Although the scope of the right to a healthy environment’s power remains to be determined, its importance is in its capacity to inform a common set of standards for legal protection of access to the environment.
The U.S. and U.K. are among several countries withholding their votes, despite their pledge to support the most vulnerable countries during COP26 weeks later. The U.K. Climate Action spokesperson cited legal concerns as the issue with this resolution. While no further commentary has been given by either the U.S. or U.K. on the issue, these legal concerns represent the real fear of legal action being taken against countries that are major polluters. It is unlikely major court cases implicating the U.S or other major contributors to climate change and pollution will take place. Introducing litigation against the most powerful countries in the U.N. is unlikely to end with a verdict ruling in favor of those negatively affected while the right to a healthy environment is still in its legal infancy. However, it would not be a surprise if we begin to see an increase in smaller suits from local communities against private enterprise.
Reluctance to adopt this new right reflects the environmentally destructive processes by which states have acquired wealth and power. The call for wealthy industrialized nations to pay for the environmental risk that their industrialization process imposed on poorer resource rich nations is long-standing. However, the lack of movement on this front over the last 50 years has prompted the call for new models of sustainable growth to be implemented in developing nations. Yet, unindustrialized nations have no other proven model for progress or establishing a middle class than the environmentally unsound approach taken by the West. Should wealthy industrialized nations pay, or should a new model of sustainable growth be adopted for the rest? Our generation will continue to wrestle with this question, but soon it will be more than hypothetical as the world adjusts to climate change with or without our input.
At a time when the legacy of industrial colonialism still defines the economic rankings of all countries on Earth, a Western-led push to end the burning of carbon feels disingenuous. Many countries are on the precipice of a new tier of economic development, in which the middle class grows and consumes more energy-intensive products. There is no debating that a serious global decarbonization effort would threaten that growth.
The quandary mirrors an international dispute over the environmental crisis from half a century ago. In response to discussion among “developed” countries of population controls, João Augusto de Araújo Castro articulated the “developing” world’s counterpoint, which rings just as true for the climate crisis. “[T]he bulk of the solutions in hand,” he wrote, “…seek primarily to make healthier the consequences of the Industrial Revolution without necessarily providing a tool for a further distribution of its benefits among states.”
On one hand, growth everywhere will have to slow to some extent if emissions are to become truly negative in such a short time. This may require coercive behavior from world powers toward weaker states. Past behavior should not prevent the carrying-out of justice in the present. Few would argue that the U.S. was wrong to participate in the multilateral embargo that ended South African apartheid in 1994, even though its own de jure segregation had ended less than a half-century before. Furthermore, no matter where they live, the world’s least privileged stand to suffer the worst and most immediate consequences of the climate crisis; reversing it will distribute justice quite progressively.
On the other, backlash to economic downturn is among the most consistently potent of political forces. Whenever the economy stumbles, electoral opponents will pounce on any significant climate-related interventions in the market. For instance, the Biden administration’s planned decarbonization has not even kicked into gear, yet they are already on the defensive.
Decarbonization will always be one acute recession away from derailment. If the past decade of E.U. politics are any indication, voter backlash can easily spread beyond the domestic level to throw wrenches into international plans. In light of this, policymakers should channel the inevitable disruptive effects of decarbonization as far from households as possible. It is better for entire industries to collapse than household wealth.
GREAT POWER COMPETITION
Developing countries will play a larger role in the international climate debate as they grow in size and GDP, but at the moment not even our current great powers are committed to fight climate change. Competing interests pull both China and the U.S. in opposite directions: they are reluctant to sacrifice short-term growth, yet eager to dominate the global renewables market. Their rivalry will shape the progression of climate policy around the world.
As important and beneficial as individual political rights are, they add an extra handicap to America’s capacity to limit its own consumption, in the form of voter backlash. The Biden administration’s planned decarbonization has not even kicked into gear, yet they are already on the defensive. Though China will certainly not find it easy to decarbonize without destabilizing its economy, it need not consider whether civil backlash could knock its agenda off course.
Without incorporating both the U.S. and China, any attempt to achieve 1.5 degrees of warming is futile. The U.S. is historically the world’s largest emitter, but China is currently topping the charts at 26.1% of global emissions, with the U.S. at 12.6%. China did not formally attend COP26 and points out that achieving the level of development enjoyed by the U.S. entitles it to carbon emission. Despite frosty relations, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry was able to bring China to the table, announcing a joint statement in pursuit of 1.5. Could this signal the potential for climate cooperation to warm relations between the two nations?
The joint statement comes during a deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China. Tensions over Taiwan, human rights, and growing aggression in the South China Sea have led some to believe that we are entering a new Cold War. At the conclusion of the latest virtual summit between Xi and Biden no concrete effort was put forward for cooperation between the two nations. Diplomacy with China will only get more complicated as the world needs their commitment to fight climate change. This gives China leverage, as movement to incorporate the nation into climate agreements could require the U.S. to back down criticism of cyber security and human rights violations.
However, leverage goes both ways. If China is perceived to have allowed countries in its sphere of influence to suffer the effects of climate change, it could tarnish the appeal of their hegemony for those countries. Further, China’s quest for oil and other resources to meet economic demand partly drives its assertions over the South China Sea, angering the other nations in the region. The necessity of responding to climate change has shifted the diplomatic playing field, both increasing its complexity and presenting new opportunities for cooperation and conflict.
It is critical to highlight the mutual interest of combating climate change domestically and internationally, despite dicey relations between the U.S. and China in other areas. Such efforts have worked on a small scale in the past. Under President Obama, combining the forces of the two largest coal consuming nations led to bilateral relations that moved other countries to adopt clean energy standards. The world is on the verge of energy reform that will revolutionize power sources away from fossil fuels. Natural resources and energy are the lifeline of any nation, acting almost as food and water for the body, as they are the backbone of jobs, education, agriculture, and industry growth. Changes in the energy sector will therefore touch the lives of citizens around the world creating winners and losers. It has never been more clear that we are actively shaping the world before us and must be cautious in our next steps. Acting as joint architects of tomorrow’s world dominated by clean energy rather than fossil fuels could be a much needed bridge between China and the U.S. Yet, achieving meaningful agreements will require a herculean diplomatic effort. What is clear is that climate diplomacy is more necessary than ever.
Of all the available tools to counteract the greenhouse effect, none carry heavier philosophical weight than geoengineering, or directly intervening in natural systems to cool the planet. While it sounds like something from science fiction, geoengineering today encompasses a set of rather simple, blunt interventions. It is generally accepted that geoengineering methods fall into two categories: carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which reclaims from the air the carbon we put in it; and solar radiation management (SRM), a less-developed field which seeks to block some amount of incoming sunlight from reaching Earth in the first place.
CDR methods, the less controversial of the two, are under development in most wealthy countries. The technology has few downsides and is widely agreed upon as a way to reverse our negative impact on the environment with minimal intervention and risk. Unfortunately, a meaningful breakthrough has not yet occurred: the cutting edge of carbon removal still creates more emissions than it removes. Decarbonization must take place as quickly as possible and cannot rely on a miraculous leap forward in technology within just a few years. The world cannot afford to believe that CDR will be any part of the first steep reductions in GHG emissions. Those must come from reductions at the source.
SRM is a whole different animal. The cost-benefit analysis varies widely among nations as they weigh tremendous risks against the threat climate fallout poses to them. As sea level rise accelerates, desperate coasts and islands become more likely to do something drastic than inland countries. While China and the U.S. seek to lead the world in renewable energy deployment and probably prefer to avoid the risks of SRM, island nations, with little economic and diplomatic sway on the international stage, may find such methods attractive in coming years. While they have no control over the decarbonization of continental economies, all of them are capable of unilaterally spraying aerosols into the atmosphere. At some point, a possible Snowpiercer scenario is better than a guaranteed Waterworld scenario. Don’t be surprised if diverging SRM incentives end up driving some dramatic confrontation between the U.N. and the Maldives.
Besides the riskiness of untested global cooling methods, geoengineering poses a philosophical dilemma: should we give up on restoring a balanced relationship with nature and go further down the path of human manipulation? If we choose now to fight fire with fire, we may have fewer qualms with doing so again when faced with the next profound ecological problem, such as the accelerating buildup of microplastics in the food chain. How long will that strategy last? Can one live a full life out of sync with nature? The uncertainties and enormous ethical implications of geoengineering once disqualified it from mainstream consideration.
However, as humanity stubbornly continues to increase its emissions while the first terrible consequences unfold across the globe, the calculus appears to have changed. Talk of geoengineering is creeping into the discourse among climate-focused scholars, advocates, and political leaders. Many are careful to emphasize that these more manipulative solutions are not a cure-all and must be coupled with reducing emissions to zero. Geoengineering is a market-based Superman solution to climate change, with new technology arriving just in time to save the day. It is an industrialized and Western solution to a problem that affects every living being on earth. The legitimization of geoengineering marks a significant shift in our relationship with nature. Perhaps we can soar past our supposed limits forever; perhaps our debts will catch up to us. We likely cannot continue developing, expanding, and aggrandizing our lifestyles without removing ourselves from the natural systems in which our species came of age. There is no going back from here. ⬩