Why the International System Will Always Prevent Any Global Solution to Climate Change


“Each man does seek his own interest, but, unfortunately, not according to the dictates of reason”. Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State and War (1954)
“Each man does seek his own interest, but, unfortunately, not according to the dictates of reason”.
Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State and War (1954)

Its that time of the year again. As the UN climate change conference in Paris approaches at the end of this year, the usual empty statements from leaders around the world are being released.

Before the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 , Gordon Brown said “there is no plan B”, adding that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophe”. Despite the obviously desperate circumstances, Copenhagen was a diplomatic disaster and another addition to the growing list of failed UN climate conferences.

Recent signs suggest Paris 2015 might as well already be part of that list. At his 2015 State of the Union address, Barack Obama (the main villain at Copenhagen, 2009), said “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change”. Again the problem is identified with typical emptiness, whilst America continues to consumer a quarter of the world’s resources. Yes it’s getting very tiring isn’t it?

As time is running out, maybe we should accept defeat in the battle against climate change and brace ourselves for a future that is likely to be catastrophic for humanity. All we can do for now is try to understand how no global agreement has been made on an issue that threatens our existence. The gloomy history of climate change conferences has shown global diplomacy is always going to be undermined by the competing self-interests of individual nation states. Its the way the international system works – even when faced with a shared problem as disastrous as climate change.

George Bush Senior, famously declared at the first Earth summit in Rio 1992 that the “American way of life is non-negotiable”. Even today Bush senior’s statement still epitomises the attitude of America, and many other countries towards an agreement on climate change. Despite numerous landmark attempts, almost no significant global progress has been made on climate change. Not just Barack Obama, but every world leader should be blamed for this. The fight against climate change is a global effort and every nation should take some sort of responsibility.

The 2009 conference in Copenhagen, labelled “Hopenhagen” at the time, was a collective failure. Whilst America blocked ambitious and smaller emission targets to protect their oil-based economy, developing nations were equally rigid in negotiations. The BASIC group of countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) all rejected caps on greenhouse gas emissions for developing nations. Yet it is often forgotten that a solution to climate change requires mutual cooperation from all parties, not just the major industrial states such as America and Australia. Developing nations also have to adhere to emission cuts for the greater good.

The inherent structure of the international system is anarchic, meaning there is no central authority. This is the fundamental problem in international politics. Independent nations struggle for status and influence in the world, and undoubtedly this still applies to international relations in the 21st century. The vast majority of climate change conferences reveal the clashing interests and ambitions of international powers that Niccolo Machiavelli would recognise instantly.

It is likely Paris 2015 will be another signature on the Earth’s death certificate. Admittedly, there was progress at the climate conference in Lima last year. A series of objectives were outlined for Paris, making it easier to reach an agreement in December this year. However, as usual the objectives are vague and unbinding. Additionally, there is still no obligation on developing countries to cut their emissions. Surely any effective global solution to climate change requires commitment and participation from every nation involved?

For there to be progress in Paris later this year, a complete overhaul of the international system and how nations work within it would be required. This is slightly ambitious. All we can do for now is hope and watch on as our politicians lead us into global catastrophe.

In other words, we need a miracle and we need one now.









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