Climate crisis ’13 – what are we doing wrong; what can we do right?

In my previous post I reviewed the broad outline of the COP 19 at Warsaw, which concluded on Saturday.

In short, we avoided short-term failure, Copenhagen-style, but did not achieve enough for long-term success.

Long-term success is what is required.

So what are we doing wrong, and what can we do right, in the future?

It depends on whether we:

(a)     do the same but better; or

(b)     do something different.

(a)     Doing the same but better

As I pointed out post-Doha, there is much that is wrong with both the nature and the style of UNFCCC negotiations.  Let’s look at their nature later (below).  Consider first the style.

The main shortcoming in operational style of the current negotiations is a lack of empirical and analytical focus.

–          The empirical work is done by the IPCC.  Its assessment reports address the scientific findings of climate change, their expected impact, and ‘response options’.

–          The analytical work is done, partly by IPCC, mainly by independent think-tanks (Climate Analytics, PIK, ECOFYS and others).  There is extraordinarily detailed and sophisticated modelling and number-crunching done by researchers there.

Neither the empirical nor the analytical work is fed directly into the diplomatic negotiations.  The IPCC and think-tank reports form, at best, the backdrop to the negotiations – shadows on Plato’s cave wall.  They subliminally influence the negotiators, but not consciously, as in surface consciousness – as in explicitly, in-your-face UN documentation on the desk in front of you.

As a result, the parties default to abstract principles of traditional diplomatic interests, focusing on draft language that reflects obsolescent national positions – competitive trade-style.  What is missing is a distillation of the empirical and analytical work, in the form of UNFCCC COP documentation.  If they were to have this in front of them, the parties would be obliged to acknowledge both the scale and magnitude of the challenge, plus optional (detailed, prescriptive) response strategies.

(b)     Doing something different

There is a fundamental disconnect between 20th-century international conference machinery and a 21st-century global challenge.  The old machinery is not suited to the new task.

There are too many parties.  It is not possible to find a global solution to a global problem through negotiation among 195 sovereign entities claiming a national sovereign right to obstruct.  The twenty years or so of UNFCCC-COP negotiations proves this to be the case.  We can, and no doubt shall, go for another 20 years with this, repetitively proving to our satisfaction that the mechanism is not delivering, at least in time.

If international negotiations are inadequate, is there an alternative or supplementary mechanism available?  An alternative does, in fact, exist under the UN Charter – best described as global executive action. This is to engage the UN Security Council to put climate change on its agenda.

The Security Council has the primary responsibility, acting on behalf of all member states (i.e. the General Assembly), to maintain international peace and security.  It has enforcement powers under Chapter VII to prevent aggression, breaches of the peace and any threat to the peace.  Under these powers, if it determines there is a threat to peace, it may make decisions that are binding on all member states.

This is an enormous power.  It is why member states, such as New Zealand, vigorously aspire to become a member of the Security Council, as often as occasion allows.  Why the permanent five refuse to concede their privileged, and obsolescent, status.

Those powers, crafted 68 years ago, were expected to apply to inter-state warfare. But the Council has creatively determined all kinds of things to be a threat to the peace – especially global terrorism, gross and systematic abuses of human rights, military coups, civil wars.

In 2007, the Security Council first discussed climate change.  In 2009, the Secretary-General provided a report to the Council on the implications of climate change for peace and security.  The Council adopted a presidential statement, describing climate change as a risk multiplier.  The SG said that, in his opinion, climate already is a threat to the peace.  In February ’13, the Council heard directly from leading scientists about the nature of the global threat of climate change.

The Security Council is inching its way towards declaring climate change to be a threat to peace and security.

Will it ever make that determination?  Would China or some other state, veto?  If it did agree, so what?

The difference is several-fold.

–          With 15 member states rather than 195 contracting parties to a specific treaty, the Council is more likely to get agreement, as the months and years go by, far faster than the UNFCCC.  If the major emerging economies outside the P-5 (India, Brazil South Africa) were recruited to attend Security Council meetings on climate change under article 31 (albeit without vote), there would be sufficient representation.

–          The doctrine of implied powers would enable the UN, acting through the Council, to give effect to decisions that it deems necessary for the full exercise of its overall responsibilities under the Charter.

–          The Council could establish a subsidiary body under article 29 responsible for collating the empirical and analytical work referred to above, and feed it into the Council’s deliberations.  This would fill the lacuna in the negotiations that bedevils progress to date.

–          The Secretary-General could, acting article 99, could take more initiative in bringing before the Council, through the subsidiary body or directly, further evidence and ‘response options’.  The climate crisis demands new leadership at the global level.

Is all this an excessive luxury?  As one jurist has put it, is such an action ultra vires or ultra-innovator?[1]

It will be tempting for some to shy away from according such power to the Security Council.  It has already proven too tempting for some to deny climate change.  The fact is, the Council has already undertaken such decision-making, in resolutions 1373 and 1540 with regards to terrorism.  It would be an interesting survey of global opinion whether the world’s people regarded global terrorism or climate change as the greater threat.  Perhaps both qualify for such powers.

The adoption by the Security Council of climate change in the manner above would not necessarily pre-empt the UNFCCC negotiating process.  It could be seen as supplementary to it.  But it could also act as a catalyst. Decisions emanating from the Council could galvanise the UNFCCC into faster and more far-reaching action.

One thing is certain.  Something needs to change.

[1] Stefan Talmon, ‘The Security Council as World Legislature’ (AJIL, 99(175); and Eric Rosand, ‘UN Security Council as Global Legislator – Ultra Vires or Ultra-Innovator’ (Fordham ILJ, 28(3) 2004).

11 Comments Posted

  1. And the people at the top of these hierarchies have little interest in the issue

    I think you are wrong there. Particularly with respect to China which has taken a long view and works towards long term advantages. They aren’t motivated simply. Whether China negotiated an FTA with NZ is not relevant. They did NOT agree to the terms offered by the USA. The concept is of “us” and “them” and China would be one of “us” and the result would not require us to cease trading between/among ourselves but with “them”.

    Countries like China actually do look out for their LONG TERM national economic interests. The US and NZ are currently incapable of taking such a view, being hampered by the treasonous bastards in control of them.

  2. “First of all the people pressing for free trade aren’t the Chinese or the Indians or the Brazilians…”

    Well, assuming you mean the Chinese and Indian governments, rather than the people, and assuming by ‘free trade’ you mean the fake free trade promoted by the neo-liberals, I’d say these are the very people pushing free trade in recent years. That’s why China has signed an FTA with NZ and India is negotiating one. Not sure where the Brazillians are at at present.

    And the people at the top of these hierarchies have little interest in the issue as they know damn well that they won’t be suffering the effects, having buffered themselves with a hefty insulation of money.

    It’s possible that self-interest in their competition with the US will come to the fore, but it is fraught to try and employ climate change response as a ostensible aim when countries are really just looking out for their national economic interests.

  3. Not really… First of all the people pressing for free trade aren’t the Chinese or the Indians or the Brazilians… that pressure comes from a more “fundamentalist” brand of Capitalism. So we don’t have to go to the source of that particular problem.

    Second of all, rather than persuading billions of people to do something we need to talk with the leaders of perhaps 4-5 nations (along with ourselves of course) about the risks and the reasoning that impel us to suggest this as a corrective measure to curb the mental disorder we know as “free market fundamentalism” and protect the future of our civilization.

    We are talking about an agreement of perhaps 20-30 people who between them hold a power that the bankers and BAU bastards will have to respect.

    It is in fact a much MORE tractable effort for us, and if a serious *rumor* of such an action got into the news channels, it would crash the system anyway.

    So this is something we COULD do. We’d need China and India to “cooperate” on it (a difficulty to be sure), but being able to take the USA down a peg while at the same time seizing the moral high ground is a big incentive to both those nations.

  4. “It is something that Dr Graham has to take to the Chinese and the Brazilians and the Indian governments. It is not something we do as individuals or as Anarchists.”

    OK, I misintepreted you – I thought you were calling for a citizens’ movement. So you are saying Graham should go to the people pushing for free trade and tell them they’ve got it wrong? I thought getting a global citizens’ movement going would be a hard task, but I reckon you are proposing a much harder one.

  5. If WE honor the climate threat properly and provide a starting point, become the country that “started somewhere sometime” then WE are apt to be able to also continue trading with the Chinese and Indians and the others. This is a matter, not only of bringing pressure but of choosing sides. Responsibility is something we have to take. We join with the USA and the TPP and the oil companies and we are on the WRONG side.

    We have the opportunity to do differently and with the help of the people that the developed nations rely on as victims we CAN put an end to the crime.

  6. That proposition of mine is something to be done by nations, not by individuals. It is something that Dr Graham has to take to the Chinese and the Brazilians and the Indian governments. It is not something we do as individuals or as Anarchists. It happens when the people running nations being damaged by the climate recognize that “the fornicating they are getting isn’t worth the fornicating they are getting”.


  7. “The global “free trade” machinery has to stop and the perps shocked into a realization that they aren’t really the “masters of the universe”. We consume our own food. We trade a bit between ourselves. We cut them off at the knees.”

    Well, yes, but anarchists have been proposing the same thing for decades, and there hasn’t been much uptake in other circles – except for a few years when the so-called anti-globalisation movement leapt into prominence. There seems to be a real lack of analysis as to why this movement came tumbling down and understanding this might be a good start if we want to build something similar.

  8. bjchip has a fascinating idea, but will be a little challenged in implementation. In reality, the people required to make it go, the ‘we’, are the major portion of the 7 billion of us on this planet, 99% of whom are trying to make the best of their daily lives and what the current economic system provides for them.
    How do you mobilise them into such action?

  9. Hi BJ,

    I can see that working in NZ for food. I can’t see it working for electronics.

    It needs to be done in a way that, when the big players are ready to change, they still have the capacity. I guess I’m thinking about “closing the collapse gap”, and what the USA would be like if it broke economically.

  10. I had that notion on the previous thread, that what needs doing is on the part of the third world folks, a serious alteration of the economic equations that support the current “Business As Usual” that has been in charge of our future for all our history, and needs to be dislodged.
    Only by breaking BAU can the climate be addressed properly. They have not and WILL not pay attention to us while we simply “talk”. We have to organize an economic action on a scale not seen on this planet – ever.

    The key players are China and India and then Brazil and Saudi Arabia and all of Africa. Resources have to be withheld, or not ordered. Products have to be kept in warehouses or simply not built. The global “free trade” machinery has to stop and the perps shocked into a realization that they aren’t really the “masters of the universe”. We consume our own food. We trade a bit between ourselves. We cut them off at the knees.

    ?How about it?

    Are we up for a little organizational challenge?

  11. You are right – Kennedy – something does have to change.

    But to understand what is likely to change one needs to think beyond the confines of international institutions to the political forces that are driving national leaders. Whatever the rational for acting on climate change, national leaders are unlikely to support an action which will substantially weaken their domestic power base – whether it is in the UNFCCC, the General Assembly or the Security Council. Shifting forums does little for that dynamic.

    Your point about the feed-in from science may be relevant, but it is in the power of the UNFCCC to change that, and the issues are made very clear through many sources, including by NGOs at the negotiations. The Philippine lead negotiator certainly put the issue in everyone’s face – what has happened to him?

    The problem is not so much in the failure of international negotiations, as in the failure of countries to face the domestic risks involved in honouring the agreements that have been made.

    We need to look closely at what is driving individual government’s policies. Take NZ for instance. Despite the readiness of Tim Groser to state very clearly the government’s commitment to action on climate change, John Key appears to be convinced that there are no votes in doing anything that will inconvenience anyone. Other parties appear to be almost as cautious!

    The fact is that there have been little done by any party to put climate threat on the agenda, or to educate the public. In contrast in Denmark they have been educating the public for nearly 40 years. In China they have built major industries on the challenges of climate change. Many corporations are moving to ‘greener’ strategies, though some only in name, others in substance.

    We need to make a much stronger connection between domestic and international levels to make sense of this issue. This is, of course, very messy and not amenable to legal solution.

    There is a lot more analysis required in this yet.

    Gray Southon

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