Climate governance: time to think radically

Alex Hough

Untitled. Photographer: Brian Elder

Photo Source: Brian Elder via Flickr Creative Commons.

The United Nations was designed to protect states from imperialism. It was founded in the aftermath of the two great wars in the early twentieth century, and serves as an international framework to guarantee state sovereignty; making sure that each state stays within its borders. Its founding Charter begins by saying that the organisation is “based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”. Former President Bouteflika of Algeria captured this sentiment well, commenting at the turn of the Millennium that sovereignty is and remains “our last defence in an unequal world” (1).

However, for many states in the world today, the greatest threat to their territory is no longer imperialism. They face a new kind of threat, whereby the territory over which they allege to have “sovereignty” is mutating, through desertification, flooding, severe weather events, and drought. Evidently, changes in eco-systems do not obey the cartographic distinction of states. From the point of view of political philosophy, the new threat demands a rethinking of what it means to constitute a political “territory”.

As it stands there is a level of abstraction between the United Nations mechanism and questions of ecology. Stefan Aukut and Amy Dahan, two academics that specialise in climate governance, describe a “schism between the reality of the world and the sphere of climate governance” (2). We can identify three three tipping points in climate negotiations. The first was the historic Kyoto protocol, signed in 1997, which though lauded in its moment as a far reaching agenda, was also the moment when the United States conclusively dropped out of proceedings. In 1992, George H.W. Bush had declared that “the American way of life is not negotiable”, and at Kyoto the US withdraw from all protocol negotiations.

This gave birth to the schism. After Kyoto you could clearly distinguish between the work being done by the emerging G77 (a group of small emerging economies), and the business interests of large states and enterprises. Not only were their discourses different, but often contradictory. A lot of the politics of the G77 owed to the growing role of NGOs in politics. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, climate sciences were growing in accuracy and scale – building integrated models mapping the interactions of soils, oceans, hydrology, vegetation, chemical pollution, carbon cycles, and their reactions with one another. For small countries in tropical regions, the impacts on the livelihoods of their population was tangible and present – and the risks of further changes, enormous. Therefore, with NGOs serving to transmit this information to governments, policy could be based on these models and became more in touch with the issues it sought to address.

Meanwhile, the politics of powerful states was derailed from ecological problems by the two seismic events of the 21st century: the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, and the financial crash that began in 2008. With the war on terror global power gathered around the neoconservative counter terrorist agenda. Rather than bringing into question American unipolarism after the fall of the Soviet Union, as some expected it would, the attacks eschewed a decade of American expansionism , with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, who collectively contain the greatest oil reserves in the world. This is far removed from the new ecological world order that the G77 were talking about. Ironically, in fact, it had even become clear by the end of the noughties that many of the G77 states would in fact be unable to meet the far reaching commitments that they had pledged. Then the financial crash, which ended the great boom years of the nineties and early noughties, and eschewed austerity measures around the world. When the UNFCCC convened in Copenhagen in 2009, the extent of the schism was only too apparent. The United States and China would not commit to reduce emissions and the talks broke down. No binding agreement was reached.

Thus we begin to see the problem. The United Nations was designed and built to protect the nation state. It is the apogee of political modernism, which holds the nation state, indefinite growth of population, economy, and human endeavour as its founding principles. It symbolises a value system which has inadvertently caused many of the ecological problems that many countries now face. For the United Nations to take on the role as the coordinator of a global response to climate change is, therefore, a howling contradiction. It was designed to protect the principal of the nation state, not to oppose it! Of course, this is not the first time the UN has contradicted itself. The same could be said of human rights law, which holds a commanding place in the vocabulary and operations of the United Nations, but which is similarly incongruous with the state-centric, noninterventionist principles of the UN Charter. Michael Ignatieff, writing in 2000, described the “gulf in international law between the nonintervention language of the Charter and the interventionist implications of human rights covenants” (3). This gulf remains in place today. And yet, nonetheless, the UN manages to chug along.

In some sense the discourse in the UN on ecology has mirrored that of human rights law. It has not tried to alter value systems, but rather has set a limit of acceptability. Concerning human rights law, this contained in a Declaration that carries the weight of international law; for climate change, so far, we have only a non-binding landmark: 2 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, the parallel is a weak one. An individual country’s contribution to green house emissions cannot be measured in absolute terms, as economic development will always be taken into account. Where human rights function as a “lowest common denominator”, meaningful at the level of the individual, the 2 degrees is a crisis point at global scale. Once again, we return to the problem of territory. The nation state has time and time again proven itself as a governance model that is insensitive to questions of ecology. As I have tried to outline in this essay this insensitivity, I believe, is systemic, deriving from the founding principals at the heart of the nation state. The temptation at the level of the United Nations, then, is to place political ecology above the political system, in the same manner as human rights, holding a transcendental legal character.

What is worrying is that while human rights legislation is largely consistent with the constitutions of advanced capitalist economies, political ecology fundamentally opposes it. Therefore, blending the two, as we have seen, is much more difficult. When all the world’s nations convene in Paris later this year for the COP21, they will once again try to blend these two seemingly disparate layers of concern. Perhaps they will succeed to reach an agreement – there is certainly more widely held concern about the issue amongst the public. If they don’t then it might signal worrying signs not just for the United Nations, but for the whole political order as we know it.


(1) Quoted by J. Tanguy, “Redefining Sovereignty and Intervention”, Ethics & International Affairs 17(1), p. 11, from a speech given at Wilton Park, U.K., February 19-23, 2001.

(2) Stefan C. Aykut et Amy Dahan, « La Gouvernance du Changement Climatique : Anatomie d’un schisme de realité” in Dominique Pestre (dir.), Gouverner le Progrès et ses Dégâts, Paris, Éditions La Découverte, pp. 97-132 (2014).

(3) Michael Ignatieff, I. Human Rights as Politics, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at Princeton University, April 4-7, 2000.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *