Thomas Forster – Is there a cosmopolitan solution to climate change?
As a researcher studying issues surrounding cosmopolitanism and global democracy I was interested when I noticed the title of this special edition journal ‘From Climate Change to Environmental Justice’. Was this, I thought, going to be a journal edition which simply included content spanning issues from and between the two themes, or, was the implication there that the two were, or could, in some way be interconnected?
For myself the two must certainly share a common bond. In relation to my own research on cosmopolitanism, one of the most recent strands of thinking that has come to the fore is that on environmental sustainability. In 2005 David Held stated, in one of his eight points of cosmopolitanism, that “all economic and social development must be consistent with the stewardship of the world’s core resources – by which I mean resources which are irreplaceable and non-sustainable.” I find this to be a most interesting stance in terms of the cosmopolitan agenda since, in the same passage as the above quotation, Held also sets out the belief that “those significantly affected by public decisions, issues, or processes, should, ceteris paribus, have an equal opportunity, directly or indirectly through elected representatives, to influence and shape them…if the decisions at issue are trans-local, trans-national or trans-regional, then political associations need not only be locally based but also have a wider scope and framework of operation.” Academics such as Andrew Linklater also share this outlook. In 1999 Linklater stated that the cosmopolitan agenda should be to create “wider communities of discourse and to reduce the forms of unjust exclusion within them” – ordering the international agenda by “dialogue and consent rather than power and force.” Now, as a general cosmopolitan agenda these goals and benchmarks seem fine, however, I find that in the context of the environmental problems faced by the contemporary world, and in light of Held’s statement about sustainability being paramount in cosmopolitan practice, they fall far short of the solution (and planet) which they should be trying to bring about. This, I will suggest, is due to the fact that the heterogeneity present in the modern international political system hinders both effective dialogic, and democratic, decisions being made at a trans-national level and is, therefore, the single greatest obstacle to tackling climate change today. I will try and highlight this below.
According to the cosmopolitan mindset described above, in regards to any global decisions on environmental, or sustainability, issues either a global referendum would have to take place in order for the human franchise to have an equal opportunity of shaping the outcome, or a dialogic exchange would have to be entered into in order to determine a resolution most fitting to everyone. Both proposals however seem like exceedingly unworkable options if we actually want to arrive at a concrete solution to these most pressing of issues. The reason for this can be seen to be that, in the absence of a likely impractical global referendum, it would inevitably transpire that local franchises would send delegates who would vote, or engage in dialogue, on their behalf. If this were the case it seems extremely naive to believe that these delegates would simply vote for the ‘good of mankind as a whole’, since domestic political loyalties and economic considerations would still be likely to factor in their decision making process. This would be especially true for developing nations who are still heavily dependent on the use of carbon for their economic growth. The cosmopolitan ideals specified above therefore, would, in practice, be inadequate when dealing with issues such as climate change due to the inherent cultural, political and, most importantly, economic difference between the decision making powers upon whom the outcome of any discussion would rest.
Take the Kyoto protocol for example. Whist ostensibly a ‘joint international’ effort to combat the effects of greenhouse gas and climate change, the entire process laboured under the weight of individual nations domestic ‘needs’ and responsibilities, culminating in the USA refusing to even ratify the treaty. It is not clear if this position will change in the near future. Indeed, if an article published in May 2008 is anything to go by it may not even be the USA who is of greatest international environmental concern. Auffhammer and Carson suggest in their paper on the future of China’s CO2 output that “our best forecast has China’s CO2 emissions correctly surpassing the United States in 2006 rather than 2020 as previously anticipated.” Since it has been clear for some time that “the United States has long preconditioned its adherence to any international agreement such as the Kyoto Protocol on China’s formal concurrence that it would also undertake substantial CO2 reductions” the future for international democratic cosmopolitan solutions to the problem of climate change and environmental degradation looks bleak. As one commentary recently put it: “Those scientists aspiring to stabilise global emissions growth before 2020 to prevent what they believe may be irreversible damage to the climate may be wondering how this can possibly be achieved.”
So, how can this be achieved? Far be it from me to propose the definitive solution here I would nevertheless like to offer up a few ideas. In a neo-cosmopolitan terminology I would propose that, on the issue of the environment, we should view the human franchise as comprising not just of current, but of future generations of human beings as well. This is due to the fact that they, even more so than ourselves, will be the most affected by the environmental changes that are bound to happen if the world keeps on following the path it is currently taking. Whilst I am a certainly a supporter of cosmopolitan ideals therefore, I must however disagree about the way in which they would likely want to see collective environmental change be brought about.
The fundamental problem is that climate change and environmental degradation are not issues which can simply wait around to be solved until an effective multilateral solution can be found. Scientists have for a long time talked about a ‘point of no return’ (and more recently a “tipping point”) which if estimates are to be believed is getting progressively closer each year. In the face of this therefore it seems that the only way real change will be facilitated is by a unilateral solution, and the provider of this solution, I would argue, could be the EU. The reason for this is that the EU is currently in an extremely strong economic position to facilitate change. As one of, if not the, biggest trading partners of China, with the largest overall global economy and a formidable environmental agenda the EU is well placed to deliver change on its own terms. In the modern global economy, it can be argued, economic sanctions could deliver as much hard power as the A-bomb did in 1945. After all, China, the USA and any other countries with decidedly nationalistic attitudes towards their environmental policies would likely soon fall in line if their economies were affected – since this is exactly the reason they say they don’t want to fully participate in the current global environmental agenda!
The ethics of this seem clear to me, and, it can be argued, are decidedly cosmopolitan in nature. On issues affecting the entire global franchise it is easy to specify certain fundamental rights which are able to be claimed by the whole of mankind. As well as food, housing, education, and medical care I would argue that the right to live in a clean and environmentally stable world is a claim that can be made by the current, as well as future, generation(s). This would ensure that, if an economic value is to be put on the environment as a whole, it will not be done in such a way that is detrimental to the future human franchise. At best this claim right should be provided naturally by democratic process, however, with the clock ticking away and certain states continuing with selfishly nationalistic agendas, it seems that force, in this case economic, may be the only real and effective way of facilitating change. To use a quotation from Isaiah Berlin; “We recognise that it is possible, and at times justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some goal (let us say justice or public health) which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt.” In the case of the current global environmental crisis I would argue that the EU must take on this uncomfortable, yet decidedly cosmopolitan, responsibility, before it is too late. At the same time as economic force, however, increased funding could also be used in the development and implementation of environmentally sustainable energy solutions for developing nations.
I also believe that cosmopolitanly centred unilateral solutions could be useful not only in pursuing environmental justice but for attaining justice in general for acute global problems of discrimination, poverty and conflict which can be seen to have been brought about by primarily similar, selfishly nationalistic causes. In Africa for example, for fear of reviving quite historically recent and negative colonial connotations, the West has stayed out of many issues for fear of being labelled undemocratic. In terms of the global agenda of justice however, as was argued above, there must be some fundamental rights which can be claimed by all of humanity, falling outside the ‘democratic’ control of any country. As Zimbabwean archbishop Pius Ncube aptly put it in 2007, there is a clear choice between supporting “a government which is ready to sacrifice the lives of its own people, or [the West] bringing it down at the risk of being called imperialistic.” This statement could be quite easily transferable between many different fundamental rights and freedoms which are globally abused on a day to day basis – although the nature and content of these rights would, of course, be the subject of another discussion.
Finally therefore, if it is asked how the agenda I have suggested during this essay would work in practice, there are obviously several questions which must be answered. For example – exactly what economic sanctions would be utilised? How long would it take, and could a decision actually be reached within the EU, to implement these policies? What particular environmental concessions would be demanded from the countries which are currently non-cooperative, and in what order would they (the non-cooperative states) be targeted? Since this is just a small selection of issues which may be raised in relation to my proposals (inevitably there will be many more), at this time I will proffer no answer to the above, preferring instead to allow readers to muse for themselves on what has been discussed. If this essay can then stimulate further debate I will have achieved my objective. Fundamentally, if we do not just rely on mainstream solutions to international problems we may be able to come up with ideas that beforehand might not have presented themselves – and I have endeavoured to arrive at one of these ideas here. I hope this attempt at a non-traditional cosmopolitan solution to the current global environmental crisis may prompt other people to do the same.
In conclusion therefore, whilst the world’s environmental future does not currently appear promising, I do not believe that it is, as of yet, bereft of hope either. In this essay I have only touched on one possible solution to the environmental (and perhaps other) problems facing the international community – that of cosmopolitan inspired unilateral action – however, no matter which positive steps are taken, one thing I am sure of is that they must be taken soon. Whatever methods are used to combat this threat to mankind someone must take the lead and drive the process forward and responsible decisions must be taken for the good of all. Although possibly not aligned exactly to ‘traditional’ cosmopolitan viewpoints such as Held and Linklater, I believe that discussions such as the one which was conducted in this paper are potentially much more important for the earth than purely academic cosmopolitan concerns. For too long domestic economic factors have blocked the way for the implementation of necessary global initiatives and so, as I have suggested here, perhaps the ‘great democratic experiment’ of the EU could push forward the change in attitude that is so desperately needed in some quarters – and maybe even get it. For all our sakes, I hope someone out there is listening.
 Held, D., “Principles of Cosmopolitan Order” in Brock, G Brighouse, H. (ed’s) The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, p. 15 (Cambridge University Press, 2005, Cambridge)
Ibid, p. 14
 Linklater, A., “Cosmopolitan Citizenship” in Hutchins, K. and Dannreuther, R. (ed’s), Cosmopolitan Citizenship, p. 53 (Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999, London)
Auffhammer, M. and Carson, R., “Forecasting the path of China’s CO2 emissions using province-level information” in The Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, (Vol. 55, Issue 3, May 2008, Pages 229-247)
Berlin, I., “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Quinton, A., (ed) Political Philosophy, p. 150 (Oxford University Press, 1967, Oxford)
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