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Is global co-operation the go-to for the war on climate?

Updated: Jan 16

Successful global co-operation is the authentic goal of international politics as representatives of nation states tackle issues amongst their own people and their needs with those of the wider world. Contrasting this with other means of co-operation, such as national and local, shows that ‘global’ negotiations are not the only successful means. In fact, they are often undermined, as proven by the varying efforts to combat climate change, and this is not only because of the unrepresentatively dominant will of the United States. Indeed, recent history paints a sceptical picture for the current prospect of global co-operation regarding climate change – smaller scale efforts may be better, albeit without a Trump-style disdain for international organisations.


The Kyoto Protocol (1997) was the first international effort to curb Greenhouse Gases (GHGs). However, it directly failed. Countries such as China ignored it and failed to cut GHGs below 1990 levels by 5%. The USA’s GHG emissions also increased sharply after the 1990s. The national economies surpassed international consciousness of climate change - naïve idealists were here in error in assuming that the world can come together, transcending national biases, for a greater cause into the 21st Century.


The protocol did bring climate change to the attention of the world that has, some argue, resulted in greater action to approach it. One example is the global response from Paris COP21 (2015), for which even India agreed to cut coal-use; others committed themselves to providing $100bn to poorer nations to deal with the climate change. This shows that, in fact, the world can integrate to solve global difficulties for every state is affected by them. The problem is that the situation is ever volatile. The developing world has consistently avoided the issue of climate change for the game of catch-up with the west, a game for which the current US president has disdain, withdrawing from Paris, but also the Iran Nuclear Deal, turning eyes once again to oil, our continued reliance on which surely laughs in the face of efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, at least if the world is on the verge of climatic catastrophe sans drastic changes within the next few years. Economics do not seem to care enough about this, and this is reflected in the lack of a global accord against global warming. Indeed, with the whole world to be affected if the climate alarm bells ring true, such an accord is no less than essential… you will be hard-pressed to find a worthy one, for such a one does not exist. A potential solution is to take some inspiration from China and bureaucratically enforce reforms to our treatment of the climate without democratic approval (for too few people care, frankly, about the issue and are absorbed by phenomena like Trump and Brexit in the west), but this is an untenable solution.


Democratic leaders are accountable to the people – in Machiavellian style, they are neither feared nor loved by them if they pursue the climate or spend millions on it (cue Trump’s ease with rejecting Paris). Care for other nations is also risky – Trump and Brexit scream, “do not be too ready to support the Maldives or Netherlands if you want to gain power”. To drive a desire in the people to get behind plans for the climate education is key, but this is not without its own challenges. Climate change is incredibly complex, solutions to it are never free from economic uncertainties, schools and universities have drifted to a left-leaning bias (‘politicised climate change’), and a global education curriculum is near enough laughable and far too ready to curb national sentiment that continues to drive education curricula. One thing is clear: education is a matter for the policies of its nation (at most), not least because this is the easiest way in every respect. Democracy and education must be in parity if they are both to be successful, both are crucial for long-standing efforts against climate change… neither are matters for any other boundary than the nation concerned.


The economic and educational perspectives are crucial in showing that national co-operation is pivotal in tackling climate change. As international proposals can sacrifice local economic advantages, so sovereignty ought to be upheld. The UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) prevails where Kyoto had failed. The Act has been instrumental in ensuring the UK’s GHG emissions have fallen below 1990 levels by 35% as we can regulate the carbon economy independently. We are the first country to have set legally binding emission targets and have inspired (not forced) other countries to do it; too to take action e.g. in adopting Congestion Charging, which has reduced traffic in London. Therefore, global change ought to be derived from national motions – not the other way around. Remarkably and to an underrated extent, China is apparently leading the way on action against climate change. Due to that country’s credentials on issues from democracy to surveillance to human rights, that alone is enough to spur others into action – China being a leader in global challenges is a worrying fact, our own education is crucial in offering democratic alternatives.


International co-operation has resulted in conflicting interests amongst states, stunting progress. It is better for nations to recognise their own problems and capabilities and act accordingly. This has become almost a necessity in a new era of demands for sovereignty in the EU, US and elsewhere. For example, wealthy nations may become reluctant to channel budgets to those vulnerable to climate change if domestic difficulties arise which need funding. It is of greater sense and prosperity to educate people and create conflicting groups within the state which can form a dialectic and thus advancement from the problem. The current Programme for Rational and Efficient Energy Use in Argentina urged 10% of all electricity by 2017 be run from renewable sources – while climate change is part of the educational curriculum. International discussion did not result in this. Instead it was Argentina’s independence to tackle the issue themselves and thus add to the aggregate total global response in any case. The world may do well to trust nation states.


Global co-operation ought to be the dominant form of exercise in economic, rather than environmental, or even social fields. Economically, all of us strive towards the same goal – financial security and independence, and it can be remarkably easy how this may be done. Globalisation has certainly complicated the business and resulted in the erection of exploitative business overseas. The country in receipt of the foreign investment should work to co-operate with the sending country so that this exploitation is cut, e.g. through the use of tariff-cut incentives conditioned on a wage for the host workers. This way, prices can be kept low for home-consumers and wages sufficient for host-workers. At the same time, the west should keep an eye on the back door – nation states’ first and upmost responsibility is to themselves, not their wealthy businessmen. Complacency on this has sown the seeds for Trump, Brexit and questionable conservative governments. Boris Johnson is currently the UK Prime Minister not due to a renewed love for conservatism, but Brexit, the result of chaos in the Tory Party. Similarly, Donald Trump is not US President due to a renewed national love for true conservatism.


Global integration has, in fact, come to exacerbate the anthropogenic-forced climate change and economic changes in nation states. Successful national co-operation is also more favourable than global co-operation, not least because it is easier and more in touch with the people. Globalisation is another phenomenon that has increased farming (methane), transport (nitrogen oxides) and manufacturing (CO2) as commodities and labour are spread from a businesses’ cores and consumerism has exploded. Although international co-operation is often beneficial economically and socially on a grand scale (e.g. health from imported healthy foodstuffs, thinking from influential foreign ideas etc.), it alienates too many people, while success against the specific issue of climate change is often derived from within.

At the time of writing, Jack Margetson is a second year student at the University of St Andrews.

The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs

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