By Rizwan Asghar
Global warming is a serious and immediate threat that the survival of humanity is facing today. Substantial scientific evidence indicates that our Earth is becoming warmer. There are observable changes such as the rise in sea-level, floods, drought, and extinction of species, which are attributable to human emission of greenhouse gases. The increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has gradually led to an increase in global average surface temperature.
According to the American Meteorological Society, there is a major possibility of global temperatures rising by 3.5 to 7.4 degrees celsius in the next 100 years. But we are doing very little to prevent it. The global community is failing to develop a regime for international cooperation against global warming. What explains this failure?
Ted Halstead, CEO of the Climate Leadership Council, recently stated in an interview that “international cooperation on climate change is being held up by one party in one country”. These remarks have led many experts to wonder if the failure to address the problem of climate change can really be attributed to the Republican Party in the US. Upon close reflection, it appears that the situation is more complicated than Halstead realises.
It is, in fact, more reasonable to argue that there are many systematic impediments that prevent multilateral action against climate change. The existing climate regime remains ill-equipped to address the problem of global warming because of entrenched differences among the major parties. It fails to provide developing nations with strong incentives to cut their emissions. There is no in-built system to financially help countries coping with climate change.
Though it is in the collective interest of states to take steps to play their part in the fight against climate change, no country seems to be motivated enough to bear the costs of the action. What prevents any meaningful cooperation in this regard is states’ concentration on the pursuit of relative gains in international interactions. If a few countries reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gas, they have to bear all the cost. And benefits will accrue to everyone including even those countries that continue to produce more greenhouse gases. The decision to cooperate becomes difficult in this situation since the scope for free riding is enormous.
The Westphalian state system is not conducive to the wide-ranging multilateral cooperation required to deal with climate change. States join alliances only to serve their narrow national interests. Many countries do not share the view that it is in our ‘immediate’ interest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and are reluctant to bear costs. As George Rathjens argued, “even putting aside the complicating fact of great uncertainty, getting agreement on some instrumentality to ensure that everyone – or at least a significant number – makes an appropriate contribution to a group effort to achieve the benefits of a well-maintained commons will be more difficult than in the usual case” of other problems requiring collective action.
Almost 20 countries are responsible for over 70 percent of global emissions. But efforts to cut greenhouse gas pollution must be global because the devastating consequences of global warming will be seen all over the world. The fact that developed nations – especially the US – are responsible for a major part of the problem does not mean that they should be the only ones that need to cut emissions.
Developing countries need to play their part too but that is not happening. India, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, is unwilling to be a part of future carbon emission commitments. This reluctance on the part of India to bear the burden stands in the way of reaching an agreement on climate change. The disagreement between developing and developed nations exists over different interpretations of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.
Another major impediment is the lack of consensus regarding the nature and magnitude of the threat to the world entailed by climate change. Other unsettled questions are related to the best ways to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions and how to pay for those actions. Any successful agreement must ensure sufficient participation and compliance with the rules.
There have been instances where multilateral diplomacy for finding solutions of environmental problems has shown success. The Montreal Protocol of 1992 was quite successful in phasing out the production of substances which caused the depletion of the ozone layer. The Mediterranean Action Plan for reducing pollution of the Mediterranean Sea is also considered a success story in international cooperation. But such cooperation was possible only in areas where it did not hurt the core national interests of states.
We cannot strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change until we remove these impediments to transnational collective action. The challenge of climate change requires eliminating the free rider problem which will be possible only if all the countries perceive climate change to be a serious threat to their national security.
Making it happen in a situation where sovereign states cannot be coerced into cooperation will continue to be a major political challenge for climate change activists.