As soon as I started to think more seriously about how we might tackle climate change, global governance immediately jumped out to me as an idea. It seemed obvious that a truly global issue would need be addressed at the supranational level. But of course, going from a planet where the priorities of nations are paramount to one where national needs come second would be the most phenomenal political, social and economic change (and that’s still a massive understatement). It would require altering our whole understanding of community and identity. But climate change is going to change our communities anyway, so perhaps radical solutions are what we need to make the difference.
The idea of international governance is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, not just from a climate perspective. The idea of national identity being the big-picture identity of choice has always confused me, as ‘human being’ rarely seems to figure into the identity equation, while American or Italian or whatever takes pride of place. As our economies globalise and transnational corporations spread across the world, pretending that many of our issues stop at national borders seems limited. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about the limitations of national governance, especially when it comes to saving our species from global warming.
Of course, my own brain is limited to the information I already have, so I was thrilled to read Dani Rodrik’s book the Globalization Paradox as it gave me some actual facts to inform my opinions. This was an important read, as it really challenged my basic thinking and did change my perspective on parts of the global governance debate. The central tenet of this book is that it’s impossible for the trifecta of national priorities, extensive globalisation and global governance to coexist. In Rodrik’s view, only two of three can ever occur at once, and he believes that global governance is the most farfetched of the three because of the hugely different cultural needs and priorities across the world’s almost two hundred countries. He does not believe that we could ever reconcile this diversity into cohesive international policy that wouldn’t cause outrage in many parts of the world. In fact, the idea of international governance is quite unpopular around the world, and is only popular with a small segment of citizens who tend to be wealthy and highly educated. Reading this helped me check myself and remember to contextualise my views within my own privilege, because while the whole world feels accessible to me a real way given how my relative wealth, strong home currency, widely accepted passport and native English speaking abilities allow me to be as mobile as I want, it remains closed to many people for a host of complicated reasons. I realised that the idea of international governance didn’t scare me, because I am exactly the kind of person who is poised to thrive from more freedom to move through, live in and purchase from all the world’s countries. For most people, globalisation has shut down their industries, pushed down wages and reduced their value in the job market, leaving many less skilled workers with few options for income. I might be – and am – okay in a globalised world, but most people are actively harmed or ultimately unaffected by greater international cooperation, and I have to reckon with that before I decide to continue to extol global governance as a viable option.
However, despite the important reality check, the climate crisis does not feature in this book and I think that this omission fundamentally changes the nature of the global governance question. There has been no issue to face humanity quite like this and it will almost certainly require extraordinary measures and uncomfortable changes, that, yes, might negatively impact people in other ways. In terms of the trilemma, if we keep global governance, we need to lose national priorities or hyperglobalisation from the equation. The uber-privileged wanker in me has already heavily questioned the relevance of national identity, and as technology and global markets connect us all across borders I do wonder why it remains so taboo to suggest that the nation state has had its heyday. I also think we could deglobalise, as it’s our incessant desire to move people, goods and capital across vast distances that has expedited the climate crisis. Many green plans involve a move back to local production, both to provide dignified jobs to the immediate community and to minimise the energy involved in manufacturing.
While there is heavy pushback to this idea, it seems so obvious to me that this needs to be a conversation when we talk about the climate. Climate change is a truly global issue! Yes, it impacts certain countries more than others, due primarily to geography and poverty, but the climate is changing everywhere and everyone will feel the effects, regardless of where you live. How are we supposed to address an issue that supersedes the nation state if we continue to put national needs above everything else? If what is most important right now for the survival of our species is for all economies to transition to sustainable models, then we should make that happen, national bank accounts be damned (which is the foundation of much of the discourse around climate justice). The idea that this will happen without international mandates is patently false, as developing economies have been imploring rich nations to support their green transitions for years to no avail. When you add this to the ongoing fight for global hegemony between the US and China, you see that neither nation is about back down, stop growing their economy and stop their overseas investments unless the other does too. Neither major superpower is about to hand global dominance to the other on a plate, even if the cost of continued political rivalry is that cities are drowned, people die and the world is changed forever. There is no way that the US, China, India and the EU are all about to stagnate their economies by choice and let the others surge ahead just because it seems like the right thing to do. We need coordinated, global efforts to enact any kind of meaningful climate action, and I struggle to see how we’ll get that without global governance having any real authority.
I know that this would be a colossal task. It would change everything. I don’t profess to know how it would work in practice. But I do know that nations have not always been the be all and end all of governance – indeed, there were many centuries where the idea of distributing any wealth nationally would have been seen as crazy – and that just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not possible or that it wouldn’t be effective.
Clearly, corruption would be a huge risk, as having a criminal nightmare like Trump in charge of the whole world would be even worse than having him at the helm of the USA. There would also be stuff to figure out to avoid any global leader essentially just being a voice for US or Chinese foreign policy, which will always be tough given the sway of these countries on the global stage and how much they stand to ‘lose’ from a more equitable division of resources as they both hoard much of the loot. It would be not be easy. But it might be worth it. There is so much focus on how absolutely vital it is to have companies and governments addressing the climate crisis, which I agree with wholeheartedly, but it’s not just one company or country. It needs to be all of them, even though they are currently all in competition with each other. We need to change the game and take away the incentive to beat other nations and economies by endlessly growing and producing at the expense of the planet and we can only do that if we approach governance, environmental policy and distribution of resources from the highest level. Petty infighting between countries will seem a lot less gallant as Miami crumbles into the ocean, the sea swallows Kiribati and people choke to death from toxic smog in Shanghai. I know the challenges of a political paradigm shift of this magnitude are vast – but the challenge of saving our doomed species is much greater.