Can We Build a Global Climate Diplomacy?

I seem to be on a bit of a climate change tear lately. I would apologise, but we all know I’m not sorry in the slightest, and I’m going to force you to endure discussions about climate change whenever I see fit because it’s a critically important topic. The next few years in particular represent a cusp for action that we need to take before it’s too late; given that we should have been acting years ago, we’re already scrambling to make it up, and that’s not particularly good news for us or the planet.

One thing climate change underscores is that for all we attempt to maintain separation, the actions of people in one nation can have a profound impact on those living on another. Climate change knows no borders and doesn’t care where it distributes its consequences, from droughts to flooding to abnormal temperatures to desertification. The issue is a global one, which means that the globe as a whole needs to be prepared to partner to address it. If nations don’t cooperate, their actions will have a ripple effect that will counteract the efforts on the part of other nations to bring climate change under control.

Global cooperation requires, among other things, great science, to research what exactly is going on, to verify what’s causing it, and to explore possible solutions. And it requires a respect for that science and the people who do it, the promotion of climate science as a discipline, the creation of measures to help scientists do their work. In nations like the United States where one political party seems to actively hate and fear science, this is no small problem. As long as the GOP is involved in decisionmaking pertaining to science policy in the US, we’re going to continue having problems with even very basic funding and research.

And we need diplomacy. A functional climate change diplomacy in which nations actually come to the table willing to discuss the situation and make some sacrifices. The US has failed here too, attempting to pressure other nations into taking specific steps without being willing to do the same. It’s claimed that measures like the Kyoto Protocol were flawed and would harm US interests, and that it will take on its own climate change mitigation programmes, but so far, these have fallen short of reasonable benchmarks.

We seem to expect the rest of the world to pay the price for us, which is an utterly unreasonable expectation. Unsurprisingly, many nations are striking back at the US, demanding more equity in terms of responding to climate change and wanting to see more accountability not just from us, but from other industrialised Western nations which seem to think that their status as former colonial powers entitles them to some kind of special treatment. And a get out of responsibility free card when it comes to taking on climate change and their own role in it; we seem to think we’re entitled to resources that by rights belong to the world, and we appear genuinely shocked when the nations we think so little of dig in their heels on the issue.

We need a diplomatic corps of scientists and people focused on this issue who are not just extremely knowledgeable about it, but empowered to take specific action and negotiate actual deals. We can’t send people with no power to the table, because it’s insulting, and we can’t send people who have no idea what they’re talking about to the table, because that’s equally rude. It’s clear that the US has chosen not to make this a priority, which is utterly bizarre and frustrating, but the nation has a chance to turn that around and change the way it engages with the world.

Clearly the US is interested in protecting its own economy and political interests. By extension, preserving our environment offers some clear benefits, and it should be obvious to anyone who’s ever been in a room next to someone who’s farted that we are all affected by the actions of others no matter how much we try to isolate ourselves. The United States wants other nations to limit emissions and other destructive activities, and it must be ready and willing to do the same; it must show that it’s committed to preserving not just its own environment, but the global one.

And that comes with a cost. Even as the President has tried to grow green jobs and expand the sector of the economy that is more environmentally friendly, polluting and damaging industries are still thriving in the US, and they will until their activities are brought under control. When they are, yes, those industries will experience a decline and it will have an economic effect—this is inevitable, and the country has to face the fact that some outdated industries may die or need to be extensively rethought in order to develop a better and safer world.

This should be viewed as an opportunity, though; certainly the President has tried to make the best of it over squeals of outrage from firms who profit through these industries. If the US genuinely wants to engage with climate change on a global scale, it should put its money where its mouth is, and set an example. Just as California’s aggressive emissions standards and other environmental protections have been an example for the nation, the US could in turn show the world that it is in fact possible to be a major industrial nation and not be a jerk.