The Energy Secretary Ed Davey says world governments are facing a "pivotal moment" on dealing with climate change. Photo: Getty
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Why a climate change agreement next year could be global diplomacy's last stand

With the golden age of international diplomacy behind us, the UK government has today published its thoughts on why a global deal on climate change is going to happen and is in our interest.

A new joint report from Green Alliance, WWF, Christian Aid, RSPB and Greenpeace believes we will have a global agreement on tackling climate change by the end of next year. If we do, it will be an exceptional event. Nations working together is no longer the fashionable way to deal with  problems. The UN is looked upon as indecisive, the EU is seen as technocratic  and even the United Kingdom is barely living up to its name.

There has been some hesitancy from both sides of the political spectrum towards the prospect of the 2015 deal. Earlier in the year, the Fabian society produced a pamphlet calling for “a much greater focus on rebuilding democratic capacity rather than focusing on securing legislative change at a national and supranational level.”

Meanwhile, potential Conservative mayoral candidate Michael Liebreich has written in detail why he thinks past global deals have been a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. He believes an agreement will be made next year but, for him, it is a distraction from the bottom-up innovations already going on in the private sector.

There’s a lot to agree with in this argument, particularly not seeing the negotiations as a “one-off game” dictated by a central authority. It is true that decarbonisation doesn’t happen in rented soccer stadiums or badly lit conference centres, but on the ground, driven by investment in low carbon instead of high carbon.

However, these very real and exciting innovations in technology and financing are not separate from the international process but a part of it. It has been a virtuous circle: the technological deployment is accelerated by greater international co-operation and, in turn, the technological deployment makes a stronger agreement more likely. And so achieving a good deal matters, because, not despite of, the action we’ve seen on the ground. Through the frustration, we’ve learned pragmatism and possibility from past climate conferences and have a greater understanding of how top level action links to what actually happens on the ground. 

Thankfully, that does still seem to be the attitude of the UK government which has today published its own thoughts on why it thinks a global deal will happen and why it is in the UK’s interest.

Meanwhile, as is clear to everyone involved now, the US and Chinese administrations are in the most ambitious place they’ve ever been and are determined to deliver something in the Paris talks in just over a year's time. Just as it seems the golden age of international diplomacy may be behind us, climate change may show the world it's still possible for us to work together. 

But not just any agreement will do. We need more than a piece of paper and a nice photo op by the Eiffel Tower. To bring about real change, an agreement has to do several things, from linking climate action with developing the world’s poorest economies to dealing with deforestation, and our report is clear how they can be achieved. However, there are two essential  elements worth highlighting that will help countries of the world to act together for the long term.

First, governments and businesses need to trust that countries will deliver on the promises made in the agreement, which means it must have a clear legal basis that works for different national constitutions.

Second, nations need to agree to a long term goal for 2050. Which means ensuring the agreement enables ambitions to be ramped up in the future, ambition ready to be lifted every five years. This is because carbon targets will need to be revised as the science gets clearer; and, as confidence in the agreement grows, and countries implement low carbon strategies, there will be more evidence of the social and economic benefits of action and greater confidence amongst investors.

We need our political leaders to show us they are still capable of acting beyond their own borders and tackling the big issues. On 23 September, they will meet in New York to discuss the climate change negotiations being held in Paris next year. Whether as citizens or investors, we all have good reasons to care about the outcome.

With an agreement in place, everyone has a mandate to act and the virtuous circle can speed up, with both the bottom-up and the top-down processes pulling each other along further and faster towards real progress on tackling climate change.

 

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era