Home Current Column Op-Ed: Why is there no Room for States’ Self-Interest in the Fight Against Climate Change?

Op-Ed: Why is there no Room for States’ Self-Interest in the Fight Against Climate Change?

by Lisa Hélesbeux

Editor’s note: This Op-Ed was submitted as an assignment during the preparation phase of the BEF2022.

Global warming is estimated to cost more than $3,000 per second, according to a 2009 study by the Global Humanitarian Forum[1]. While political leaders may be timid when it comes to taking responsibility and defending our nature, preferring to prioritise what they see as the interests of their own people to those of the world’s population, it will soon become — if it is not yet the case — in their economic interest to act for the environment.

So all governments, but especially those of the G20 — which, beyond their economic power, are particularly concerned since they are responsible for 80% of current greenhouse gas emissions and 99% of historical emissions[2] — must assume their responsibilities and understand that climate change is a common problem that cannot be solved without multilateral cooperation.

But, judging governments is an easy game, so let’s first put ourselves in the shoes of politicians and try to understand the reason for their lack of action.

First of all, it may seem that acting on climate change as a politician can appear to be a perilous political move. The main objective of a politician is to remain a politician. However, to act on the environment, at the international level, means to invest economically to solve a problem for which the benefits will not be immediate and not necessarily directly beneficial to the country itself, since they are not necessarily the ones primarily concerned.

Moreover, cooperation is mainly « built on defeating a clearly identifiable source of threat », according to Pedro Mariani[3]. As presented by realism theorists, states are primarily concerned with ensuring their security and extending their power because of the competition between them. Thus, they will avoid accepting international norms that could endanger this power.

And indeed, cooperation is mainly implemented for obvious events, whose consequences for the country’s security cannot be ignored, such as geopolitical tensions or pandemics. But, the effects of global warming, although increasingly noticeable, do not seem obvious enough for all politicians to be willing to cooperate, putting aside their selfish interests. But actually these effects are as obvious as geopolitical tensions or pandemic problems, and they are even particularly linked. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic is partly due to a common enemy of climate change: deforestation. In effect, deforestation leads to the deprivation of habitat for various species which facilitates their contact with humans, increasing the likelihood of developing zoonotic diseases. This then leads to a magnificent vicious circle: the consequences of pandemics due to these diseases tend to accelerate deforestation, since the economic recession due to these pandemics can push governments to stimulate their economy, especially their agricultural and export economy (which includes increasing deforestation)[4].

Also, geopolitical tensions will increase with global warming: through the disappearance of territories, the increase of migratory waves and inequalities, and so on.

So, yes, climate change may not be as visible as a nuclear conflict or a fire in your neighbourhood, destroying your property, your memories or your family. But the reality is that « our house is burning and we are looking somewhere else »[5].

This is why every individual needs to understand the selfish reasons why governments are not doing enough about climate change and how important it is to put the common good ahead of our private interests. Because climate change has no borders and states must fight it hand in hand.

The most powerful states must work towards a binding system of accountability: the biggest polluters must be held responsible for their pollution. Ideally, to ensure the effectiveness of this system and the enforcement of climate goals already set, states should agree to set up an International Environmental Court with jurisdiction over both states and multinationals, or to extend the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in environmental matters, as was attempted from 1993 to 2006. But this requires all states to accept that the interests of humanity must come first.

Furthermore, climate change is well underway, and in addition to avoiding its worsening, states must help the territories and populations that are already suffering the effects of climate change. Economic, social and gender inequalities will increase considerably. Indeed, climate change will increase inequalities. The G20 must therefore commit to protecting the poor and vulnerable, especially women and girls, from climate risks.

Each individual and each State must become aware of what is at stake, and agree to go beyond the defence of national interests to establish a peaceful global governance and work together.

[1] Global Humanitarian Forum. (2009). The anatomy of a silent crisis. http://www.adequations.org/IMG/pdf/humanimpactreport.pdf

[2] CARE Climate Change, Camilla Schramek, & Sven Harmeling. (2017, juin). G20 and climate change time to lead for a safer future. https://careclimatechange.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/G20-REPORT-.pdf

[3] Mariani, P. (2021, 5 octobre). Climate Change and International Cooperation. ALI Social Impact Review. https://www.sir.advancedleadership.harvard.edu/articles/climate-change-and-international-cooperation

[4] Pedro H.S. Brancalion, Eben N. Broadbent, Sergio de-Miguel, Adrián Cardil, Marcos R. Rosa, Catherine T. Almeida, Danilo R. A. Almeida, Shourish Chakravarty, Mo Zhou, Javier G. P. Gamarra, Jingjing Liang, Renato Crouzeilles, Bruno Hérault, Luiz E. O. C. Aragão, Carlos Alberto Silva, Angelica M. Almeyda-Zambrano. 2020. Emerging threats linking tropical deforestation and the COVID-19 pandemic . Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation .

[5] Discourse of the former French President Jacques Chirac, pronounced twenty years ago, in 2002 in Johannesburg during the Earth summit. Since then, the situation just worsen.

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