Climate change, it seems, is the mother of problems; what has not been woven into the tangled knot of climate changes politics: the loss of biodiversity, the gross inequity in patterns of development, degradation of tropical forests, trade restrictions, violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, intellectual property rights.
If one is to solve any of these problems, one must necessarily tackle climate change, head on as it were. By implication, once ‘we’ will have solved climate change, i.e., tweaked the thermostat enough to stabilize global temperature at some more or less arbitrary temperature target, ‘we’ will have solved all other these issues troubling humankind. The Nobel Peace Prize for the IPCC and Al Gore awarded in 2007 carries along a similar message: combat climate change and peace be upon us.
This is a caricature of the idealist politics of climate change epitomised in the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that commits its Parties by setting internationally binding emission reduction targets. The Protocol was adopted in Kyoto in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. As of June 2013 there were 192 Parties. Recently the 20th Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Lima, Peru.
But after the breakdown of negotiations in Copenhagen at COP15 in 2009, when Parties failed to reach a post-2012 agreement, few would bet on a legally binding global agreement to be reached in the Paris COP21 this year. The limits of idealist climate politics Since Kyoto came into force, the impracticability of large-scale emission reductions within the capitalist political-economy – notably its addiction to economic growth – and the geopolitical stalemate between industrialised and industrialising nations – notably between the US and China, – have presented a sobering reality for international and national political negotiators as global emissions continue to rise.
Whilst there were good reasons for supporting the Kyoto Protocol at the moment when it was negotiated, over the years several nations and big emitters have pulled out. Russia, for instance, has not joined the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which started in 2013. It decided to discontinue its participation because the world’s major emitters of GHGs, the US and China but also India still refuse to commit themselves to reduce their emissions. For the latter the gross inequity in patterns of development serves as a compelling argument against a treaty that favours the historically biggest emitters. And even if the US and China have recently come to an agreement, it is neither legally binding nor does the geopolitical situation encourage Russia to go along.
Of course treaties are only a formal starting point for international cooperation. Like any good legal framework, a treaty acquires a life of its own; as a political process, the treaty is adpating to the geopolitical reality. But rising global emissions certainly give credence to the fact that the treaty, as it had been envisioned in Kyoto, has failed by its own standards. Its ambitions could not be brought into alignment with those wider, conflicting political and economic rationales.
The argument for pragmatic climate politics
In view of the huge disconnect between the political progress made since 1997 and the worries caused by both physically experienced and scientifically imagined climate change, different avenues for climate action need discussion. Already before the watershed of Copenhagen 2009, in their analysis of idealist climate politics Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner had suggested a new pair of trousers for climate policy. In essence, their argument for pragmatic policies goes back to an 1973 article in which Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber describe such problems of social policy as wicked problems. As ‘mother of all wicked problems’, climate change would evade a silver bullet solution, argue Prins and Rayner.
Buidling on this argument, in a (meta)policy paper published in 2010, Prins and a group of distinguished scholars suggest pragmatic, no regrets policies which all involved parties can in principle agree on. In their analysis “climate policy, as it has been understood and practised by many governments of the world under the Kyoto Protocol approach, has failed to produce any discernable real world reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases in 15 years.The underlying reason for this is that the UNFCCC/Kyoto model was structurally flawed and doomed to fail because it systematically misunderstood the nature of climate change as a policy issue between 1985 and 2009.” On his blog co-author Roger Pielke Jr. put it like this: “Pragmatism is about taking the first steps on a long journey and not a comprehensive plan for how the last steps will be taken. That is how we fight disease, manage the economy and win wars. Climate change will be no different.”
Other than the UNFCCC/Kyoto model, pragmatic climate policies do not tackle global warming directly via emission reduction targets as if one could control such a pervasive entity. Environmental and human health benefits rather emerge as positive side-effect of policies dealing primarily with energy security and the modernisation of inefficient energy producers. In this view, climate policy should be connected with established institutions and forms of decision-making, for instance with national health policy-making.
Another advantage of this approach to climate change is that policies do not hinge on scientific truth; they do not provoke endless debates about the veracity of climate science. In fact they allow the science to reclaim its right to be wrong. Such policies are an advancement over the stalemate an idealist approach to climate policy has reinforced.