If New York fails, cities will have to take the lead once again.

Demonstrators make their way down Sixth Avenue in New York during the People's Climate March Sunday, Sept. 21, 2004 (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Demonstrators make their way down Sixth Avenue in New York during the People’s Climate March Sunday, Sept. 21, 2004 (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Cities have been at the forefront in the fight to reduce carbon emissions. National governments however, with few exceptions, have been far slower off the mark. And they won’t pick up speed anytime soon.

By: Pierre Herman

With the exception of Germany and a handful of central European countries, carbon emissions continue to rise unabated despite what are now multiple global summits, increasingly strident arguments put forward by scientists, and the rise of popular movements like the particularly clamorous one which overtook the streets of Manhattan this past weekend. So after decades of failure, what can account for the lack of meaningful action at a global level?

In one word, interests. States are interested fundamentally in strengthening their strategic position vis-à-vis other states, and whether those interests be on a regional or on a global scale, maintaining and expanding those interests has as much to do with trade tariffs, pre-emptive strikes on enemy states or attacks on ISIS as it does with inaction with respect to climate change at a global summit. For state actors, the destruction that climate change could unleash is a phenomenon viewed exclusively through the narrow lens of long-term strategic interests and those of other competing states.

Canada’s position is a case in point. A traditional green-leaning nation, it has in the last decade reversed that role in favour of one that backs domestic oil interests and publically denies the extent to which climate change threatens global calamity. What has swayed them is perhaps the knowledge that Canada will most certainly benefit from climate change with a longer growing period, less harsh winters and an expanded population base to fill those barren northern climes and reinforce its strategic position in the world.

Other countries may be betting that damage to their own landmass, whether that involves declines in agriculture yields, eco-system damage, or lost coastline, and even economic losses, may be offset by even greater destruction to competing states, swinging the balance in their favour. Billions lose their lives in Africa? Shanghai flooded while the interior turns to desert? For states these situations present opportunities ripe for exploitation. A hollowed out and therefore weakened Africa presents a more manageable environment for uncontested resource domination on the continent. A weakened China would likewise mean the US can maintain its global hegemony, military might and continued technological dominion. Let’s not even begin to fathom the relevancy that the submerging of some tiny Pacific island nation might have in more powerful nations’ global strategies.

Climate change and environmental destruction can therefore be viewed as much as a strategic weapon as a consequence of economic growth. We are well aware of the West’s role in the creation of ISIS, the organization that now controls huge swaths of Syria and Iraq, and as we watch on our television screens the US and the UK bombing what is now called a terrorist threat to our own freedom, we’d do well do remember what is strategically at stake: a region of the world traditionally hostile to US interests and laden with natural resources indispensable for technological development. The funding of groups that led to ISIS was no accident, and although it is not being argued that climate change was planned, it wouldn’t take much conjecture to see how states might be able to take advantage of it.

These interests also explain why past negotiations at climate summits have resulted in watered-down, impotent policy measures or simply complete and utter failure. At a global state level, there are surprisingly few mutually compatible, long-term strategic interests when fundamental long-term interests still orbit around issues of power and domination, rather than peace and environmental health.

We city dwellers and our innocent, community-centeredness and appreciation for life is no match for the glacially unyielding interests of global state actors. We’d be wise to wrestle back control and decide for ourselves what our strategic interests are and take action now to protect them. Cities have and continue to be leaders in climate change action and in reducing carbon emmissions. But we need to do more.


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This entry was posted on September 24, 2014 by in Ideas & Issues.

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