There is a popular phrase, repeated in the environmental world, that looks like this: Climate change affects us all. It is a global problem that requires a global solution, because when the planet heats up we are all losers.

This school of thought – known as international liberalism among types of foreign policy – has long dominated climate discourse. The theory argues that cooperation, mutual benefit, and international organizations are essential for tackling world problems and ensuring good global governance. Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement attest to their enduring popularity, and their impact on the cultural narrative surrounding climate action has been massive. Indeed, everyone from former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Greta Thunberg has aligned themselves with the idea that global environmental problems are best solved through international collaboration.

The approach seems reasonable at first glance – climate change will surely be felt across the planet, from the Arctic to the Sahara. In its broadest sense, global warming will be indiscriminate.

But this is where liberal internationalist thinking reaches its logical limit – for if the presence of climate change is one thing, its real political implications are another.

Frankly, it is wrong to assume the good faith of actors who, far from being invested in a collective decarbonisation project, consider the increase in emissions to be in accordance with their national interests.

Instead, a serious international decarbonization campaign will have to start with a more realistic vision of the international order and build its political platform understanding that carrots and sticks, rather than hymns to international cooperation and interests. collective, are necessary to achieve our climate goals. .

The polar demarcation line

Here in the United States, the climate debate is awash in apocalyptic images: mass extinction, refugee crises and dystopian landscapes. And not without reason: Like most countries in the world, the United States stands to lose a lot as the planet warms.

But is this true everywhere? What about China, where melting Arctic Ocean sea ice will open up significantly better trade routes? What about Russia, where the once-unusable Far East may soon become a thriving industrial hub? What about Canada, where access to fresh water and fossil fuels could turn the country into a global superpower?

It’s a massive story that gets very little media coverage: For countries that are – or have interests – above the fifty-fifth parallel, climate change is not a risk. If anything, this is a huge opportunity.

Indeed, as the planet warms, the global economy could shift significantly north. Siberia and the Northwest Territories will become booming agricultural centers. Countries like Canada, plagued by small populations and declining birth rates, will experience a massive influx of skilled workers. The hydropower sector in Scandinavia will thrive.

And when the industry changes, the global influence is sure to follow. Landmark study by Marshall Burke, deputy director of the Center for Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, estimates countries like the United States could see growth slowed by up to a third due to unwanted climate impacts . Canada, Scandinavia and Russia, meanwhile, could see their GDP multiplied by five.

A global power vacuum therefore seems destined to open – and many have started to struggle to position themselves. None have perhaps been more aggressive than Russia, which in 2013 declared the development of the Far East a “national priority for the whole of the twenty-first century”. Russian President Vladimir Putin has started offering Russians free land in the region and has even discussed sending “hundreds of thousands” of Indian workers to meet the region’s growing labor needs. China, too, saw the potential of its north, investing billions of dollars in Russian agricultural development and establishing itself as one of the largest private landowners in the Far East.

The great powers are therefore ready not only to react, but also to capitalize on the melting of the Arctic, a move that could seriously jeopardize global climate action. This is of course not the first time that international liberalism has had a blind spot on the issue: the very idea behind the development of climate treaties – that countries like India and China could prioritizing emission reductions over economic growth – has been exceptionally, incredibly wrong. . But with countries whose interests are linked in the Arctic, it is even worse. Because it’s not that they don’t have a sufficient reason to decarbonize, it’s that they have a distinct reason not To.

And the Arctic is just one example of many. Indeed, for the majority of developing countries, the West’s clean energy campaign is more of a threat than an opportunity – industrialization requires a lot of energy and fossil fuels are simply more available than their alternatives. renewable. It cannot reasonably be expected, therefore, that countries like Indonesia – whose last two decades of growth lifted more than half the country out of poverty – would abandon their dependence on fossil fuels in the name of an environmental goal. poorly defined. It is a reality that has put the brakes on climate action for almost twenty years: even as the First World decarbonises, the push for industrialization in the Third World will cause emissions to skyrocket.

So if the goal is really to limit global warming as much as possible, then climate liberalism is a deeply reckless pursuit. Governments will undoubtedly have a role to play in the fight against the climate, but they must first recognize that nations have incentives not to engage in the fight and that even climate change itself will produce its consequences. winners as well as its losers. Despite all the catchy speeches and congratulatory handshakes, this truth remains fundamental.

Border adjustments

How, then, could the United States react?

The United States could play with the rest of the world, desperately trying to protect its interests in the north as the Arctic melts. Politically, it is perhaps even the safest decision.

But I would say the best fight – politically, economically and morally – is climate change itself. The objective should be to encourage decarbonisation abroad.

There are several ways the United States could be successful here. The passive approach, popular for its simplicity, would be to build on current trends in the global energy market. Granted, many countries can stumble into climate action by accident, implementing clean energy infrastructure for the simple reason that it is an increasingly cheaper option than conventional fossil fuels.

But while this approach is useful, it is somewhat incomplete. Countries like Russia cannot reasonably be expected to shut down oil and gas production due to falling renewable energy costs; fossil fuels remain too great a domestic resource, constituting more than a third of the country’s exports and providing almost 90 percent of their energy capacity. Market forces have certainly improved the position of clean energy, but many still view crude oil as essential to their continued growth.

Global decarbonization therefore requires that the United States and its allies pursue a more active foreign policy strategy, one that is best achieved through international economic pressure.

Fortunately, economies depend heavily on exports – this is certainly true for countries like China and Russia, whose exports represent 19% and 29% of their annual GDP, respectively. The United States, meanwhile, is the world’s largest importer, with the European Union accounting for more than a third of the value of exports from China and Russia.

This is where there is the clearest opportunity for action. In recent years, the possibility of a so-called “Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism” (CBAM) has gained ground as a hawkish climate policy tool. Designed as a customs tariff, the CBAM is intended to levy a tax on imported goods based on the carbon emissions induced by their production. The hope is that this will level the playing field of the economic game between countries that have environmental regulations and those that do not, a move that could spur decarbonization and reduce China’s long-standing supremacy in the sector. manufacturer.

The European Union will be the first to bring the idea to fruition, having adopted a proposal earlier this year to lift a CBAM by 2023. The plan could be deeply effective, with a study by the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research suggesting that border adjustment could reduce carbon leakage from the European Union (where companies outsource to countries with more lenient environmental regulations) by up to two-thirds.

Yet the power of the European Union’s CBAM is limited by the absence of other national border adjustment mechanisms. Europe is certainly a major economy, and the inbound tax will encourage cleaner manufacturing practices overseas, but its impact will be only a fraction of that which would result from the United States adding its own. CBAM model. Simply put, border adjustment will become more and more effective as more countries implement them, but for now the European Union is on an island.

To his credit, the United States has slowly started to consider the idea of ​​a CBAM, but the conversation remains frustrating and superficial. In July, Senate Democrats’ attempt to add a “border carbon tax” to the $ 3.5 trillion budget resolution made little headway – the Biden administration declined support for the proposal, and Republicans vehemently opposed it, calling the plan socialism. “

It doesn’t matter, really, because the American CBAM was not very serious from the start. Indeed, implicit in the concept of border adjustment is the expectation that countries levy a tax equivalent to their own national carbon price; This is the demand of the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose principle of non-discrimination defends protectionism. But America does not have its own carbon price and has instead tried to promote the idea of ​​”implicit carbon pricing”, in which countries can define their carbon price as the net cost of their environmental regulations. overlapping. By most accounts, such an approach is unlikely to retain water; as economist Michael Smart puts it, border adjustment “must be combined with a national regime” to be WTO-compliant. It appears that America’s leaders are not yet ready to take this seriously.

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