How do you solve a problem like the climate?

Despite the fuss people are making about climate change, nothing seems to change. Global emissions continue to rise, and governments continue to remain pretty passive. What can we do?

As individual ‘consumers’–not much. Only 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the stuff linked to individual consumer habits–like flying, meat-eating, or driving. The bulk of the emissions come from the actions of corporations and states–which, in any case, create the conditions for consumerism in the first place. So, how do we change the behaviour of corporations and states?

The problem, again, lies with structures. While individual behaviour is caused by the structures of corporations and states, corporations themselves are structured by states, which lay down and enforce corporate law. The only relevant actors are states: (1) core capitalist states like the US, France, and Germany (‘the core‘); (3) semi-peripheral states like China (‘the semi-periphery‘); and (3) high-emissions peripheral states like India (‘the periphery‘). The core is more powerful than the semi-periphery, which is in turn more powerful than the periphery. Rich states not only have to reduce their emissions internally–they have to incentivise poor states to do the same, while growing their economies simultaneously.

‘Green austerity’, or stopping/reversing economic growth to save the planet, lacks any legitimacy in poor states which (reasonably) want living standards comparable to those in rich states. Rich states, meanwhile, need to continue growing at 3-4% of GDP, lest their citizens start voting for stuff like Brexit, which means tearing political integration up. This is bad, as we need political integration to fight climate change. We need international agreements with enforcement mechanisms. Here’s why.

The UN’s Green Climate Fund: The only existing channel for rich countries to pay poor countries to decarbonise and develop their economies

Imagine there were no states. Then, there’d be no markets or corporations–as markets and corporations are the creations of states. Without a state, there’d be no culture, either: to engage in cultural activity, you need some free time and surplus resources, which are only provided by states managing resources. Without a state, there’s nothing beyond nature, whatever technology we can lay our hands on or create rudimentarily, and–well–us.

What would we do? It’s a trick question, because humans have always had state–albeit with varying degrees of centralisation. Even hunter-gatherer bands were (proto-)states, as they were political organisations in which coercion was wielded by the collective on the basis of a fairly egalitarian legitimation mechanic, without much wealth inequality, albeit with some status inequality to ensure group–that is to say, proto-state–cohesion and survival.

But, still, imagine. Say we were left to our own devices. What would we do? Well, we might try to form familial or friendship bonds with people. But there are only so many people we can know well at any given time–no more than 150 or so. So, with collectives larger than that, you need a (proto-)state, with relatively centralised coercion and legitimation to keep the state together. What if there was no state, though? How would we behave?

Thomas Hobbes suggested we’d be in a permanent ‘posture of war’, since we wouldn’t know each other intimately, and wouldn’t know one another’s intentions. This would produce uncertainty about your means of guaranteeing your own survival, leading to mutual antagonism and the permanent propensity of human beings to mutual violence. From limited resources (natural scarcity) and the ability of the weakest human being to kill the strongest (natural equality) proceeds diffidence, from which a ‘posture of war’ springs.

The state isn’t just the only way to keep people together in numbers larger than 150. It’s also the only way to keep people safe–from one another. By deciding on one person or an assembly of people as the ‘sovereign’, or governing ruler, the people–or, as Hobbes called them, the Multitude–can ensure they remain safe from one another, and cohesive as members of the state. Before the state, the only genuine collective identity is familial or interpersonal. The state is the first truly social collective. Other collectives flow from the state, as the state has what Max Weber called a ‘monopoly’ of ‘legitimate coercion’, or coercive force based on threats and rewards, and legitimation based on persuasion and manipulation.

But there is no constitutional world state. States may today be politically integrated internally, but there is no political integration on a global level. Individual states are like people in Hobbes’s state of nature. They lack any incentive to cooperate beyond preserving a balance of power and/or acquiring as much material power as they themselves can acquire through (in the past) military conquest and (today) commercial accumulation. To fight something as global as climate change, states need a material incentive to act. But there is no such incentive–as if all states act on climate change except (to take a random example) the US, the agreement doesn’t matter. The US will have got ahead economically by disregarding the international agreement, as there are no consequences for its ripping up the Paris accord, and global emissions would continue to rise. There must be an alternative.

A constitutional world state could solve all these problems by enforcing compliance with an international agreement on climate change, and by itself wielding global resources to invest massively in green energy, while remaining accountable to all the billions of citizens it serves. But super-states in history tend to form through military conquest. And there’s little hope in today’s world of competing states with nationalist legitimation criteria voluntarily ceding their sovereignty to such a super-state. The Brits can barely stand a tiny bit of confederalism in Europe. A US-style federal state globalised to allow all people the chance to participate in a federated, constitutional republic is out of the question for most voters in capitalist democracies–and is certainly out of the question for authoritarians like Russia’s President Putin and China’s President Xi.

There is an alternative. We could mimic the effects of a constitutional world state if we give climate change-mitigation agreements enforcement mechanisms–or a further agreement by which all states will sanction states which don’t comply. A bit like the WTO’s enforcement mechanisms on trade (where states can sanction each other for failing to respect the tariff-minimising ‘Most Favoured Nation’ rule)–but with climate change. Should we try it?

Sanctioning core and some semi-peripheral signatory states for non-compliance with mitigation agreements is a good idea. But sanctioning poor peripheral states is almost out of the question. We need something else for them–because they need to develop quickly. Otherwise, their political systems risk crumbling as authoritarians and oligarchs gradually take control. If one side of coercion–namely: punishments–doesn’t work, then we may need the other side–namely: rewards.

You guessed it: we need to pay poor states to decarbonise their economies while growing at the same time. But powerful states also need to grow, lest their citizens decide climate change isn’t worth fighting. If democracies aren’t doing anything, could authoritarian states like China lead the way?

Problem is: as China being increasingly authoritarian, it’s difficult to change anything if you’re not already high up in the CCP (China’s ruling, and only, political party). Given President Xi is extending his tenure until after 2030, it is almost impossible to change anything unless your name is Xi Jinping. Also, Xi himself is interested in making China competitive in the global economy, so he won’t act on climate change until other states do.

I’ve already noted why peripheral states can’t do much on climate change: they’re too poor and weak. Their priority is growth. And who can blame them? But core states like the US, France, and Germany can do something. Though the Kyoto climate accord included an attempt to limit greenhouse-gas emissions through ‘carbon credits’, the US never signed on and other states like Canada soon left, meaning its provisions are null and void. The Paris climate accord was doomed to fail because it had no enforcement mechanism whatsoever–no sanctions regime, no rewards regime. And the US, meanwhile, is leaving. The UN has created a Green Climate Fund to pay poor states to decarbonise, but no rich state has given much money yet.

President Macron tried to both make French workers more economically insecure with labour-market flexibility reforms, while also passing a fuel tax to help save the planet. Individually, these measures were unpopular. Combined, they led to the gilets jaunes protests, which have forced Macron to abandon the fuel tax, though he hasn’t undone the labour-market reforms. It’s (typically) ungreen capitalism–and it’s not going to work.

There must be another way. A way for rich states to agree to give the UN’s Green Climate Fund resources to pay poor states to decarbonise, and to agree to punish dissenting rich states which don’t comply with emissions-reductions targets, while maintaining states’ popular legitimacy. If small-state, free-market ‘green’ reforms tend to be illegitimate nowadays–especially given that, in a world of historically low interest rates, big government spending is transparently more efficient than austerity–perhaps massive public investment in infrastructure and social services would help cultivate popular legitimacy for fighting climate change. It legitimated states in the past–like America after the Great Depression, when Roosevelt rekindled faith in democracy by injecting massive amounts of public money into improving the conditions of the working class. Maybe public investment, combined with public ownership of major utilities that don’t benefit from privatisation (like water, communication, transport, and healthcare), can do that legitimating magic for a turnaround in state policy again–today.

So, we have a choice. We can either:

  1. Let climate breakdown continue to worsen, through the drought, famine, ocean acidification, mass migration, and ultimate political disintegration likely to come from 4-6 degree temperature rises–fuelled by a mixture of (a) outright political inaction and (b) useless attempts to ‘green the market’ while constraining state spending, thus delegitimating attempts to fight climate change and fuelling the rise of the far right; or
  2. Restrict temperature rise to 2 degrees by halving global emissions by 2030, thus mitigating climate breakdown–aided by a mixture of (a) public investment in rich states to grow their economies, level absurdly high inequalities, expand public services, and invest in green energy and (b) international agreements for rich countries to sanction each other for non-compliance and for rich countries to pay poor countries to decarbonise and develop their economies, through the UN’s Green Climate Fund. This would lead to general political movement leftward and an end to the vicious cycle of centre-ground and increasingly hard-right governments, while also saving the planet from climate breakdown.

We can, in other words, either combine or collapse. We can combine by giving international organisations like the Green Climate Fund coercive power agreed upon by a majority of the member states—perhaps subjecting such organisations to an elected, global democratic assembly. Or we can collapse by letting centre-ground governments, alternating with hard-right governments, do next to nothing on climate change due to the delegitimating effects of the financial crisis and inaction since then on addressing deregulation and privatisation. We need an alternative–domestically and internationally. And sooner rather than later. Luckily, some people are already on board.

Bernie Sanders is unique among the US 2020 Democratic nominees in his commitment to give the Green Climate Fund $200bn, and the Labour Party in the UK wants go give a certain (unspecified) amount. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are also keen on massive public investment–which, as we’ve seen, is the best way of legitimating a big change in public policy. They also reject austerity–while the Lib Dems and Tories did it, the Lib Dems want to continue it, the Tories probably will continue it, and Bernie’s opponents (from Elizabeth Warren to Joe Biden) don’t even want public health insurance because of how much they worry it would weigh on federal debt, induce capital flight, or cause inflation. However, this forgets three facts about the US political economy: (1) the US owns its own currency which the Fed could freely print to keep a lid on government borrowing; (2) the US economy is sufficiently big to prevent capital flight; and (3) Bernie’s progressive tax plans could be leveraged to control inflation in times of big spending. Therefore, government-debt default and capital flight can’t realistically happen in the US, and inflation can be controlled by progressive and adjustable taxation.

If we want to fight climate change, it’s clear the kinds of parties and politicians we need to govern core capitalist states. We can combine, or collapse. No reasonable person wants collapse. So, it’s time for states to combine their powers in both an accountable international organisation wielding coercive power (mostly based on rewarding poor states for decarbonising) and a coherent green sanctions regime, subject to a global democratic assembly, in order to properly fight climate breakdown. We can’t have a constitutional world state. But we can have a Green Climate Fund–and a sanctions regime subject to a global democratic assembly–to compel poor and rich states alike to act.

Let’s start now.

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