Climate Governance Requires A Systemic Overhaul For A Peaceful Future

How does the upcoming Climate Action Summit hope to hear proposals for a peaceful future when its climate governance structure lacks the necessary fail-safes to counter systemic loopholes?

Twenty-first September 2019 marks the International Day of Peace. In lieu of the day and its annual theme of “Climate Action for Peace,” the Climate Action Summit is to be held at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York on 23 September 2019. The summit, paradoxically, is to be held against a backdrop that is anything but peaceful. Starting with United States (US) President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement in 2017 to 2019 when the mass-scale Amazon fires generated international outcry against Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, recent spike in the ultra-nationalist right-wing viewing of natural resources and denunciation of climate change as conspiracy has been dotted by protests across the world demanding systemic changes.

These instances have brought to light the conflicting underbelly of climate governance. The morality or scientific backing of the situation is no longer enough to encourage urgent action at the micro level. Trump and Bolsonaro’s stance on climate change in the international arena is in line with the nationalistic politics which has allowed them to be elected into power in the first place. 

Additionally, both instances have paved the way for businesses to profit. In the case of the US, businesses have stepped in to cover for the country's targets in the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s pro-business election campaign indirectly fanned the Amazon fires by creating an atmosphere of impunity and enabling several small-scale deforestations. The murky state–business nexus, characteristic of the prevailing neo-liberal regimes is being protested widely.The 2019 Climate Action Summit itself is to be preceded by a global climate strike which has been organised for 20 September 2019. 

We take a look through the EPW Archives, to articulate two important and uncomfortable questions that the summit must reflect on and find answers to if it hopes for collective climate action to lead to a peaceful future. 

1. At what point can international intervention into climate crises be called for?

Recently, Bolsonaro rejected the emergency fund put forth by the special G7 meeting held in France against the backdrop of the Amazon crisis, referring to it as an “unreasonable and gratuitous attack on the Amazon.” Bolsonaro’s reaction to the fires generated international outcry against his policies to open Amazon for business and his rolling back of funding for public institutions such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

However, underscoring the politics of climate change, Sanwal especially notes the case of China, at the Stockholm Conference (1972) which emphasised the sovereign right of each country on their respective natural resources.

Maurice Strong, the Secretary General of the [Stockholm] Conference, noted in his report to the Secretary General of the United Nations (UNSG) that ‘the Conference was more political than had first been envisaged’ as China had raised, in particular, two concerns that found their way into the Stockholm Declaration: ‘the price of primary products as the most important means for environmental improvement’ and that ‘each country has a sovereign right on its natural resources’.

2. How will private companies/ sources of finance be held accountable in their contributions towards climate change, and to whom?

The greater inclusion of the private sector was observed at the 23nd Conference of the Parties (CoP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany in November 2017. For Jayaraman, the conference was significant since it attempted to alter the terms of climate change governance. In the absence of an official US delegation, an unofficial coalition of non-state actors, “We Are Still In,” made up of 2,500 businesses and political leaders, argued that the non-state coalition could make up for the Paris Agreement US targets by itself. The coalition went on to receive heavy publicity and praise on the UNFCCC website. However, Jayaraman argues that such a step could eventually lead to undesired results. 

...The matter is considerably more serious when such action, led by coalitions of major business conglomerates and international NGOs, is given an increasingly and strategically significant role in the negotiations. Such coalitions, with funds that dwarf the meagre resources of a large number of developing nations... are capable of commandeering and directing the public debate and the course of public action in a manner conducive to their own self-interests. Significantly, the commitments made by such actors have no legal standing and there is no way that they can be held accountable except in purely moral terms.

Referring to neo-liberal capitalism as the “real driver of climate change,” Baber points out the hypocrisy of states and businesses alike to appropriate climate change policies as and when seen fit to further their own interests. These end up adversely affecting those already struggling to make ends meet while allowing those in positions of privilege to come off as environmentally conscious while profiting through further exploitation of natural resources. 

The claim that concern about climate change was the reason behind the flat fuel tax hike is of course absurd but consistent with the professional production and dissemination of slick corporate greenwashing strategies. Even the worst offenders, corporations such as ExxonMobil who salivate at the prospect of reduced oil drilling costs due to climate change-induced melting ice in the Arctic region, also naturally contribute funds for Earth Day festivals and recycling campaigns. Recently in India, after many legal challenges from environmental activists, the ecologically rich Hasdeo Arand forest in Chhattisgarh was given official clearance for mining by corporations. Responding to the real concerns about the environmental degradation that will surely follow, the buzzword of corporate social responsibility was predictably invoked by the corporate spokesperson who said: “the Adani Group is a responsible corporate citizen and it is evident from our care for the environment and communities … We are committed to the people and ecology of Chhattisgarh …” (Nandi 2019). Reflecting on the critique of the Yellow Vests from a climate change perspective, Jeremy Harding (2019) rightly points out that while it is easy for the average Parisian—with ready access to public transportation—to flaunt the lack of car ownership as a snobbish “ecologically conscious” status symbol, the struggling suburban and rural protestors pushed out of the city centres due to unaffordable real estate prices, are completely dependent on their automobiles for making a living. They were indeed the hardest and most immediately hit by the flat fuel tax hikes.

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