Friday, December 19, 2008

It's so much hot air

SOME juxtapositions just demand to be noted. On the same day that Kevin Rudd announced a skimpy new carbon emissions reduction target of 5 per cent, US President-elect Barack Obama was introducing to the world the crack team that would launch his administration's climate change assault. "This will be a leading priority of my presidency and a defining test of our time," Obama declared before the press gallery. "America will not just lead at the negotiating table. We will lead as we always have, through innovation and discovery, through hard work and the pursuit of a common purpose."

Remind you of anyone? Forgive the excursion into ancient history, but to me this is strikingly reminiscent of a pre-election Kevin Rudd. Remember when climate change was "the great moral challenge of our time"? In those days Australia was sold the idea of being a world leader on the global warming issue, rather than a nation that waited for the rest of the world to drag us into environmental virtue. We would set the pace and be proud to do so. The Howard government's stubborn inaction shamed us. Its successor would bring absolution. If anything, this was one of those rare issues where Rudd's discourse was even more soaring than Obama's.

Well, it not so much a question of morality now. That sort of language has been comprehensively shelved in favour of terms such as "responsibility". The language of leadership has given way to the politics of following: we may commit to deeper cuts in future, but the rest of the world must agree to do this first. To do otherwise would be to risk our economic wellbeing. This day, pragmatism is king and moral absolution is beside the point.

But for all the vehement criticism that Rudd's lost environmental zeal might invite, let us not pretend his modest plan is indefensible. We may be horrific per capita emitters, but our population is so small that you could cut our emissions to zero tomorrow without the climate feeling it. Let's just admit that radical, unilateral action will probably leave us with the worst of both worlds: a hindered economy and a ruined climate.

The problem is not that such rationalisations are wrong. It's that they are almost certainly right. Indeed, they are so right that every nation can make them with equal force. So China argues that developing economies should not be expected to make substantial sacrifices if the developed world will not. The US — at least under its present administration — refuses to move without China and India doing the same. It is entirely possible for this political staring match to continue indefinitely until a major climate disaster disrupts it.

This is the great climate change conundrum: we are using national governments to try to solve a global problem. It's a scenario destined to implode. National governments exist to govern in the national interest. But a national interest is a fundamentally different thing to a global one. What happens when a crisis pits these two interests against one another? As it stands, you get paralysis. We continue to fail to deal with climate change because we lack the political architecture to do so. The environment does not respect our national borders, and our national polities are not designed to have global horizons.

Viewed in this context, Rudd's retreat from the environmental front line, however disappointing, was inevitable. Obama's tune may be different, but it remains to be seen how well it plays when he is in power, especially if the international community is less than co-operative. Prepare for his story to follow a similar plot to that of our own once valiant climate warrior.

But here's the bad news. The great crises facing the contemporary world increasingly obey precisely the kind of global logic that confounds our nation-based politics. To see this, we need consider only three terrifying words to make the point: global financial crisis.

And as it happens, there is plenty of political paralysis surrounding this problem, too. It is not that a solution is impossible to imagine. Much as we can see that it would be a good idea to reduce carbon emissions, it is easy enough to say that large injections of government cash to stimulate the world economy is a good idea. But it's considerably easier said than done. Consider Europe, which is struggling to take precisely this step because its largest national economy, Germany, is reluctant to join in. This is a nation that has expended much effort in reducing its deficit, and shows little desire to undo this by spending huge amounts of money. That is, the German Government doubts such action is in its national interest.

The problem for other European nations is that unless they all act together, those that try to spend their way out of recession will be taking on all the debt for minimal gain. Why, for example, should Italians spend lots of money on German products, when the Germans aren't reciprocating? Suddenly, that's not in Italy's national interest. At this point we risk a cycle of inadequate action that eerily resembles the one that bedevils climate change.

That is why we have witnessed a seemingly endless parade of international meetings on these global issues — G8, G20, APEC — that ultimately achieve little more than "aspirational" targets or heartwarming sentiments to "work together". It doesn't work because the root of the problem remains: that international politics, even when pursued in international forums such as the United Nations, is a game of national interests.

That was fine when economies were national, pollution was localised (or so we thought) and conflict was something that happened only between states. But our world is now a more bewildering beast. Our problems may have globalised, but our politics has not. Today's world demands that nations do the most counter-intuitive thing imaginable: think and act beyond their own interests. If things continue as they are, the nation state will reveal itself as progressively redundant in protecting its citizens from forces that are beyond its control.

Waleed Aly is a lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University.

No comments: