Friday, May 11, 2018

A World Eschew: National Sovereignty Eclipsing Climate Change

U.S. President Obama announced after he left the UN global climate conference at Copenhagen in 2009 that five major nations—the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa—had together forged a climate deal. He called it “an unprecedented breakthrough” but acknowledged that the agreement was merely a political statement and not a legally binding treaty and might not need ratification by the entire conference.  Essentially, it was merely a statement of the five countries’ respective goals, as if someone had announced, “I want to lose ten pounds.”   The political statement did not meet even the modest expectations that leaders set for this meeting, notably by failing to set a 2010 goal for reaching a binding international treaty to seal the provisions of the accord.  Nor does the plan firmly commit the industrialized nations or the developing nations to firm targets for midterm or long-term greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Claiming that the conference was a success was not to stop the spin. Obama, for example, said, “For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.” To be sure, the accord does provide a system for monitoring and reporting progress toward those national pollution-reduction goals, a compromise on an issue over which China bargained hard, and it calls for hundreds of billions of dollars to flow from wealthy nations to those countries most vulnerable to a changing climate.  That is, the political statement is not a binding treaty, but the document does lay out a framework for verification of emissions commitments by developing countries and for establishing a “high-level panel” to assess financial contributions by rich nations to help poor countries adapt to climate change and limit their emissions. Lastly, it sets a goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050, implying deep cuts in climate-altering emissions over the next four decades.

However, in a news conference, Obama said the accord was only a tentative start down a long road. The accord sets no goal for concluding a binding international treaty, which leaves the implementation of its provisions uncertain. In other words, any developing country can opt in or out of the monitored pot of money, and China may well still view the monitoring aspect as voluntary—meaning to be determined by the Chinese Government what can be examined.  The Chinese had been intransigent on the matter of verification by non-Chinese.  Citing national sovereignty, the Chinese had claimed that the rest of the world should take Chinese law as being a sufficient basis for verification.  This, I submit, is an extremely odd proposition—that people extrinsic to China should rely on Chinese law when the legitimacy of such law stops at the country’s borders.  The statement is telling because it demonstrates how antiquated the Bodinian notion of absolute national sovereignty is in the modern world.  The interdependence occasioned not only by global warming, but also nuclear proliferation and an increasingly global financial system, makes an insistence on the absoluteness of national sovereignty an extremely dangerous proposition.   The fecklessness of the Chinese approach to “verification” and the resulting diluted “political statement” (rather than a treaty) coming out of the conference suggest that we urgently need to thwart the historical insistence from our global vocabulary and institutions. 

The immediate implication is that the veto in the UN Security Council is no longer legitimate.  Further on, the binding nature of international law backed up by international governance structures that do not include vetoes needs to be developed and applied to the domains determined to be rightfully global.  Countries still insisting on the absoluteness of their national sovereignties, such as China on pollution-controls and the US on international criminal law, would have to bend or be boycotted by the rest of the world.   In other words, international relations and economic exchanges ought to be dependent on being subject to a governance structure beyond the nation-state.  If China is left as the only country insisting that nothing can supervene Chinese law, then no one in the world should have anything to do with that country.   In contrast, those subject to a governance structure that supervenes in particular enumerated powers (with sufficient safeguards against their encroachment…given the history of the US) should be able to enjoy benefits beyond the binding nature of such powers, such as privileged positions in trade and visas.   I would argue that governments that insist that their law is insurmountable deserve to be marginalized by the rest of the world.  I write this as an American knowing that the US may well be marginalized under this scenario unless there is some movement on international criminal law (i.e., being subject to the International Criminal Court, which in turn would be given the ability to go into any country and extract defendants).  

The technological development during the twentieth century means that political development is necessary in the twenty-first century.  We are so used to viewing change in terms of technology that we are perhaps unaccustomed to the sort of change that should ensue in order to obviate the new dangers from the technology.   In other words, we need to shift gears in terms of the domains wherein change is expected or thought to occur.   In some respects, we are still in the dark ages, and being in the dark when the planet could come to equilibrium unsuitable for human habitation—whether via carbon or radioactivity—represents a level of danger that ought to move us to action against the default of national sovereignty.  In some respects, we are so primitive; we tend not to see this because we identify change and development with technology.