Why United Nations Climate Change Conferences Will Always Fail

November 5, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe issue of Climate Change, by its very nature, requires humanity (or at least a large part of it) to act in unison to remove this systemic threat to the basis of modern civilization and perhaps its own survival. Unfortunately, the nature of the problem and the scale of the related changes required, highlight extensive shortcomings in the current tools available for effective global agreement and action. These shortcomings have lead to over two decades of ineffective approaches, while greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. In parallel to this slow progress, the scientific community has become more and more alarmed as it unearths evidence of rapid climate change in the historical record, and positive feedback loops that may greatly intensify and accelerate its effects. As James Hansen, one of the leaders of the scientific community puts it “The international community seems to be headed down a path toward inadequate agreements at best. Civil resistance may be our best hope”1.

The main pollutant driving Climate Change, Carbon Dioxide (CO2), has an extremely long life within the atmosphere and thus travels across national boundaries with the level in the atmosphere equalizing around the globe. Thus actions by one or more countries to reduce CO2 emissions may be easily cancelled out by the lack of action of others, who may very well gain an immediate advantage through their inaction. The stopping of coal-fired power stations in the United States is more than cancelled out by the addition of new ones in China, India, and other industrialising countries. “The cost of environmentally bad behaviour and continued pollution is borne by everyone in the long run, while the benefits are enjoyed by the polluter immediately (italics/bolding added by author)2. Without global agreements between nations that can overcome this standoff the situation becomes a prisoner’s dilemma where both parties take the position of “they don’t trust us, we don’t trust them … let’s both optimize our local economies until we melt down and die”2. To overcome this situation some form of global governance is required, with individual countries ceding sovereignty to a global institution with the power to set targets and impose penalties against countries that fail to meet those targets. Only in this way can the possibility of “freeloading” be removed and the necessary trust maintained. An example of such a supranational body is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Climate Change “may turn out to be the defining issue for global security in the 21st century <italics added by author>”3, and was discussed at the UNSC in July 2011. The UNSC is not tasked with removing this threat though, as this task is attempted under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a much weaker legally non-binding treaty.

A number of authors have identified the current UNFCCC process as not well suited to the needs of reduce greenhouse gas emissions, described as a “cumbersome UN-led pursuit of a legally binding global treaty, a process that has been on slow forward”4, and have argued for a coalition of major countries they see as having worked well together in this area4, or of the “enthusiastic countries”5, to start regulating their emissions and then provide a mixture of normative behaviour, sanctions and incentives to have other countries comply. This overcomes the need to gain agreement across a large range of heterogeneous countries with differing interests and capabilities. It also mirrors the successful experiences of the establishment and growth of the European Union, and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade (GATT) and the successor World Trade Organization (WTO). An assumption within these proposed approaches is that there is a significant enough group of countries ready to act in such a concerted fashion to kick-start the reduction in global emissions. With the political situation in the Unites States not supportive of significant action, and other wealthy countries such as Canada and Australia becoming less supportive, the members of a possible coalition are dwindling. The post-Fukushima shutdown of nuclear installations in Japan and Germany, which has resulted in increased carbon emissions, would also make membership of such a coalition problematic for those two countries.

A major impediment is also the differing level of economic development and wealth between nations. These differences mirror the previous CO2 emissions of individual countries, with the more advanced ones having contributed many times more to the current level of atmospheric CO2. For example, the United States “with only 5% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 17% of total accumulation of those gases …. and for about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions”4. Quite logically, the poorer nations ask why they should have to shoulder the costs of remedial actions for a problem which they themselves did not create. Fast developing nations such as China and India, which are heavily dependent upon increased fossil fuel usage for ongoing growth, can also protest at actions that would stop them from achieving the wealth and power enjoyed by such historical CO2 emitters as the United States, Europe and Japan. Such arguments lead to discussions of equitable allocation of the “allowable” amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, which provide a fundamental challenge to the current global distribution of wealth and power and raise memories of colonial exploitation by the Western nations. As Marsden states “If the West accepted a carbon space allotment it would amount to a recognition of the enormous inequality that exists between rich and poor countries. It would constitute a voluntary retreat from economic dominance and signal a readiness to redistribute wealth”6. In the current political climate the proposal of such actions by a politician in the wealthier countries would amount to political suicide. As commentators such as Kennedy have noted7, relative economic power also drives relative military power and thus any such unilateral action would equal unilateral disarmament. This would be resisted by the military-industrial nexus and place the interests of the country taking such actions at risk with respect to its competitors. It is difficult to even imagine such actions being taken by any of the dominant powers, exactly the nations that are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

The differing geographies of countries will also affect how much impact Climate Change will have on them. A country such as Bangladesh, with a substantial part of its territory close to sea level will have a very different experience than that of land-locked Switzerland. For some countries Climate Change may provide distinct advantages, an example being the nations that border the Arctic, the “New North” where “agriculture will also shift northward” and where “particular focus will be the oil, gas and other subterranean treasures to be found inside the Arctic Circle”8. The countries of the Arctic Council are actively discussing such opportunities9.

Another issue is the amount of time such an approach would take to implement the required emissions reductions to forestall dangerous levels of climate change. The inability to gain any traction over the past two decades, together with the carbon emissions intensive development of such countries as China and India driving global emissions to a new high in 201210, has removed much of the time available for global society to reach a viable solution. In the cases of the EU and the GATT/WTO efforts took many decades to reach fruition. Modern society is based upon the exploitation of fossil fuels, firstly coal and then oil and gas. The energy provided by these fuels has become central to the existence of our complex societies as evidenced by the impact of the electrical supply failure in parts of the United States and Canada in 2003, or the blockade of oil depots in the United Kingdom in 2000. These fuels are also used as inputs to chemical processes that provide the bases for an extraordinary percentage of critical products, such as fertilizers, medicines, and plastics. Thus, actions required to limit the gases produced by burning and processing these fuels are bound to have wide-ranging economic impacts. Such actions will include the replacement of a fossil fuel based energy infrastructure with one based upon renewable energy, together with carbon capture (if viable) for fossil fuel usage. The historical experience is that such large scale technological changes take decades to fully defuse throughout an economy11. As “most environmental problems are solved through relatively simple technological shifts and regulatory policies”5, Climate Change cannot be seen as a typical environmental problem. Given this, attempts to solve Climate Change using approaches previously utilized for typical environmental problems, such as atmospheric ozone depletion, are not appropriate.

Much of the proposed changes to address Climate Change also contradict the current dominant neo-liberal beliefs which permeate many global agencies and the administrative and decision making apparatus of many of the countries with large greenhouse gas emissions. Actions to reduce emissions that affect market prices (e.g. carbon pricing), taxes (e.g. carbon taxes), the decision making of market participants (e.g. lack of approval for new coal power stations), or limit trade (e.g. tariffs or other trade barriers against goods made with high emissions) are seen as unwarranted interventions into the workings of the free market and opposed by most economists, policy makers, and bodies such as the WTO and IMF. The latter body, which “has become a major site of global economic governance”12, is supported in the use of the neo-liberal paradigm by a wide range of social actors, such as “Bankers’ associations, chambers of commerce, mainstream think tanks, and the like”12. Due to this extensive support, other discursive paradigms have had very little impact upon the IMF, and “social movements have to date made only a modest overall impact”12. The impact upon the other major neo-liberal institutions, the World Bank and WTO, can be seen as superficial and tactical at best with no real change to the fundamental world-view of those institutions. The focus of the global Climate Change policy process within the confines of the UNFCCC can be seen to be extremely problematic given that it does not affect some of these major, and much more powerful, institutions.

The conceptual basis of the neo-liberal beliefs also form a significant barrier to the collective actions required to address the challenges of Climate Change, as “neo-liberal strategies of rule, found in diverse realms including workplaces, educational institutions and health and welfare agencies, encourage people to see themselves as individualized and active subjects responsible for enhancing their own well being”, and “’degovernmentalization’ of the welfare state, competition and consumer demand have supplanted the norms of ‘public service’”13. Within this neo-liberal discourse government policies designed to change individual and corporate practices with the intent of reducing greenhouse gases can be seen as defective as they “seek through government to force people to act against their own immediate <italics added by author> interests in order to promote a supposedly general interest”14. The need to modify immediate actions which may result in reduced prosperity, and/or discomfort, now for the future benefit of society as a whole and future generations is one of the core challenges of Climate Change policy. Neo-liberalism treats such actions as an unacceptable intrusion into individual freedom and the functioning of the free market. In contrast to the beliefs of mainstream economists, the aggregate result of individual’s selfish behavior will create a very negative result for humanity as a whole. As in previous emergencies, such as economic management during the two world wars, the visible hand of government and politics is required given the shortcomings of the invisible hand of the market.

Climate Change provides the greatest challenge yet to the ability of the global community to solve important systemic issues. It challenges the very existence of our global civilization, but in a way that does not provide the trigger of an immediate emergency to precipitate action against a common enemy or threat. At the tactical level, the way in which Climate Change negotiations have been structured has been seen to be greatly flawed, while proposed alternatives also suffer from major shortcomings. The net result of over two decades of the current approach is an “Ad Hoc Working Group”, which,” shall complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order to adopt this protocol … from 2020”15. It will by then have taken over three decades of effort to start implementing globally coordinated reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, if the process is not further delayed or derailed.

At a more fundamental level, the changes required to address the situation fundamentally challenge many of the ways in which the worlds’ economies and societies operate, and require extensive alterations to the current ruling set of beliefs. The very nature, scale, and scope of these issues have helped render the global community unable to respond effectively, and in time, to save itself from the consequences of inaction. The very uncertainty in the timing and the scale of the impacts aids this inaction through psychological inertia. “We seem oblivious to the danger – unaware how close we may be to a situation in which a catastrophic slip becomes practically unavoidable, a slip where we suddenly lose all control and are pulled into a torrential stream that hurls us over a precipice to our demise”1. Hopefully, action will not have to wait until the impacts of Climate Change create real, significant, and irrefutable, rather than possible, threats to human societies. At such a point the need for global cooperation will be even greater, with attempts at internationally agreed climate geo-engineering perhaps the only avenue left to humanity to forestall harmful unilateral actions and a spiral into chaos and war. The increasing understanding of the ability of complex systems, such as the earth’s climate, to rapidly move to very different states when pushed beyond certain boundary conditions underscores the need to avoid such a situation. Waiting for the political, diplomatic and economic establishment to solve this impending crisis is a losing proposition. Instead, direct action and civil resistance may indeed be the only viable approach.


1. Hansen, James (2009), Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, Bloomsbury USA

2. Clemons, Eric & Schimmelbusch (2007), The Green Dilemma, Wharton University. Accessed a http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/~clemons/blogs/prisonersblog.pdf

3. Zala, Ben (2011), UNSC’s Climate Change Session Masks Members’ Intransigence, World Politics Review. Accessed at http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/9569/unscs-climate-change-session-masks-members-intransigence

4. Antholis, William & Talbott, Strobe (2010), Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming, Brookings Institution Press

5. Victor, David G. (2011), Global Warming Gridlock, Cambridge University Press

6. Marsden, William (2011), Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change, Knopf Canada

7. Kennedy, Paul (1989), The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Vintage

8. Barnett, Thomas (2010), The New Rules: Global Warming Shifts Focus to the Friendly North, World Politics Review. Accessed at http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/6516/the-new-rules-global-warming-shifts-focus-to-the-friendly-north December 3rd, 2011

9. n/a (2011), Arctic Council Leaders to Discuss Oil Development, Eyes on the Arctic. Accessed at http://eyeonthearctic.rcinet.ca/en/news/canada/35-geopolitics/871-arctic-council-leaders-to-discuss-oil-development December 3rd, 2011

10. Chestney, Nina (2012), Global carbon emissions hit record high in 2012, Reuters. Accessed at http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/10/us-iea-emissions-idUSBRE95908S20130610

11. Smil, Vaclav (2010), Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, Praeger

12. O’Brien et al. (2000), Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements, Cambridge University Press

13. Larner, Wendy (2000), Neo-liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality, Studies in Political Economy 63, Autumn 2000.

14. Friedman, Milton & Friedman, Rose D. (2009), Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition, University of Chicago Press.

15. n/a (2011), Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, UNFCC. Accessed at http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/durban_nov_2011/decisions/application/pdf/cop17_durbanplatform.pdf

Roger Boyd

I have a BSc in Information Systems from Kingstom University U.K., an MBA in Finance from Stern School of Business at New York University, USA, and a MA in Integrated Studies from Athabasca University, Canada. I have worked within the financial industry for the past 25 years, and am also a research member of the B.C. Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) looking at the linkages between issues of sustainability and models of ownership and finance. Most recently I have completed a book, to be published shortly by Springer, titled “Energy and the Financial System”.

Tags: civil resistance, climate change, environment, United Nations