There must be a change in the way the climate talks are conducted

The world watched as the UN Conference on Climate Change came to a close; with all the talk of looming temperature increase and irreparable damage, many were hoping for an ambitious agreement that would save the planet. It was not to be. The outcome barely qualifies as an agreement and even less as ambitious.
Reinier de Graaf
Reinier de Graaf

The world watched as the UN Conference on Climate Change came to a close; with all the talk of looming temperature increase and irreparable damage, many were hoping for an ambitious agreement that would save the planet. It was not to be. The outcome barely qualifies as an agreement and even less as ambitious.

Ever since the first UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972, awareness of climate change and the need for a sustainable solution has increased exponentially as political groups like the Club of Rome led to the formation of intergovernmental panels and international climate forums, and eventually formalized standards such as LEED and BREEAM in the building industry. With over ten million having watched Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, an International Day of Climate Action in October with 5200 rallies in 181 countries this year, and an editorial published in 56 international newspapers reaching a global readership of over 500 million, the issue has received extensive media attention.

Hundreds of ‘climate change’ summits and conferences have been organized all over the world, with the messianic COP 15 as the highlight: the 45,000 registered attendants turned it into a Woodstock for ‘good doers’ and protectors of the planet. It is certainly not a lack of ‘awareness’ keeping us from changing the future.

Nevertheless, we have yet to see real results. In the editorial published on the opening day of COP 15, the writers call “not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics…Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.”

By now we can conclude that what many had ‘hopenhagened’ for did not happen.

Based on the current results, no amount of summits before 2020 would achieve the goal of limiting the rise in temperature by 2050.

Trusting that all went to Copenhagen with the same ‘good’ intentions, it shows that the summit as a vehicle towards a sustainable future has failed.

What we need instead is not so much a ‘radical new system’, but rather a revaluation of the system’s constraints which are holding us back. We need to realize that the fragmented nature of our current system – the nation state coupled with the opportunism of the market economy – cannot produce the collective response needed to tackle climate change.

Both the nation state and the market economy are based on an organizing principle whereby partial interests seek a competitive advantage over each other.

In such a system, the recognition of an opportunity inspires a race to action, while the identification of a risk seems to produce a collective paralysis, where each party waits for the next to make the first move.

In this context, a ‘leap of faith’ is often the hardest move to make, even if it promises ample economic rewards.

It can be argued that the majority of social welfare breakthroughs, like the abolition of slave labor, decent working conditions, the abolition of child labor, women’s rights, only happened by going against the grain of a primary competitive logic.

Take the politics of mid-eighteenth century United States: plagued by the divisive response to the abolition of slavery, the South remained dependent on farming, which was only profitable due to the exploitation of slave labor, while the Northern states had begun to invest in transport, technology, industry and communications and therefore had an economy that could withstand such a loss.

In the south, economic and political decisions were made by plantation owners that operated as an oligarchy and protected slavery as an institution based on profits gained, leaving little room for any moral argument.

The refusal of the South to abolish slavery was not based on a lack of moral obligation, but on an economic dependence. Doesn’t the same apply to addressing climate change?

If there is one thing Copenhagen has brought to the foreground, it is that the potential of the current world to address trans-national concerns is limited.

There is still a huge divide between the advanced state of various trans-national initiatives and the strenuous political process required to come to consensus.

In this respect one of the sessions at COP 15 was illustrative: while in one room in the Bella Center a number of cross-UN capacity support initiatives in areas such as technology, adaptation and REDD were presented in an effort to engage country representatives, many of these representatives were in fact in another room arguing over 5 small words in the document of an Ad-Hoc working group, and did not hear about the initiatives, nor how the initiatives could help them develop their own national capacity.

Copenhagen has proven that when it comes to addressing climate change, we cannot rely on the good intentions of individual nations and their leaders, even when pressured to commit. In the end, the question is an economic one, and will have to be addressed outside current confines of generic add campaigns, endless summits, and unrealized treaties. Even climate skeptics cannot deny the potential economic and geopolitical gains.

Therefore, we are challenged to use the desire to combat climate change as an impetus for positive change in our government and economy.

Despite the honest attempts and prophetic claims to date, the disappointing result of COP 15 demonstrates that we need to push the boundaries of what might have to change in order to actually address the problem; it might be a lot more than we currently conceive.

We can’t blame the leaders as they, in an effort to save the world, were confronted with a Gordian Knot, forced to defend the interests and competitive advantage of their own individual nations.

The limitations of the market economy and the nation state inhibit collaboration and therefore restrict the scale of response.

These institutions themselves are the fundamental reasons why the call to action published on December 7 cannot be answered.

After all, it is not just a problem of polluting the atmosphere; in a way, our current economy and many international geopolitical struggles are based on the market’s dependency on CO2 emission and individual nation states’ desire to protect the market.

Undeniably, addressing climate change is a trans-national problem, and therefore an effective response can only be achieved within a framework larger than the nation-state; however, a new world council or global initiative would likely result in the same ineffective frustration that now lingers from Copenhagen.

What we need is a form of governance which transcends the sovereignty of the nation state but still remains an effective vehicle to claim specific domains which need to be addressed on a higher level.

Climate change could effectively be addressed on a regional scale using existing infrastructure like ASEAN, MERCOSUR and the EU, all of which have a track record of major trans-national achievements such as the creation of a single monetary union and an integrated regulated market.

Empowering these bodies both financially and institutionally could make them an efficient instrument in combating climate change.

In such a scenario, energy planning and security would be removed from exclusively national sovereignty, and transferred to a regional body of which the nation is an integral part, having and sharing responsibility at the same time.

In the end, it could well be the institutions most discarded in recent years that could prove to be the unexpected saviors of our planet.


Reinier de Graaf is partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, a leading international partnership practicing contemporary architecture, urbanism, and cultural analysis. 

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