Global solutions: effective, efficient, equitable?

A persistent theme in much writing about the coming decades is the need for global agreements that go a good deal further than the technical questions of environment management. Nicholas Stern (the author of the authoritative Stern Review on the economics of climate change) is typical of this line of thought:

But we have to act together, to create a global deal – this is a problem that is global in both its origins and its impacts.

That global deal must be effective, in that it cuts back emissions on the scale required; it must be efficient, in keeping costs down; and it must be equitable in relation to abilities and responsibilities, taking into account both the origins and impact of climate change. (From Stern’s A Blueprint for Safer Planet, p.4)

Everyone seems to say as much, and as a statement of how we should approach the coming decades, it is impossible to contradict.

I just don’t believe it will happen. In fact I suspect that the most we can realistically expect is that the actions we take will be moderately effective. Civilisation will probably not collapse. But as for efficiency and equity, what is it in our performance to date that would lead anyone to expect either? I doubt that, whatever the deals we collectively agree too, our collective response will be anything of the kind. There are far too many countervailing forces for that to happen.

The efficiency of any future global strategy is almost certainly out of the question. As everyone admits, we are faced with global problems. But we do not have global systems in place to deal with them. On the contrary, our systems are not only fragmented but also full of conflict and antipathy between individual nations. There is also a profound conflict of interest between the owners and senior management of global corporations – the other most powerful economic players on the planet – and the rest of us.

Of course, in some profound sense we are all in this together, and completely failure will be fatal for all of us. But between here and complete failure there are many decisions to be made, each of which will benefit some and burden others. Reluctant though I am to say it of my fellow human beings, those who control the decision-making at each of these branching points will, more often than not, make sure that the decision is made in their own favour. That is to say, they will be decisions which are efficient for them. In Stern’s very appropriate words, they will be ‘keeping costs down’. This may mean keeping down the costs for humanity at large, but it will almost certainly involve minimising the costs of those who control the decisions. If this means increasing the ‘costs’ – the poverty, the danger, the hunger, the misery, the disease, the fear, the agony – of everyone else, then that will be presented as the best – or at least the least bad – alternative. Those who do not control these decisions will take the consequences. Which, in many cases, will be fatal.

As for equity, we have never taken this seriously in the past and I believe it will be a lot harder to take seriously in future. In the current (relatively) stable and affluent industrial world, only a handful of the most wealthy nations ever fulfils its public commitments on aid. We announce and re-announce help for long term development and short-term disaster, and then fail to live up to either. Given that the sums involved – currently just 0.7% of GDP – are so small that we would not miss them if we paid them in full, what can we expect of decisions about disasters that are not yet even visible. And in a future world of successive environmental crises, mass migrations, resource wars and much else, there will be far less concern for, let alone commitment to, equity. On the contrary, most of humanity will not even show up on the radar screens of the key decision-makers.

Why then should we expect equity from any future arrangements to curb climate change, resource depletion, ecosystems degradation, population growth and other environmental threats? I suspect that the real fount of future ‘equity’ is likely to be what it has always been – the economic power that countries like China, India, Brazil and Russia are already starting to wield. In a world of declining fossil fuels, the European Union will not be allowed to forget that Gazprom alone controls a sixth of the world’s natural gas reserves. The United States Treasury has long since started to eye nervously China’s enormous dollar holdings – they currently hold nearly $2 trillion in US Treasury bonds, whose manipulation could easily hole the entire western economy. These are people we will treat ‘equitably’ – because they come to the negotiating table as equals, not to mention rivals. But the hundred-plus countries that are each smaller than all of the world’s hundred largest companies? If GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco Systems and Wells Fargo are unlikely to be granted a seat at the top table, what can lesser economic entities like Estonia, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Trinidad and Tobago, Ivory Coast, Panama, El Salvador, Tanzania, Bahrain, Jordan, Iceland, Bolivia, Ghana, Paraguay, Zambia, Uganda, Botswana, Honduras and the many other yet smaller countries expect?

But not even the effectiveness of any future ‘global deal’ can be taken for granted. There are after all degrees of effectiveness. I previously suggested three levels of outcome for our current position: a setback comparable to a world war; an impact on our civilisation as a whole comparable to the fall of the Roman empire; and a threat to civilisation as such, comparable to a new ice age. As I have previously said, I do not know which we are really facing, but for all the reasons that we should expect neither efficiency nor equity, we should expect the effectiveness of our actions to be limited too – perhaps to the point where the twenty-first century goes down as the worst in history.

More precisely, we should expect rich and powerful countries that are situated in relatively cool regions to do as little as possible until they have no choice but to act in their own interests. That is after all what they have always done about global problems and what they have done so far about our current environmental threats. Even if they have the foresight to recognise that disaster in developing countries now will mean disaster for them later, they will almost certainly do only what is needed to forestall the later disaster to themselves. This will almost certainly be much less than preventing or remedying the original disaster to developing countries, no doubt accompanied by a great deal of hand-wringing, protestations of good intentions and dishonest claims to be taking ‘appropriate’ action. The real focus being on deflecting the negative consequences for the rich and powerful. Again going by our experience of aid, we will even find opportunities to benefit from the suffering of developing countries. Again, we always have. And then millions and millions of people will die.

The upshot of all this is simple. Simply continually asserting that our approach must be efficient or equitable will result in neither. If we want our response to the many environmental threats we face in the twenty-first century to be efficient or equitable, we must take a very firm and explicit decision that it should be so. More than that, we must create global institutions that represent humanity at large – which is to say, people rather the most powerful corporations and nation states.

It is hard to imagine what such an institution would look like. After all, none of our existing systems operate at that level. But in any case, I can still think of no compelling reason to expect any such institutions to be created even if they could be easily described, and the chances of their coming into existence will recede faster and faster as the real problems caused by 3° and 4° temperature increases start to hit us, as the global economy starts to unravel in the face of accelerating oil and gas prices and whole populations start to move in the face of poverty, hunger, disease and war.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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