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National egoism vs planetary responsibility

Aug 23,2021 - Last updated at Aug 23,2021

BERLIN — The man-made climate crisis is generating headlines this summer. There were record-breaking heat waves along the US and Canadian west coast; torrential rain and floods (and significant casualties) in central Europe and along the Yangtze River in China; and wildfires in Greece, Turkey, southern Italy, northern Africa, and even Siberia. And on top of all this, climate scientists warned this month that the Atlantic Gulf Stream, that great heat pump for western Europe, may be slackening.

Moreover, amid this summer of extreme weather events, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth assessment report (which had been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic). In much more explicit language than in the past, the world’s premier body of climate scientists made clear that humankind, particularly in developed countries and large emerging economies, is responsible for global warming.

The report also raises serious questions about whether we can achieve the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting the increase in temperature to 2° Celsius (but preferably 1.5°C) above preindustrial levels. The IPCC concludes that this is still possible, but only if we act decisively and immediately to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (particularly carbon dioxide) substantially.

Unfortunately, there are few signs that this is happening. And lest we forget, the Paris targets are relatively minimal goals that would only slow the climate crisis, not end it decisively. The countries that signed the agreement in December 2015 did so of their own volition and are free to set their nationally determined contributions as they see fit. Presumably, some signatories secretly hoped that the climate crisis would develop more slowly and less intensely than it has. They lost that wager, and now the time for action is growing scarce.

The central conundrum of the climate crisis is that we must rely on the structures of a global system based on the egoism of nation-states. Joint action to fend off a common threat on behalf of all humanity must be taken through the narrower, older channels of sovereignty. The idea of global responsibility to maintain the basis for our common survival is alien to such a system. Coming to grips with this disconnect will be the great challenge of the twenty-first century.

In its assessment of the fallout that is yet to come, the IPCC implies that we must fundamentally transform the global economy within the space of the current decade. The technological and economic obstacles are enormous, but the political challenge is no less daunting.

The more obvious that the climate crisis becomes in people’s daily lives, the clearer it will be that we are running out of time. The issue increasingly will drive international politics, forcing realignment away from traditional geopolitics and toward a new dispensation of joint planetary responsibility. After all, no state, no matter how powerful, can solve this problem alone. The task requires the solidarity and cooperation of all humankind.

Unfortunately, the history of our species shows that genuinely inclusive global cooperation is not one of our strong suits. Any chance of success under such time pressure will require the great powers to come together and demonstrate global leadership. That includes the two superpowers of the twenty-first century, the United States and China, but also the European Union, India, and others.

The current rivalry between the US and China is playing out mainly in the field of technology, a sector that is particularly important for addressing the climate crisis. The idea that humankind bears a planetary responsibility presupposes that it has the knowledge and power to control the biosphere. That will require comprehensive structures for compiling, sharing, and leveraging data, in real-time, if possible.

But, again, there are no signs of progress in this direction. On the contrary, a great-power rivalry has once again become the dominant factor in global politics and international affairs. State egoism continues to reign supreme, and it is not reasonable to expect two powers that are moving toward confrontation in all other areas to carve out areas for cooperation on climate change. Attempting to do so would most likely undermine, rather than bolster, the mutual trust that is needed to address the climate crisis.

To be sure, the West has made grave errors in its behaviour towards China. In nakedly pursuing its economic interests, it willfully overlooked China’s geopolitical interests and intentions. But we should not amplify past mistakes by making new ones. Just as we should not return to the West’s old, flawed China policy, nor should we deny that the climate crisis must be at the strategic heart of international politics in this century. Otherwise, all of humankind will pay the price for our failures of leadership.

This is not the time to pursue traditional power politics. Today’s great powers must take steps towards embracing planetary responsibility. And to succeed, they must take these steps together.


Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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