Solving Local and National Problems Now

Solving Local and National Problems Now

International relations scholars have long argued that advocates of strong and meaningful policies to mitigate GHG emissions and facilitate adaptation to the effects of climate change have placed too much faith in the Holy Grail of global cooperation, given the now well-known challenges to reaching and implementing global agreements. Meanwhile, proponents of climate change action and clean-energy transitions have long decried the failures of citizens and politicians to adopt a long-term perspective and act accordingly. It is well past time to take both of these problems seriously and change course in climate change policy advocacy.
It is all well and good to assert that people and states share an interest in avoiding catastrophic climate change. This sentiment is usually accompanied by a further claim that global cooperation is needed to achieve shared interests. In fact, individuals and states have many competing interests, and most of them are more immediate than averting or reducing climate change. Rather than complain about this situation, climate change policy advocates would do well to accept it and get to work. Put simply, if we cannot simultaneously address immediate challenges faced by citizens and states while reducing GHG emissions and enhancing adaptation capacities, we will continue to fail to induce the energy, social, economic, and political transformations necessary to address climate change.

By all means, let’s learn more lessons from the rich history and the accomplishments of arms control negotiations, as suggested by Ruth Greenspan Bell and Barry Blechman. Frankly, there is also much to learn from international trade negotiations and international cooperation to improve airport safety and deliver the mail. But we cannot confine our gaze to instances of successful international cooperation. Even if we start smaller and break up negotiations into more manageable bits, or sing the praises of global volunteerism, as many analysts are doing now, the changes needed are too many and the time available is too short. International cooperation is needed, but it is not enough, and it is probably not the most important venue for action. Instead, advocates of climate change action must work to meet peoples’ needs, wants, and concerns at every level of authority and community, from the proverbial kitchen table to the UN. We must take seriously the fact that addressing climate change requires action and change at every level of social organization. Taking multilevel climate change governance seriously means that environmental activists and scientific analysts must curb their inclinations to tell citizens and states what they should do and care about, and start asking them what they want and need. How can we solve problems now in a way that helps curb climate change later?

In virtually every wealthier country, public officials are grappling with how to pay for health care and education, how to create jobs and reduce deficits, and how to address worrying dependence on others for energy and other resources, even as food and energy prices remain higher and more volatile than they have been in decades. In fast-growing emerging economies, citizens and states also grapple with these issues. Generally, in the rapidly developing nations, energy efficiency is even lower than in wealthier states, and the massive human and economic costs of severe air pollution are rising exponentially. The problems in peoples’ everyday lives need solving now.

Let’s close with four brief and interconnected examples: carbon taxes, strict air pollution controls, energy efficiency, and networks to improve urban governance. Even relatively low carbon taxes could help fund schools, universities, and health care, because they reduce deficits and encourage energy efficiency, carbon reductions, and renewable energy. Carbon and energy taxes and fees can be recycled into local and national economies with energy efficiency programs that put people to work, save money, and reduce pollution. Those worried about the global climate might get busy helping their friends and neighbors fund schools and improve energy efficiency in cities and provinces. Rather than complain that Chinese and Indian officials won’t agree to limit their emissions growth, those of us from wealthier countries should scale up our efforts to help them address horrible air pollution and make huge energy efficiency gains; things we have a lot more experience in actually doing as compared to our rather mediocre records in setting and meeting GHG reduction goals. Finally, this is an urban century, and working together, across borders and within hundreds of professions, to improve urban governance and urban life is necessary for many reasons beyond climate change. Megacities may well have more to learn from each other than from their national governments.

Global conferences, summits, and agreements are needed, but people, states, local governments, and firms make and implement decisions with more authority than most international organizations. There are hundreds of ways to work with our neighbors, fellow citizens, and far-flung associates everywhere in our many personal and professional networks, to help address the problems in peoples’ lives right now. Let’s get busy doing that and curb emissions along the way.

This piece was originally published in Issues in Science & Technology’s online forum on New Directions for Climate Talks. The original text may be found here