[Viewpoint] A radical solution for climate change

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[Viewpoint] A radical solution for climate change

On Friday, the world watched as the UN Conference on Climate Change came to a close. With all the talk of looming temperature increases 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.

With over 10 million having watched Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” an International Day of Climate Action in October with 5,200 rallies in 181 countries this year, and the 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 were organized all over the world, with the messianic COP 15 as the highlight. It is certainly not a lack of awareness that is keeping us from changing the future.

If there is one thing Copenhagen has brought into the fore, it is the world’s limited potential to address transnational concerns. There is still a huge divide between the advanced state of various transnational initiatives and the strenuous political process required to arrive at a consensus. Based on the current results, no amount of summits before 2020 would achieve the goal of limiting the rise in temperature by 2050. If we trust that everyone went to Copenhagen with the same “good” intentions, then the summit as a vehicle for establishing a sustainable future has failed. What we need instead is not so much a radical new system, but rather a revaluation of the constraints that 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 - will never produce the collective response needed to tackle climate change. Both the nation-state and the market economy are based on an organizing principle in which 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 competitive risk seems to produce a collective paralysis, in which each party waits for the other 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.

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

The disappointing result of COP 15 shows that we need to push the boundaries of what might have to change in order to actually address the problem; and it might be a lot more than we can currently imagine. 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 emissions and individual nation-states’ desire to protect the market.

In the end, the question is an economic one, and will have to be addressed outside the current confines of generic ad campaigns, endless summits and unrealized treaties. The real challenge is to use the desire to combat climate change as an impetus for positive change in our government and economy. Even the most ardent climate skeptics will not be able to deny the huge potential economic and geopolitical gains.

Climate change is a transnational problem, and 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 that transcends the sovereignty of the nation-state but still remains an effective vehicle for claiming the specific domains that need to be addressed on a higher level.

In this respect existing infrastructures like Asean, Mercosur and the EU provide interesting models for how climate change could be addressed transnationally. These institutions have a track record of major transnational achievements such as the creation of a single monetary union and an integrated regulated market. Empowering these bodies both financially and institutionally could create an efficient structure to combat climate change. In such a scenario, energy planning and security would be removed from exclusively national sovereignty, and transferred to a set of regional bodies of which the nation is an integral part.

In the end, it could well be the institutions most discarded in recent years that provide the blueprint for how to save the planet.

*The writer is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

By Reinier de Graaf
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