WorldClimate ChangeSummer 2021 Edition

The Impact of Past and Present Climate Action on Future Cooperation

Keshav Agiwal
Staff Writer

The international community is not doing enough on climate change, and our everyday lifestyles are partly to blame for the negative effects of global emissions. These routines highlight the fact that many of the issues that the world faces are interconnected – problems as simple as food waste contribute to degrading environments around the world. According to Feeding America, the United States alone wastes around 108 billion pounds of food each year, leading to a significant amount of wasted energy in growing crops and increased emissions from food processing. Like food waste, there are many ordinary problems that must be addressed with climate issues instead of individually.

  International climate cooperation, despite some past successes, has proven difficult. One effective treaty, the 1987 Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, was an agreement that mainly dealt with the reduction of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to protect the ozone layer. This effort was successful because there were incentives for every country involved. An exclusive trade regime established by the deal created a desire for countries to be included. since CFC-producing countries not involved in the regime would be unable to trade with other producer countries. Non-producer countries not involved in the agreement, meanwhile, would have no access to CFCs. Developing countries also received some exceptions and had an adjustment period longer than developed countries to phase out their CFCs. A fund was also established to help these countries receive environmentally friendly technologies. If a country did not comply, there was the fear of being taken out of the trade regime. 

The Montreal Protocol worked because it considered that not all countries have the same resources. It is important to note, though, that this protocol was also dealing with the ozone issue, which was much more manageable than broader climate change. The ozone directly affected human populations and only a few producer countries were responsible, so the problem was not as widespread. Comparatively, the climate problem is not the responsibility of just one country or industry. Politically, this makes climate change harder to tackle because politicians who try to enact laws to limit emissions, which do not directly impact humans, will receive less support when people do not see the need to change. 

Therefore, effective action on climate change is difficult because of the interconnectedness of the problems it creates. There are a variety of issues – each with their own sub-issues – that must be tackled before confirming the root cause. For example, issues like loss of biodiversity result from a variety of overarching problems like overexploitation, habitat loss, entrance of invasive species, and many other things. These largely result from human actions and technologies, yet each sub-issue requires a different course of action. This is one of the biggest challenges that comes with environmental issues, as some governments will ignore the need to change their practices without first researching and confirming the consequences of their actions. Moreover,  the gradual nature of environmental problems can make climate change seem distant and irrelevant to the public. The answers to climate-driven problems are also insufficient, as the vast body of research available leaves us with solutions that are either not effective enough or extremely expensive. 

This reality frequently places states in the position to make a choice: economics versus the environment. Responsibility for tackling these wide scale issues does not fall on just a few countries or industries, but  includes every country, actor, and organization within the international system. Creating an effective solution to climate change, however, cannot disregard many of the other issues that plague the global community. Gender, social, and economic inequalities, hunger, poverty, and numerous other problems all factor into the severity of climate issues today. The foundations of cooperation on climate and environmental problems will require strong coordination in other areas.

Besides international agreements like the Montreal Protocol, some states are working toward domestic climate action. In the United States, the Green New Deal is a bill recently reintroduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward J. Markey in Congress that discusses the importance of working towards a cleaner environment by addressing other issues like racial injustices and economic inequalities. However, even if it is passed, the resolution’s nonbinding nature means that state governments would not feel pressure to enact any drastic changes to improve their environmental situation. Despite this, the proposal will still play an important part in determining the future of global climate change and cooperation. Since the Trump administration did not seem to believe in the reality of climate issues, reintroducing the bill was a relatively important action taken under the Biden administration. The Green New Deal aims to shift the U.S. away from fossil fuels toward clean, zero-emissions energy sources by creating economic safety nets to bolster healthcare and jobs. 

The bill’s goals were supported by research from federal scientists and the United Nations which showed that the United States economy could lose billions of dollars by the end of the century due to climate change, according to the New York Times. “For so long, our movement toward a sustainable future has been divided with really just this false notion that we have to choose between our planet and our economy. And we decided to come together in a sweeping legislation that not only rejects that notion but creates a plan for 20 million union jobs in the United States…” Ocasio-Cortez mentioned at a news conference.

The Green New Deal differs from other past climate proposals action because it combines environmental issues with traditional political matters to appeal more to everyday Americans. Seemingly distant environmental problems are becoming relevant to the greater public because there are now social and economic considerations. Scholars from Yale and UC Santa Barbara conducted research and found that bringing jointly addressing environmental and social issues makes climate issues more understandable to the general public. The Pew Research Center reports that concern for climate change has been growing, with almost 60% of Americans seeing it as a major threat to the country. Many surveyed also believe that the government is not doing enough and that it should be taking more action to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. To address this concern, the resolution would make the government responsible for providing new economic development and training in communities that rely on fossil fuel industry-dependent jobs. New development, along with a push to invest in electric vehicles and upgrades for energy-efficient buildings, aims to move towards a cleaner global environment with the United States taking a “leading role.” By examining economic issues through an environmental perspective, the Green New Deal addresses both simultaneously.  

In this sense, the Green New Deal seems to have a focus similar to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The SDGs are seventeen goals to create a better world by 2030, with each aiming to tackle a different global issue. While the Green New Deal addresses many of the environmental SDGs like goals seven and 13 (Affordable, Clean Energy and Climate Action, respectively), it also addresses many non-environmental SDGs like goals two and 10 (Zero Hunger and Reduced Inequalities, respectively). The inclusion of these issues shows the recognition of the fact that it is not possible to resolve these problems one at a time; rather, fixing these issues must be completed simultaneously. Though the SDGs do not seem to be on track to be completed by 2030, the progress that has been made since they were first introduced in 2015 cannot be denied. The goals are non-binding and therefore fairly ambitious; this way, even if states do not entirely achieve the goals, it will encourage them to take larger strides towards making a positive change in the wider international sphere.

While the SDGs are a broader group of international goals set by the United Nations, 196 countries in 2016 adopted a legally binding climate treaty: the Paris Agreement. Compared to the Green New Deal and SDGs, this agreement does not pay much attention to issues that may indirectly affect climate quality. The focus, rather, is on bringing global temperature levels down by 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. The implementation system of the Paris Agreement depends on nationally-determined contributions, or NDCs, which are actions that countries will take to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions and contribute toward the agreement’s overall target. These plans were submitted in 2020, and the agreement will work on a five-year cycle with increasingly ambitious goals after each cycle. 

To track progress under the Paris Agreement, participants will adhere to an Enhanced Transparency Framework, or ETF; beginning in 2024, countries will transparently report on their actions combatting climate change. Though the U.S. has now rejoined the agreement, its withdrawal from the treaty under the Trump administration was a significant blow, given America’s status as one of the largest carbon emitters in the world. However, unlike many expected, the U.S. stood alone while all other signatories remained in the agreement. While the treaty lacks an overarching enforcement mechanism, its system of voluntary contributions and accountability has been working well. The unfortunate reality, however, is that emissions and temperatures are continuing to rise. The drastic cutbacks in travel and economics due to the pandemic will only be enough to meet the goals of the agreement if they continue after the end of the pandemic – which is highly unlikely.

While the SDGs seem to have a broader scope compared to the Paris Agreement, both instruments are not internationally mandated, meaning that they depend on national-level implementation. This represents a bottom-up approach where states must take their own actions to create change, as opposed to a top-down approach where an international organization like the United Nations enforces treaties.

Effective international climate cooperation must include elements of these three distinct projects. It is evident that future work on environmental issues will shift to include other problems which are more directly relevant to the common public, as well as viewing non-climate issues in an environmental lens. Presenting these issues as interconnected will be important in bringing more awareness. It will make it more evident that certain lifestyle choices can have a ripple effect that will affect multiple seemingly unrelated issues. Future cooperation on these issues will also continue to be primarily state-driven. Given some general guidelines and goals, states will have the autonomy to continue creating policies and legislation that work with the resources available to them while addressing global problems. The reason the Montreal Protocol, for example, was successful was because it took into account the resource disparities between developed and developing countries and created mechanisms to lower those inequalities. It will be fundamental for future climate cooperation to look back to elements of different agreements and plans to create new policies that consider what did not work in the past and create new solutions.

Still, implementing climate policy is challenging, as is seen with the SDGs and Paris Agreement. Many economies are dependent on energy sources that emit greenhouse gases. This means that one country’s prosperity from fossil fuels may be bad for the rest of the planet. As such, it is difficult for states to find a balance between the use of fossil fuels and clean energy sources, with states often opting for the former. To incentivize states to support climate initiatives, agreements could implement measures such as granting access to scarce natural resources through an exclusive trade regime, such as in the Montreal Protocol, in exchange for promising to reduce emissions. Economic measures like this would give states something they can materially use to benefit their country. 

Without natural resources, states and human beings would not have the means to survive. Significant progress in solving climate problems and other interconnected issues can only be made if states and policymakers take lessons from past efforts to understand which mechanisms work to motivate nations to act. If international actors continue to degrade the environment and ignore the importance of other issues in relation to climate problems, the conversation on the state of the environment might shift to a question of human survival.

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