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Paul Joffe
US Capitol Building
US Capitol Building in Washington DC. Photo credits: Eric E Johnson/Flickr.com [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Climate change is no longer a niche issue, but is now part of broader political and economic agendas. In the U.S., for example, those supporting climate action face a broad alliance of opposition extending beyond climate change across many issues, as well as dysfunctions in the U.S. policy making process. For these reasons, Paul Joffe argues that climate diplomacy requires a strategy that goes beyond climate change to address the full range of these drivers.

[Paul Joffe is Sr. Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and former Sr. Foreign Policy Counsel at the World Resources Institute. The views stated here are solely those of the author.]

Dear Colleagues,

These thoughts are prompted by your informative paper on current prospects for Chinese climate leadership and relations with the U.S. and EU. I write to suggest we take an additional step and look at long term climate diplomacy through a lens that is wider than climate policy. 

Climate change is no longer a niche issue. It is not only connected to other issues such as economic growth and human health but has become an element in broad economic and political agendas. Climate diplomacy requires a strategy beyond climate issues that takes into account the full range of drivers of climate action.

Consider the United States. Much of the current U.S. situation is well known. The new U.S. administration is reversing climate policy. The national government is dominated by people unenthusiastic about climate action. Among elected officials, the climate issue is generally (but not totally) polarized along partisan lines. This makes sustained climate action more difficult to achieve and more precarious. Moreover, American politics is polarized over many significant issues, from health care to immigration.

While the fact of polarization is known, less is understood about why American politics is polarized and how polarization on climate relates to polarization across multiple issues.

 

Climate inaction as part of a broader strategy

The media often carry reports of fossil fuel industry leaders, from the Koch brothers to the oil giants, campaigning to oppose climate action. Less attention, however, is paid to recent analysis showing that many of the same industry and wealthy players fighting climate action are supporters or allied with backers of such varied initiatives as upwardly tilted tax cuts, restrictions on voting and opposition to healthcare reform. The analysis suggests that the Koch-sponsored network known as Americans for Prosperity functions like a shadow political party, which, with its allies, pushes forward diverse policy goals, often despite contrary public opinion. 

Those trying to make progress on climate action may think they are arguing with or negotiating with those who oppose strong climate action. But actually they are up against a broader alliance and polarization extending across many issues beyond climate change.

Although there is no consensus on the systemic explanation for this polarization, several drivers have been suggested. These include growing economic inequality, the free-for-all in campaign finance, media segmentation and print media decline, manipulation of legislative district lines, and increasing ideological differences. A consequence of polarization is increased rigidity of the political system and difficulty in achieving compromise.

 

Turning the tide

Readers may think that this complex of issues is too difficult to unravel to address the specific problem of climate change. But significant long term action is stymied by multiple causes and interests, and strategy requires coming to grips with the wider problem. Those seeking to obstruct climate action have been working for decades and have their own broad strategy. 

Also, it would be a mistake to think that climate action faces overwhelming opposition. The majority of Americans favour climate action. While many Democrats have supported climate action, there is currently some bipartisan support and a once and future Republican environmental effort testing new ideas and possibilities. There are strong voices among businesses in favour of climate action. Military leaders, faith leaders and environmental justice activists recognize the need to address vulnerable communities and developing country needs.

Moreover, even in the polarized atmosphere of American politics, coalitions sometimes become more fluid, as may be the case with immigration. For climate, the increasingly tangible costs of inaction and benefits of action may increase the possibilities for change. In the near term, these possibilities may be greatest at the level of states and cities where citizens can see concrete benefits despite the paralysis in Washington.

Still, longer term strategy will need to take into account the broader economic and social trends that engage a wide range of interests. Supporters of climate action can make a good case regarding the benefits of climate action in growth, innovation, jobs, human health and safety. However, climate action is more likely to be sustained if there is public confidence in progress on the broader economic and social challenges and if there are changes in the dysfunctional structures that foster U.S. polarization and paralysis.

There is not enough space here to explore the implications of this analysis for China, the European Union and the wider international community. But to improve the possibilities for stronger action we need to look at all the players and their interaction through a wider lens by asking about the political economy drivers of climate action. Can China maintain its promising transition to a low carbon path despite the need for some players in China to adjust to unfamiliar ways of doing things? Can the European Union maintain its momentum on climate action despite the other difficulties it faces that may create an undertow lowering the priority for climate action?  

 

The new realism

A key teaching in old school diplomacy was the “realist” paradigm—based on self-interest and often on force—that dominated international relations analysis in Washington and elsewhere for decades. But the paradigm was not static and there was a debate about the nature of realism and the definition of self-interest.  

A new realism will need to address the dysfunctions and complexities of national politics that affect whose interests are represented as well as the full range of benefits and costs, including those not mentioned in the curriculum of the old school. The widespread benefits of climate action are increasingly evident as are the dangers of inaction.

As I write from Washington, the United States is struggling to recover from devastating hurricanes and wildfires. The old realism begins to look quaint. Can it be self-interest to equivocate about cooperation needed to avoid catastrophe?

 

 


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