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Why Your Climate Vote Matters... And Why It Definitely Doesn't

When the problem of climate change arises, the calls of "just vote" are the kneejerk responses of many laymen. Voting is good advice in the same way that wearing a seatbelt is good advice while in your car. Will a seatbelt save you from a head on collision? No. But it will certainly keep the lacerations to a minimum by not flinging you at high velocity through your windshield upon impact. Similarly, voting will not stop the absolute disaster that awaits ahead of us. But at the same time, each successful electoral victory adds just a little bit more time between the journey and the destination and in this case, the destination is the last place you want to be. The accelerationist idea of "just getting it over with" is shortsighted at best and rooted in righteous indignation at worst. Humanity should delay because each moment delayed is another moment that can be enjoyed, another moment that makes this species worth preserving. The joys of family, art, and life experiences should be clung to as long as these conditions will allow it because they make the grand experiment of life worth it. That is what a vote represents right now in this modern context. But it could be worth so much more if our leaders were actually trying.

We live in a liberal world. Liberal, in this context, meaning a global hegemonic order that emphasizes (though doesn't guarantee) democratic governments, interconnected global market systems of trade, and foreign policy mediated by international organizations such as the UN. This system of global problem solving arose at the end of the Second World war as a response to the clear and present danger of not having an open dialogue with an emphasis on peace and the holocaust which resulted from its absence. This platform has several glaring issues with it, the biggest being the disproportionate power given to members of the UN Security Council which just so happen to be the most powerful nations on earth. Allowing the countries most incentivized by imperialism to veto global action taken against their interests effectively made the UN useless in the face of hegemonic interests, primarily in the form of war. But climate change presents a very novel problem that collective action needs to address.

With the problem of climate change, collective action requires the consent of all countries and the solutions require powerful nations to make heavy sacrifices to help the weaker nations who will likely be affected more severely. In his work The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olsen points out that outside of small groups or without the threat of coercion, individuals do not make self-interested, rational decisions to achieve the groups interests. However, with climate change, the effects will be catastrophic for all.

One of the biggest problems directly affecting collective action is the rise of the global right. Even if its not a problem in your country, it completely throws a wrench into the machinery of the liberal world order. Fascists, nationalists, theocrats, and free market capitalists don't care to cooperate with the UN because they simply don't share the liberal values of global cooperation. The right has a realist view of foreign policy which begins from the assumption that international society is anarchic and all states strive to maximize their power within the international system. Cooperation under this world view is both irrational and non-desirable unless securing a short term gain. Some modern realists or neo-realists believe that cooperation around economic conflicts could only exist if a single state hegemon is willing to use its resources to fix international issues. In other words, power is the mediator for action and only the most powerful nation will fix issues because of latent self-interest. Of course, in this world that global hegemon is the United States.

This worldview absolutely crumbles in action. Power could be defined in military terms such as using coercive methods to implement global climate policy. It could also refer to economic power which could use trade sanctions in a similarly coercive fashion. Both of these solutions rely on the hegemonic power believing climate change is a problem worth addressing. The United States who has both the most powerful military and largest economy on planet earth is the clear hegemonic power in international relations. However, in 1998 the US accounted for 24% of all carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacturing. As a result, the US has vested economic interest in allowing climate change to persist in the short term. The Neorealist notion that the international order is a reflection of the hegemon isn’t without merit. During the negotiations leading up to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) the US opposed those that wanted a timetable for greenhouse gas emission reductions and forced the other states to only agree to keep emissions in the year 2000 at levels present during the year 1990. This reflection can be seen in the Kyoto Protocol which the US forced the status of “flexibility mechanisms” on issues such as: “tradable emission permits”, “joint implementation”, and “Clean Development Mechanism” despite these inclusions not being on others countries priority lists. However, unlike the Neorealist belief, the US left the Kyoto protocol with a commitment of 7% emissions reduction which was higher than its previously agreed upon commitment. This is a testament to the pressure of other countries in the international system. The Neorealist belief discounts the power of the other states and yields to the hegemon. It is both unproductive and fails to recognize the power held by the international community when negotiating with rational actors.

Unfortunately the more right wing world leaders are elected, the more prevalent this realist view becomes on the national stage. Driving us further and further from our end goal. Now your vote can help this situation. Voting against the right is a form of action you could, should, and must take if you care one iota about this issue. Driving the right away is a necessity, however, if done successfully it still leaves you with neoliberalism.

Neoliberals believe that states will use international institutions to act as utility maximizers who evaluate the costs and benefits of cooperative action and pursue it if mutual interest between other states exists. Analyzing the current greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that the current rate is a result of the “tragedy of the commons” with states taking for granted the ease of dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The outcomes resulting from the current rate are sub-optimal for the numerous climate related issues on the horizon. However, due to the differences in geography and effects, different states have different levels of interest in action. Russia may prefer the warmer and shorter winters brought by climate change whereas Bangladesh may be at risk of great damage due to rising tides. Due to the fact that every country is affected by climate change, the negotiation process has so many participants that reaching a mutually satisfying conclusion is an insurmountable task.

International organizations can do three things regarding the environment: increase governmental concern, enhance the contractual environment through agreements, and increase national capacity for taking action. States interact with international organizations through intergovernmental frameworks such as the: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which allows the spread of scientific information internationally. Intergovernmental institutions aim to create a set of rights which rule parties within specific regions and have largely been successful at influencing how issues are perceived and interests are defined.

When dealing with climate change issues international organizations can take an approach called the cognitive approach which relies on experts and scientists to assist in policy decision making. Cognitive approaches use transnational networks of scientists and policy makers to exert influence during international agreements. However, in the late 1990s, the increasing involvement of national governments in creating climate policy has let the scientific body get subsumed under the intergovernmental umbrella and these scientific bodies which were primarily under the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) were added to the IPCC. The empowerment of contrarian non-expert views has limited the influence of scientists due to state policy makers inserting their own self interested agendas. This is one of the many failures of neoliberalism, however, it is still objectively more desirable than a realist perspective. Its better to have a conversation than a Mexican standoff.

Realists would not participate in climate negotiations without the framework of expanding their power whereas neoliberal institutionalists seek to advocate for themselves through international diplomacy via legitimized institutions. For optimal outcomes, neoliberal strains of thought are more productive for implementing norms and combating climate issues. Norms and pressure can influence even hegemonic powers like the United States to consider climate action despite its economic disinterest. A perspective of pure realism condemns climate change action unless all states believe it can lead to self empowerment, all states believe it can lead to their own destruction, or the hegemonic power decides climate action is necessary. All three of these outcomes stand in the way of a proper climate response and realist states need to be convinced or coerced into cooperation or it could be disastrous for neoliberal states. Due to the nature of greenhouse emissions, one realist states’ emissions can outweigh the emission cuts brought on by many neoliberal states. Petrostates which rely on oil and fossil fuel exports as their main source of income, combined with a realist or neorealist mindset, is a significant roadblock in the way of climate negotiations and collective action. Unfortunately Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela all fit this diagnosis. China and its extensive coal emissions would also fall under this worldview.

Even more problematic than states' varying strategies to international relations, national politics plays a substantial role in how states determine their needs and interests. All international decisions made by states must be made with domestic goals in mind. States seek to maximize their ability to satisfy domestic pressures and minimize the consequences of foreign development. An example of this is the US’s attempt to ratify the Kyoto protocol. In order to ratify an international agreement, a two-thirds vote in the senate is required. The US managed to use their status as hegemon during the FCCC to withhold their signature in order to change the objective from a global agreement to lower emissions to a selective agreement where advanced industrialized states must freeze their emissions. World leaders having to balance domestic and international needs leads to two explanations of how states make international environment policy. The first is through self interest: If a country has high levels of ecological vulnerability they push harder for substantial environmental action whereas countries with low levels of ecological vulnerability and a public perception of high costs to implement clean energy solutions. The first group is more likely to sign demanding international agreements regarding environmental policy whereas the latter group will resist and intermediate states differ in their responses.

The second explanation examines the interests of polluters, victims, and third parties. If the polluter interests take priority, countries are less likely to join demanding international agreements due to the economic effects that would take their toll. Victim interests are countries where the general public takes precedence over fossil fuel interests, the socioeconomic tolls caused by climate change will damage their population and they push for more demanding international agreements. The presence of third party NGOs who monitor and abate emissions through technology or provide substitution technologies can make countries lean towards more demanding international agreements if they can cooperate. Countries with high levels of polluter interest prefer weak treaties which they can break easily and countries with high victim interests are open to the opposite. This can be studied by comparing the United States and European Union’s responses to emissions targets and international agreements. This is the true failure of the neoliberal worldview. Domestic interests emphasize corporate priorities over humanitarian necessities. Neoliberals are looking out for their corporate-state. Their GDP and economic growth targets outweigh their climate ones. Ultimately, conflicting immovable self-interests cause negotiations to break down.

The United States is the world's largest producer of oil, coal, and gas. It has high levels of polluter interests but is also highly vulnerable to adverse impacts of climate change. The extensive energy sector of the US could adapt to greenhouse gas emissions reductions and energy saving. However, the US public’s perception believes there are enormous abatement costs to adapting to climate change, which are amplified by lobbyists. Business interests impacted the first Bush administration, and the environmentally friendlier Clinton/Gore administration also failed at climate protection policy. The executive branch relies on congress to ratify treaties of which there is no guarantee. Months before the Kyoto Protocol the US senate passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution unanimously stating that they could not ratify any treaty that would harm the US economy. This shows a bipartisan commitment in favor of polluter interests, at least in congress. Neither party wants to risk new taxes and higher prices on gasoline due to its effect on the poor. Energy efficient solutions do not offset political costs and policy gridlock between executive and legislative branches is the common occurrence due to the dominance of polluter interests. Neoliberalism fails because it cannot rearrange its priorities for humanitarian purposes.

In comparison to the US, the European Union has the risk of ecological impact threatening its Southern member countries such as sea level rises, shifting vegetation zones, and increasing vector-borne diseases. The EU doesn’t have the same strong polluter interests as the United States and its population does not perceive abatement costs as high. The EU is the world’s largest carbon dioxide polluter, however, it also has the best energy efficiency and imports about 50% of its energy. The influence of the public is diminished in the European Parliament and the EU cannot act as a unitary actor making its ambitious emissions target goals hard to hit. Competing member interests and tensions between EU members makes implementing a common climate policy throughout all member states a challenge that has yet to be accomplished. However, in the EU third party NGOs play substantial roles, business NGOs hold close relationships with federal ministries which has resulted in abandoning plans for the regulation of heat use and taxes on energy use. Non business NGOs hold substantial sway over public opinion. Although the EU’s climate policy is uncoordinated on the national levels and uses inefficient economic instruments, member countries are vulnerable, view changes as having reasonable abatement costs, and are trying to develop in order to lessen the effects of fossil fuel impacts. Despite having a greater incentive to act, the self-interests of its member companies lead to negotiation break-down.

With the diverse interests and varied effects of climate change, how can justice be applied to establishing international climate law? There are two conceptions of justice that could be pursued in an international neoliberal context related to climate change. There is retributive justice which punishes those who break the law and forces the entity to take responsibility. In the context of climate change, it is hard to apply this principle uniformly with the existing framework. The FCCC states that developing countries do not have the obligation to meet emissions restrictions putting the onus on developed industrial countries to make cuts. This can lead to perceived inequality in punishments.

The second conception of justice is distributive justice which attempts to proportionally distribute cost to interdependent parties. One of the problems of applying consequences is the concept of inter generational justice. If the effects of climate change will disproportionately affect future generations, the creation of institutions to ensure conservation of natural resources, quality of environment, and access to the environment should be necessary. Climate negotiation typically takes place from a present perspective making intergenerational justice an overlooked but important issue.

So what are the implications of justice? The retributive perception of disproportionate responsibility from the FCCC on climate emissions has made member states demand compensation for the disproportionate costs imposed on their economies. A distributive equitable per capita emissions reduction position is currently unfeasible despite it being more just. Furthermore, the financial and technological assistance of developing countries to minimize the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions as they grow economically falls to developed countries. Despite the fact that Northern countries have disproportionately caused climate change, Northern countries refuse to support anything past the nominal sum. Devising a system of tradable carbon emissions would facilitate a system of technological and financial transfer. Determining how justice should be defined is necessary for establishing a global climate regime which hits the objectives of carbon emissions reduction. Without the compliance of states who agree that a form of justice is legitimate, the establishment of a framework will continue to be a non-starter.

The differing nature in how countries view international relations and how domestic interests influence environmental policy make the need for a global climate framework codified through international law a necessity for effectively combating climate change. The FCCC establishes the groundwork for a global climate regime. It presents an overall objective for stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, creates principles to guide future projects, distributes information to aid in national planning and response measures, and creates institutions to oversee and implement the development of these changes. The Kyoto protocol specified these goals by providing targets and mechanisms. The biggest problem regarding international law is ensuring its compliance. There are hard and soft approaches to international law, the hard approach advocates for punishment of countries which fail to reach their goals. Sanctions would sufficiently economically punish many countries, however, a new international authority could be better equipped to handle this issue. Soft approaches to climate agreements would accept state sovereignty and foster cooperation through building scientific consensus which have international organizations facilitating international cooperation as well as encourage compliance by addressing barriers to mistrust. Most environmental treaties adopt a soft approach, however, one of the most successful environmental protocols: the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer set forth hard obligations to limit the use of ozone depleting substances that used trade sanctions to punish free riders.

How does the FCCC work as a regime? The FCCC has one ultimate objective which is to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to levels which do not interfere with the climate within a time frame that prevents severe disruption to ecosystems, food supplies, and sustainable development. This goal is supported by four principles. The first is that climate change is a “common concern” of mankind. The second is that states should protect the climate for the benefits of both the future and present generations which reflects the concern of inter generational justice. The third is that action to combat climate change should not wait for full scientific certainty, meaning states should be taking precautionary measures towards climate change regardless of any uncertain disputes made against its legitimacy unless the framework changes. The fourth is that developed and developing states have different responsibilities and developing nations are given more liberty than developed nations due to their necessity for economic growth. In terms of action, a national climate program will be set up in all states to inventory and develop policies pertaining to regulating emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, which built upon the framework of the FCCC, specified targets and timetables for the reductions states need to make using yearly historical emissions levels as a guideline to how much a state needs to reduce its emissions by a certain year. Developing countries argue they should not be held to guidelines due to developed countries being the primary historical contributors to climate change, however, developed countries like the US argued that without uniform reductions the problem of climate change will not be significantly impacted. Intergovernmental organizations such as the Conference of Parties (COP) exist as forums for climate discussion and negotiation for technical functions and acts as a democratic supreme body for the FCCC. The FCCC has no rules related to non compliance and sanctions. This here lies the problem with the current climate regime. The lack of consequences to those who fail at solving collective action problems leads to a lack of action or a lack of follow through from any state not personally affected by the immediate problems of climate change.

There are privileged groups: meaning states that are ecologically vulnerable with low polluter interests that would benefit disproportionately from collective climate action, latent groups: meaning states that are not ecologically vulnerable and don’t have a large fossil fuels industry whose contributions are less relevant, and intermediate groups: meaning a number of states with disproportionate emissions and polluter interests who must reduce emissions for the good of the privileged group. The common good in this instance is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions being produced. When dealing with a large group, such as the international stage, the recurring theme is that for polluting states to reduce their emissions they must lower their production and lose money. Developing states do not have many options to generate wealth which is why they negotiated for exemption from the FCCC emissions restrictions. Developed countries, such as the US, who would be doing the majority of the emissions cutting would need to justify their cuts in order to help developing countries. The US feels it must pay a bigger share than other countries and states that global emissions cutting in an equally distributed manner is necessary for accurate combating of climate issues. However, unlike most public goods, a state can be both ecologically vulnerable and have large polluter interests simultaneously. This makes them both privileged and latent, however, the negative perception of climate action within the US propels them towards a latent perspective. This allows for even ecologically vulnerable states to be disincentivized from collective action. Likewise, the US is not incorrect when they state that the problem of climate change continues if developing nations are still allowed to pollute. Global demand would remain and developing countries would be given greater economic incentives to increase production.

In order for any global collective action to take place there needs to be a coercive mechanism to punish non-compliance. Thirty eight countries signed up for the Kyoto protocol and thirty six countries failed to meet their individual targets. The average goal was to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, however, the overall global emissions rose. Canada and the US signed the deal but did not stick to it and if they are excluded, the 36 remaining countries met their target. However, a large reason for that was due to the 2.2 gigatonne emissions drop from the fall of the Soviet Union and the emissions drop from the 2008 financial crisis. This means that the Kyoto protocol, and more broadly the FCCC, have failed to induce any lasting behavior's within member states despite their global and intricate frameworks. A retributive method of international justice imposed by all states would be far more effective at changing state behavior by providing economic retribution through sanctions. Developing countries should continue to be allowed to develop, however, international law that caps their emissions should be implemented and exercised in order to prevent this international security issue. The FCCC’s global framework is incomplete without a method of effective justice and requires retributive functionality. Retributive functionality could only ever be agreed upon if all countries were at high risk for climate catastrophe and had complimentary low polluter interests, a reality that can only occur when its already too late.

So where does this leave you and your vote? Well you need to continue voting against the right wing to prevent a world where negotiation isn't on the table. Liberal and left wing candidates can do their absolute best to promote internal domestic emissions reduction policies, and leftists might even be able to curb aspects of corporate interests in international negotiations. However, as long as massive polluting countries have an economic dependence and a realist mindset and neoliberal countries prioritize domestic interests above humanitarian goals then you are voting to buy time. Keep in mind that not all emissions are driven by economic self interest. There are irrational drivers which prevent global cooperation as well. Christian religious fanaticism, Islamic religious fanaticism, and nationalistic aspirations all prevent various countries from straying for their path of oil and further incentivize this incoming destruction. What you can do is brace for the impact of collapse. We at The Survivors News are dedicated to keeping you informed of the evolving situation on the ground and illustrating the problems of the later 21st century. Building leftist communities, learning skills, and survival during times of climate, economic, and social turmoil is what The Survivors News is all about. All signs point to collapse, but collapse isn't the end. Its a new beginning.


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