Zack Blumberg: The case for a globally binding climate agreement

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 5:55pm

2018 was, globally, the fourth hottest year on record, surpassed only by 2016, 2015 and 2017 in that order. In the United States alone, there were 14 weather and climate caused billion-dollar disasters last year, and the cumulative cost of all these natural disasters was over $1.6 trillion (for reference, that’s more than a twentieth of the U.S. GDP, and over twice as much as the U.S. annually spends on the military). Unfortunately though, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Climate change is unlike any problem human civilization has faced before; it is a truly global crisis which impacts an incredibly diverse range of issues, from economic productivity to urban development to migration flows. However, efforts to solve climate change have thus far been derailed by a lack of binding international legislation and an amoral focus on short-term profit over the health of the planet. While the clock is ticking, there is time for humanity to right these wrongs by embracing a strong, cooperative approach to fighting climate change, and looking for the economic benefits, not drawbacks, that come with it.

To begin, it’s important to contextualize how broad the effects of climate change are. One of the biggest effects of climate change, which is often an afterthought in discussions of the issue, is global migration flows. In the past five years, the European Union’s struggle to handle a large influx of immigrants and refugees has already revealed how economically contentious and politically charged the issue of mass migration is. The EU’s controversial management of the situation has unfortunately contributed to the rise of far-right movements within Europe.

However, an increasingly warm and erratic global climate would only serve to drastically increase migration flows, in particular from developing nations in the global south. In 2015, a Notre Dame study found that many countries in Central and Sub-Saharan Africa are the most vulnerable to climate change and the least prepared for it. Many do not have the money or resources to effectively protect themselves. A report published by the European Council of Foreign Policy found that “The combination of poverty, dependence on agriculture, environmental degradation, and population growth (in Africa) are creating a vicious circle, which can be expected to translate into increasing forced migration.” Here in the United States, the same issue is already occurring: Climate change has decimated the Guatemalan farming industry, leaving individuals with little choice but to migrate to America.

The mass migration caused by climate change is problematic and highlights a fundamental problem with humanity’s handling of the issue. Even among developed nations that have acknowledged the dangers of climate change, there is no actual long-term plan in place for solving them. The Foreign Policy report explains that “The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is typical in focusing on enhancing border control and fighting smuggling, rather than tackling the long term causes of migration.” This exemplifies the systemic unpreparedness countries have in regard to climate change, even when it touches on issues like immigration, which have already proven to be highly controversial.     

With that said, it’s time for the global community to finally take some bold steps towards fighting climate change. Historically, there is (some) precedent for binding global cooperation in fighting climate change. The primary example of this is The Montreal Protocol of 1987, which was a global agreement to ban the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other substances which depleted the Earth’s ozone layer. The treaty, with its concrete, specific restrictions was ratified by 197 countries. Two years later, at the Noordwijk Meeting in the Netherlands, the world came agonizingly close to creating a global framework for fighting climate change, except, as a Swedish minister eloquently explained to American environmental activist Daniel Becker, “Your government is fucking this thing up!”

Since then, the global response to climate change has been a bevy of half-hearted treaties with high-minded language which are unenforceable, weak and largely ineffectual. The Paris climate agreement, hailed as a groundbreaking treaty, “requires all Parties to put forward their best efforts through nationally determined contributions.” This type of open-ended requirement essentially leaves countries to do as they please, as exemplified by how the U.S. leaving the treaty didn’t seem to change anything, on any level, with regard to fighting climate change.

While creating a binding treaty on such a broad issue is incredibly complex, there are a few aspects that are essential for effectively tackling climate change. Beyond the obvious requirements for a climate change treaty (promoting clean energy, finding ways to limit overall carbon emissions, etc.) there should be several other components. First, there needs to be some sort of financial incentive for countries to join; too often, countries ignore treaties they’ve agreed to follow if the agreement is solely diplomatic. This could be as simple as creating a free trade agreement between member states, creating incentives for countries to join and cooperate. To go along with that, specific environmental goals on a country-by-country basis should be instituted. While the Paris climate agreement attempts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, it has no specific requirements for individual nations, essentially absolving countries of their responsibility to actually act.

Secondly, a good treaty would extol the economic benefits of fighting climate change. Especially within the U.S., the political right has successfully created the narrative that fighting climate change is economically infeasible or unwise (even as economic disasters caused by climate change cost the country trillions). A 2016 report found that Germany, by further promoting the use of renewable energy and globally cooperating with other countries doing the same, could reduce its carbon emissions from 72 to 93 percent by 2050 without harming economic growth. By justifying the economic benefits of fighting climate change, a global agreement could win over private enterprise, leading to greater investment in renewable energy and, subsequently, more innovation in the field.

Lastly, a strong climate change treaty would take steps to fight the expansive range of issues climate change is responsible for, including mass migration. Doing this would include setting different standards for different countries based on their ability to fight climate change. For example, it’s not reasonable to expect the Democratic Republic of the Congo to restructure its energy production as easily as Germany. Creating something resembling a worldwide Marshall Plan would aid developing nations disproportionately affected by climate change. By doing this, a cooperative treaty could aid in the environmental development of poorer nations, limiting the need for mass, climate-induced migration and strengthening their future prospects for human development and resistance to climate-based problems.

World leaders have been far too inactive on global climate change, the biggest international issue of our time. While there has been some progress made in the past, the wide-ranging threats posed by climate change mean it is time for stronger global action and decisive planning.  

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.