Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Climate change: what do we do about the USA?

Today's Guardian reports that talks ahead of December's crucial Copenhagen meeting on climate change are stalling. A major stumbling block appears to be the US government. With an eye on what it thinks it can sell to its own public, the US government is apparently pressing for a relatively weak agreement that EU countries think will be inadequate to the task of holding the global rise in temperatures down to 2C.

Jonathan Freedland has an interesting follow-up article which further explains the political constraints facing Barack Obama. He ends his piece with a call to US climate change activists to step up their campaigning in the next few months in the hope that this might help shift US public opinion and so enable the Obama administration to sign up to a stronger deal.

This all leaves me feeling rather disempowered. Of course, as an individual I don't have power (of the relevant kind). But what can we, citizens of the UK and/or EU (and/or world), do? Given the stakes, we surely ought to do something if there is a something we can do that has even a small chance of being effective in helping to shift US public opinion.

So let's consider some possibilities:

(1) Protest. Should we be protesting, e.g., establish a climate protest camp outside the US Embassy in every European capital city?

(2) Boycotts. Should we boycott US goods and services?

(3) Letters. Should we initiate some sort of letter writing campaign aimed at US citizens?

(4) Civil disobedience. Should protest carry over into selected acts of non-violent civil disobedience aimed at relevant US institutions? (By civil disobedience I mean, specifically, acts that break the law but which are non-violent and aimed at communicating an ethical message to an audience one believes to be complict in injustice.)

(5) All of the above.

In selecting tactics we have to be careful to distinguish between what is likely to have an effect and what is merely going to make us feel good.

Given the huge amount of frustration I feel at the US government and its citizenry in this matter, I'd really be quite up for a bit of civil disobedience. It would vent my frustration. But unless well thought-out, such activity might well have zero effect or even be counter-productive.

But I'm sure we have to do something. It seems clear that leaving this to our leaders to sort out is not going to work. And the stakes are just way too high to let them fail. I think Ed Miliband himself acknowledges this when he calls for popular campaigning and protest to add to the pressure on politicians to take effective action. Ed is right.

So what should we do?


Sunder Katwala said...


There are some significant dilemmas thrown up by The Guardian report, both of principle and of strategy. A coherent deal with the United States in would be much more important for the goal (prevent dangerous climate change) than one without them. What if there is a real trade-off between the coherence of a deal without the US and one with it involved? And how do you deal with the tactical dilemma that these political realities could also be used to extract unfair concessions?

I agree with the point which you acknowledge that there could be a danger of frustration and disempowerment getting in the way of working out what civic actions could help or maximise the chances of an effective global deal.

Protests and letter writing campaigns could be effective, or counter-productive, depending on their content, tone and framing. Boycotts almost certainly would do more harm than good.

I would propose that Ulrich Beck's principle of "contextual universalism" could be useful here. Any strategy to bring about effective pressure on the United States from outside should be informed by dialogue with those progressives in the United States who are sincerely committed to the same goal. We should ask sincere progressive Americans what outsiders should do (and not do) to assist their winning a domestic political argument.

If they were to advise that some sorts of external pressure would likely see them lose the domestic argument, that should be taken seriously. If they were to help identify a form of joint campaigning which could make a positive difference, that would be worth efforts.

Suggestions about forums taking forward international campaigning would be useful. I would recommend the Avaaz campaign on a strong climate treaty, for example.

Stuart White said...

Sunder: while I think with you may be right on the tactics, I'm not sure I agree that we face a potential 'trade-off' here. We need a deal that is adequate to the task of preventing catastrophic climate change. A deal that lacks the US will almost certainly fail in this regard. But so, too, will one that is weakened in order to get the US in (given current US preferences). We need a deal that is both 'tough' in its goals to cut emissions and which includes the US. Otherwise, we get catastrophic climate change. This is an issue on which ordinarily sensible 'Fabian' gradualism and pragmatism, and being willing to settle for some of what you want the context in which talk of trade-offs is appropriate - doesn't have relevance. We have to do what we have to do!

Sunder Katwala said...


I only half agree.

I accept your central argument: "we have to do what we have to do". That has to be the goal. So the threat of catastrophic climate change is an unusual political challenge, and an especially distinctive international negotiation. It is both the most complex diplomatic negotiation of all time and one where normal political approaches - eg to a complex global trade round (half a loaf being progress for now; things taking much longer than anticipated; gradualism) - have very significant consequences. So I will give you that.

And yet ... (and to bring the Fabianism back in!)

This challenge has to be met politically. The answer to the question 'what if democracy proves insufficient to the challenge' must, I think be to persuade democratically that it must be. (I take your point that failure to achieve this might legitimate peaceful civil disobedience; I wouldn't see that it could legitimate prioritising climate change over democratic means, which has been argued eg by Mayer Hillman).

The US system presents enormous hurdles and veto points for multilateral agreements (eg the Senate Treaty ratification process, which scuppered US participation in the League of Nations for example). But that isn't going to change - not least because of the sharp domestic contest about the legitimacy of multilateral agreements (on anything, and on climate change in particular).

What if we fail? Ken Livingstone told our six months to Copenhagen conference that he thought a deal which contained climate change to two degrees was needed to meet the science. He supports that, but thinks the US and global politics will probably make that impossible - but that a worse deal than that would still be important, though it involves more mitigation of some catastrophic effects than a sufficient deal. Some failures would be considerably worse than others.

PS: The concern about the barriers to a deal is well founded. Some positive developments have not been much noticed. The common African negotiating position is good news for the negotiation. The EU position is broadly a good one. The Chinese do appear to be becoming much more engaged: this also challenges one of the key sceptic arguments in the US. Not at all to disagree that much more public civic pressure could be v.important - including in Europe, Japan, Canada as well as the US.