The fight against climate change must link up with the multilateral process


Countries, cities, companies, & civil society can lead the fight against climate change – but they must link up with the multilateral process too

Global governance is gridlocked. As the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations makes clear, politicians have every incentive to address narrow, short-term interests, and few reasons to spend political capital on broader, long-term goals. But as the world has grown more interdependent, many of the chief challenges we face—climate change, financial regulation, pandemic diseases, etc.—require international cooperation sustained over the long-term.

In our book Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation Is Failing when We Need It Most, David Held, Kevin Young, and I outline four trends that make international cooperation harder today, even as the need for it has grown. The Commission has also identified a number of these as important blockages.

First, the problems under negotiation have grown more complex, penetrating deep into domestic policies. Second, the institutions created 70 years ago have proven difficult to change as established interests cling to outmoded decision-making rules that fail to reflect current conditions. Third, in many areas international institutions have proliferated with overlapping and contradictory mandates, creating a confusing fragmentation of authority. And last, these trends are compounded by the rise of new powers like India, China and Brazil, meaning that a more diverse array of interests have to be hammered into agreement for any global deal to be made.

Ironically, many of these trends stem from the success of previous rounds of international cooperation. By preventing World War Three and fostering an open world economy, the post-war order facilitated globalisation and made countries more interdependent. The benefits have been enormous, but have also come with new challenges.

Perhaps the greatest of these is climate change. Negotiators have just met in Warsaw to seek a solution, but this round of talks—the 19th in as many years—was unable reach the meaningful breakthrough needed. For this reason, proposals like the Commission’s “C90”—a coalition of 20 countries, 40 cities, and 30 companies dedicated to concrete climate actions—are most welcome. The traditional, multilateral model is not achieving results. But, at the same time, individual countries, cities, companies, and civil society groups are making enormous strides forward.

The problem is that, for an issue like climate change, the leadership of a few is not going to solve the problem unless it leads others to follow. So the true test for the C90 is whether it can inspire further action not just amongst its members, but among other cities and companies, as well as in national governments. The key question is how to bring this bottom-up dynamism to a higher level of scale and ambition.

One way to expand the reach of such initiatives might be to link them more closely to the multilateral process. Indeed, some initial connections are already starting to form. In Warsaw the UN delegates will have recognised some of the actions bubbling up around them, including the stellar examples identified by the Secretariat in its “Momentum for Change” initiative. And next September the UN Secretary General will convene a summit of national government leaders, business leaders, and city leaders to emphasize an “all hands on deck” approach to the problem.

But more can be done. The UN process could create an official registry of the actions sub- and non-state actors are taking to ameliorate climate change, perhaps in partnership with Big Data experts. This registry would allow citizens and peer organisations to review what actors are doing—or not doing—and help connect them to the expertise and resources they need to do more. Most importantly, however, painting a comprehensive picture of what is already happening all around the world can help to build an optimistic, pragmatic narrative around climate change. By supporting this kind of change, the C90 could help the world make progress on this long-term challenge.

This article originally appeared on the Oxford Martin Commission live blog.

Image source: morguefile

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