The Paris Climate Agreement in Historical Perspective


The COP21 accord signed on Saturday represents a landmark achievement in the fight against global climate change. The negotiations in Paris produced a binding commitment by 195 nations to restrict their greenhouse gas emissions. Despite years of effort, such a sweeping agreement had eluded negotiators until now.

COP21, however, was not entirely without historical precedent. In addition to earlier, less successful attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions like the Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto, and Copenhagen agreements, the talks in Paris also evoked older debates about the environment and economic development. The 1970s, in particular, witnessed a series of wide-ranging international discussions about the relationship between environmental protection, development, and global disparities in wealth. Those discussions included the debate over the New International Economic Order (NIEO), the subject of the Spring 2015 special issue of Humanity, as well as the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, which paved the way for later international efforts to tackle environmental challenges.

That history is often lost in discussions of efforts to stop climate change. Much of the discourse on climate change focuses not on the last few decades but on the much longer sweep of geological time. Climate scientists draw on an archive composed not of UN documents, but of Antarctic ice cores and lakebed sediments providing clues about average temperature centuries or millennia ago. In Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes’ famous 1999 “Hockey Stick Graph” charting temperatures during the previous one thousand years, the image is so arresting because the late 20th century shrinks to an insignificant sliver of space at the far right of the x-axis, making the increase in temperature during that period seem nearly instantaneous.

Placing the Paris negotiations in historical context, however, can serve an important purpose. Seeing the connections between Paris, Stockholm, and the NIEO debates serves as a reminder that the fight against climate change is a political challenge, one that raises questions about global disparities in wealth and the burdens that different nations are expected to bear in tackling climate change.

Political questions are often elided in discussions of global warming that focus on technical and economic questions. How rapidly is the Earth warming? How far can the warming continue before irreversible, catastrophic changes occur – 1.5 degrees Centigrade, 2 degrees, 3 degrees? How large are the expected economic damages? And how much will it cost to limit greenhouse gas emissions by a given amount?

Some varieties of techno-utopian thinking tend to remove politics from the equation altogether. They assume that technical progress can solve the problem of climate change as long as private-sector innovators are given free rein to develop products like electric cars, high-capacity batteries, and more efficient solar cells. When taken far enough, this faith in technology eliminates the need for any hard political decisions or talk of sacrifice.

Even those who argue strongly for government action to tackle global warming, though, often reduce politics to a simple binary choice: will we do what is necessary, or not? In this view, leaders who maneuver for national advantage are myopically focused on short-term concerns rather than the far larger threat looming on the horizon. The dramatic irony implied by this perspective is reminiscent of a fantasy novel or television show in which the characters are preoccupied with petty affairs while the audience wrings their hands in frustration. As the climate change allegory in Game of Thrones has it: who cares about court politics when winter is coming and the White Walkers are on the march?

That sort of rhetoric echoes what I called the “interdependence of fear” in my article about the NIEO debate of the 1970s (playing on Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear”). The United States and other industrialized countries argued that the world economy had become so thoroughly interconnected that if the developed nations were thrown into recession – for example, by the oil price increases of 1973-74 – the resulting economic turmoil would harm the developing world and even the oil-exporting countries themselves. Rather than trying to compete with one other, the nations of the world needed to work together to overcome threats to their shared prosperity.

The NIEO’s advocates adopted similar language, but they used it to argue for a completely different set of policy prescriptions. They contended that because the economic interests of all nations were intertwined, the industrialized countries should help the Global South through a massive program of foreign aid, commodity price guarantees, and the transfer of patents and technical expertise to poorer countries. The developing nations argued that this restructuring of the global economic order would not only help address the pernicious legacy of colonialism and create a more just international distribution of wealth, but would also accelerate economic growth throughout the world. It was a more optimistic vision than the one advanced by the United States, an “interdependence of hope” rather than fear.

The language of interdependence shared by both sides in the NIEO debate failed to resolve the fundamental political differences that divided them. The debate between the industrialized world and the Global South over the international economic order continued throughout the 1970s. It was a major influence on international politics during that decade, including the first efforts to craft a multilateral response to global environmental challenges. The UN Conference on the Human Environment that met in Stockholm in 1972 was the scene of sharp disagreement between developed and developing countries, a conflict described by Stephen Macekura in his new book Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century. Critics in the Global South argued that overly-aggressive environmental protection efforts would trap nations in poverty, preventing the rapid economic development they needed to catch up to the industrialized world. The Stockholm delegates eventually agreed on a joint declaration, but their statement failed to paper over all of the strains that had plagued the conference. The delegations affirmed their commitment to environmental protection, but they also stated that “in the developing countries most of the environmental problems are caused by under-development,” and called for economic aid, technology transfer, and commodity price supports to help the developing nations – all proposals that were part of the NIEO agenda, as well.

By the early 1980s, the NIEO collapsed and the global political economy became dominated by more market-oriented approaches. Still, the questions raised by the NIEO debate did not disappear entirely. Disagreements over economic justice and the relationship between developed and developing countries continued to influence international diplomacy, including efforts to safeguard the global environment. Fears that environmental protection would place intolerable burdens on developing countries helped limit the scope of the 1992 Rio agreement on climate change, led the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to exclude developing countries from its provisions (a limitation that, in turn, helped prevent the U.S. Senate from ever ratifying the Kyoto Protocol) and scuttled the chances of securing a binding agreement at Copenhagen in 2009.

The same tension between industrialized and developing countries also played a major role in the recent negotiations at Paris. The “BASIC” countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) formed a united negotiating front and argued that the industrialized world needed to bear a larger share of the costs of climate change mitigation. They called for relaxed emissions restrictions on developing countries, pointing out that they produce far smaller quantities of greenhouse gases per capita than do the United States, Japan, and Western Europe. They also argued for a major increase in financial aid and technology transfer to poorer nations, demands that echoed the NIEO agenda. And just like the NIEO’s advocates stressed the legacy of colonialism, China and other developing nations argued at the Paris talks that the industrialized world needed to take responsibility for its long history of carbon emissions rather than simply trying to reduce every country’s emissions from their current levels. After all, the rich nations have been emitting carbon dioxide for many decades now, and most of the excess carbon now in the atmosphere is the product of their industries rather than the factories of China or India. The BASIC countries sought to convince their negotiating partners that fighting climate change involved questions not only of climate science and economics, but also of economic justice and acknowledgment of past wrongs.

The Paris talks resulted in an agreement that satisfied many (but not all) of the demands made by developing countries, including the reaffirmation of two key points: provision of at least $100 billion of aid per year to the developing world, and an acknowledgement of the principle of the “common but differentiated responsiblities” borne by developed and developing countries in combating climate change. The fact that a successful compromise was reached, in sharp contrast with previous international climate change talks, represents a real triumph for global environmental diplomacy.

Much remains to be done, however. The Paris accord cannot be implemented without the passage of new laws, regulations, and other additional measures in many countries around the world. Some of the biggest challenges will be in the United States. The Obama administration has argued that the accord is not a treaty and does not require submission to the Senate, but even before the agreement was signed, Republican lawmakers made their opposition clear. In the 1970s, the United States took some limited steps toward compromise with the NIEO, but even that partial accommodation was reversed by Reagan’s election in 1980 and the work of conservatives who denounced costly foreign aid programs and the influence wielded by developing countries at the United Nations. The Paris accord has already come under the same sort of attack from critics who argue that it burdens American taxpayers and consumers and subordinates U.S. sovereignty to international elites in the name of unproven climate science.

The Paris agreement is also complicated by the fact that some of its most important provisions will not take effect until 2020. The binding commitments made so far are nowhere near enough to accomplish the accord’s stated goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Centigrade at the most (1.5 degrees if possible) and to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by the second half of this century. Those deal’s shortcomings have severely disappointed some of the most committed climate change activists, like Bill McKibben. The Paris accord envisions a regular series of reviews that should help tighten restrictions on carbon emissions in the future, but any number of obstacles – unexpectedly high costs, the election of a new U.S. president less committed to the accord, or renewed disagreement between developed and developing nations – could derail that process.

The revival of questions from the Stockholm conference and the NIEO debate during the Paris talks reminds us that the fight against climate change is more than a technical or economic problem – it is also a political challenge. Jedidiah Purdy has written that “real environmental reform is a matter of political economy,” a statement that is as true internationally as it is domestically. The impact of climate change will fall more heavily on some nations and social groups than on others, and so will the cost of moving away from fossil fuels. As a result, any efforts to mitigate climate change on a global scale are forced to reckon with questions of competing economic and social interests. The Paris accord is a historic achievement, but putting it into practice will still require a great deal of hard political work. That work will not succeed unless a wide variety of audiences around the world can be convinced that the proposed solutions are not only rational, technically feasible, and cost-effective, but also fair.


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