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COP24: Nationalism and the challenge of climate change

Why We Wrote This

At a world gathering on climate change this weekend, nations will face a key political test: whether they can transcend the narrowness of nationalism in favor of cooperation. All eyes will be on the US and China.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
Protesters in Paris urge politicians to act against climate change on Oct. 13, 2018.

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For participants in a major international meeting next week in southern Poland, the central task is daunting enough: Draw up a rulebook to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement’s aim of dramatically slowing climate change. But the real test will be whether, in a world increasingly driven by nationalism, there’s enough international political will for any effective response to the borderless problem. Despite the declared aim of the agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures, in large part by phasing out coal, there was a pragmatic recognition that targets agreed to by individual nations would not be mandatory. That was one tradeoff for getting less developed economies on board. The meeting in Poland is meant to achieve the next best thing: agreement on a robust system of reporting to ensure that countries are meeting their commitments. But reports have indicated that the Trump administration – never a willing party to Paris – will promote the long-term potential for “clean coal” rather than reveal plans for eliminating coal power over the coming decades. And China still appears positioned to argue that the US and Europe, the main source of carbon emissions in the past century, bear responsibility for leading the transition.

Two major international meetings are about to take place, and the first – the G20 summit of the world’s leading economic powers – is likely to grab the lion’s share of the headlines. But it’s the second, opening this Sunday in the southern Polish city of Katowice, where the stakes are greater. 

At issue is climate change. The task at COP24 is to draw up a rulebook to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement’s aim of dramatically slowing it down, and averting what scientists increasingly agree is the alternative: hugely damaging natural, economic, and human costs across the globe.

That’s likely to prove daunting enough. But the real test will be whether the international cooperation and political will necessary for any effective response to climate change, a process that does not recognize state borders, is possible in a world increasingly driven by narrower nationalism. That’s especially true of two key players: the United States and China.

A series of scientific reports ahead of Katowice has underscored how far governments still have to go if they’re to reach the stated goal of Paris – limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees C or 2.7 degrees F. more than pre-industrial levels – and how dire are the potential consequences of failure. The most comprehensive of the studies, by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that even keeping the increase to 2 degrees wouldn’t avert the risk of punishing increases in extreme weather conditions, more droughts and flooding, and related threats of hunger, poverty, mass migration, and resource-driven wars.

The authors also warned of possible tipping points, such as an end to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, which could make the effects of climate change irreversible if concerted action weren’t taken over the next decade.

Although President Trump has played down the issue of climate change, a US government report last week also delivered a bleak assessment. With the continental US already 1.8 degrees F. hotter than a century ago, it noted that mountains in Western states were already seeing less snow and that wildfires like the blaze that recently destroyed thousands of homes and claimed dozens of lives in California were becoming more frequent.

Katowice’s challenge won’t primarily involve the science, however. It’s political.

Despite the declared aim of the Paris Agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures, in large part by phasing out emissions from coal, there was a pragmatic recognition that targets agreed to by individual nations would not be mandatory. That was one tradeoff for getting less developed economies, and crucially China, to participate in an international climate-change agreement for the first time.

The meeting in Katowice is meant to achieve the next best thing: agreement on a robust system of reporting to ensure transparency over whether countries are meeting their commitments as part of the global response to climate change.

While US leadership was a key in the Paris agreement, Mr. Trump has formally declared he intends to pull out. Since that can’t take effect for another year, he is still sending a delegation to Katowice, and in the run-up to the meeting, these experts and officials are understood to have been active participants in the search for an agreement. But news reports have indicated Washington will also send a team to make a presentation about the long-term potential for “clean coal,” rather than essentially eliminating coal power over the coming few decades as agreed in Paris.  

China has been more active in pre-Katowice discussions than in past climate talks, in part perhaps as a pointed effort to demonstrate it is filling a leadership vacuum left by the US. Its own long-term economic plans also include a major focus on clean-energy technology.

But despite having the world’s second-largest economy, the Chinese still appear to be positioning themselves as one of the developing countries, which have tended not just to seek looser national targets. They’ve argued that countries like the US and European states, the main source of carbon emissions in the last century, need to bear the principal financial responsibility for their transition to cleaner energy – one of Trump’s principal objections to the whole Paris Agreement process.

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