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Global Perspective: The climate change issue as 'word politics'

Delegates from countries including Egypt, Japan and Singapore pose for a group photograph on stage at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

By Akihiko Tanaka, President, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

    International politics is often described as power politics. Looking at the current relationship between the United States and China, it is clear that there is a power confrontation between the two countries. While Chinese military aircraft enter Taiwan's air defense zone, U.S. naval vessels pass through the Taiwan Strait. It can be said that peace is barely being maintained through deterrence by force.

    On the other hand, the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which closed on Nov. 12, is another major stage of international politics. Is there power politics at play here? There is no doubt that the gathering involves politics, as various actors, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments, are trying to exert their influence. However, the power being used is not military power. Few would think that military power would be useful in reducing greenhouse gases.

    The international politics of climate change is a politics of diplomacy and negotiations, a politics of non-military force. What, then, is non-military power? Economic power is naturally important. Leaders of developing countries, including Prime Minister Modi of India, insisted that developed countries keep their pledges to provide more than 100 billion dollars a year to address climate change. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, which chaired COP26, pledged to increase international aid by 1 billion pounds, or 150 billion yen, by 2025. Japan has thus far pledged $60 billion in public and private support over the next five years, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced additional aid of $10 billion.

    However, what has been decisive in the negotiations on climate change has been the weight of research results by many scientists and the natural disasters that have occurred as if to support the research results. The Sixth Assessment Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in August, pointed out that "it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land." This evaluation was much stronger than the Fifth Assessment Report released 13 years ago, which called the causal relationship "extremely likely" or more than 95%. Furthermore, the report stated that there was a high probability that the extreme weather events that have been occurring frequently recently were caused by human-induced global warming.

    The results of such scientific research, nevertheless, are not immediately reflected in the policies of each country. It is obvious to those who do not deny the results of scientific research that mitigation measures are needed to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and that adaptation measures to climate change-derived disasters must be taken. Still, science does not provide all the answers to specific measures, and the effects of such steps are subject to uncertainty. Parties with different ideals and interests -- nations, international organizations, corporations, NGOs, and individuals -- will develop sometimes conflicting policy arguments based on their favorite pieces of scientific evidence.

    Such policy debates take place in the international community that is still an anarchic system with sovereign states as the most important actors. There is no mechanism for forcing sovereign states to do what the international community tells them. As a result, attempts such as the Kyoto Protocol, which is legally binding, failed because the most important states, the United States and China, did not participate. That is why the Paris Agreement of 2015 tried to limit the increase in global average temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, by consolidating voluntary commitments called "Nationally Determined Contributions" (NDCs). The good news is that there are estimates that we may manage to keep the rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

    The question is whether countries will really implement their NDCs in full. Since the evils of climate change are not confined within the borders of a single country, countries that implement strong measures criticize those that do not implement even weak measures. Idealistic environmental NGOs will also criticize countries that take weak measures. Companies and organizations with their own interests at stake will take different stances in the implementation phase. In other words, the issue of climate change will become a complex international political arena where various nations, international organizations, NGOs, and corporations will jostle to make their case once the implementation of the measures begins in earnest.

    In a book I published about 20 years ago, I pointed out that the power of words would become more important in international politics in the future. I argued that word politics would become just as important as power politics ("Word Politics" published by Chikuma Shobo in 2000). The international negotiations over climate change may be the stage on which word politics is being developed in earnest.

    Is there any law to word politics? Naturally, in order for words to have influence, the basis of their claims must be as close to the truth as possible. In the case of the climate change issue, the basis of claims and counter-claims must be as accurate as possible in terms of scientific knowledge and feasibility. There are aspects of word politics that are similar to those of scientific debate.

    As is sometimes the case in scientific debates, however, there are dominant arguments and inferior arguments. Scientists will not bend their beliefs without conclusive evidence even in the case of inferior arguments. However, in the word politics of the international community, it can be important to determine what argument is superior or inferior. If you side with the inferior argument, you will be accused by the superior force that the "burden of proof" is on you, and you will face peer pressure to withdraw your argument. In many cases, it may be more constructive to build one's argument on the basis of the prevailing argument, as long as it does not significantly harm the national interest.

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