The coronavirus pandemic and climate change are closely linked crises, with population and economic pressures having made it easier for viruses to jump from species to species, and with the political and economic pressures caused by the pandemic having weakened many countries' willingness to take the bold measures required to combat planetary heating. We have also just seen at the UN COP26 climate conference how both suffer from the same geopolitical malaise: the failure to foster global collaboration, let alone global governance.
On almost any measure, the United Nations Conference of Parties event in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November, known as COP26, was a disappointment. If the mission of the event is thought of as having been to secure wide international agreement on transformative solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit rises in global temperatures, then it was a total failure. The best that can be said of the negotiations is that they moved in the right direction and may have set a platform on which more ambitious solutions might be agreed upon in the future, at COP27 in Egypt next year, or some future COP.
Yet we should not dismiss such modest progress too scathingly. Some progress, after all, is better than none. It is better to reflect on the real reasons why progress on climate, and more broadly on global collaboration, is so difficult.
There are two main explanations. The first is just a fact of life: that domestic politics comes first, for almost all countries, whether they are democracies or authoritarian regimes. This can be seen most clearly in the hypocrisy shown in Glasgow both by the host, the United Kingdom, and by Japan, among many others.
The U.K., in the form of its always very vocal and optimistic prime minister, Boris Johnson, called for the summit to be bold and to "keep 1.5 alive," in other words to take measures that would make it possible to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet just before the summit the U.K. government presented an annual government budget in which a decade long freeze on taxes on motor fuel was maintained and which cut taxes on domestic flights, and the U.K. has caused outrage among environmentalists by allowing a North Sea oilfield to expand and even considering giving permission for a new coal mine. Such measures flatly contradicted the idea of "keeping 1.5 alive."
Japan, too, in the form of an impressively swift and efficient visit to Glasgow by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida the day after his successful Lower House election, spoke piously about the merits of international collaboration, and yet was one of 46 countries which failed to sign up to a pledge to eliminate coal-powered electricity plants. It was probably a relief to the Japanese government that it was India that insisted, at the last moment, on a change to the COP26 official statement, replacing the aim of "phasing out" coal with the softer language of merely "phasing down" the most polluting fossil fuel. If Japan is not willing to phase out coal, then it is not truly serious about combating climate change.
This is also why, in some ways, the whole idea of these big international negotiations is a bit of an illusion. The impression given is that at these gatherings world leaders meet to discuss problems and find solutions. In reality, all that they can do is to meet to compare their domestic situations and see how far politics at home can be stretched to be able to achieve collective goals. In a few cases, the pressure of international opinion may persuade some governments to return home and make a serious effort to sell tougher measures to their domestic audiences, but mostly these negotiations are about reconciling existing policies and making pledges far enough into the future that domestic policies do not have to be changed instantly.
Things would be radically different only if the world's two superpowers were able to come to an agreement, one that would have the chance of exerting leadership and so forcing other countries to follow, even in defiance of their domestic politics. This is where the second explanation comes in. Sadly, relations between the United States and China have become more and more tense, even hostile, during the pandemic and are now arguably worse than at any time during the past half century. They were not in a real position to exert leadership, both thanks to their respective domestic political situations and to their rivalry with one another.
We should take comfort, nevertheless, from small signs that this division between the U.S. and China can be mitigated, even if it cannot be bridged. During COP26, the leading negotiators for the two superpowers, Senator John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, did produce a surprise statement promising to collaborate more deeply on climate in the future. And in the days after COP26 closed, President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping held their first bilateral summit of the year, albeit by video conference because President Xi is not currently willing to leave China.
The outcomes from this surprise Kerry-Xie statement and from the Biden-Xi summit were vague. Neither can be said to indicate a sharp change of direction. The most positive reading of the Biden-Xi summit has been that the two sides may have agreed to sit down to discuss their respective arsenals of nuclear weapons, but it remains unclear when or even whether this will actually happen.
My countryman, Winston Churchill, was famously quoted as having said during the 1950s face-off between the USA and the Soviet Union that at least what he called "jaw jaw." i.e. talking, was better than "war war," and that is undoubtedly also true of the Biden-Xi summit. The key task must be to establish a routine of dialogue and an agreed agenda of items of common interest over which the two rivals can potentially collaborate. Without that, the danger of conflict will only rise.
The dream of global governance, and of its less institutionalised cousin, global collaboration, needs to be set against this background. The rivalry between the two superpowers will, for as long as it lasts, put severe limits on what can be achieved by United Nations institutions or summits.
This does not, however, mean that nothing can be done. The greatest potential for progress lies in direct negotiations and hopefully agreements between the U.S. and China, perhaps encouraged and nudged by their friends and allies. In addition, smaller groups of countries can band together to forge their own agreements and take collective actions, even on climate change. Their domestic politics will always stand in the way of such agreements, but the chance of persuading voters and other political forces may be higher when the groups are smaller or more local.
It isn't ideal. It is not what one would advocate for global, even planetary, management if given a clean sheet of paper and a favourable atmosphere. But it is what we have got, so we had better work to make the best of it.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)