Save the planet – get rid of the state

The main obstacle to a climate deal at the Copenhagen Conference was state sovereignty. The solution, argues political scientist José Ignacio Torreblanca, lies in exporting the EU’s know-how and institutional approach.

Published on 22 December 2009 at 16:15

The Copenhagen summit was the last chance for the two hundred-odd states that form the international community to show they can be part of the solution to global warming. Unfortunately, judging from what we saw in Denmark, the states seem to be a big part of the problem. So the moment has come to take a quantum leap forward and start thinking about how to divest them of the power to decide the future of our planet.

This may sounds revolutionary, but don’t be alarmed: at base, politics is about determining how much power to confer on what level of authority to get problems solved. For politicians, politics is the art of the possible; but for political scientists, politics is not intuitive, it’s a science. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that institutional mechanisms are crucial: in other words, our chances of solving a problem are closely linked to the tools we use to do so.

The case against sovereignty

We only have one planet, and yet we manage it by means of a ridiculous system of governance founded on an outmoded concept, sovereignty. National sovereignty was, in its time, a useful invention in putting an end to the wars of religion and imposing a single central authority on feudal lords. But in the present day and age, faced with the threat of climate change, the Obamas, the Jiabaos, the Medvedevs, the Singhs and the Lulas hardly differ a whit from those warlords hell bent on guarding their autonomy at any price, even that of collective disaster.

Life is full of instances in which the sum total of what are rational decisions from an individualistic standpoint proves a collective disaster, from the arms race and bank runs to the annihilation of anchovy in the Bay of Biscay and the deforestation of the Amazon: the absence of a binding international agreement and of a supranational watchdog is generally the cause of the failure. Climate change is a textbook case of reliance on a decision-making system structurally designed to produce imperfect and lopsided results.

Europe to the rescue

Oddly enough, the European Union, though it remained on the sidelines in the clash between the US and the developing world, has two types of key know-how to take on climate change. The first encompasses the EU Emission Trading System (ETS) (which, though imperfect, makes for a solid start), Europe’s innovativeness in improving energy efficiency and in CO2 capture and storage (CCS), and its experience in ecological tax reforms. This know-how is undoubtedly exportable and has already made Europe number one worldwide in terms of energy efficiency, emissions reduction, renewable energy, green taxation etc.

But the EU’s most vital know-how lies in the institutional domain. Much as we deplore its marginal role in global power politics, the EU is still tangible proof that it’s possible to apply supranational solutions to problems involving irreconcilable national interests. Europe resolved the Franco-German rivalry, which took its toll on millions, by instituting an inventive and equitable formula for sharing coal, steel and nuclear energy production. It seems obvious in our day that the only match for global warming is a supranational authority that can set and collect international eco-taxes and redistribute the revenue fairly, using it to fund the requisite technological adaptations and innovations. So for once the EU actually has something that looks to be a perfect solution. Now it just has to figure out how to sell it…. And given the odds of that, I’d say the planet’s not about to cool off any time soon.

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