One of the main misconceptions I hear when I talk to people about having some kind of global democratic forum for decision-making on global issues in a global age is that it means doing away with countries.
That’s not true or desirable. The guiding principle should be decision-making at the appropriate level. What can be managed locally, manage locally. What can be managed nationally, manage nationally. What can be managed globally, manage globally. In a both-and world, we can have unity and diversity. The minimum effective dose of coordination and maximum localization.
People are frustrated that more hasn’t happened on climate change. This sometimes leads to the conclusion that people don’t care or that we are fucking it all up. Of course, some people don’t care. But over 1 million (1 in 300 people in America) marched in New York for the People’s Climate March in September. Let alone all the others who marched across the US. Let alone the 2646 solidarity events in 162 countries. People care. More than they ever have.
What about if the real issue with climate change were that it’s a hypercomplex global issue? One where it’s not just about banning one thing or instituting one law (like say the ban on chlouroflourocarbons (CFCs) in 1992, arguably the most effective climate change single action ever). And that we lack the global institutional capacity to deal with it?
Think about it this way. We know how stuck Congress has been. The 113th Congress passed fewer laws than any previous Congress. It hasn’t agreed a national budget – perhaps it’s principle task – in 4 years. And this is a legal sovereign body which is deemed legitimate by and large by the people.
Now take an issue with the complexities of climate change and imagine you have 193 countries trying to get together to agree a way forward. And there’s no binding authority or competent decision-making structure (international law is mostly a misnomer, it’s not enforceable). Imagine getting 193 of those people you went to high school with – and may have nothing in common with – to agree on a single course of action about the duties of being an alumnus of your high school and how much people should pay for its upkeep and supporting the next generation. But you had to get EVERYONE on board, otherwise nothing would happen because those who did act would feel hard done by. ‘Freeriden’ in game theory speak; ‘first mover disadvantage’ in international economic speak.
No one likes to pay tax. Imagine paying tax suddenly became voluntary. Do you think everyone would still pay at the same level? Yeah, right.
So binding authority is important as it actually compels people to act in ways which may be better for the public good but which seem not in our (immediate/unenlightened) self-interest.
The point is climate change is a global issue which is mostly relying on national volunteering and self-monitoring to solve it.
Next time we go to bash our politicians, let us also wonder if they are in a game they can’t win. And then let us wonder how we might be able to get stuff done if had stronger global coordination and potentially a winnable game.