By Harry Gray
In February of 1971 Edgar Mitchell made history by being the sixth person to set foot on the moon. He spent nine hours on the lunar surface working as part of the Apollo 14 programme. During this time, he collected nearly one hundred pounds of lunar samples for laboratory examination, performed complex communications tests and took pictures of the moon’s surface. Whilst completing his work, he stopped for a moment to stare back at the green and blue planet he had set off from. In this moment, a thought occurred to him that he later shared: “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
Although most of us will never see the Earth from the perspective Mitchell did, it hasn’t prevented people sharing his frustration with politicians and agreeing with views that international politics in its current state is unimportant, ineffective and needs fundamental change. People feel especially strongly about this when addressing the issue of climate change and evidence of this is not hard to come by. A survey published in August and conducted on behalf of the Global Commons Alliance in G20 nations reveals that on average 64% of the general public believe that international organisations like the UN should be given more power to protect climate and nature. Another global survey completed in 2020 and published by the Stockholm-based Global Challenges Foundation found that an international average of 67 percent of people agree that “a new global supranational organisation should be created to make binding global decisions on how to manage global risks”.
But why does the threat of climate change require stronger international institutions?
Climate change poses a new type of threat, one that impacts all nations, societies, communities and individuals. It is quite clear that no country alone can solve the climate crisis. Decisions made in one nation can directly affect the lives of those on the other side of the planet. As the scientist Patrick Hayden asserts, ‘The shared fates and interests of persons extend beyond political boundaries as economic, environmental, social, cultural and political life becomes increasingly global.” In the case of climate change, this is clear. For example, greenhouse gas emissions released in the United States can lead to a chain of events that causes flooding in rural Bangladesh. Deforestation in Brazil can affect annual rainfall in Australia. In short, climate change poses a problem that humanity has not previously faced, the interdependence of nations is now absolute and the need for global cooperation and international teamwork has never been more important.
There is also the issue of climate justice. Who should pay for the impacts of climate change? Should those who have polluted the most bear the responsibility for resolving the climate crisis? Or should the wealthiest nations pay? Is it fair that poorer nations should suffer the most from the impacts of climate change even though they contributed least to it? These issues can only be solved at the international level, no nation alone can provide an adequate solution to these transnational issues of justice.
Have current international attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions been successful?
International cooperation on climate change simply isn’t working. For decades now we have known about the danger that climate change poses. In 1965 Lydon B Johnson was presented with a report of the dangers releasing too many greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and the need for international action. In 1988 the UN General Assembly described climate change as a ‘common concern for mankind’. Yet still, decade by decade, emissions have continued to rise and no major reform at the international level has occurred, despite the majority believing it is necessary.
Many attempts at international treaties to combat climate change have been attempted. Examples of which have included the 1982 Rio Framework, the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and in 2015 the Paris Climate Agreement. To date, none of these agreements have been able to truly enforce states to commit to promises made relating to reducing climate emissions. Therefore, it is now time for politicians to delegate some power to international institutions, allow them to increase their authority and give them the ability to ensure nations address climate change.
As I perceive it, there is a moral argument and a logical argument as to why we need stronger international institutions to solve the climate crisis. We can infer the moral argument from Edgar Mitchell. When looking at earth from space, considering the bigger picture, national boarders become meaningless, and our shared humanity is much more prevalent and current international quarrels are unimportant. Instead, we must focus on our similarities not our differences to solve the pressing issue of climate change. On the other hand, the logical argument highlights that humanity is facing an emergency that threatens our existence, it is an emergency that one nation alone does not have the capacity to solve and current attempts have been unsuccessful. Climate justice issues also require an international body to solve with real authority to enforce the decisions it makes. What’s interesting is that most people agree with these arguments, it’s now up to our politicians to act.
Hayden, Patrick (2010), ‘The Environment, Global Justice and World Environmental Citizenship’, in G. W. Brown and D. Held (eds), The Cosmopolitanism Reader, Cambridge, Durham: Polity Press, pp. 355–70