Climate Change and Environment Politics in Times of Transition


Interconnectedness is at the source and solution of present (and looming) transnational challenges. Despite setbacks and deadlocks, broader approaches and pragmatic solutions are needed. This necessitates the inclusion of key actors from the private sector as well as civil society.

Southern Africa drought - Mozambique

We are experiencing times of transition with the emergence of disruptive changes in the world we know. The era of Anthropocene – a concept still being constructed – bases on the geological understanding of the courses of life on the planet, transformed through human action. The assumption that human action is at the center of changes in the atmosphere and in the environment is increasingly accepted and raises awareness for the profound interconnection between Man and Nature. In the Anthropocene, everything is interconnected (Kelly, 2019). A better understanding of these interconnections provides the basis for constructing suitable narratives and dimensions to politics and society that address consequences for the natural environment. This understanding renders alliances on the international as well as (sub-)national level very important.

Present and growing interconnectedness require new answers

Despite the lack of political or scientific consensus regarding the occurrence (or not) of a new geological/planetary Era, political discussions on the so-called global issues have gained new contours due to the challenges stemming from and encountered by our human population. The implementation of the Paris Agreement and shared responsibilities are more urgent than ever; since its establishment in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has rotated around multilateral negotiations, with much difficulty to formulate and assure commitments. Action by political constituencies and thematic clusters, such as on transnational challenges of migration, health, demography, biodiversity and shortage of (water) resources, have helped to incorporate contents that are broader and more challenging. Including these global topics contributes to the understanding of interconnectedness as well as the construction of holistic narratives in international dialogue.

The global governance system is no longer capable of providing the means and instruments necessary to facilitate the convergence of common interests. It is unable to construct a mission-oriented vision of the future, agreed upon globally and, still, capable of mobilizing effective action on the ground in the immediate-term. Both are urgent tasks for the current global governance system. The current multilateral system that attempts to address topics such as climate change, international trade, international financial flows and global security is based on rules from a past century; though still legitimate and relevant, these rules need to align with the globalized, interdependent and interconnected system we presently live in. Societies and governments are already losing confidence in multilateral institutions once established due to their ineffectiveness and lack of adaptability.

The interconnectedness of transnational issues and the complexity of subsequent negotiations are further complicated through domestic bottlenecks: when dealing with the need for certain change and adaptation specific contours within each society are assumed and commonly oriented by economic (financial/commercial) motives. A progressive and transformative agenda to address social, environmental and technological inequalities as well as new ideas and access to routes of global transformation are often not in the focus. Additionally, change in individual and societal life as well as governing processes are complicated through processes defined by polarization of political positions, by the negation of science, by the weakening and erosion of multilateral norms and institutions. Progressive demands for democratization of processes to find and implement solutions as well as the necessity of dealing with the future neither as a work of fiction nor as a linear continuation of the present further challenges.

The changes in global order have setback previous achievements – such as progressive dialogue and movement on sustainability, gender and human rights, fair trade, human security and poverty eradication – that were oriented by the common international interest, even if not yet well defined, and positively impacted the multilateral system. The outcomes of contemporary changes are uncertain, but still highlight the necessity of advancements in economic security and in the reduction of social and ecologic inequalities, in order to reestablish trust in global institutions. In a world that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent, a new political and transformative relationship with nature is imperative if we wish to advance as global societies.
In the new political times of the Anthropocene or in the times of transition, what new stories can be told, that look towards the future and not are limited by solutions of the (recent) past, that include well-managed political and institutional arrangements or a better understanding of the deep and mutual connection between man and the natural environment?

In times of transition: The need to include sub-national actors

Living in transition determines new political urgencies in relation to the future. However, it also means understanding the interactions between climate change, people and Nature. Facing global problems that already impact the current ways of life, the political structures that represent rights and duties (individual and collective), besides the exercise of governing, suggests a demand for new arrangements and mechanisms, that not only respond to urgency, but address necessities of the present with longer-term visions.

These circumstances, taken as a whole, necessitate raising ambitions beyond already recognized and consolidated standards. The Paris Agreement and parameters adopted to design NDCs are consolidated tools by the international community to tackle climate change; they do not present thresholds of ambitions, however. In order to deal with the future, we should go beyond the established, connect political actors, create broad networks for agency and develop new consensuses in a diverse and multipolar international reality. The context of climate change is continuously changing; subsequent action to tackle the challenges need to adapt respectively.

Alliances can be sought on the basis of common interests; considering higher ambitions, however, partnerships do not necessarily involve only those who think or act in a converging manner. Rather, it is essential to build political spaces or networks dimensioned in the “realm of the improbable”, to attempt “alliance of the unlikely”. For example, actors from the energy sector, agriculture, infrastructure, trade and financial institutions need to be included as well, in dialogue, partnerships and commitments. They hold not only responsibilities, but also the keys to implementing change and preparing for the future. Broader involvement and participation will help to come up with pragmatic and innovative solutions, to establish new routes, political frameworks and new economic engagement to result in the low carbon transformation we need.

Furthermore, there are countries that are strategically important in the achievement of solutions and should not be excluded or marginalized because of extremist or “denialist” political positions defended by their governments. Brazil currently provides an example to this regard: The civil societies of such countries must be engaged and mobilized; for this, the international community needs to address these “new”, sub-national players and create a multitude of spaces for dialogue and participation.

For an action-oriented agenda: the need to involve economic constituencies

In terms of the science-based policy agenda to face climate change, it is urgent to reach a common understanding of an action-oriented agenda not only for the first implementation phase of the Paris Agreement, but also for the climate change emergency, for innovative strategies and institutional arrangements in the climate change global governance system. To raise national agency on climate policy actions and to prompt transformative changes, it seems important to evaluate the global climate change governance system and to take into consideration the new political and institutional requirements for acting (in the aforementioned necessity for adaptation). It is essential to firmly engage the sectoral economic constituencies in charge of the decision-making processes responsible for cutting or not cutting greenhouse gases emissions by 2020, 2025 and 2030. The “behind the scenes players” that are responsible for the future of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) must be in the same room with the political climate players and agree on the new routes and political transformative drivers.

Climate change will seriously impact the global development agenda, the regional and national economic growth and trade arrangements, social needs and inequalities and global security. It seems unproductive, not sufficient and even unfair to address solutions today without engaging the players who have the power and the responsibility to change faster (or not) the directions of climate change. As observable recently in Madrid (COP 25), global civil society groups are moving in one direction while the political sphere seems to be going in the another. It is essential to understand what are the new demands after COP 25, the political and economic motivation and the players that should be charged with drafting the climate change mitigation agenda after 2020. It seems that mobilizing only the environmental political constituency as key players is not enough.

But it is also essential to consider if climate change could be one of those “wicked problems”, that are too big for politics to “solve” (Kelly, 2019). Can the complex inter-relationships between the past (historical responsibilities), present (emerging economies and their actual carbon emissions) and future (shared-responsibilities) be addressed by current political systems that base on democratic decision making-processes?  Why is it so difficult to mobilize a political coalition to tackle climate change based on agreed rules? It is imperative to better understand the impacts and to master disruptive technologies (like AI and 5G) that are already changing and will continue to change our economic system as well as way of life. It is imperative to avoid being/feeling trapped in a polarized world split between the USA and China, and to overcome geopolitical rivalries that render everyone worse off in this ever-increasingly interconnected world.

Last, but certainly not least, we need to engage the US and China now, in 2020. Considering greenhouse emissions in the past and in the present in order to tackle climate change until 2050, the USA and China need to be on board as well as be part of alliances for multilateralism, such as the one initiated by Germany and France. Additionally, regional alliances are urgently needed. Climate change is a matter of political judgment and action, as the natural sciences have already established the limits of 1.50C for the future. In order to reach out for new global partners to help advance multilateral approaches on climate change, we need to open the new gates of the action agenda - as was requested in Madrid by the global society!

Kelly, Duncan: Politics and the Anthropocene. (Cambridge, UK. 2019).