COP26 climate change summit: A world government may be required to truly tackle global warming – Alastair Stewart
It's a tragic end to a cliche that had more merit than you might think. Without really being noticed, one of the more popular fantasies of fringe groups has evaporated.
Throughout history, thinkers, philosophers, writers and politicians have set out their conditions for achieving global government. More often than not, it was the Bond baddie-dream of tyrants.
But the likes of Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and even HG Wells are just a few of those who considered it a tangible, admirable goal. For them, it was closing the lid on the Pandora's Box of an anarchic international system and the worst excesses of human nature.
Thousands marched in Glasgow last week to denounce the hollow promises of leaders. They chanted on the street that the climate emergency demands action. And yet, they're shouting at the same politicians to strike global agreements that are not only binding but enforceable. There's an extreme disconnect in a world of nearly 200 countries all striving to preserve their self-interest.
Hans Morgenthau was one of the most significant 20th-century figures in the study of international relations. Morgenthau believed power politics a reality of life, as fundamental to the human condition as breathing. He understood the conflicts and possibilities of global politics as an extension of human nature.
For Morgenthau, people owe their peace and order to the existence of the state. But the government is a unique product of the organic organisation of every society. World government cannot be brought about because politicians want it, but it must be sought from the ‘ground up’ by ordinary citizens.
We need our governments to assent to a new global organisation with the power to tackle environmental devastation head-on. Humanity is more connected than ever for the first time in history, even if our governments are not. Digital and social media make an international consciousness wholly possible. There is a global community – not just about political issues, but trending social topics, viral videos, entire wisdom in different crowds.
Scotland has a particularly politically engaged citizenry. The missing part of the equation is what they do with their voice when the limits of international governance block options on the table.
Agreements alone will not save the planet and the record to date is chequered. The current international system (like the previous 25 COP summits) is failing.
National self-interest is a universal constant. Countries like the UK and US deploy the rhetoric of responsibility and urgency. Still, the treasure trove of human history contains a few examples, if any, of a state doing something that harms its interest, for the sake of it.
Morgenthau knew this and said there must be a shift of loyalty from the nation-state to a new, global idea, made real by a world government.
Political culture is different wherever you go and can seldom be imposed (a lesson lost on Western powers for most of the 20th century, and certainly following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan). People have to want it and be prepared to submit themselves to a legal structure and a new moral one with penalties for noncompliance.
Campaign groups that want to see something done need to consider the bigger picture and stop being a Greek chorus. They are the first to say the latest round of talks are high stakes. They’re also the first to complain nothing is being done.
We need some new global organisation with the guts and the means to save us all, inspiring the same need for security and safety that we expect from our tax-funded governments. Sometimes that means taking decisions that annoy us.
The United Nations was as close as we have come to a unified world government, and that is not saying much. It is a grand facilitator but a poor enforcer. The UN can only be directly measured against the sincerity of the member states. It is stuck in post-Second World War thinking, with its Bretton Woods institutions, deeply outdated Security Council, and lacklustre General Assembly. It is a failed gerontocracy.
Nor is the European Union quite the prelude to a global unifier it is sometimes presented to be (but nor was it intended to be). It is a regional system akin to alliances like Nato. It is why Brexit has neither delivered a death blow nor launched a break-up parade of sovereignties akin to the collapse of the USSR.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama once predicted liberal democracies would be at the “end of history”. For what felt like an age, the promise of a global authority felt like the last chance to buck nation-states' failure, corruption, and inaction. The more upbeat fictional depictions like Star Trek imagine humanity coming together to prevent (or solve) calamities like environmental destruction.
Global environmental governance needs teeth. Everything from organisations, policy instruments, financing mechanisms, rules, procedures and norms that regulate the processes of environmental protection across the world need to be tightened to battle the status quo. A book called Global Environmental Governance, by Adil Najam, Mihaela Papa and Nadaa Taiyab, outlines the sum of the problems facing reform and innovation.
Everything from the United Nations Environment Programme to the European Environment Agency has not brought about the kind of sweeping change needed. The UN’s COP summits have been impressively gradual without being impressively cumulative.
Politicians only understand the loss of power. This always happens when they miss a step, and when they fall foul of a zeitgeist, governments fall. Overcoming the traditional state concerns for self-interest to enforce global environmental change must be the new campaign call.
A new global organisation could do that and would certainly do no worse than what we have now.
As someone once said, “people shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.