Category Archives: International Relations

A New World Record!

Stunning news!  Not really surprising though (nor necessarily encouraging), but here it is.  In the most recent bulletin by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued at the time of writing (Monday, November 21, 2011), data show a steady increase in the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere (PDF). At present, we are at 389 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2, the highest recorded in the past 10,000 years.

At present, this is substantially higher than the 350ppm hoped for by, a transnational science and advocacy network, but still within the range deemed acceptable by the Fourth Assessment Report (AR-4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – namely 350 – 400ppm, as described in their Summary for Policymakers (PDF).  For clarity’s sake, this is the range in which most scientists feel we have the best change at stabilizing the projected increase in global temperatures at 2 degrees above the current average.  Further, as indicated in the bulletin, it is assumed that the 350 – 400 CO2 level would correspond with a similar leveling of other GHGs, such as methane, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrous oxide, such that we would have a total accumulation of 445 – 490ppm of CO2 equivalent.

Hot Like Fire

It goes without saying that, even if we took the slightly-less-alarmist AR-4 as the better predictor, we would still be in dire straits.  To get to that level, we would need to cut global emissions by 50% – 85% of 2000 levels.  Further, this assumes that we would not dramatically raise the amount of other GHGs in the atmosphere.  While CO2 is usually held up as the bad boy of the atmosphere (and is currently responsible for about 70 – 80% of current anthropogenic warming), data held by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) show that the other GHGs are more powerful warmers, based on ppm, than CO2.  (This is due to their longevity, as well as chemical makeup).  Unfortunately, these show no sign of decreasing and some, like HFCs, are increasing at alarming rates.

Theoretically, we still have time to act.  Politically, engendering the will to do so is another question.  Part of this depends on our disposition to alarming data – will these trends cause apathy, alarm, or disdain?  We don’t know to a certainty what all this means, but the problem is too many people take this to mean we don’t know anything.  One way or the other, we’re going to find out.  We are, after all, to borrow from Roger Revelle, “…carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment” with the atmosphere.  I suppose that, for those skeptical about climate science theories, the logical thing to do is to take the experiment to its conclusion.

Corporate Personhood: Can it Work for Environmental Justice?

Corporations, Like Soylent Green, Are People

For many, the 2010 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC (PDF)  seemed like a further step in the reification of corporations.  Briefly, the decision held that it was unconstitutional to restrict the political speech of corporations (read: spending on political campaigns), as doing so violated the First Amendment rights of persons within the United States – the underlying assertion is that corporations are legal persons.  Critics pointed out that the norm of corporate personhood – giving corporate entities legal rights equivalent to those of ordinary citizens – would likely mean the concentration of political power in the hands of corporate CEOs and the wealthy.  Well, it turns out that, in addition to empowering them, the norm of corporate personhood may be used to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

Background: Environmental Injustice and Shell in Nigeria

In the 1990s, oil exploration in Nigeria was a travesty of environmental injustice.  In the Nigerian Delta, the practice of extraction was incredibly dirty – oil spills, and gas flaring devastated the local environment, and displaced residents.  Moreover, the federal government of Nigeria monopolized the control of national oil wealth, giving a disproportionately low share to the residents of states in which oil exploration was taking place.

To make matters worse, Shell, seeking to maintain oil extraction, facilitated the displacement and murder of residents of the Delta region, largely of the Ogoni tribe.  As indicated in this book excerpt (PDF), Shell contractors bulldozed farmland and houses in order to gain access to oil-producing land.  When people protested, they were shot by the Nigerian army.  When they protested those shootings, they were shot.  When they blocked the community to further oil exploration, the Nigerian army and police went to ‘dialogue’ with the community, and they were shot.  In these instances, army and police officers were paid field allowances by Shell, who later wrote to “reiterate our appreciation for the excellent co-operation we have received from the Nigerian Police Force in helping to preserve the security of our operations.”  This pattern continued until several people were killed, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet, author, television personality, and environmental activist.

Hold Them Accountable

In response, a transnational coalition of Ogoni people and American legal advocacy agencies sued Shell, starting in the 1990s, for complicity in these atrocities.  Here’s the kicker: they cited a two centuries old law, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows aliens to sue in federal district courts for “…a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”  A decade and a half later, the case seemed to stall, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the charges, asserting in a majority opinion that, despite the clear violation of human rights law, and despite the seriousness of the claims, corporations could not be considered “juridical persons (PDF)” when it became time to hold them accountable for their actions. 

However, on October 16th, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on appeal.  At the heart of it, this case raises the question of whether corporations can have the rights of citizens without their corresponding responsibilities.  Obviously, the most optimistic outcome, and one which we will find out next year after the case is concluded, is that the SCOTUS finds that corporations are, in fact, liable for human rights violations – that at least would indicate some conceptual consistency among the conservative branch.  If, however, they find that Shell is not liable, as non-juridical persons under international law, it may expose the hypocrisy and emptiness at the core of the idea of corporate rights.

2012 and Beyond: Do We Need Another Kyoto Protocol?

Well, in about a month (to be precise: the 28th of November to the 9th of December), the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Durban, South Africa.  One of the major issues confronting COP-17 is the fact that the Kyoto Protocol “expires” in December 2012, and the international society still does not have a binding agreement for any emissions cuts after that time.

This has been portrayed in cataclysmic terms: for one example, the UK Guardian indicated that it would be the “death knell” for the climate fight.  The implication is that, without a binding agreement on whether, what and how to cut emissions, governments around the world would lose any incentive to curb the six main greenhouse gases (GHGs), plunging us into a world in which states burned oil and coal with abandon, razed the forests, accumulating GHGs in the atmosphere at exponentially increasing rates.

But I’m not convinced this view is correct.  In the first place, it’s pretty far from clear that the Kyoto Protocol – as an institution – has contributed meaningfully to international governance.  In the first place, the major GHG emitters, the US and China, are not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, and there is no reason to assume that any subsequent agreement would include them anyway (especially if, as is one suggestion, the post-2012 era is characterized by an extension of the current Protocol).

Second, and related, the effort to create in 1997 an agreement that would incorporate the political interests of post-Soviet, western European, and North American states led to an institution that was barely better than the lowest-common-denominator.  One datum I find interesting is that, technically speaking, the goals of the Kyoto Protocol – a cut in GHG emissions among Annex I Countries of 5.2% below 1990 levels – have been met.  However, as the figure below indicates, this goal has been met largely through the activities of Economies In Transition (read: post-Soviet) countries, most of which helpfully had a collapse in economy and industry immediately after 1990.  Meanwhile, overall GHGs have increased substantially since then, and the goal was so modest as to be laughable (the IPCC had originally recommended a 60% cut).  Would a new protocol be any more meaningful?

GHG Emissions for Annex I Countries

Third, and perhaps more encouraging, there is some evidence that countries are taking unilateral action to curb GHG emissions in more ambitious ways than are currently conceivable under the KP and the UNFCCC.  Most encouragingly, the EU launched in 2008 a plan called the EU 20 20 20.  Briefly, this consists of a pledge by the Union to cut GHG emissions by 20%, increase the proportion of renewable energy to 20% of overall energy, and cut energy consumption by 20%, all by 2020.  Ambitious, sure, but in 2011, the region had cut GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 15.5%.

So what does this mean?  Well, the failure of the UNFCCC COP-17 to negotiate a binding agreement post 2012 will not necessarily mean that countries will do any worse than they are now.  More significantly, a new agreement post 2012 does not mean that they will do any better.  Concern about the presence or absence of a likely meaningless international institution could probably be better spent elsewhere – say, focusing on generating domestic political will to adopt as significant regulations as the EU.  Without domestic support in the major contributing states, international institutions will be empty, and the hand-wringing over the second commitment period a waste of time.

The Sputnik Moment and Environmentalism

There is some interesting language around the fact that, last year, China invested $120 billion in green energy, while the US invested only $20 billion (this, despite the fact that China has less than 1/2 the GDP of the US).  Secretary Chu of the Department of Energy described the situation as the US’ “Sputnik Moment,” indicating that the US was in danger of being left behind in what – as indicated by the language – is going to be an ‘arms race’ in green tech.  Senior officials in the Obama administration are described as “worried” about this development, and concerned about the loss of US dominance in this sector.

Now, it is true that the specter of an ‘arms race’ in green tech seems like a good thing.  Certainly, the cost of solar panels has dropped by 30%, in large part due to China’s investment.  Moreover, the idea that the US will start spending in R&D in this area is – given the fact that the US is one of the top per-capita emitter of GHGs (pdf) – an attractive one.

However, I can’t help but feel dismayed at the idea that something as vital to global security, combating climate change, has become a source of conflict and tension, and one described by language invoking the Cold War and domination.  The Cold War was characterized by a winner-take-all, zero-sum attitude, with minimal scope for cooperation.  The idea that international relations should be driven primarily by this mindset, in large part, is why the environment is in its current state.  Development at all costs, the quest for natural resources, the dependence on oil for military readiness.  Sure, the framework of international conflict may have some environmental benefits, but it doesn’t strike me as an especially sustainable one.