National interests and global justice at Copenhagenby David Goodhart / October 21, 2009 / Leave a comment
To whom do we owe obligations? With whom do we feel solidarity? These are two of the oldest questions in politics, but they are posed in a stark new way by the fallout from climate change. Most people in rich countries feel a vague sense of obligation and even empathy towards those struggling to get by in poor countries, but they practise a much stronger sense of “fellow citizen favouritism” towards the people in their own nations. And it is good that they do. Without such favouritism there would be no point to the nation state. This does not, however, mean that national solidarity must conflict with global solidarity—if anything it seems to be a condition of it. In recent years the British government has sharply increased both domestic social spending and global aid, and the rich countries most generous with aid have high levels of national solidarity too.
Yet will rich-country citizens really make big sacrifices to stop Bangladesh from disappearing in 25 years’ time? Is it even plausible to expect rich countries to accept the principle that the right to emit carbon should be equally shared across the world’s population? After all, as Vijay Joshi points out on p15 of our Copenhagen special, no one argues that natural resources like oil should be equally shared, and it is not clear that rich-country citizens should be forced to pay for having done something (using up the safe, carbon-absorbing capacity of the atmosphere) unwittingly. Yet the Copenhagen summit will commit rich countries to very large transfers of resources to poor ones, in order to limit their emissions without choking off growth. Understandably, legitimacy for this idea has been sought on grounds of self-interest, not global solidarity: rich-country politicians argue (see Ed Miliband, p21 of the Copenhagen special) that we too will suffer the floods or have to fend off the migrating masses if the climate turns nasty.
The problem is not that our politicians are being sneaky about the degree of altruism we are being asked to show; and the vast sums of money look more manageable when spread over decades. The real trouble is that, except in wartime, western democracies are not good at appealing to citizens’ “better selves” to make sacrifices for their own futures—it is distance in time more than place that makes it so hard to respond to climate change. Authoritarian China has shown that it can do economic growth as well as the democracies (at least in the early stages). And if climate pessimists are right and big lifestyle changes are required, authoritarianism may prove good at that too (see China’s one child policy). The fact that China seems likely to bring more to Copenhagen than the US could be a straw in the wind.