The core of the “Paris Agreement” (concluded under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), which is set to go into force in November, is the “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) by which each signatory nation will itself set its targets for reducing that country’s emission of greenhouse gases. Article 3 of that compact mandates that the targets set by each party be “ambitious” and capable of making a major dent in what is currently being pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The purpose of this agreement is to slow the pace by which the planet continues to warm, because the impacts, within a century, are expected to be catastrophic in terms of more dangerous weather systems, extensive flooding along the world’s coastlines, where a majority of the global population resides, and major disruptions to existing networks for providing clean water, food and shelter to a growing number of people. Yet, the voluntary nature of the NDCs and the lack of any enforcement agency to guarantee compliance points to another set of problems—that there are extensive immediate economic costs in any effort to reduce and mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions—because the world’s economy still largely depends on the burning of hydrocarbons to produce the energy needed to fuel industry and transportation. Reducing emissions, for many countries, requires either a reduction in consumption or paying higher costs for energy, goods and services. In the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2008-09, political leaders in many countries around the world have become much more sensitive to the immediate demands of their constituents for improved economic conditions, while, at the same time, there has been a rising tide of skepticism about the value or utility of multinational agreements and institutions, which seem to impose immediate costs but whose benefits are not so apparent.
Climate change forces leaders to balance two sets of competing and in some cases contradictory requirements: obligations to maintain and improve the welfare of the current generation of national citizens, versus obligations to future generations and to humanity as a whole. As we have seen in the U.S. presidential election this year, the argument that, say, coal miners in West Virginia ought to accept unemployment and penury today, with no guarantee of being able to find new jobs, for the sake of preventing Bangladesh from being submerged under the rising waters of the Indian Ocean fifty years from now is not a winning electoral message. The BREXIT vote and the Hungarian referendum have likewise pointed to the unwillingness of electorates to sacrifice national interests for the sake of international burden-sharing if the short-term costs are upfront and the long-term benefits unclear.
The Paris Agreement has attempted to square this circle by, in essence, hoping that most nations will choose to adopt more stringent targets and that national leaders will either be successful in convincing their populations to accept their share of the burden or will be willing to imperil their political futures to irrevocably bind their countries via domestic legislation. Interestingly, President Barack Obama did not submit the Paris Agreement to the U.S. Senate for ratification as a treaty, but instead, using his own executive authority, mandated that the U.S. government will follow its provisions—meaning that a future President is free to withdraw from the accord or a future Congress pass legislation disavowing the Paris commitments. The current U.S. presidential election represents a major inflection point for how the United States may continue to operate within the parameters of the international order. On the one side, Hillary Clinton represents the traditional, bipartisan view that the United States has obligations not only to its own citizens but to maintain an international system which imposes costs on the United States but which, in the long run, brings benefits to America as well. On the other, Donald Trump expresses a much more transactional view of foreign policy where any action taken by the United States should clearly point to an immediate benefit that will be enjoyed by American citizens. Not surprisingly, Trump’s initial reaction to things like the Paris Agreement has been to underscore the short-term losses such agreements will bring Americans while seemingly advantaging U.S. competitors. Even if Trump loses the 2016 election, his perspective will continue to exercise influence over future U.S. foreign policy decisions—a pervasive sense of skepticism that will color future efforts to develop binding and effective multilateral regimes for dealing with global issues.
Yet, as climate change continues, other questions impacting national sovereignty will rise to the fore. While wars are the proximate (and public) cause for the migration crisis of 2015-16—which has produced more displaced people than at any point since the end of World War II—climate change has been an important subtext fueling the conflicts that have destabilized such a large portion of northern Africa and western Asia. As more people leave parts of the world where it is no longer possible to make a living—due to persistent droughts, for instance – will there be an orderly process for finding these people new homes? As current countries literally disappear from the map due to rising oceans and encroaching deserts, will other sovereign states be prepared to “gift” some of their territory and resources to create enclaves—a “New Maldives” in one of the isolated parts of Canada, or a “Bangladeshi National Home” in Russia’s underpopulated Far East? What will happen to international peace and security if imbalances grow between countries with large and expanding populations versus those with scarcer numbers of people but large amounts of potable water and arable farmland? And, if there is agreement that state sovereignty is not absolute but conditional—as outlined in the “responsibility to protect” clauses of the 2005 World Summit Outcome document—could state actions taken against the health of the global eco-system be added alongside a failure to protect the lives of citizens from warfare and genocide as grounds for intervening in the domestic affairs of a country?
The existing concept of state sovereignty is based on the fiction that states, in terms of their territory and human capital, are effectively self-sufficient. Since World War II, the principle of inviolability of borders has been added—that the distribution of land as it stood in the latter half of the 20th century, first in Europe, then in other parts of the world, represents the final word on the subject. Small disruptions—the independence of Kosovo, the seizure of Crimea, disputes over islets in the South China Sea—have not challenged this belief at its core. The impacts of climate change—potentially rendering large swathes of territory uninhabitable or unproductive and releasing large waves of migrations streaming across geographic lines in the sand called borders—has the possibility of up-ending the Westphalian system altogether.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is professor of national security affairs and the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair of economic geography and national security at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own.