What top US writers get wrong about climate politics

David Roberts and Bill McKibben are two of the most influential writers about climate change, but they miss a trick by ignoring vulnerable countries, writes Michael Dobson

Bill McKibben is an inspiring voice on climate issues, but why doesn't he talk about vulnerable countries? (Pic: Flickr/350 Vermont)


Vox’s David Roberts and 350’s Bill McKibben are two of the most important public intellectuals writing about climate change today.

Both do important work, be it lucidly explaining the political and economic challenges of the clean energy revolution (Roberts), or inspiring millions of ordinary people to become passionate advocates for climate action (McKibben).

Indeed, I owe my own passion for the climate cause in part to a speech I heard McKibben give when I was still an undergraduate – and I never miss reading Roberts’ wide-ranging, incisive and prolific output.

But both Roberts and McKibben are prone to a troubling rhetorical oversimplification, one that is too damaging to persist unaddressed. Namely: the erasure of the efforts of the governments of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries to save their countries from destruction.

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The most egregious recent example of this comes from Roberts’ article last week, titled “No country on Earth is taking the 2 degree climate target seriously”.

The article provides Roberts’ take on Oil Change International’s recent report, “The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production”.

Roberts’ central thesis in responding to the report – that the world as a whole is not responding to climate change with anything approaching the necessary speed – is beyond dispute. But that is not the same thing as saying that no individual country is taking the task seriously, which is what Roberts explicitly states:

Are any of the countries that signed the Paris agreement taking the actions necessary to achieve [the 1.5 degree] target?

No. The US is not. Nor is the world as a whole.

Now, full disclosure: I used to work as a climate change advisor to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. I have stood behind Tony de Brum as he looks around a negotiating table and implores the most powerful countries in the world to act to save his people’s islands, and that kind of thing leaves an impression.

But as much as the Roberts headline made my blood boil, it did so for strategic reasons, as much as for emotional ones. Coming from a writer committed to smart analysis of the many and varied challenges of dealing with climate change, it was a moment of lamentable stupidity.

It was stupid in two ways. First and most obviously, it was incorrect. Climate change is a matter of life or death for the citizens of the world’s small island states, and their leaders know this. The suggestion that they aren’t taking climate change seriously is simply wrong. Certainly, there is no way they can avoid climate change solely through their own domestic efforts: if every small island nation in the world reduced their emissions to zero tomorrow, it would put only a tiny dent in the reductions that need to occur.

But this outward focus simply brings us to the second reason that ignoring these countries is a misstep for anyone who cares deeply about climate change: as a matter of simple realpolitik, the rational self-interest of states like the Marshall Islands aligns precisely with the interests of those who want to see the world’s major economies take the most ambitious possible climate action.

In a way that the United States or China or the European Union could never seriously claim to be, the Marshall Islands is to climate change what Karl Marx believed the proletariat was to capitalism: an agent of history whose particular interests have become the interests of humanity as a whole.

To see what this means in practice, let’s turn to Bill McKibben. On 13 December last year, McKibben gave his verdict on COP21 in the New York Times: “Falling Short on Climate in Paris”. He wrote:

Under [the Paris Agreement’s] provisions, nations have made voluntary pledges to begin reducing their carbon emissions. These are modest — the United States, for instance, plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 by 12 to 19 percent from their levels in 1990… And that’s about par for the course here.

Like Roberts, McKibben apparently considers two categories – “the United States” and “everybody else” – are determinative in assessing international action (though to be fair, both Vox and the New York Times are primarily US-facing publications). But what he says next is interesting:

Other countries, like gas station owners on opposite corners looking at each other’s prices, have calibrated their targets about the same: enough to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much. They have managed to provide enough financing to keep poor countries from walking out of the talks, but not enough to really push the renewables revolution into high gear.

That last sentence is important, because it does accurately diagnose one of the major challenges of international climate negotiations: developed countries are reluctant to provide what they see as a blank check to fund developing countries’ emission reduction and adaptation efforts, and developing countries are unwilling to commit to ambitious emission reductions without such financial guarantees. (Much also turns, as you might expect, on the distinction between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, and in particular the continued inclusion of countries like China and Singapore in the latter category.)

What McKibben accurately identifies, therefore, is the problem of the lowest common denominator: it is tempting for developed countries to be miserly, and for developing countries to use that as an excuse for inaction, when it is only the global common good of the climate that ultimately loses out if they do so.

Except that McKibben leaves this picture fundamentally incomplete, because he leaves out those countries caught smack in the middle of this dynamic, moved to demand the highest possible ambition from the Global North and the Global South, for the very good reason that if the climate ‘loses’, so do they – and catastrophically so.

Thus while there is certainly a rhetorical appeal to declaring: “the governments of the world are not solving this problem!” – whether you are trying to impress upon people the cognitive dissonance of believing that our current collective efforts are sufficient, or trying to get them into the streets to take up the struggle themselves – it is important that temptation be resisted. Why?

Because as fate would have it, the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world are also the world’s poorest. They aren’t going to be buying any favors, or leaning on their military strength, to impel greater climate action.

In fact, all they have is this: an incredibly compelling moral case for action, together with the power of the international media to tell their story and help them hold the rest of the world to account. International media – things like op-eds in the New York Times, for example, or prominent policy-focused news websites.

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One final point. This week, many of the nations of the world are gathering in Kigali, Rwanda, for the final negotiations on an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that will phase out damaging HFCs, a step that would be the single biggest contribution to reducing climate change achieved this year. Just how ambitious that contribution will be remains unclear – but what happens this week will determine it.

The most ambitious proposal would see developing countries freeze their level of HFC use by the end of 2021 and phase it down after that; India has a different plan that would delay that freeze until 2031, and that seeks “full conversion costs” from developed countries for the transition away from HFCs.

The difference between a freeze in 2021 and 2031 is considerable: at least 33 billion tons of CO2 equivalent, equal to the world’s CO2 emissions for an entire year. The year which negotiators ultimately agree on will likely be somewhere in between, but where they land will be determined in large part by the willingness of developed countries to provide India and others with the necessary assurances of financial and technological support for the transition (and on them undertaking ambitious HFC reductions of their own).

A few representatives of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries will be in Kigali, desperately urging both sides to settle on the most ambitious compromise possible. They will be doing so in the defense of the very existence of their countries, and they will be doing so for the good of us all.

Please don’t ignore them.

Michael Dobson is a PhD student in Global Politics at the New School for Social Research, and a former climate advisor to the Marshall Islands. Follow him on twitter @michaeldobsonNZ

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