The Amazon continues to burn and social media has been buzzing with commentary on who to blame and what to do about it. Much of what we read reflects a reasonable and potentially constructive frustration with a broader lack of environmental action by states.
This will be particularly obvious this month. On September 20 there will be organized marches around the world as part of the global climate strike. On September 23, state leaders will meet for a UN climate summit in New York.
The problems we face are structural, and one of the central issues is our dependence on an international system that is not designed to deal with the transnational problems we face. We have the wrong architecture to address these fires and many other environmental crises that don’t stop at arbitrary territorial borders. This is especially true of climate change and biodiversity conservation: the most existential global challenges of our time.
We live in a system where the state is enshrined as the most important actor and sovereignty as a sort of “prime directive.” Yet states are failing—individually and collectively—to protect global public goods. Brazil’s President Bolsonaro has offered the world an easy case for blame. He is called out as a populist and a right-wing chauvinist. He is said to be unqualified to lead a country like Brazil and act as the steward of the lungs of the earth—which for some could merit an invasion to stop an ecocide, an opinion published in The Globe and Mail.
But there are a number of states whose governments have poor environmental records—and they are not all in the Global South.
Prime Minister Trudeau bought a trans-mountain pipeline to transport the oil sands from Alberta to the sea which will facilitate the sale and release of a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Trudeau had already warned the world that “no country would find 173 billions of barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.” Unleashing all the CO2 locked up in the oil sands would raise global temperatures by 0.4 C. That’s the potential contribution to climate change coming from the province of Alberta alone. President Trump pulled the U.S., a top global polluter, from the Paris Agreement, rolled back clean air legislation, authorized more methane release from industries, and the list goes on and on.
Institutionalized hypocrisy is a sign of a defunct system. As The Washington Post reported recently, while the G7 met in Biarritz and publicly rebuked Bolsonaro the group remained silent on Trump’s move to lift logging restrictions in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest which would affect half of the world’s largest temperate forest. As a club, developed states are failing. Collective action led by states of the Global South is also on life support. The recent summit of the seven Amazonian countries in Leticia, Colombia ended with a set of weak intentions without funding, ill-suited for both the current emergency and the ongoing rate of deforestation.
Time to reconsider the international system?
The reality today is that the idea of the state as the most important member of the international system appears more than ever an anachronism. People concerned about the world we live in cannot merely send letters to their representatives in government and hope that translates into environmental action. We need to also demand transparency from companies on their production standards, and hold them accountable to limit their profits when they compromise our public goods. We need to invest more money in basic science research to develop more sustainable energy technologies. We have to reign in the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists on governments. We have to convene community meetings and run town halls to explore local resilience strategies in the short term—because the fires are burning now, we should also be advocating for and financially supporting forest dependent communities in Brazil who are de facto stewards of the land, and local organizations that can pressure governments from the inside out.
This world we live in might not be the one we wanted, as the UN attempted to shape in 2015 when states agreed to the sustainable development goals—but it is the world we have. The UN climate summit later this month might turn out to be, as one delegate put it, “a resurrection of multilateralism or a prelude to an obituary for international order.” While we wait to find out, we have to keep up the pressure on everyone—governments, businesses, the media, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and academic institutions—with authority to make this a livable planet.
Two weeks ago, Greta Thunberg arrived in New York by boat to continue to call out and shame heads of state. Her activism is not only inspiring but also relentless and multifaceted. One day she marches in a demonstration outside the UN and a few days later is due to give a speech inside it at the UN Climate Summit. It’s a practical outside-inside from all sides approach.
There can be no waiting around for the state genie to awaken from its slumber and fix the environmental crises we face. As Greta says, “our house is on fire.”