Having spent the last several days as a delegate to the Climate Change Conference in Cancun, I am left with many impressions. As Copenhagen is remembered as a disaster due to Disappointed Expectations, Cancun is likely to be forgotten altogether except possibly by archivists of global conferences, or referred to by those who attended as ‘a grand occasion despite being a moment of Minimal Expectations that were themselves, not even realized. What makes this outcome disturbing to many participants is that the rhetoric of climate change diplomacy continues to stress convincingly urgency, responsibility, the vulnerability of small island states and sub-Saharan African countries, the fervent hopes of world opinion that governments will act beyond national and large-scale private sector interests on behalf of humanity as trustees for a viable future. At stake, in part, is whether multilateral mechanisms of statist diplomacy under UN auspices can fashion credible responses to twenty-first century challenges. In the twentieth century these mechanisms proved effective in relation to negotiating the law of the seas and a public order for the administration of Antarctica in a manner sensitive to the global public good. The magnitude of the climate change agenda combined with the radical unevenness of the situation of sovereign states makes it seems highly unlikely that this format can produce satisfactory results, and failure here could darken overall human prospects.
There is much to be said about the Cancun experience, but I want primarily to call attention to a profound dilemma that bedevils the good intentions and hard work of thousands of persons representing governments and civil society who are in attendance here. Just as Copenhagen illustrated the illegitimacy of a self-appointed, American-led bloc of states seeking to push an agreement down the throats of the rest of the world community overriding texts of a proposed agreement on emissions painstakingly negotiated by the assembled governments through a heroic effort, Cancun epitomizes the gridlock that follows from delivering on promises of transparency and inclusive participation from the almost 200 governments gathered in Cancun representing states. What emerges is unmanageable complexity together with a variety of clashes of perception and priorities. One persistent theme are the claims of vulnerable states that have made minimal contributions to the buildup of greenhouse gasses naturally seeking maximal attention and generous help from the rich developed countries that have yet to appreciate, or acknowledge, the harm to themselves that is being caused by climate change (e.g. Hurricane Katrina, forest fires in Russia, floods and droughts in China, the hottest year ever recorded, Arctic melting). Without strong and benevolent leadership this assembly of governments lacks the political will to make compromises, strike bargains that are indispensable to reach needed decisions on greenhouse gas restrictions in accordance with the widely accepted, yet still vacuous, formula of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities.’ Here in Cancun those chairing the conference repeat over and over again the solemn mantra that they have heeded ‘the lesson of Copenhagen,’ and they even seem to mean it: much seems transparent, although in brackets (meaning not yet agreed), there are apparently no secret texts being circulated by hegemonic actors. Of course, these reassurances are only partly convincing, and may turn out to have been fraudulent as soon as the next cycle of WikiLeaks commences, as it surely will, and surely must.
But Cancun also highlights the cumbersome ineffectuality of global democracy (at least of the intergovernmental variety) in this setting of addressing urgent and severe policy challenges affecting the wellbeing of the entire world, now and in the future. This cumbersomeness is experienced despite the effective exclusion of bothersome civil society voices from the political process, which is a severe shortcoming from the perspective of genuine global democracy. At the very least, this exclusion reinforces normative arguments in favor of establishing a Global Peoples Assembly within the framework of the UN System. Without a civil society presence, the peoples of the world lack an authentic vehicle to express a variety of societal concerns at variance with statist diplomacy. Without this voice being heard and heeded, the outcomes in Cancun and elsewhere lack full legitimacy, especially as with regard to climate change. It is only the dominant voices of civil society that are calling for the sorts of major commitments that will give the peoples of the world some realistic prospect of escaping from the worst effects of global warming. Major governments are continuing to play statist games, pursuing geopolitical strategies designed to shift burdens and responsibilities away from themselves. The short-run dominates, a preoccupation with what will be popular at home trumps what might reduce the buildup of carbon densities and higher global temperature, and great power leverage is used shamelessly to avoid unwanted commitments.
Time is also an enemy. Each year makes a humane framework of adjustment to the multiple challenges of climate change less and less likely, and adaptation and mitigation more costly. It makes the tensions between illegitimate, yet more effective, authoritarian approaches and more legitimate, yet ineffectual, democratic approaches more prominent, and disturbing to those of us who affirm democratic values.
Next year at Durban this format of an inter-governmental mega-conference is to be repeated, but the talk in the corridors here is filled with heaps of understandable skepticism about what might be accomplished there in 2011. I am sure that the UN Secretary General will again give a solemn address, that heads of state will again manifest their deep concerns about the future, and that the best that can be hoped for as an outcome will again be ‘a muddling through’ that remains long on rhetoric and short on tangible results. In Cancun there is a back room consensus that a perception of muddling through (neither giving up nor making notable progress) is the most that can possibly emerge despite the dedicated efforts of thousands, and even this is far from assured: a legally binding agreement on carbon emissions is unattainable, recrimination and open conflict is undesirable, leaving us with only the ‘realistic’ middle, muddling option as the only possible way to push toward incremental steps that propose vague guidelines and leave subsequent implementation up to the voluntary and highly untrustworthy action of states. One basic trouble with this statist realism is that its historical agency is being superseded by ecological realism based on the growing density of greenhouse gasses, the rising temperatures already beyond safe thresholds, the harm to lives and livelihoods being done presently and in the near future, and the general distraction being caused by a climate skeptic campaign financed by oil and gas interests designed to confuse the public as to actuality of global warming, and if possible prevent the scientific consensus from getting translated into a political consensus that insists on obligatory global norms. Yet statist realism remains so deeply embedded in our political culture that it entraps the mind in obsolete ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.
We have to ask ourselves, what kind of framework will be most likely to respond benevolently (justly, effectively, legitimately) to the multiple challenges posed by climate change. It is discouraging that there is no present response that seems both coherent and plausible. Neither imperial nor democratic solutions are promising at the moment. The planet burns, leaders talk, the people wait, not yet nearly nervously or apprehensively enough!
Perhaps, but only perhaps, a new global setting is emerging at the edges of these intergovernmental exhibitions of global gridlock that will give way unexpectedly to an extraordinary populist surge that reconstitutes world order on the basis of global law and global justice, an emergent attachment to sustainable global commons, that renounces militarism and militarist geopolitics, that transforms the world economy so that it serves people rather than capital, that couples political representation with effective participation, and that gives rise to a new type of transnational engaged citizenship that gains its primary identity from the global community and conceives of its essence as journeying to a preferred future, what I have called in the past the vocation of ‘the citizen pilgrim.’