Climate change and Brexit: what to do when negotiations lead nowhere?

Last week saw conclusions to the latest round of two sets of negotiations.  One concerned the UK’s exit from the European Union (so-called Brexit) and the other the latest attempt by the world’s nations to consolidate a workable climate treaty (COP24 in Katowice, Poland).  Neither outcome was auspicious.  Perhaps there is a lesson for both processes in knowing when and how to change direction.

The UK’s negotiation with the EU is entering its third year; the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations have been ongoing for 23 years.  Although the context and intention behind these two sets of negotiations are very different, both are seeking to do the impossible. 

In the case of Brexit, the British Government is trying to deliver on a popular mandate from the British people to leave the EU.  The problem is that no nation has ever done this before, there is no rule-book to follow and ‘leaving the EU’ means radically different things to different political actors. 

In the case of the UNFCCC, the world’s nations–with an expert mandate rather than a popular one–are trying to steer the world economy onto a trajectory that would limit global warming to no more than 2°C (if not 1.5°C) above pre-industrial.  The problem is that such orchestration of the world has never before been attempted, there is no rule-book to follow and so no-one knows whether or how this can be achieved. 

In both cases the ambition may sound fine—one defined by the majoritarian ‘will of the people’, the other by the framing and consensus of experts–but the politics in each case are irreducibly complex.  Both sets of negotiations are pursuing goals that are proving to be politically impossible. 

For Brexit, it is about taking back control; for climate it is about arresting global heating.  But these goals are largely rhetorical.  What does ‘taking back control’ actually mean in a world of deep economic, social, cultural and regulatory inter-dependency?  Equally, what does stopping climate change at 2°C actually mean in a world of contrary and competing political goals, unpredictable technological change and indeterminate complex physical systems?

These respective goals offer the prospect of all-or-nothing outcomes: either a clean Brexit or no Brexit; either a 2°C future world or a world committed to perpetual climate chaos.  But unrealisable goals are setting up both sets of negotiations to fail. 

To focus on the case of climate.  It is time to move away from framing the ambition of climate policy as securing a specified global temperature target, whether this be 2°C or 1.5°C. There is no cliff-edge to the effects that human activities are having on the world’s climate such that ‘success’ or ‘failure’ should be judged in these reductive terms.  And for many in the world existential danger is already a lived daily reality. 

Organising climate politics around such an all-or-nothing target results in deadline-ism. We have been here many times before and now the latest such talk comes from COP24 at Katowice: ‘Twelve years from climate catastrophe, we can still walk back from the brink’.   This rhetoric of limited time is often justified in terms of  ‘focusing the political mind’ or else on the grounds that by aiming high (i.e., avoiding 2°C) might just mean that some lesser outcome is achieved (e.g. avoiding 3°C). 

For others, however, rather than being motivational or aspirational, these deadlines seem to be interpreted literally.  How else to explain the language of fear and terror being expressed by scientists and by politicians and journalists … or to explain the new social movement on the streets of Britain–Extinction Rebellion—and their call for a declaration of a state of emergency.  The IPCC 15SR report earlier this autumn contributed to the ratcheting effect of absolute temperature targets and limited time, whilst also offering  politicians and decision-makers a way out: the illusion of fanciful negative emissions technologies

Rather than digging the hole deeper, there comes a time when it is better to re-imagine the goals that one is seeking to secure, free from the straightjacket of trying to achieve the impossible.  As some have been arguing for a decade or more, mobilising different political dynamics around a variety of variable-scale, shorter-term and more limited goals is likely to accomplish more than grand talk of securing the illusory goal of climate control.

These pragmatic goals include setting rates of investment in energy technology innovation, tackling short-lived climate pollutants, enriching soil properties for more productive agriculture, improving urban air quality, delivering decentralised rural electrification in developing countries,universal education for girls.  As Roger Pielke jr. has recently argued it is time to open up the policy envelope.

Such reframing recognises that the causes and consequences of climate change are deeply embedded within many other social, technological and environmental challenges.  Shifting the focus of climate politics would give the world a chance of achieving some modest success without trying to negotiate the impossible.  Policies to reduce the 7 million people annually who die prematurely and unnecessarily because of atmospheric air pollution are commensurate with those that would reduce the thousands ‘who die because of climate change’. Yet tackling the former is far more of an urgent moral necessity than the latter.

Some of these more modest objectives are indeed being pursued.  But my point is that they are better done so by leaving behind the rhetoric of the climatic cliff-edge and the limited-time window.  Pursuing pressure-cooker negotiations under the threat of an artificially constructed window of opportunity, fuelled by a growing frenzy of fear, leads to ever greater desperation.

It also risks undermining public assent to legitimacy of democratic politics. 

And here we see the link back to the politics of Brexit.  As Marcello di Paola and Dale Jamieson have recently argued, “… the capacity to solve problems that threaten the physical and social security of citizens is acentral and important source of democratic legitimacy”.  If one sets up democratic processes to fail by presenting them with impossible objectives, then the legitimacy of democracy itself may collapse.

We should reconstruct the challenges that confront us in ways that have a better chance of being resolved democratically, rather than pursue negotiations of goals that are politically unachievable.  In the case of Brexit, this might involve seeking a different popular mandate; in the case of climate change, this entails re-structuring the goals of climate policy.

It is not just Britain’s future relationship with the EU at stake, nor even the state of the world’s future climate.  It may in fact be the future credibility and legitimacy of democracy itself. 

Mike Hulme, 18 December 2018