Climate leadership and a normative framework for political action

political action
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Here, Richard Beardsworth, Professor of International Relations at the University of Leeds, continues his series on the nature of progressive state leadership, pondering a new normative framework for political action and climate leadership

Both the UK joint presidency of COP26 this November and the recent flurry of diplomatic activity around the Biden Climate Summit confirm how important climate leadership has become in international politics.

To achieve success after the failures of Copenhagen in 2009, the 2015 Paris Agreement privileged a climate regime of ‘nationally determined contributions’ over an international legal treaty. This regime requires a national climate example to spur international collaboration on a global problem, and it means that the alignment between national climate example and international climate example (or progressive foreign policy) is now imperative, if net-zero pledges and targets are to be effectively met.

In the following, I delimit the normative space in which this climate leadership as the pillar of progressive foreign policy should operate. While normative, this space is founded on an ongoing paradigm shift in both domestic and foreign climate affairs.

Three normative frameworks

In the last seventy years of international politics, there have been two normative frameworks underpinning monetary, fiscal and industrial policy in the northwest. The first between the late 1940s and 1970s was what the political scientist John Ruggie has called ‘embedded liberalism’: an alignment of national and international governance mechanisms that held together a commitment to liberal multilateralism (free trade, multilateral norms and institutions) and management of the national economy for domestic social objectives (social democracy).

The aim of this framework was in origin global, but in the Cold War context, it ended up characterising a north-western ‘club’, held together by American hegemony. Following stagflation and the lifting of capital controls at the end of the 1970s, the normative framework of embedded liberalism was replaced by that of neoliberalism. Pioneered by the Thatcher/Reagan leadership, it focused on economic globalisation, the rollback of state action, market fundamentalism and individual responsibilities. Driven by market logic and facilitated by the concept of limited government, the normative framework of neoliberalism went global and lost the national.

The recent populist backlash followed this loss. I suggest that human response to climate change now offers a third normative framework that aligns new national priorities and international commitments. The climate agenda offers, that is, a ‘vortex’ through which both domestic and foreign policy can be appropriately channelled and, notwithstanding present and future trade-offs, brought together within an integrated vision of state and government powers. Regarding this new normative framework, two concerns immediately come to the foreground.

First: it is now generally recognised that to achieve 1.5°C average global temperature increase by the end of this century (minimal enough to prevent tipping points that wrest the climate out of human control) requires a global ‘net-zero’ reduction in CO2eq emissions by 2050 and, concomitantly, a global average 50% reduction in CO2eq emissions by 2030. So, within the space of thirty years, a global transition to carbon-neutral economies and societies must have been organised both at a national level and through international collaboration. Simply put, national development and international commitments cannot not be aligned in relation to this temporal and scalar global challenge. Climate leadership is about leadership by national example (present climate diplomacy); it is equally about facilitating and sustaining the link between the national and the international in order to achieve national example in the first place.

Second: it is increasingly clear what role the state and government have in achieving national development towards net-zero emissions. Through coordinated monetary, fiscal, industrial and employment policy, the state is the vehicle that can promote climate mitigation and adaptation strategies across sectors, bringing them together under a common energy goal that, together with social justice concerns, can form the back of a general societal project (facilitated by the state, but pursued by others). No other social agent can do this work. And, crucially, no other social agent can link these practices to sustained acts of international solidarity and collaboration. With escalating climate realities in the coming years, with the ‘multiplier effect’ of these realities (migration, conflict, disease, etc.), it is out of enlightened self-interest that the national development of the richer countries must aid the international sustainable development of the poorer countries. But it is also out of historical, moral and political responsibility: climate change reveals, in the most real terms, that the 200-year capitalist growth of the rich countries is predicated on the under-development of the poor countries. Climate change makes this link between national growth in one area of the world and underdevelopment in another an empirical reality, not an academic or political argument. Progressive foreign policy assumes this link.

Following these two points, the climate agenda can be seen to require a new normative framework for political action, one in which the state (re-)assumes a steering role in relation to markets and leads (again) on national and international development practices. Steering the transition to a clean energy economy in an integrated and just manner, the state must at the same time confront the legacies of empire and build appropriate financial, technological and social partnerships with vulnerable countries under the wider framework of sustainable development. Viewed from this normative perspective, the international dimension to climate leadership takes the recent neoliberal ordering of the inter-state system into a new age of north/south collaboration.

A new international order

Current foreign policy analysis is dominated by the acceleration in tension/rivalry between the United States and China and by the precise nature of the ‘balance of power’ between them and among their ‘satellite’ states (democracy vs authoritarianism, etc.). The above normative shift opens up the space for another ordering principle of international politics, one which could re-invent international liberalism. It is the principle of sustainable development, understood less as the multi-dimensional successor to global poverty reduction, more as the way in which, for the first time in modern history, national priorities and international commitments can be aligned outside the terms of a ‘club’—in response to climate catastrophe. This is a new normative framework for national and international politics. Climate leadership will take this framework forward, or not.

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