Kiribati, COP21, and a place for blame

Two weeks ago 21 major world powers gathered at COP21, an international assembly of politicians, scientists, journalists, and activists, ostensibly trying to address the current and future consequences of climate change. Obama grasped at the tendrils of an environmental legacy as he, and the other nations present, signed on to a climate accord that hopes to reduce harmful emissions and mitigate the major effects of global climate change. While major industrialized nations – countries like the USA and Germany – negotiate emission standards to address their contributions to climate change, they have little sense of the lived, immediate symptoms of climate change. These different relationships to global climate change are particularly apparent in the disparity between the actual language of the accord and the geopolitical context under which that accord was signed.
 
The new COP21 accord frames climate change adaptation as an issue of equity and development. The accord seeks to restrict global warming to “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels” and to strive to limit it to 1.5℃. On the one hand, these are useful, concrete target numbers. On the other, there is little by way of specific restrictions on industrialized countries’ economies. Instead, many parts of the accord actually exempt “developed” countries from being accountable to “developing” countries for their disproportionate contributions vis-a-vis emissions and resource exploitation. There’s no formal distinction between developed and developing countries’ responsibilities to cut emissions, though developed countries are required to “take the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.” Most progressive is that developed nations will be required to lend financial assistance to developing countries to the tune of net US$100 billion per year starting in 2020. Maybe this makes up for the fact that nations are “not liable” for loss and damages due to climate change in any other nation. (It doesn’t, since these effects are going to disproportionally effect certain countries.) Problems that have historically haunted climate accords loom large over the most recent COP21 agreement, but at least we finally have a legally binding accord.
 
Without a doubt, regions of the United States and other industrialized nations have experienced environmental catastrophes in part exacerbated by climate change. Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, damaging the region beyond any storm in living memory. As erratic weather becomes the norm (I don’t think that’s necessarily a contradiction in terms…), the consequences of human contributions to climate systems are more readily apparent. Climate events carry human stories, enter into our art, and have human livelihoods and lives at stake. (I strongly recommend Salvage the Bones and Zeitoun, heavyweights in climate change literature.) This, it seems, motivates political action beyond business as usual. However, the United States has the luxury of capital with which to temper the horrors of climate disaster. The nation’s existence is not yet directly tied to the reduction and regulation of anthropogenic contributions to climate change as they are in smaller island nations. 
 
 Small island nations like Kiribati, Slate’s Joshua Keating observes, are instead talking about disappearing villages, dying reefs, and climate refugees. How do these concerns come to motivate policy that regulates emissions from industrialized nations? Simon Dalby has called for a new geopolitics that reconciles the culpability of industrialized nation-states and these ephemeral islands through the Anthropocene.
 
A geopolitic mediated by the Anthropocene trancends cartography to recognize human agency in, and vulnerability to, a changing global climate. For Dalby (2013), geopolitics is “about modes of knowledge, ways of representing the world that have political consequences,”(38). These are representations of material conditions that spar in international politics, making up images of foreign places that require certain types of political action through a sense of shared humanity. This year, the defining image of COP21 was Kiribati’s impending relocation and historic mass exodus from its 33 islands. These images, and President of Kiribati Anote Tong’s public appreciation of Fiji for agreeing to accept 105,000 Kiribati refugees, helped establish the context under which the COP21 accord successfully passed.
 
Much of the media attention at COP21 focussed on threatened island nations speaking out for their homes. These pleas once again highlighted the responsibility of developed nations, the major world powers, to curb emissions lest entire islands and communities disappear under the rising tide. Political rhetoric first establishes a context under which policy decisions must be made; the case made by Kiribati outlines a geopolitics of environmental determinism in the name of national security.
 
Environmental determinism, Dalby notes, is a critical framework for understanding geopolitics in the Anthropocene. Environmental determinism is a common narrative in environmental history that claims humans had do develop socially or technologically in certain ways given specific environmental conditions. It has often been disavowed “as being determinist if not racist or imperialist myopia.” (Dalby, like a badass, 39) The validity of an environmental determinist framework depends on the work, as many historical documents justify racism with environmental determinism (for example, look at eugenics and phrenology), while other works in environmental history use climates and ecologies to suggest the necessity of certain types of development or migration (Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer, in this fashion, describes agricultural and migration events in the last period of global climate change). We can consider, alternately, environmental possibilism as in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which investigates the impacts of environmental catastrophe on past civilizations to provide insights into our own relations with our material environment.
 
Despite the dangers of determinism, it’s a useful tool in geopolitical discourse. Dalby points out that lazy determinism attributes “causal logics to specific contexts, and in the process imputing natural explanations on the grounds that either that’s the way things are ‘there’, or that there are no choices because of how things are ‘there.’”(39) Such rhetoric is, at best, oversimplifying the relationship between nature and culture. This genre of deterministic arguments is particularly useless in discussing the regulation of the anthropogenic contributions to climate change. Not only do they cement artificial cartographic constructs, but they easily diffuse the moral and economic culpability of the contribution nations that are not “there.” (Fall, 2010) He instead calls for an environmental determinism that recognizes where climate can shape human history and international relations. In an era where industrialized, carbon-fuelled nations determine the climate, we need to reconsider where “there” actually is. 
 
Geopolitics in the anthropocene wants little to do with borders. Dalby instead calls for “new geometrics of security, or materiality of securty” in international accords, one that considers volume and space beyond terrain and EEZs. Climate security is national security, and in the anthropocene agency and a sense of blame are displaced and dissolved. Drone warfare seems to me to change the volumetrics of safety, similarly. What often goes unacknowledged in Dalby’s work is (and I don’t mean to pull a Gwyneth Paltrow here) the sympathy for human narrative that can similarly transcend borders. 
 
The vulnerability of Kiribati as an island nation betrayed by both the tangibility and intangibility of “there” established an absolute need for the COP21 accord. Somehow the anthropocene can mediate images and interests across cultures. In a half-century of failed climate agreements, the vulnerability of island nations successfully employed a history of unequal development, exploitation, and the immediacy of human experience to create a new sense of global responsibility. It often leaves me wondering: are we always telling human stories?
 
To a new year, sitting out a small cyclone in a big bed, and with love,

Rennie

 

Bibliography

Dalby, S. “Rethinking Geopolitics: Climate Security in the Anthropocene”. Global Policy Vol 5:1 (2013), 1–9. Web. 1 Jan 2016.

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