First degree ample excuse for global climate assembly
It was always going to be unprecedentedly, diabolically difficult.
That is, the challenge of fundamentally re-powering civilisation with fossil-fuel-free technologies whilst simultaneously drastically curtailing the use of fossil fuels.
Logically, the longer the fossil-fuel industry prevaricated, the more drastic the fossil-fuel phase out would be. But that was without the double whammy of an increasingly hostile climate in which to undertake the mammoth re-powering mission.
The $50 billion damage, to the New York region alone, from Hurricane Sandy is but a taste of the crippling costs that an increasingly likely 6°-warming would wreak this century. The business-as-usual trajectory is in danger of locking in self-reinforcing cycles of disaster followed by desperate fossil-fueled ‘recoveries’. The Christchurch recovery is indicative of the sort of under-informed response governments will be guilty of where lingering neoliberal agenda’s prevail over science-based, democratically determined, courses of action. Christchurch, rebuilding on ground that readily liquefies and is increasingly prone to sporadic inundation, and guaranteed to be permanently inundated long term, will become a textbook example of how governments squandered opportunities to build more resilient cities, before global warming overwhelmed their capacity to mobilise.
Near-tragedies depicting the failure of those in authority to act in a timely manner to clear and present dangers is the theme of many of humanities most powerful stories. One of the many diabolical features of global warming is the strong tradition of scientific caution manifested in the obsessive qualifying of every utterance. To those unused to the habit, the message conveyed can be the opposite of what was intended. Then there is scientific reticence, which while understandable, is ultimately unhelpful, and in the case of global warming downright dangerous. Dr James Hansen writes:
Caution has its merits and scientific reticence probably has its origin in the scientific method itself: success in science depends on continual objective skepticism. Yet we may rue our reticence if it serves to lock in future ice sheet disintegration.
Scientific reticence has resulted in many more people, and much more property, being put in harm’s way in the rebuilt Christchurch than in the old, once sea-level rise becomes rampant. This is a pattern that is set to be expensively repeated, starving critical funds from urgently needed adaptation and mitigation works. In the case of Christchurch, the clamour from the world’s seismologists, geotechnical engineers and climate scientists should have left no doubt that the future of the city’s centre was as a national park, and that its replacement should have been a short train ride west of the airport, out of reach of sea level post the melting of the ice sheets.
In a healthy global democracy, one that wasn’t in the thrall of the non-science of economics, elected representatives would have long since heeded the advice of climate scientists on enormity of global warming, and the danger that it could or had, reached a runaway state. In a healthy global democracy, of course, the people would enjoy direct means of determining policy.
For the world to have globalised without democratising is the singular failure of the United Nations. The organisation’s founders specifically provided for its future transformation. Article 109 commences:
A General Conference of the Members of the United Nations for the purpose of reviewing the present Charter may be held at a date and place to be fixed by a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any nine members of the Security Council.
The founders all but ordained that the charter review conference was held without undue delay, the article further providing:
If such a conference has not been held before the tenth annual session of the General Assembly following the coming into force of the present Charter, the proposal to call such a conference shall be placed on the agenda of that session of the General Assembly, and the conference shall be held if so decided by a majority vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any seven members of the Security Council.
The world is not obliged to wait for the deeply undemocratic United Nations for the global democracy leadership it is unlikely to deliver. A Global Climate Assembly could be established forthwith, independently, thanks to the utility of the internet and the power of online social networking. Provided that well known and widely respected world figures made up the bulk of the initial candidates, millions would be encouraged to enrol and vote their heroes onto the assembly.
Global democracy theorists might object to the proposition of establishing a stakeholder, rather than universal, world assembly. But the history of democracy is replete with examples of useful advances that were in response to specific needs of the day, rather than designed to an idealised notion of what democracy should resemble. Besides, because climate action is a hundred years’ war, global warming would be the major preoccupation of any world parliament established, regardless of its mission statement. Understandably, the purposes that head up the United Nations charter are principally about prolonging the peace that came with the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. That hasn’t stopped the United Nations rightfully becoming heavily involved in health, justice and human rights, and global warming.
Today’s primary enemy now is fossil-fuel use, rather than war. Incontestably, climate action, rather than the pursuit of peace, is the now all-powerful driver of global democracy. If some chose to see the global climate assembly as a Trojan Horse for world government, they would be right. Global democracy, besides being inevitable, was always going to be essential in a globalised world. For free-market entities, such as the oil oligarchy, to be free to shape, or destroy, the global future unfettered by the responsible regulation by a democratically elected global government was patently unrealistic and demonstrably unsustainable.
Had a global parliament been established in the late 1940s or early 1950s as Albert Einstein et al then urged, it would have involved an enormous and expensive task of dividing the world’s people into electorates, and a hugely costly election process. Today, thanks to the worldwide web, every citizen that can access the internet or a smartphone can directly rank the candidates known to them, whether they be an internationally recognised figures such as David Attenborough and Arnold Schwarzenegger, or regional heroes such as Philippines senator Loren Legarda and Food and Trees for Africa founder, Jeunesse Park.
The other monumental cost a global assembly is now spared is the cost of physically assembling. The only way a meaningful number of global citizens were ever going to be able to assemble was through an electronic medium. And while radio and limited television broadcasting was available when the United Nations first assembled in 1946, the internet not only provides near universal access, the communication is two way—citizens can applaud or howl their objection, and vote at will.
While access to the internet is far from universal, currently 34.3%, it is almost as great as access to the ballot box, and growing much faster. Only if Chinese citizens were suddenly enfranchised would significantly more people worldwide have the vote than the internet. Even then, with the explosive increase in mobile access in Africa, that deficit would not endure for long.
Last week’s general election is a stark reminder of just how chronically undemocratic the world’s oldest democracy remains, not that the United States is particularly backward. The Electoral College process has produced a farcical situation is which the entire presidential election campaign is fought in just nine battleground states. This gave voters in Nevada more than a million times the clout of voters in New Jersey. It also means that, from time to time, a president is elected despite winning fewer votes than his nearest rival. This, of course, also occurred in Aotearoa in respect to governments, prior to the adoption of the mixed member proportional electoral system.
What is even more preposterous than a system that can convert a 2.7-percentage-point lead in the popular vote into a 126 Electoral-College-vote win, is the patently unfair result in the House of Representatives. There, the Republican majority of 39 seats is entirely the result of shameless ‘re-districting’, in state after state. Incredibly, the republic that gave rise to the term gerrymander, still abides its widespread use.
Even if such nominal democracies were to put their houses in order, and every member state of the United Nations was a democracy—of the 193, only 25 are ‘full democracies’—the body would remain patently undemocratic. India, with its population of 1.2 billion, has one vote. The United Kingdom, with a twentieth of India’s people, has one vote, and the power of veto over anything the other 192 nations might decide.
For a global climate assembly to gain critical mass, enrolled voters, early on, would need to feel they were being empowered, beyond the empowerment of electing representatives and helping to determine policy. By focussing resources on assisting the smallest and lowest-lying states, the assemblies’ citizens, according to their individual willingness and ability to subscribe, could considerably ease the plight of the planet’s most vulnerable people. At the same time, great encouragement might be given to the governments of such at-risk states—famously, the Maldives—to address the more obvious deficiencies in their democracies. Priority might be given to breaking the corporate stranglehold on elections by covering the cost of publicly funded campaign finance, or partially public-funding campaigns, as in George Monbiot’s hybrid that also encourages party membership.
If 10 million of its first citizens paid an average $2-per-week global tithe, the assembly would have an annual fund of about $1 billion with which to make a real difference to a small country. Global petitions and campaigns organiser Avaaz already has more than 16 million subscribers, despite those members enjoying only indirect empowerment.
New York is big enough and rich enough to look after itself. But the Maldives and Kiribati, and many of the billions living at or near sea level facing multi-metre sea-level rise this century, must not be left to the mercy of the market.
The first one degree of warming has provided ample proof of the urgent need for a global climate assembly.