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Time has come to build a ‘climate coalition of the willing’

Another year and decade has passed. As we begin 2020 and look back at the horrors of environmental change unleashed upon the Earth, we might tend to be more pessimistic than ever before. This stems in part from the most recent images of destruction from various parts of the world (even as we just begin this new decade) – bushfires in Australia, massive floods in Indonesia, and Typhoon Phanfone in the Philippines (locally named Ursula), to name just a few. The failure of the 25th Conference of Parties (COP25) in Madrid to raise climate ambition despite large-scale protests and more scientific urgency, more importantly, adds to the cynicism.

Calls for systemic and transformative change from several quarters have gone unheeded. However, there is a glimmer of hope as climate diplomacy takes roots at various levels in all systems. Climate diplomacy itself may not be a silver bullet that can achieve science-based targets that are critical for a stable climate and planet, but it may be the only option for many countries that would like to tailor a ‘coalition of the willing’ and place climate action at the centre of crucial policies through multilateral and bilateral efforts.

Why is the pessimism growing?

The responses from various governments to declarations of climate emergency across the world have been dismissive or, at best, lukewarm. This is perhaps the reason why the annual COPs are now being considered by some delegates and experts “not fit for purpose,” particularly to help tackle the pressing climate-related threats for the most vulnerable countries.  At COP25, the parties could not agree on the financial mechanisms to implement the Paris Agreement or the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. Furthermore, , many delegates/representatives of the most vulnerable countries could not afford to stay on after the planned end date of the COP and were left out of the final extra hours of decision-making process. This has become a norm in the past few years and is undoubtedly unfair.

Climate action on national and local scales are also inadequate. Leaderships are failing at their duty to protect the people of their respective countries. In developing countries, the situation is no different from developed ones, albeit the cognisance of the risks posed by climate change and the lack of resources to cope with them is much higher. Scientific uncertainty, corruption, fatalism, pressure of interest groups and many other factors make establishing effective climate policies challenging.

Specifically, the capacity of democracies – driven by short-term electoral cycles – to deal with climate change is being questioned. The public discontent among the Australians has grown after the country’s elected government, led by Scott Morrison, failed to reduce the risk of massive bushfires, prevent losses (life and economic), and/or adopt strong climate action.  Just a few weeks ago, this government was also accused of sabotaging COP25 by claiming access to carryover credits from the Kyoto Protocol to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target. At the same time, democratic systems provide more space for intensifying domestic demands to drive environmental policy. In Jakarta, victims of the recent floods that killed nearly 70 people have filed a lawsuit against the local government for negligence in “flood prevention and mitigation efforts” and “slow rescue”.

This highlights the power of the citizens to push governments into action, even in developing democracies where energy security and energy equity are considerably big priorities. On the other hand, non-participatory “authoritarian environmentalism” could backfire due to a lack of “civil engagement and public participation” that could hamper efforts towards “deep decarbonisation”, which requires large-scale structural and behavioural changes. The authoritarian and populist wave in many parts of the world is correlated with climate inaction and climate scepticism.

Why should there be a ‘coalition of the willing’?

Is it worth the attempt to re-engage the administrations of the United States (US) or other countries that are currently going against the tide of the need of the hour, which is strong and ambitious climate action? Long ago when the US did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol (KP), the European Union’s (EU) primary focus was on how to bring the US back into the fold of the international climate regime, at least during the KP’s second commitment period. These efforts in the end led to the formation of a new regime with a new set of rules and norms that culminated in the Paris Agreement in 2015. And now, this agreement also seems to be faltering due to the US and a few other countries that have set a different set of priorities for themselves.

In such a scenario, a climate ‘coalition of the willing’ is what can drive climate action at various levels. This does not tantamount to abandonment of multilateralism and traditional multilateral approaches, which are perhaps the only way to achieve sustainability. However, the international community needs to think of and engage with other pragmatic approaches that could work in settings other than the intergovernmental climate talks when the opportunity arises. At the international level, smaller groups of countries are already working towards developing and implementing climate action initiatives. The International Solar Alliance and Powering Past Coal Alliance are examples of such coalitions, consisting of state, sub-state and non-state actors. Climate diplomacy has opened up new avenues for climate action to new actors.  How climate diplomacy is done today shows that one must not underestimate the power of the civil society organisations, transnational networks, local environmental and climate groups, a few businesses and others in showing the way forward.

In 2019, I argued that climate diplomacy needed to challenge ‘systemic’ politics due to the slow pace of progress in the international climate change negotiations. In 2020, I would call for reinventing climate diplomacy by not only strengthening policies at regional, national and local levels, but also bolstering the idea of the ‘coalition of the willing’ and forging robust networks among the major willing stakeholders that would eventually sidestep the populists, climate sceptics and laggards. This needs to capitalise on synergies with other international frameworks such as the 2030 Agenda with its cross-sectional Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including climate action (SDG 13). In this decade, this might be the best way to raise climate ambition and achieve sustainability through climate diplomacy.

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.