Academic journal article Canada-United States Law Journal

The Politics of Climate Change

Academic journal article Canada-United States Law Journal

The Politics of Climate Change

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This is the after-dinner speech given by John Godfrey on March 21, 2019 as part of the Canada-United States Law Institute's 43rd Annual Conference. The speech addresses bilateral and international issues faced by nations in addressing the challenges posed by climate change.

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So here we are in Cleveland.

Because I've never been in Cleveland before, I decided to do my research. I thought I would Google jokes about Cleveland. Don't bother. They're all terrible. And old. The most recent one I could find was from Rowan and Martin's Laugh In from March 1968, a mere fifty-one years ago. (For students in the room, ask someone with hair like mine to tell you about Rowan and Martin). Okay, here's the joke, ready for it: "In Cleveland, Velveeta cheese can be found in the gourmet section of the supermarket." That's it; that's their best shot.

Thank you for inviting me to this year's conference of the Canada--United States Law Institute. Now about the topic: "Can the United States and Canada cooperate on Climate Change? Should they?" Gee, I don't know ... What do all of you think?

Actually, I do have one or two ideas about this. Spoiler alert: yes, I think they should! And here's why.

When Steve [Petras] asked me to give this talk, he proposed that I talk about the "political management of Climate Change" in Canada and the USA. I like the term "political management," because that is what politics at its best is all about: managing difficult, important issues at the local, state or provincial, national, and global level. My theme this evening is that Climate Change is a unique problem which requires unique political solutions, that the structure of the problem of climate change dictates the structure of the political management of climate change. I should also say that I was, by profession, a historian of modern Europe, so I come at this both as a former politician and a historian, but not a lawyer.

Actually, climate change poses three distinct, if inter-related, problems for politicians and policy makers. The first is mitigation: how can we reduce the emission of greenhouse gases fast enough to save the planet from catastrophe? The second is adaptation and resilience: how can we defend ourselves from the extreme weather events which are already occurring as a result of climate change and which are going to get worse before they get better? The third is technological, industrial, and economic transformation: how do we preserve our material quality of life without consuming energy and materials in the same manner that got us into this mess in the first place? And how do we make it fair, or at least fairer, for everyone else on the planet who aspires to our way of life, all 7.7 billion of our fellow humans?

So, the first characteristic of the politics of climate change is that the problem to be managed is vast, complex, multidimensional, and not easily susceptible to resolution. Each of these three challenges can rightly be described as "wicked" problems. Wikipedia defines a wicked problem as "a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize." That's the politics of climate change.

A second characteristic of climate change politics is that the stakes are uniquely high, nothing less than the survival of the planet and humankind. We are literally facing an existential crisis: our existence. The only other way humans can destroy themselves so thoroughly and completely is through all-out nuclear war. To rewrite T.S. Eliot slightly, "this is the way the world ends, either with a bang or with a whimper". Pick your poison.

Which leads to a third distinction of climate change politics, one which makes it very different from the politics of nuclear weapons negotiations: traditional Great Power politics and negotiations won't cut it. This is not like the Great Power conferences before World War One, or Chamberlain and Hitler in 1938, or the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, or Donald Trump meeting Kim Jong-un. …

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