Over the past decade, climate change and environmentalism have become increasingly prominent issues on the international agenda. Recent climate negotiations, however, have illustrated that such talks can become a tool for advancing the political interests of individual states. The most recent example of this phenomenon occurred in June of last year at the United Nations Framework Conference for Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Bonn, Germany. The Russian Federation, Belarus, and Ukraine, delegates to the Subsidiary Body of Information (SBI), launched a proposal to “introduce a new item on legal and procedural issues related to decision-making under the Conference of the Parties (COP) and Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP).” This led to an agenda dispute that derailed the SBI conference proceedings, causing widespread dissatisfaction among the delegates.
This behavior is particularly interesting given the Russian Federation’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, in which many developed countries agreed to legally binding reductions in their emissions of greenhouse gases, in 2004. Since then, there had seemed to be a positive shift in the Russian attitude toward further climate negotiation. Was the amendment to the Kyoto Protocol proposed at the UNFCCC in Bonn desirable because Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine intended to influence decision-makers in future environmental negotiations? Or did it happen because the Russian economy sustains itself mainly through oil extraction and the chemical industry, and delaying the UNFCCC conclusions was therefore beneficial for Russia?
The dispute at the Bonn Conference suggests that the success or failure of large international climate change talks can be correlated with certain countries’ acute political considerations, especially their economic interests. A similar—and much more significant—dispute happened at the initial discussion of the Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund in May 2006 between the developed and industrial Northern nations of the European Union, the United States, and Australia (among others) and the developing Southern states of Malaysia, China, and Jamaica, most prominently. The dispute continues to this day, and has come to symbolize inequality and dominance between and among nations. In a time of increased resource scarcity and migrations due to environmental changes, such as drought or excessive rainfall, the issue of climate is no longer simply ecological or environmental—it has become political.
The politicization of climate change is not limited to developed nations like Russia; it also affects developing nations around the world. Pollution from hazardous industries and technology transferred from developed countries is one of the substantial environmental issues facing developing nations. These industries and technologies are often no longer acceptable or legal under the occupational and environmental health standards of developed countries, but remain permissible in developing nations due to looser environmental legislation.
This is especially visible in the most polluted regions of the world. While modern industrialization is the main reason for substantial pollution-related deaths among the population of Africa, intensive manufacturing began to develop on the continent during thesecond half of the 20th century largely with the assistance of the European Union. Today, mining companies are the most common of the many formerly European industries that operate in Africa. Although these industries claim to have implemented purification systems to mitigate pollution, their record is spotty. As the British newspaper The Guardian reported in 2010, “international mining companies, which continue to extract high profits from Africa, are not interested in supporting policies that will transform the continent’s development. With the support of their home governments, including the UK, they have pressured African governments to introduce policies that have resulted in dispossession of communities, environmental degradation and human rights violations, while yielding woeful revenues for national treasuries.”
The UK-owned oil firm Trafigura provides another example. Several years ago, Trafigura dumped highly toxic waste around Yamoussoukro, the capital city of Ivory Coast, causing an ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. Trafigura had previously claimed publicly that the waste was harmless. However, The Guardian later revealed that “thousands of West Africans besieged local hospitals, and a number died, in 2006 after the dumping of hundreds of tons of highly toxic oil waste around Abidjan,” Ivory Coast’s largest city and economic hub.
It is no secret that utility-maximization is the primary objective states pursue in the international arena. However, whether by economizing on refineries or loosening environmental policies, both developed and developing states are undermining global environmental stability. They are also, ironically, threatening their own prospects for utility-maximization and development in the future. According to a 2009 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, by “redrawing the maps of water availability, food security, disease prevalence and coastal boundaries,” continued climate change “could increase forced migration, raise tensions and trigger new conflicts.” Undermining international security hardly favors states’ global interests in the long-term. In the short-term, unfortunately, pragmatism means maintaining the status quo.
Historical tensions between nations have also been exacerbated by climate negotiations. The 2006 Kyoto Protocol Adoption Fund conflict arose partly because nations like China and Malaysia have noted the apparent injustice that their more developed peers, who are often the strongest advocates of internationally binding reductions in greenhouse emissions, have historically exploited limited global resources and produced significant amounts of pollution to achieve their current levels of development. Developing nations are often far more interested in basic poverty eradication and economic and social development rather than in curbing a problem they consider to be chiefly the responsibility of developed countries.
These behaviors, however, have not helped slow the rate of climate change. Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently announced a goal of cutting annual carbon emissions by between 40 and 70 percent by 2050 in order to keep the global rise in temperature below two degrees Celsius, global emissions rose by 1 billion tons a year on average between 2000 and 2010, outpacing growth in previous decades to reach “unprecedented levels.” Climate scientists project that failure to meet the carbon reduction benchmarks set by the IPCC could result in further droughts, rising seas and heat waves. Despite the work of numerous bureaucratic bodies including the UNFCCC, IPCC, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), success has not yet been achieved.
According to Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC’s Mitigation of Climate Change working group, reducing international pollution and controlling man-made factors that accelerate environmental change will require that the world “move away from business as usual.” The track record of state actors participating in environmental negotiations as part of international institutions, however, is not encouraging. Nations whose economies are based upon chemical production or oil extraction are in no hurry to cooperate with international regulations to reduce carbon emissions or raise awareness about climate change among their citizens. Russia’s actions at the UNFCCC conference in Bonn, for example, went unreported by the Russian news media, keeping the country’s citizens in the dark.
Awareness from the bottom-up, however, is the only weapon citizens have to fight pollution and climate change if states continue to undermine international efforts. Addressing environmental problems on the international level will inevitably result in bureaucratic hampering by states interested not in global reform but their own political and economic interests. Raising climate change awareness among the masses, covering environmental news, and publicizing reports on industrial activities worldwide may be the least we can do to secure our planet’s future.
Alisa Fazleeva is an MA in International Relations obtained from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom in 2013.