Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the effect of climate change on global institutions. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Climate change increases stress on governmental structures, intensifying vulnerabilities present within. The more taxing a situation turns, the more difficult collaboration and communication often become, creating a vicious cycle that brings cultural and political tensions to the fore. It’s the rare event when one country is effectively able to coordinate with another during times of crisis. Take the current coronavirus pandemic and its wide reaching economic impacts. The international economy is reeling as a result of the virus’ spread, yet there remains little consultation between governments, with plans for stimulus cropping up incrementally and separately across the globe.
As climate change progresses, the scale, scope and speed of difficulty will deepen around the world, testing the strength of international institutions to greater degrees. Indeed, climate issues are already showing both how difficult negotiation between countries is, and how insufficient our existing international institutions are to addressing issues of serious concern. When it comes to climate change, the authoritative limits of organizations like the United Nations or the World Bank are progressively highlighted and undermined. All international agreements made since the first COP (Conference of Parties) Climate Change Convention in 1995 have been non-binding, with participating countries left to follow its recommendations via voluntary interpretation. Many global leaders, such as the United States, have pulled out of agreements entirely.
Our international institutions, from the World Health Organization to the International Monetary Fund, retain only the power to recommend, pressure or sanction. They do not enforce. In times of strife, following recommendations that have less directly calculable benefit, such as recommendations from the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement that participating countries support sustainable development and enhance adaptive capacity, can become political liabilities. Making moves towards measures that require longer periods of time to show results is all to often a harder move to sell.
Again, the coronavirus crisis currently gripping the planet is a useful reference to assess where our international systems might be heading. While not directly caused by climate issues, coronavirus and its devastations are imprints of what is likely to come. As climate change brings warmer temperatures and glacial melt, researchers anticipate that new infectious diseases will arise, to which modern humans have little to no immunity. Coronavirus has shown that sequestering such diseases can be near impossible. In our modern world of global supply chains and constant travel, what affects one part of the globe affects us all.
Sadly, our existing international bodies are not up to the task of managing such outbreaks. In the early days of coronavirus’ reach, the World Health Organization sent out warnings, letting governments know that the virus required serious preventative measures. Some countries, like Singapore and South Korea, places where more recent outbreaks of SARS and MERS have left lasting impacts, took the recommendations to heart. Others, like the United States, Brazil and Italy, did not. The WHO has no authority to manage how international governments follow its recommendations, creating conditions where diseases and infections that might have been effectively regulated with cross governmental coordination go on rampant, causing widespread loss of life, economic fallout and social decay.
Researchers are certain that climate change will bring more and stranger viruses than we have experienced in living memory. With the conditions of scarcity, uncertainty and fear that come with such pandemics, many leaders may well work to strengthen their respective states and reinforce feelings of nationalism. Governments across the board could enact emergency restrictions and policies to navigate the mounting crises, restrictions that, when those crises abate, leaders may not readily relinquish. Such concentration of power often leads to diminished reliance on international governance and a weakened belief in the power of multilateral cooperation.
As the diseases, conflicts and extreme weather events that come with climate change increase, the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of current global institutions will continue to show. The amount and frequency of refugee movements will only spike, bringing more conflict and spurring greater demands on existing resources, challenging the ability of global institutions to manage and guide the flows. Only direct support, coordinated reimagining and international investment, can prevent the already present cracks in our institutions from breaking.