Reversing Trumpian vandalism of established international agreements and relations, US President Joe Biden declared "America is back, ready to lead the world". He was referring to a wide swathe of treaties that Trump, with his "America First", had unilaterally abrogated or withdrawn from, including the Iranian JPCOA, the strategic arms reduction START, Trans-Pacific Partnership, World Health Organization as well as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. While the first part of Biden's statement, i.e., America returning to the civilized fold of international agreements was met with an immense sense of relief by the rest of the world, it was the second part of his statement of taking up the driver's seat that continues to raise many eyebrows.
Each of the international agreements listed above are, in Cultural Theory terms, what are called "wicked problems", i.e., problems where let alone solutions, protagonists cannot even agree on a single definition of "what the problem really is". They were there before Trump won the US presidency and will continue to plague and outlive Joe Biden and his successors in the future as well. Wicked problems are very different from "tame problems" where there is broad agreement on the nature of the problem as well as an agreed set of tools needed to solve them. Tame problems – whether in engineering, banking, or medicine – are amenable to established textbook methods, also called "comfortable knowledge", to arrive at neat solutions.
Wicked problems, on the other hand, come nexused with allied quandaries of concern within multiple disciplines and divergent socio-political interests. They require the generation, or at least recognition, of "uncomfortable knowledge" to arrive at "clumsy solutions" of partial agreements and compromises. For example, urban degradation and its rejuvenation is not just a civil engineering problem of housing and roads but also of water scarcity, waste disposal, clean-up of water bodies, legal issues of land encroachment, relations with its food-producing and labour supplying hinterlands, open space and heritage conservation as well as many more. The same is true of climate change, and environmental sanity, which is the focus of this essay.
The problems of global greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change have been infuriatingly intractable ones since they were first identified over half a century ago. International efforts to solve them since the first Conference of Parties (COP) in Berlin in 1995 till COP26 in Madrid in 2019 are mired in high rhetoric mixed with the lack of meaningful substance and covered with procedural fetishism. Moreover, in the US-led "unipolar liberal, globalized world order" that pervaded the ethos of the first COP, markets were seen not as the underlying problem of climate change but instead, ironically its trading mechanisms were elevated to unquestioned solutions. In much of the Global South, including Nepal, this letting loose of unbridled market forces, and the religious beliefs of development agencies that they should be given more power while thwarting state interventions, continue to make a mockery of efforts to cut down CO2 emissions.
A bigger problem of markets and their short-term investment efficiencies over long-term social and environmental needs tied to equity and justice has led to another entrenched problem in the Global South: "technological locked- ness." Given the massive overt and covert subsidies enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry (which includes cars, trucks, highways for them as well as a range of allied infrastructure from petrol pumps to brain-washing car races), developing countries are now "locked-in" into this set of technologies with fossil fuel addiction and growing carbon footprint being the consequent result. As an example, despite being blessed with abundant hydropower potential, Nepal's fossil fuel imports for its vehicles have ballooned eight times from the 1994 figures when it affiliated itself with the UNFCC to those in 2018. The mad rush to build ill-designed roads – the iconic symbols of development – in fragile Himalayan mountain slopes is additionally contributing to increased landslides, debris deposition raising river bed levels and causing devastating floods.
Interestingly, there is another more mountain- and climate-friendly technology – the ropeway or cable cars – that have a negligible impact on slope stability and use only half the energy, and that too renewable hydropower as opposed to fossil fuel for trucks, to transport the same weight of goods up to mountain villages from shops and roads at the valley bottom. This technology languishes in disdain, ignored by both the government and the international development agencies that support it despite its proven successes. After all, in another two years, Nepal will be celebrating the centenary of the introduction of ropeways in the country by the Ranas, and subsequent successful implementation of a ropeway project each by both USAID and the EU. The political economy of technological "locked-ness" has created a vicious circle that nothing from Kyoto to Katowice and Madrid has made a dent in reversing.
If this fossil fuel "locked-ness" is so bad in a hydro-rich but under-developed Nepal that could have easily avoided it and leap-frogged to a renewable energy transport system, can one even begin to imagine how bad it must be in countries of the Industrialized North and why the history of failure from Kyoto to Paris is so pathetically obvious? This is why eyebrows were raised around the world when Joe Biden made the claim of return to climate leadership: the political reality in societies where market interests predominate over those of larger societal ones will easily debilitate and sabotage any high-minded Green initiatives.
It is not for nothing that economic Trumpism is alive and well not just in the US but also via its clones in UK, France and Australia. The Chinese media were the most sarcastic in shooting down Biden's claim when they wrote that America could not come back to Paris Agreement and immediately as birthright claim leadership: "You are only a truant schoolboy returning to school and that too without doing the necessary homework!" They were referring to the US not having lived up to the Paris requirements including submitting revised Nationally Determined Contributions.
Indeed, most environmental organizations globally have reacted negatively to both the climate summit called by Joe Biden as well as the G7 summit in the UK earlier this month. They have ridiculed the proposed $100 billion commitment to climate finance as not only a tiresome repetition of unmet previous commitments but also lacking in detail as to where and how much from each of the G7 countries the money is to come from. While they regard as positive the phasing out of support to coal overseas, they point out that nothing is said or done to stop or reduce the use of coal and fossil fuel at home! Indeed, this is already causing friction with G7 allies such as Australia and negative reaction from big economies catching up with the West such as China, Russia and India who see Western attempts as trying to stymie their own developments and maintain Western hegemony in the global economy.
The real challenge before environmentalists across the globe, North and South, lies in the very debilitating nature of development as propagated since the last eight decades and even earlier since colonial times. With neo-liberalism dominating Western policy space since the Washington Consensus post-Berlin Wall, narrow economic efficiency that has benefitted multinational corporations and oligarchs controlling them is not going to help solve the climate crisis as long as real cost externalization to the environment and the global poor is going to be its bedrock. Criticizing China and other BRICS countries for their rapidly increasingCO2 output will not cut much ice either as much of that is really due to Western over-consumption that has outsourced its basic "polluting" production to these countries.
The real environmental battle now has to be taken to new conceptual areas such as the water and energy footprints of the goods we do consume. This essay is being written on Asar 15 (June 29 this year) which is the traditional "Rice Planting Day" in Nepal. Sadly, news has also just come in this morning that in the last eleven months, communist-ruled Nepal imported 48 billion rupees worth of rice, in addition to billions more of vegetables and fruits that could have easily been grown in Nepal. The sad truth is that with unbridled neo-liberal globalization, Nepal was pushed in the 1990s following the Washington Consensus into de-industrialization, export of labour and the concomitant decline in its hill agriculture, including the abandonment of centuries of terraced farming. This is because, with the focus on "free trade", potatoes and other vegetables grown in the hills of Nepal (often organic and tastier) cannot compete against subsidized imports guzzling fossil fuel in transport from India to Malaysia to even Latin America!
A system that accounted for the water and energy footprints of such products (and not just vegetables) and taxed them appropriately to promote local agriculture and industry is where the next major environmental battle will have to be fought. But those who pushed debilitating neo-liberal market policies in the name of development from the Industrialized North – and continue to do so making a wicked problem much more intractable – cannot lay claim to current or future climate leadership!