Can the world meet the challenge of climate change?

After more than three decades of global negotiations, the prognosis looks bleak. The most ambitious diplomatic efforts have focused on a series of virtually global agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and the Paris Agreement of 2015. With so many diverse interests across so many countries, it has been hard to get global agreement simply on the need for action; meaningful consensus has been even more elusive. Profound uncertainty about the effectiveness of various mitigation measures has made it difficult to estimate the cost of deep cuts in emissions.

Three decades of global negotiations have delivered little progress on climate change. But there are other successes we can learn from.

What is not uncertain is that cuts will pose a threat to well-organized high-emitting industries. Prudent negotiators have delayed making commitments and agreed only to treaties that continue business as usual by a more palatable name. Between the delays and superficial compacts, emissions have risen by two-thirds since 1990, and they keep climbing—except for the temporary drop this year when the global economy imploded under the coronavirus pandemic. To stop the rise in global temperature, emissions must be cut deeply—essentially to zero over the long term.

Meanwhile, it is getting harder to agree on collective responses to any urgent global question. The expansion of trade and the diffusion of new technologies have undermined U.S. geopolitical dominance and accelerated the rise of China and the Global South while producing a surge in inequality and open mistrust of elites. The World Trade Organization (WTO), founded in 1995, has been paralyzed for more than a decade by the kind of consensus decision-making that hamstrung climate diplomacy. In many other domains, from human rights to investment to monetary coordination, order seems to be fraying. With no global hegemon and no trusted technocracy—welcome changes in the eyes of many—there is no global authority to mend it.

Popular protest has reinforced this global gridlock. The Great Recession of 2008 exposed the limits of the postwar model of economic growth and revealed the growing divide between those who stand to benefit from rapid innovation and expanding trade and those who, often with good reason, fear both. The economic shock triggered this year by the pandemic dramatically underscored and exacerbated those divisions. No wonder that fears and hopes about economic revival and responses to climate change, already tightly linked, have in recent years have become densely intertwined politically. For conservatives in many countries, decarbonization is a fraught symbol of the elite, and repudiating climate agreements—including Trump’s snubbing of the Paris Agreement—is a way to reassert the primacy of national interests after decades of unchecked globalism. For progressives, meanwhile, the need to reconcile sustainability and inclusive well being finds expression in calls for massive public investments such as a Green New Deal. That vision has found only tentative success in only a small fraction of the global economy, one that accounts for a small and shrinking slice of global emissions.

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