(A topic I return to every once in a while. See here and here.)

The link that Jason posted Sunday deserves a closer look, if you missed it over the weekend. Revkin has written an excellent, if somewhat depressing, piece on the fact that while climate change is overwhelmingly the responsibility of the world’s rich nations, the nations that suffer most will be the world’s poorest.

It also reminds me of something else I heard Tim Flannery say last week: whatever else we know about climate change, we know that it will stress nations, and stressed nations sometimes do horrible things. The solution to climate change must therefore necessarily be a multilateral one.

You could sum up the great liberal project of the 20th century with the first words from the UN Charter:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind

I can think of only one other document that uses its text to establish its own context so clearly.* Those who gathered in San Francisco in June 1945 were keenly aware of the horrors that occur when the international system meets a crisis it cannot solve without violence — World War II had not ended yet. The idea was to create a body that could resolve the international disagreements that lead to war before they get to that point. It was to resolve the stresses that create war.

This clearly applies to the UN, but it’s just as true for the other multilateral bodies that were created around the same time — the IMF, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, later the WTO). After all, at the time the commonly-held explanation for the rise of fascism in Europe was partly economic: the stresses of the Great Depression and the Treaty of Versailles had created the economic chaos and poverty that opened the doors for the Nazis. In order to preserve global security, it was recognized that the world needed institutions that could keep the global economy on an even keel.

Those institutions — especially the IMF and World Bank — get a lot of criticism for their behavior in the developing world, well-deserved in my view, but there’s no denying the original motivating impulse. The New Deal generation was terrified that World War III wasn’t that far off, and were desperately trying to craft a world order that would maintain security and promote development.

Today, the earth’s climate doesn’t have a body as powerful as the World Bank trying to protect it. We don’t have a Security Council capable of making international climate law enforceable at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. We don’t even have the level of agreement necessary to work towards that kind of a body.

But it’s clear, in this telling of the story, that America dramatically broke with it’s history as the builder of international security when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify Kyoto. Kyoto was, as much as the Bretton Woods agreements or the UN Charter, an attempt to solve global stress before chaos and inequality lead to war. Exaggeration? Hardly:

“We have a message here to tell these countries, that you are causing aggression to us by causing global warming,” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda said at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February. “Alaska will probably become good for agriculture, Siberia will probably become good for agriculture, but where does that leave Africa?”

If you answer Mr. Museveni’s question with the words “poor, thirsty, and hungry,” congratulations: You’ve successfully predicted the future, unless we can convince the world’s great powers to change direction. If you’re an American voter reading this, yes, you have a greater obligation than the citizens of Denmark or Canada. But you also have the most opportunity to affect positive change in the world. Use it.


* The other document whose text clearly tells us about it’s own context? That would be the 1988 Toronto Conference declaration which reads “humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.” The document’s reference to global nuclear war marks it as an artifact of the Cold War. But just one year later the Berlin Wall fell and just before Christmas of 1989, the Cold War was declared over by the U.S. and the USSR.

As the threat of nuclear war receded, you would think that a rational species would have turned its focus on the second-biggest threat to its survival. Instead, we’ve spent the last 20 years regressing from the clear language of Toronto, 1988. Even today, with climate change as one of the hottest of hot topics in politics, economics, and even celebrity news, America still hasn’t returned to the environmental high-water mark of … the Reagan era.

Good God. Now I’m really depressed.