Nationalism and Climate Change

Many contemporary commentators–sages all of them–have noted that the single most important barrier to expeditious action being taken on climate change is nationalism, that the prioritization of national priorities, the elevation of ‘local’ concerns–possibly short-term and limited in impact–over global ones would ensure failures of co-ordination between precisely those entities–nations–whose joint action is required to roll back the (almost literally) advancing tides.

There is little reason to contest this gloomy prognosis; climate change and global warming are not confined by national boundaries–indeed, they may be the most borderless of the many not-so-benign changes sweeping the globe–but strategies for combating them are. Some nations sign on to international treaty protocols to lower greenhouse emissions or impose carbon taxes; some do not. Some nations find their proclaimed aims of poverty alleviation and elevation of gross domestic product–that vital statistic which they have been trained and taught to treat as sacrosanct–dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, the depredation of rain forests and an increased pace of industrialization; yet others, having attained advanced stages of economic development on the back of precisely such strategies, and having found some of its blessings decidedly mixed, if not downright pernicious, have reluctantly cast about for alternative modes of engagement with the environment.

And because there is so much bad faith and so little trust in our cozy community of nations, there is little chance that the ‘do as we say, not as we have done’ injunctions flowing from the Developed North to the Developing South will succeed. More to the point, the Developed North often does not seem to take its own advice seriously, thus infecting its nostrums with a strong whiff of, at best, holier-than-thou hypocrisy, and at worse, malevolent conspiracy aimed at keeping the South where it has been all this while.

So, unsurprisingly:

After the dramatic collapse of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, there has been a retreat from the idea that climate change is going to be fought through international action. The talk has shifted to ‘voluntary national measures’ loosely coordinated at UN level.

Unsurprisingly, nationalism has found its usual ugly bedfellows in its push-back against the cautionary formulations of climate change worriers: the invocation of external threat and cultural superiority, xenophobia, racism, and perhaps most depressingly of all, a retreat to an atavistic skepticism about science. This blinkered anti-science attitude, with its rejection of overwhelming scientific evidence for retreating icecaps, elevated atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and rising ocean waters, has been most visible in the US but it has its fans elsewhere, notably in Australia, whose prime minister, Tony Abbott, has acquired some notoriety for his incoherent views on climate change. Abbott has decided, for instance, that Australia does not need a national commission to inform and educate its citizens about, nor devise any strategies to combat, climate  change. As a result, for the first time since the 1930s–my Australian friends reliably inform me–Australia will not have a science minister in its federal government.

Nationalism–and its related ideologies–have had a lot to answer for during the almost unimaginably violent twentieth century; this may be its deadliest impact of all.

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