A call for urgent global action
Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report titled Global Warming of 1.5°C which emphasises the urgent need to act upon climate change before it is too late. The executive summary points out with “high confidence” that the “large majority of modelling studies could not construct pathways characterized by lack of international cooperation, inequality and poverty that were able to limit global warming to 1.5°C.”
Therefore, unless ways are found to establish international structures that can ensure effective cooperation, global warming will likely increase beyond 1.5°C and lead to nearly apocalyptic dangers. For this reason, proponents of global democracy such as David Ray Griffin have argued in favor of strong global institutions for a long time. In Science magazine Frank Biermann and others called for a “fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective Earth system governance and planetary stewardship.” In their recent book A World Parliament, Jo Leinen and Andreas Bummel argue that the “creation of a world parliament is among the most important political preconditions for the long-term survival of world civilization.”
A United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) represents a first step into this direction and a means to help attain the international cooperation requisite to prevent catastrophic levels of warming. This would be a democratically elected advisory chamber within the United Nations, with a global mandate to represent the views of the global population on the world stage. In this capacity, it could provide unprecedented forms of guidance and political pressure to encourage meaningful action from national governments.
The current state of affairs does not work
The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord demonstrates how ineffectual voluntary or self-assessed schemes are. As the Climate Leadership Council that was launched in 2017 notes, national-scale hindrances to climate change action include an inherent incentivisation of nations to minimise their climate-change mitigation policies and simply “free-ride” off the work done by others, conflicting or poorly coordinated approaches to climate change leading to inefficiencies, overlaps, and tensions, and relative gains concerns, such as when one nation is fearful of divesting from the fossil fuel industry due to the competitive advantage this could afford the industry of a rival state.
As argued in the IPCC report, there is a need for a trans-national institution with unprecedented levels of legitimacy, to coordinate the terms of a universal, harmonised climate change agenda that the international community can follow. It will however be vital to democratise this process, to ensure that concerns about climate change are not side-lined by powerful interest groups via national governments. Discussions on these issues need to reflect the concerns and priorities of the global populace, not the global leaders.
These measures will need the legitimacy of global concordance to have the authority to steer meaningful change, and that can only come about if they are democratic. For example, in the USA, where current government policies prioritise high-polluting industries over environmental concerns, opinion polls show that around 70% of the population are of the opposite opinion that environmental protections should take precedent over economic growth. Indeed, polls show that broadly, around 80% of the global population believes climate change is being caused by human activity, providing a compelling case for action.
Members of a UNPA, in contrast to national politicians, will not be compelled by the aforementioned restrictions. In representing a global polity, UNPA parliamentarians will be incentivised to cooperate globally, and if motions are to be passed in the UNPA, they will need to address a global agenda. It has been argued that a UNPA would in effect provide a consistent global nexus of coordination on climate change. It would provide a unique and valuable perspective on climate change concerns.
From an economic perspective, there needs to be a system in place to support and offset the economies undergoing this transition. By working to more equitably distribute the costs associated with climate change mitigation, disruptions to global growth can be minimised, to the benefit of all nation-states. The UNPA would not need to take the role of leader, with the ability to enforce its will and compel cooperation from nations, but the role of a guide, providing a fair and impartial roadmap which can delegate responsibilities dependent upon objective measures of need and capacity.
A global mandate for urgent change
The solutions here proposed enjoy popular support. A recent survey asked people from eight countries whether they supported the creation of a new “supranational organisation to make enforceable global decisions” about major threats such as climate change, the responses were clear. In India and China around 80% of respondents supported the concept. In Britain and South Africa around 70% respondents supported the idea. The lowest response from any country surveyed was Germany, who still recorded 62% support for the concept.
Efforts to combat climate change have been sparse and disjointed, with minimal commitments to genuinely effective global reform. Without a coordinating body that will represent the interests of the population above all else, climate change prevention efforts will continue to be side-lined by short-term economic concerns.
A UNPA could unite the stated interests of the global population with the expressed concerns of the academic community, and produce a democratically mandated global action plan together with the necessary moral pressure on governments to deliver.