Interviewer: Antoine Rondelet (Bluteshi)
Guest: Carne Ross, Associate Director of Geopolitics, Diplomacy and Security @ E3G
Established in 2004, E3G (Third Generation Environmentalism) is a European think tank focused on issues related to climate change, energy, and sustainability. E3G works in collaboration with a variety of stakeholders, including policymakers, businesses, and civil society, to encourage a transition to a low-carbon and resilient future that is also equitable. E3G’s goal is to translate climate politics, economics and policies into action (more info here).
Carne Ross is a former British diplomat who founded Independent Diplomat (ID), a non-profit diplomatic advisory group. Under Carne’s leadership, ID supported a number of democratic countries and political movements around the world including the Marshall Islands, whom ID helped create and lead the High Ambition Coalition, a coalition of over one hundred countries which drove significant climate ambition at the Paris Climate Conference. Carne now offers advice on political strategy, with a particular recent focus on climate change and the environment. He also leads E3G’s work on climate diplomacy, geopolitics and security, working on how to use the international system to maximize action on climate change (more info here).
Antoine Rondelet (Bluteshi): What is the role for diplomacy in addressing the global climate crisis?
Carne Ross (E3G): There is a very important role for diplomacy because of course diplomacy is about discussion between states. There is already a very well established process around climate diplomacy, around the COPs and UNFCCC. What I’ve not seen yet though is the integration of climate in the broader diplomatic discourse, which needs to happen because climate affects everything from security to trade relations to human rights, migration etc. I haven’t seen enough of real integration of climate into the broader diplomatic discourse, and that needs to happen.
What are the biggest challenges in implementing effective global cooperation on climate change, especially when not all countries are affected in the same way by climate change (e.g. some might “benefit” from melting ice in the Arctic while others might go underwater)?
There are many challenges. The biggest ones are the domestic obstacles to decarbonization in certain countries. That’s not about the international process. I think the international process only has a limited impact on the decarbonization of individual countries, which is much more a product of domestic factors. For instance, we need India (and China) to decarbonize much faster than they currently are. That is a function of India’s political economy, the things driving India’s leadership, driving its economy, its population, and a lot of complicated factors. At the international level, there is a lot to sort out to drive climate cooperation. Things like trade relations, for instance. As we move into the implementation phase of climate action, we’re beginning to see the conflict between different types of decarbonization policy. One example is between the US and the EU, where the US has implemented a subsidies-based policy in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which, arguably, discriminates against EU exports to the US. That may get resolved, but it is indicative of broader complex trade obstacles and tensions that are going to arise as different countries and trading areas implement carbon reduction rules, standards and prices.
How important have climate negotiations become in global geopolitics?
It’s interesting because climate negotiations had to an extent been isolated from broader geopolitical tensions. For instance, we see a fairly significant degree of US/China cooperation on climate, where the broader picture of US/China relations is one of tension and confrontation. Likewise, the Ukraine war did not disrupt the last COP despite the fact that, of course, it has led to deep divisions between Russia, the West and across the world. So, you can draw the conclusion from there, that the COP and the UNFCCC itself, is a kind of separate thing and is relatively protected from broader tensions. But as I say, I think, as climate moves into the implementation phase of decarbonization policies, we can see potentially that climate policies will begin to affect political tensions.
Trade issues will lead to tensions. This can be the case between China and the EU, for instance, as the EU introduces what are called CBAMs, Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms, which are essentially tariffs to protect EU industry as it decarbonizes. These CBAMs are supposed to protect the EU industry from imports from other countries that do not adhere to the same decarbonization standards. That could cause trade tensions, which could then spill over into broader geopolitical tensions. We don’t know yet, but that’s a risk that we’re looking at. But at the moment, climate has been relatively unaffected by broader geopolitical tensions, less alone contributed to them. It’s an area where it’s very clear that what’s needed is to collaborate to fight a common danger.
There’s a lot to be said about this topic, to be honest. Another area is North/South tensions, using North and South in very broad terms. There, climate is a source of geopolitical tensions for instance because the big emitters in the North have failed to contribute to the costs of climate impact in the global South which are now mounting and are already considerable. The UNFCCC and the global North have only agreed to the establishment of what is called the Loss and Damage Fund, but they haven’t contributed to anything to that fund. You can see this contributing to tensions between North and South.
Can climate change, as a universal problem, be a unifying vector and an avenue for peace?
I think it’s not clear yet. There is a real risk that the different types of policies being implemented in places like the EU will be seen as provocative and could increase geopolitical tensions rather than reduce them. And I’m not singling out the EU. Many countries are introducing these types of measures, whether decarbonization standards or carbon pricing schemes, all of which imply a certain degree of protectionism in the markets where they take place. What, of course, we should be working towards, is a global system of rules, standards and carbon prices. To an extent, there is work to build that in the context of the UNFCCC for instance, but we’re not there yet.
At the moment, it appears, when we see the US’ climate implementation policies in the form of the IRA, that we’re looking at trade impediments, we’re looking at rules that will damage trade between the US and other countries, that will put up protectionist barriers which arguably will contribute to geopolitical tensions.
I would like to see climate become an engine for global cooperation as a means of reducing geopolitical tensions in other areas, because as I say, it’s a common danger, and we desperately need to cooperate to mitigate that danger.
Would it be accurate to state that climate change already increases tensions around the world? Do we have concrete evidence yet?
That’s really difficult question to answer because climate contributes to tensions and conflict in many different ways.
For instance, we’re seeing more and more climate refugees. The UNHCR estimates that the majority of refugees it saw last year, which is about 100 million, were driven by climate factors. One may not see migration necessarily as a vector for geopolitical tensions. Some would, some wouldn’t. I personally would not, but climate is definitely a contributing factor to forced migration. Likewise, climate contributes to conflict in certain areas such as the Horn of Africa, in sub-Saharan Africa across the Sahel, fuelling conflicts between different interest groups etc.
It’s difficult to single out these factors and separate them from the broader geopolitical picture. Climate affects everything. It will affect everything. It is arguably going to lead to massive human migration, such as the world has never seen. We are talking about the potential movement of billions of people from the tropical areas, which are going to become unlivable, to more polar areas in the North and South. In very simple terms, if you can’t look at that as a source of geopolitical tension, then I don’t know what qualifies as geopolitical tension.
In other areas there are different ramifications, you know, the Ukraine war has led to increased food prices, which has enormous impact in the food-poor countries, which are more price sensitive, such as in the global South. It is also contributing to faster decarbonization of the world’s energy systems, as countries struggle to become less dependent on Russia’s oil and gas and has arguably accelerated the decarbonization by some years, so that’s a positive effect. A paradoxical, but positive effect from, you know, a hot conflict.
So I think it’s quite difficult to single out, to state boldly, that climate is or isn’t contributing to geopolitical tensions globally.
Do we see negotiations between countries to prepare the incoming, climate caused, migrations fluxes? E.g. discussions and negotiations like what we saw with the EU-Turkey deal.
No, there isn’t real negotiation of what’s coming. States are closing their eyes to what’s happening. They refuse to recognize that there is such a thing as a climate refugee.
They stick to the artificial categories of “Political refugees”, who qualify for asylum, and “Economic migrants”, who don’t, where in fact what we’re seeing is the conditions of life in various countries becoming intolerable and people having to leave. How do you categorize that?
You can call it an economic migrant, but that does not quite capture the degree or lack of choice involved for somebody who is affected by climate impacts. There is the very embryo of a discussion at the global level, but states are bad at this. They think they are defined by borders, when in fact the world is less defined by its borders. It’s going to be defined by these massive movements of people, which is going to put the very existence of the nation state as we know it into question.
One thing to point out is that this change is going to happen gradually. I mean, it has already started. It’s going to happen from the most impacted states first, such as the small island states of the Pacific that are slowly going underwater. Their populations will have to abandon their territory and find other places to live. You can’t help but think that it is contributing to migratory pressures, plus pressures from places like sub-Saharan Africa which is becoming hotter, Pakistan which has suffered these devastating floods in recent months, etc.
It may be impossible to single out individual factors in what drives people to leave their country and seek a better life elsewhere, but climate is definitely one of these factors. I think what’s in front of us, the mass migrations, the scale of it, has never been seen. There is no precedent for it in human history, and it’s going to create immensely difficult pressures to manage.
I am not saying they are unmanageable. With the right philosophies of cosmopolitanism, flexibility, and exploration, I think they will be manageable, but we’re talking about things like, whole new cities in the global North or South which are in habitable areas, we’re talking about billions of people moving country etc. It is going to happen. The states in the more habitable areas can’t just close their doors because that would mean to commit genocide of the people concerned.
There seem to be increased scrutiny on the COP process and criticisms related to the involvement of oil lobbies and oil states in the process. Has the UN still a relevant role to play in climate negotiations, or would we need to define a new international order with a new set of rules (e.g. remove vetoes in the Security Council etc.) to improve and accelerate global cooperation?
What I think as an ideal and what I think is going to happen are two different things.
I don’t see the slightest prospect of building a new UN or even significant reform of the UN Security Council where the 5 veto-holding countries hold the biggest power. I don’t see any of that happening. This has been a story that’s been going on for decades, and I see no prospect of these countries giving up their power anytime soon.
As for the UNFCCC, it is a very separate process. It exists under the auspices of the General Assembly. But, I don’t see that changing dramatically, either. Although the current Secretary General wants to institute some modest reforms, he hasn’t said what those are. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of what the UNFCCC is. I think academics tend to see it as some kind of bargaining process where countries are bargaining with each other for what kind of mitigation targets they will adopt, and I don’t see it as that being the driving factor. Countries come to the UNFCCC with commitments and pledges to decarbonize because they recognize climate change is a threat to them. They recognize climate change as a danger for them and that everybody needs to act to decarbonize. Of course, there is some international pressure on countries to come to the table with better mitigation pledges, and one has to acknowledge that the mitigation pledges on the table now are totally inadequate. Even if they were implemented, they are going to take us to 2.7 to 2.9C of warming, which is a very dangerous level.
We need to see better pledges, and whether the UNFCCC can be the place to deliver that, one has to be skeptical. The blockers in the process, like but not only the oil states, are significant and powerful. On the other hand, some big countries such as China and the US do seem to be talking the language of real commitment to addressing the problem. The Paris Agreement was, to a significant extent, driven by the Chinese and the US cooperating together, but also by the most vulnerable countries putting pressure on the collective to adopt ambitious targets, which became concretized in 1.5C to 2C and the target of Net Zero by 2050. So, one cannot dismiss that. These were significant things, and I think this is the best we’re going to get. I don’t think we’re going to get anything much better any time soon. I don’t see the appetite internationally for fundamental reforms of these processes.
That’s always interesting to see countries’ pledges and actions. You mentioned that the US seemed to be talking the language of real commitment. We do still see new US oil infrastructure projects being discussed, such as the Willow project in Alaska, despite the US pledges and the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Nobody’s doing enough, that’s the truth. We have to look at what the drivers of better climate action are. We have to work on national governments, we have to campaign, we have to demand better. It’s a difficult struggle that we face, and nobody’s pretending that we’re winning it.
Thanks for the time Carne. Is there something you’re working on, a book, a paper, a project, that you’d like to tell us about and share with the community?
I am working on a new book which tries to talk about the kind of democracy we need to have an economy that makes us stay within planetary boundaries. This is quite a radical manifesto for a very different type of democracy than the one we currently have. A bottom up democracy, where people take government into their own hands. Only with such a system do I think a different set of priorities will emerge for the economy, away from growth, towards other priorities which are about human well-being and human connection. Greater production and consumption is the current priority of governments, which are dominated by interests other than the collective interest. That’s the argument that I will put forward in my book, which is called “What is to be done”.
- What is the EU-Turkey deal? https://eu.rescue.org/article/what-eu-turkey-deal
- What is climate change ‘Loss and damage’? What is climate change ‘Loss and Damage’? - Grantham Research Institute on climate change and the environment
- More information on the Willow project: Will the Willow Project be approved and what consequences might we see?
- More info on the UNHCR: https://www.unhcr.org/
- More info on the UNFCCC: https://unfccc.int/
- More info on the COP process: https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop
- More information on the CBAMs: https://taxation-customs.ec.europa.eu/green-taxation-0/carbon-border-adjustment-mechanism_en
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