12/11/2012 05:20 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

The End of Climate Politics


The Doha Conference has illustrated the inability of the international community to pursue global solutions. Maybe it's time to shift to a more local approach.

by Jörg Friedrich

The Doha Climate Change Conference has illustrated one thing above all else: Current global structures do not allow for consensus agreements on global issues (regardless of how significant the danger posed by climate change might be). And we must admit that the success of the international community to agree on some sort of coordinated response arguably diminishes over time, while the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change continues to grow. Yet the apparent paradox can easily be explained: While scientific prognoses become more accurate, catastrophe remains an abstract possibility. Nobody can say with certainty when disaster will strike in what region of the globe. By contrast, the problems that would arise if heads of state pursued a radical departure from growth-based economic policies (and from the idea that growth will fuel prosperity) are relatively concrete.

Additionally, an increase in scientific understanding also means that it becomes possibly to assign blame and responsibility with increasing accuracy. The results are specific demands -- which are often unacceptable for political reasons, even if they are (theoretically) feasible economically and environmentally.

The principles of global democracy and the influence of national interests on international deliberations preclude a solution. Change is unlikely. Our only option appears to be to ready ourselves for future catastrophes.

Climate scientists might as well cease to calculate long-term global temperature increases with increasing accuracy -- their models will not sway politicians.

Instead, science could be refocused to model local climate changes for the next 10 or 20 years with greater precision. Many people are interested in their immediate environment, and we often seek to prepare ourselves for the tangible changes that might lie ahead. Even politicians might listen -- China's five-year planners as well as the democratically elected politicians in the West (whose focus on electoral cycles follows similar time frames). They all desire to present themselves as wise and anticipatory rulers for the duration of their lifetime.

Such local prognoses would have a practical purpose as well. One or two decades are sufficient for the planning and realization of large-scale infrastructural projects. Protective projects can be pursued and existing patterns can be restructured in anticipation of change.

Climate research institutes must not be worried about becoming irrelevant in the foreseeable future. However, our societies must finally confront the moral dimension of climate change and the impact that environmental changes might have on a nation's or a region's interests.

Europe and North America are faced with the following situation: We must accept that two centuries of industrialization and the increase in prosperity that has been their most pronounced consequence are the primary causes of climate change. We also know that the effects of that change in Europe will be comparatively minor, except for some coastal regions.

And we will be best equipped to deal financially and technologically with the consequences of climate change.

This situation must be contrasted with those regions of the planet that contributed relatively little to the climate change problem but that will suffer disproportionately from its consequences. It's never to early to contemplate this moral dilemma in the West. It's unlikely that voters in Europe or North America will elect politicians who promise to accept the West's special responsibility, who pledge solidarity to other parts of the world, who advocate a renunciation of prosperity and who seek to funnel Western money to Asia to invest in anti-flood projects. Instead, it is much more likely that European and American governments will be elected on a platform that promises to secure prosperity within one's own borders in light of domestic challenges and problems.

But even if Europeans and Americans accepted their special responsibility for climate change, we might not want to see them play the role of global guardian angels. Such a policy would be nothing but a veiled form of Western cultural imperialism.

In the end, each region of the globe might have to confront its own destiny and embrace its own responsibility. A responsibility that increasingly arises from the failure of all governments to find common ground, and from their insistence on national and short-term goals over global and long-term solutions.

This piece originally appeared in The European Magazine.