The failure of last week’s G8 summit to make meaningful progress toward an agreement on climate change is dispiriting enough—but the reasons behind it may be even more worrying.
The politics of the summit regarding climate illustrate the scope of the challenge. When Chinese President Hu Jintao decamped for China to attend to overflowing ethnic tension in Xinjiang province, it reinforced an important point: All politics is local. Given the need for all nations to transcend the here and now, and their most recent pledges to their own citizens, this is a big problem.
Governments that are responsive to their own populace may be distinctly unsuited to meet this challenge.
In light of the potential for disharmony, President Hu’s return to Beijing is understandable. Every other leader at the L’Aquila summit likely would have done the same. The primacy of local politics over a global deal is, perhaps, unsurprising, but it bodes ill for companies interested in seeing the international cooperation needed to deliver a deal at Copenhagen this winter.
I spent last week in Washington, D.C., where the post-Fourth of July political buzz was about the pressure on the still-new Obama administration to deliver more rapid economic recovery, as well as a health care bill. The chattering classes (which, for the record, are often wrong) are starting to see political weaknesses that may inhibit his ability to convince American voters to make choices and trade-offs.
Similarly, many of the other G8 leaders are facing restless publics, elections, scandals, and more. In other words, the normal ways that political capital gets dented. This reflects a political business-as-usual approach that doesn’t meet the challenge of the moment.
In many ways, an effective agreement to combat climate change requires something humankind has never accomplished: a truly global collaboration to address a pressing problem whose effects will not be fully felt for a generation or two. Our current politics—even when they reflect the best of intentions, which they seldom do—are not likely to get us there.
Business may have a role to play here. Several coalitions have developed to catalyze climate policy, and they have the potential to raise the political capital needed to move the public. Business motivating the public to take action on climate? It may be just what’s needed to make the difference on the road to Copenhagen.
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