A Global Contract to Avoid Climate Conflict

18 April 2020

This entry was a finalist in our inaugural Blogging Democracy Contest. University of Chicago undergraduates were asked, “Does climate crisis demand a new social contract?” Below is Kendall Chappell’s reply. 


Rising temperatures are making the world more violent. With the global temperature expected to increase two or more standard deviations by 2050, researchers predict that the average rate of person-to-person conflict will increase 4.6 percent, while intergroup conflict could rise as much as 26.4 percent. Beyond these psycho-social effects, global warming creates conditions that strain vulnerable populations’ resources, putting enough stress on poor political systems to trigger large-scale conflict. The Syrian Civil War provides one sobering example. The conflict, which began in 2011 and has since led to over 250,000 deaths, was preceded by the worst drought on record in Syria’s Fertile Crescent. While Syria previously suffered from poor governance and unsustainable environmental practices, the drought has no doubt exacerbated the civil war.


With heat waves and other natural disasters growing more intense, the political situation is bound to worsen. As the world loses agricultural land and forests, a variety of local economies will be more vulnerable to conflict, particularly in regions where governments are already fragile. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which every nation is left to fend for itself, with poorer nations becoming engulfed in civil conflict and richer nations fighting for the resources left behind.


Failure to adequately address climate change has returned us to the “State of War” that John Locke discussed in the Second Treatise of Government. Drawing on Hobbes’s notion of the state of nature, Locke wrote that before a community is formed, “the State of War once begun, continues” (II, 2, 20) indefinitely. With no established system to address violations, individual members of the community are forced to hold each other accountable. The social pact allows members “to avoid [the] State of War” (II, 3, 21) by appealing to a common power, which Locke understood as something closer to a judge than Hobbes’s total sovereign. The system of appeal removes any moral obligation for redress from the members’ hands and puts it into the judge. If a transgressor repeatedly breaks the contract and will not be held accountable by the judge, they effectively remain in a state of nature, and have thus been expelled from the polity (II, 7, 94).


The power to appeal and seek consequences for those who violate the compact is Locke’s key to escaping the State of War. On our current path, climate change will continue and intensify as emissions rise. Emitters have no incentive to control emissions since they will not be penalized. Furthermore, any attempt to hold another country accountable for their emissions without the backing of global policy would likely be destructive for the other side, as the two biggest emitters, the United States and China, are also two of the three most populous nations and have the two highest military budgets. Unofficial policing thus puts smaller and less militant countries at risk, sacrificing the ultimate aim of the social contract as Locke understood it: self-preservation.


The global community must establish binding global climate policy, allowing countries to appeal to the United Nations, or some other global tribunal, to compel major emitters to comply with regulations or face consequences. The Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) are two United Nations global climate treaties which have been ineffective at stemming climate change. The Kyoto Protocol failed largely because it did not secure the assent of China and the United States, who emitted enough to make up for the decreases in signatory countries. Christopher Napoli further attributes the Kyoto Protocol’s failure to a classic collective action problem: the more parties involved, the more likely one is to freeload off the others’ actions due to the absence of repercussions and the benefit of business as usual. Though both China and the United States signed the Paris Climate Agreement (at least initially), it too has been ineffective in limiting global warming because it allowed each country to set its own emission targets. Not only are these self-selected goals non-binding and unenforceable, but they also often have a minimal impact on the climate even if complied with.


An effective environmental contract must enact strict requirements for each country and clear repercussions for failure. Locke is clear that the consequence for those who refuse to comply with the social contract must be severe: removal from the polity. Policies that have been effective have included trade sanctions as a punishment for leaving or rejecting the treaty. If we apply Locke’s framework, a country that refuses to stick to the goals it helped create in a treaty agreement must be removed from the agreement, and trade sanctions must then be enacted. If every country except one or two are in the treaty, this would be a major disadvantage for the removed country, both economically and socially. Only when countries are held to the same standard and held accountable for breaking that standard, will they comply.


The 1987 Montreal Protocol offers a worthy model. Every country in the world signed a treaty to slow ozone layer depletion and agreed to establish trade sanctions against nations who violated the agreement or refused to join. These sanctions have never been used, but they established a clear risk for breaking or leaving the agreement. Like Locke’s social contract, the Montreal Protocol punishes non-compliance and disadvantages those who refuse to join. Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, the hole in the Ozone layer is the smallest it has ever been since its discovery, and 98 percent of ozone-depleting substances have been phased out.


According to Locke, we have finally escaped the State of War and entered into a political society once we have the ability to legally punish violators. When it comes to global climate policy, the contract must indicate strict and clear requirements for decreasing emissions enough to prevent an increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In addition to punishments for noncompliance, a global climate contract must secure the assent of the top emitting nations. By ensuring their compliance, other nations will be more inclined to commit as their emission decrease will not be nulled by larger emitters. Finally, financial assistance should be given to countries that need it in order to prevent the economies of less wealthy countries from potential suffering.


Nations have no incentive to comply if violators will not be punished. Despite climate change ultimately hurting everyone, countries more immediately notice the costs of switching to cleaner energy and determine the long-term issue of climate change is not worth the present-day costs. A mechanism that holds violators accountable through trade sanctions will in turn prevent lower-income countries from being inherently disadvantaged in adapting to the climate crisis. Only by holding each country accountable to such a global standard can we hope to escape the emerging climate-driven State of War.


Photo Credit: Hasan Almasi, via Unsplash.


Tags: , ,

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *