Climate, State and the Individual

15 April 2020

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


The contemporary international order is bedeviled by the problem of consent. States can opt out of joint action if and when it serves their selfish interests. In climate policy alone, we can point to Poland’s dissent from the European Union’s Green Deal or to the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement. While some states have a clear interest in international cooperation to help solve immediate climate threats, the incentives are more muddled for states that believe they have the luxury to gradually adapt to environmental changes. If the rising tides flooded New York’s Hudson Yards development, the US might be as proactive about climate action as the Seychelles. The great challenge of climate change is its global nature; any viable solution requires international cooperation.


In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes characterized the “state of nature” as one of survival in the face of endemic fear and mistrust. Hobbes was referring to individuals who had yet to enter into nation states. But three centuries later, Raymond Aron applied Hobbesian thought to international relations and explicitly framed the international order as a state of nature. Is there a Hobbesian solution at the global level? If an absolute sovereign can pacify Hobbes’ commonwealth, can an international sovereign pacify the world?


In Climate Leviathan, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright follow Aron’s suggestion to its logical conclusion. The authors argue that the formation of an international sovereign that imposes environmentalism upon the world is the most likely political outcome of the climate crisis. However, Aron himself raised the issue of a world-state, only to dismiss such a possibility. Although Mann and Wainwright introduce modern developments, such as the formation of the United Nations, to support their departure from Aron, Aron’s conclusion remains correct. Returning to Hobbesian logic, Climate Leviathan is only possible if 1) all states cede their monopoly on force to a common world body, or 2) if a single state achieves unassailable force and subjugates all other states. History has no precedent for either outcome.


Without a Climate Leviathan, how can we address global climate change in a consent-based international order? Perhaps grassroots activists can convince decision-makers to write environmentalism into official state strategy, but I doubt it.


My pessimism finds root in Friedrich Hayek, who argues that individuals exist in bounded spheres of responsibility. As Hayek writes in Individualism and Economic Order, there is a “constitutional limitation” to each individual’s knowledge and interests, meaning “he cannot know more than a tiny part of the whole of society” and will therefore base his motives and actions “in the sphere he knows.” In other words, those privileged enough to not feel the direct effects of the climate crisis will struggle to understand its urgency. While Hayek applied this psychological observation toward economic policy, I see its principles apparent in the climate crisis. This scale is simply too massive to motivate action.


I remember the annual Earth Day assembly during elementary school, and I watched Greta Thunberg make weekly headlines for months. I have seen the tragic photos of famished polar bears and bleached coral reefs. I know that the problem exists. Yet its incomprehensible magnitude keeps it out of mind in my daily life—and I daresay that I am far from alone in this.


Hayek offers the beginnings of an individualistic solution when he clarifies his definition of self-interest to encompass whatever one considers to be desirable. Is it possible for environmental activism to become a widespread personal principle? There is the initial hurdle of believing in climate science; another obstacle comes to making conscious personal decisions. And then there is the difficulty of dedicating personal resources to climate action. Environmental activists have been organizing for decades, and growing numbers are sounding the alarm. But can the individual behaviors of activists—a vocal minority of the general public, but a minority nonetheless—influence the foreign policy of states that exist in a Hobbesian international reality?


There are two factors to consider: the magnitude of activists’ voices, and the appeal of their claim. The first is limited by aforementioned limitations on our spheres of sympathy. The latter reintroduces Aron’s claim that survival is the end of the state. The question for an individualistic approach then becomes whether activists can influence climate discourse to speak to state survival and security.


Extinction Rebellion articulates its aim as an “attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.” The Sunrise Movement describes the climate crisis as a “catastrophe” that threatens our “air, water, and home.” Such rhetoric lays claim to the issue of state security. Yet I find it less than persuasive, as the US faces no existential threat from climate change. I believe that our country has the wealth, landmass, and talent to adapt its society. Yes, there will be great risk of damage to life and property and a variety of ethical concerns. But even environmental catastrophe would probably not be enough to destroy the state. As unpredictable and devastating as the storm may be, some countries are capable of weathering it.


I do not have faith in the international order as it exists today to deliver climate action—nor do I foresee the coming of the Climate Leviathan. Nor will individualistic grassroots movements likely be sufficient to inspire a global response. What, then, is left to us?


A loose interpretation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau provides one alternative. Individuals must come to see themselves as members of a collective citizenry. Within their distinct states, citizens must vote on behalf of the general will, and today, that means promoting a global will—that is, the security and prosperity of our species at large.


Of course, as Hayek noted, we have trouble looking at the bigger picture. How could one confidently claim to understand or even to care about the general will of humanity? The critical step toward a new social contract is broadening our sense of empathy and our scope of citizenship. This of course hardly settles the debate—and inspires more discussion about how such a social contract would work in practice. But only through such a social framework can mankind surpass the coldly rational constraints that Hobbesian logic places upon international climate action.


Photo Credit: Zoltan Tasi, via Unsplash.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  • Ann Bayliss says:

    Thanks for an interesting read. It seems to me that Existentialist philosophy, if embraced, as it easily may be by secular 21st century citizens, has the potential to hold each individual responsible for his or/her acting in defense of earth. Not just talking the talk, but stopping the car and walking the walk…..

Leave a Reply

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