“No Precedent in Human History”: Ruth Greenspan Bell on Why Climate Change Demands More Than the UNFCCC
The stakes are high for the UN climate conference in Paris later this year, so high in fact, some scholars feel it’s foolish to be putting all our eggs in one basket.
“Let’s face up to calling climate change an issue of human survival,” says Ruth Greenspan Bell, public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, in this week’s podcast. “Warming to this level changes everything…there really is no precedent in human history of what we’re going through right now.”
She and a number of other scholars have been pushing for more creative ways to address the risks at hand than relying on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. “Climate has been stuck in what I call the environmental ghetto,” says Bell. “It’s consigned to an environmental stovepipe.”
The tendency to view climate change in isolation impedes cross-cutting policy responses. “Climate change will continue to make every other issue more difficult – disease, food security, poverty, conflict, and our own security and safety,” says Bell. She points to Syria as an example of climate change’s “threat multiplier” effect. “A persistent drought devastated the farm community in the northeast part of the country – more than 1 million people were affected since 2008,” she says. “Lots of these people were forced to move into urban slums, the government didn’t do much for these people, [and] they became angry and defected.”
Despite these complexities, global climate governance operates around “one big solution” based on consensus. “No rational person would put her entire retirement savings into a single stock but that’s what we’re doing betting on the UNFCCC process,” says Bell. Rather than focus on a single, comprehensive treaty, she suggests policymakers should build momentum by coming to agreement on small things first through bilateral agreements and small coalitions. She likens this approach to weapons negotiations during the Cold War, where “progress was made when issues were broken out and resolved, even when particular agreements didn’t solve everything.”
“Do we really need 196 parties to deal with [the] issue?” asks Bell. The greatest emitters can make headway in separate negotiations. The U.S.-China agreement reached last fall that puts both countries on track to cap their emissions is an example that should be repeated, she says.
“I actually think that breaking things out and starting to see more opportunities is the direction we are going,” says Bell. “We must align the political tools with the problems, we must consider climate change as the threat multiplier that it is, and we must engage the best people and give climate the attention it deserves.”