Frank Biermann: 19th century global governance not fit to tackle climate change

Frank Biermann: 19th century global governance not fit to tackle climate change

Brian Coughlan, 28. november 2012

Professor Frank Biermann

This Monday, the 18th UN Climate Change Conference started in Doha, Qatar. On this occasion, I've interviewed Frank Biermann, one of the world's leading experts on global environmental governance. Frank is a professor of political science and of environmental policy sciences at the VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and visiting professor of earth system governance at Lund University, Sweden. He's specialized on the study of global environmental politics, with emphasis on climate negotiations and United Nations reform, among other things. Frank pioneered the concept of Earth System Governance which has evolved into a major global research programme which he is presiding. Not least, he's also a signatory of the international appeal for a UN Parliamentary Assembly.

If tackling climate change has a "coal face", this is where Professor Biermann spends much of his time, and I was very lucky to squeeze 15 minutes out of his packed agenda before he was due to head off to France and then on to Doha. 

For most of the 15 minutes we spoke about climate change and Frank elaborated on how our 19th century system of global governance is failing to resolve this major 21st century problem.


Audio transcript of the interview

I'm talking today to Professor Frank Biermann, the Chair of the Earth System Governance Project, welcome to the UNPA Audio Blog Professor Biermann!

Thank you so much.

I know you have a busy schedule so I'll get right to it.

Given your involvement in the Earth System Governance Project, I imagine, you are one of the scientists in the world who is thinking most about how the international community's response to the challenge of climate change could become more effective. Now we've had years, strictly speaking we've had decades, of negotiation and yet a post-Kyoto protocol, for example, is still in total limbo. So if you look at the climate talks and the UN, what are the main flaws, basically, what's going wrong?

Yes, thank you very much. Well I think there are many, many scientists in the Earth System Governance Project that are active on these issues so I'm only one of many of them. Truly I spend my time thinking about how negotiations on climate change can be improved and how we can reach a better progress on these matters because time is short and we have now passed 400ppm climate carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. So therefore we really have to speed up our efforts in trying to get emissions reduced quite urgently.

If I look at the negotiations in the past couple of years and also the current ones that are now going on, one key problem is still, of course, that there is a tremendous lack of political will in many governments to really address these issues and really take us forward. This might improve now, it's possible, with a second term for Obama, we have a new government in China and maybe also the European Union is a little bit more relaxed in the next couple of months from the financial trouble on the continent. So maybe there is a window of opportunity to have a little bit more political will and space for new initiatives in these countries. But I think there are many things that also can be done, for example, outside the intergovernmental process which means a stronger involvement from the private sector, a stronger involvement of local activities, cities are becoming very active, there are various movements in many places that take this forward even though governments are still not making that much progress. So maybe it's wrong to look only at the intergovernmental negotiations; it's also very important to look at what happens outside the conference halls of the climate conference of state parties and what happens on the ground. 

Nonetheless I think it's also important to have some long-term reforms in the intergovernmental process and this is what we have outlined in our work in some of the papers within the Earth System Governance Project where we argue that what is needed is, for example, stronger reliance on majority voting, on qualified weighted majority voting, which is not currently the case in the climate negotiations, maybe also stronger involvement of civil society in international negotiations, giving them a stronger role to play there, maybe also a better science-policy-interface and finally maybe also a stronger role for UN agencies like the United Nations Environmental Program which has not really proven to be a very powerful actor in the last 40 years.

So you sound a bit more upbeat then, you think, we are basically making some progress?

Well, slowly. I think that certainly the progress at both the global level and at the local level is not enough. I'm a professional in this field and sometimes I'm optimistic and sometimes I'm pessimistic, it's like a doctor in a way, so certainly I mean the progress is not sufficient to fully address this problem and that's clear; climate change is one of the biggest issues in the 21st century and we are not addressing it properly.

You wrote an article for Science magazine earlier this year and in that you mention a "constitutional moment" in world politics and global governance being really required to move this thing on, could you perhaps elaborate on what you meant by that? By a "constitutional moment"?

Well, we felt in this community that wrote this article, it was written by 32 social scientists, all from different countries, different continents, and all specializing in global environmental governance, and while we put this together as a kind of assessment of the state of the art of the social sciences on international sustainability governance, we felt that politics - especially at the global level - is still very much almost like it was in the 19th century. It's all very much an intergovernmental system, caught in a system where we have some 190 nations and each nation is struggling to present and protect its own parochial interests and we felt that we needed a step change in the intergovernmental system and we had a number of proposals like majority voting, like a couple of stronger UN agencies, like a stronger involvement of civil society and all of this together reminded us of the constitutional moment like we had it in 1945 where, kind of, every three months there were major conferences where major agencies were set up; the Bretton Woods system, the UN system, an attempt at a trade organisation. Many international agencies have been set up, human rights standards have been set, so many things happened in this time and today this is also needed. Well, knowing, of course, that these constitutional moments are always linked to revolutions and war...

...or crises of some kind...

...and this we don't have, luckily, so the challenge is in a way...

...or unfortunately...

...well, many scientists say the crisis is already there, it's just not realized by decision-makers, melting ice shields etc., so this is what we meant, we need a step change from the 19th century to the 21st century and this was written for the Rio conference, the Rio+20 conference, held in June this year and as we all know, also not much happened there.

In that article you stressed that we needed to get beyond consensus rule to rely more on qualified majority voting, weighted voting mechanisms, so given that almost all proposals for a UN Parliamentary Assembly consider that the seats would be apportioned, taking population size or other factors into account, would you agree that a parliamentary assembly could be a key institution to help us move beyond the current focus on consensus rule?

Well, I think there are two different discussions, I mean the one discussion is: who is representing countries? Right now it is the executives, it's the heads of government and their diplomatic services and foreign offices who are representing countries and then the alternative, one alternative, would be to have a stronger role for a parliament that would either be directly elected, which is very far-fetched, or like an assembly from national parliaments and this is kind of the question: who is representing the countries; are the parliamentarians or the executive? The other question is the voting: do you have voting, and if you have voting, how do you vote? If you have voting, you can't have a system where the prince of Lichtenstein and the prince of Monaco have the same votes as China; that is simply not acceptable. So you need to have some form of weighting voting - but how to do this? We have no consensus, I mean there are some papers, including from the movement for the parliamentary assembly, many studies have been done in your community which I think are very important studies and I very much encourage everybody to work more and to publish more and to reach a consensus on what could be the models of weighted voting in the future. There are some examples, like the World Bank, which is an example that many countries of course would not accept - it is weighted according to the financial investment in the bank so this kind is what many developing countries would not accept. There are some others, the IMO, some form of weighted voting and many ideas are out there, I think this is something we have to move forward.

I've got one last question for you, strictly speaking a two parter, can you explain - because frankly it boggles my mind - why large parts of the U.S. Republican Party deny the reality of climate change and the basic science behind it and do think that climate change denial played an important role in the outcome of the election?

Well, I mean climate change was hardly mentioned by either candidate for the presidency. I am not sure whether this strong denial of scientific research by the republicans - not only in climate change but also in many other issues, like creation etc. - it's possible that this has kind of pushed off some swing voters and we know that Romney has kind of  lost many people in the middle ground and maybe further analysis will show that many of the more moderate people in the middle ground, in the swing states, that they have been put off also by this anti-scientific approach by parts of the Republican Party, of course not the entire party, but quite a few people in this group in the Tea party and the Republican Party who have this strong denial of scientific processes and scientific research.

Actually, before I let you go perhaps you could briefly define Earth System Governance. I will be including a link but I thought it would be instructive to hear that directly from you if that's OK?

Earth system governance is a new concept, a new paradigm, that has been developed in our community, the scientific community, the last couple of years and it's kind of a shift in focus. A shift in focus from environmental policy that was just more like the surroundings of the human species; to a new idea that the entire earth system is in a process of transition. Mainly because of human action and that therefore the target of this governance system, this governance process, has to be the protection of the entire earth system in all it's interrelated parts and this is, kind of like, a new way of seeing the planet and new way of how to see environmental policy. So we felt that the term environmental policy or global environmental policy is no longer sufficient to really describe what is at stake. So for this reason the term earth system governance and the Earth System Governance Project is a network of researchers, many researchers across the globe, we have various types of affiliations, research fellows, lead faculty members, we have a global alliance of earth system governance research centers and this all around a science plan which is online available where we have put out a number of research questions we believe are crucial for the next 10 years. This was founded in 2009 and we want to kind of wrap it up in 2018 and we have a science plan with questions we feel are very important and many of these questions are ones that we have addressed in this interview. So it's a very open network and for those who are listening to this interview they can go to the website and we're very keen to work together with more people it's very open to anybody who deeply feels about the planet in any way and wants to be engaged as a researcher and find out what's going wrong and what we can do better.

Thank you, Professor Biermann!

Thank you.

Website of the Earth System Governance Project