As I’ve laid out in recent posts, the state of California faces many self-imposed obstacles in meeting the challenges posed by a changing climate. Its governance rules create what amounts to a vetocracy, where well-organized interest groups or even single wealthy individuals can block collective action meant to serve public interest. Rules designed to protect the environment end up hindering the state’s ability to adapt to climate change.
The failure of governments around the world to take the measures necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change have led many people, especially younger ones, to assert that nation-states have become obsolete and must be replaced by a radically different approach. The folks at the Berggruen Institute’s Noema Magazine are enthusiasts of planetary governance, that is, a shift to supranational institutions that will deal with global problems like climate change and pandemics. I did an interview with them last April in which I explained why I didn’t think this would ever happen and why it would be a bad idea if it did. Thinking about new forms of global governance is a big distraction from fixing the problems we have now with national-level governance, which is where the real action will remain for the foreseeable future.
There are several reasons for thinking that nation-states will continue to be central. The first has to do with power. States are all about concentrating and making use of power. If they are liberal democracies, they not only deploy power but have institutions like the rule of law and democratic accountability to limit and control that power. As Max Weber argued, a state exercises a monopoly of legitimate force over a defined territory. There are many juridical nations, from Afghanistan to Syria to Mexico, that do not fit this definition. Their problem is the weakness of legitimate authority: the state in each case is either not regarded as legitimate by citizens or does not exercise a monopoly of force and cedes territorial control to other groups like militias, terrorist organizations, or drug cartels. Legitimate power ultimately rests in the control of armies and police forces, which are the ultimate means by which they can enforce rules and defend the community from outside threats.
The problem with all existing supranational organizations, from the United Nations to the European Union, is that they are too weak to enforce rules on their members. This weakness is rooted in the unwillingness of the states that make them up to cede real power to the supranational body. For all of the EU’s acquis communautaires, when push comes to shove (as in the euro and migrant crises) it has no ability to compel its member states to obey its rules. It has no army or police force that can arrest recalcitrant officials or impose penalties when its rules are violated.
An effective supranational organization superseding the nation-state would have to be delegated serious enforcement power, sufficient to compel members to obey its rules. One could imagine a small, weak country like Nauru, beset by rising sea levels, to be willing to do this, but the system won’t work unless the largest players also agree to come under its authority. Can we imagine China and the United States, the world’s two largest carbon emitters, ever agreeing to do this? Not very likely.
There are further reasons why such a supranational authority is unlikely to emerge. All political institutions have to be underpinned by a common set of agreed-on norms and a common identity. Planetary governance would require a “planetary consciousness” that prioritizes global problems over other goods, like economic growth, job loss, or power relative to other nations. For better or worse, human beings tend to show the greatest loyalty to those closest to them like friends and family. As political systems have developed, the circle of trust has expanded and now encompasses the large units we call nation-states. But a sense of global citizenship remains limited to a very small circle of educated elites, mostly resident in rich Western countries, who have the luxury of tolerating the economic disruptions that would accompany strong climate action.
There is a final reason for wondering whether it would even be a good thing if the world’s nations agreed to cede significant power to a global authority to deal with climate change. We have had several centuries of experience creating national-level institutions that both deploy and limit power. Unconstrained power leads to abuses, corruption, and ultimately dictatorship, which is why we have check-and-balance institutions like constitutions, the rule of law, elected legislatures, and a free media to watch over the powerful. We have no experience creating similar institutions at a global level. If somehow the world’s nations created a supranational executive, would they simultaneously create a global court and global legislature to constrain it? The body that is furthest along in this process is the European Union, but it is hard to argue that it has found the right balance between legitimate power and effective constraint. And the EU at least operates within a common democratic cultural context, which doesn’t exist at a planetary level.
For all of these reasons, I think that dreaming about a future form of supranational governance to deal with climate change is a waste of time and a diversion from more realistic improvements to the way that we govern ourselves today at a national level. California, as I’ve indicated, isn’t there yet, despite the fact that it’s one of the most progressive of America’s fifty states. Indeed, it faces special problems precisely because it is progressive, and has put unnecessary obstacles in the path of collective action. We need international cooperation on climate, but the actors will remain the world’s existing nation-states. And we need to think concretely about how to change national-level incentives they face, rather than imagining a future in which a new global consciousness suddenly takes hold. In my next post, I’ll try to make this abstract discussion more concrete by looking at the political and governance challenges that lie ahead for countries like China, India, and the United States.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe