Copenhagen as UN Politics, Not Climate Change Substance

(Updated below …  Give me global oligopoly or give me climate death!)


Post-Copenhagen.  At bottom, the question is legitimacy.  The global New Class met in Copenhagen, convinced, as ever, that it had legitimacy to act as it proposed to act, with the UN as its vehicle, because legitimacy was conferred by “expertise.”  The UN bureaucracy, its permanent culture of functionaries, endorsed the global New Class elites and their claim of legitimacy through expertise, because, after all, the experts were using the UN as the vehicle and thereby conferring upon it governance legitimacy – if you are Ban Ki Moon, what’s not to like about that?  Together, they thought they had found the formula to buy off the poor world through the climate fund.  They also thought they had found a formula that would bring the BRICs on board, by endorsing the Kyoto formula of encouraging industry to move from the rich world to China and India.  Obama and the Democrats would deliver the United States.

In the event, it turned out that the BRICS and the developing world decided to exercise their particular forms of legitimacy – the legitimacy of the sovereign equality of member states at the UN – in order to demand more for relaxing their “hold-up.”  Global New Class legitimacy at the UN encountered  that other form of global governance legitimacy, that of the mass of member states.  Whose legitimacy matters and for what?  And what does it mean to say that a climate change deal requires, in Secretary General Ban’s words, an “equitable global governance structure” to administer it – especially given the many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many things that are apparently to fall under its tent, from global free trade to ice water in our glasses?  What is this global governance, anyway?  What makes it “equitable” and supposedly, therefore, legitimate?  Is it legitimate to do a deal of global proportions, on climate change or anything else, and not involve everyone?  Is “expertise” enough grounds for global legitimacy, the legitimacy required to remake relations from the top to the bottom, trade, jobs, lifestyles, you name it?


If your issue is simply the substance of climate change policy, and not UN politics, then you perhaps don’t much care about these abstract issues of legitimacy, global governance, and the UN.  Until the end of Copenhagen, however, because it turns out that (given the breathtaking scope of things to be governed under the rubric of climate change, starting, really, with the whole global economy, as it affects ordinary people) that the meanings of global governance, legitimacy, and the UN matter after all.

What we call “legitimacy” and what Ban called “equitable,” after all, translated in the event, among other things, into a hold-up premium for the G-77 and a corresponding unwillingness of the G-rest to pay up past a certain point.  Global governance, but “legitimate global governance,” meaning, it appears from Copenhagen, not just solemn obeisance to experts, but solemn obeisance to the ‘sovereign equality of states’ – which is to say, the UN and, in particular, the countries of the General Assembly.

For some of Copenhagen’s participants who believe(d) both that

  • climate change is the existential problem of now and the future, but who are (were) also
  • committed to global governance as an activity of the world together, and so committed to the legitimacy that comes with the UN over any nation-state that might act unilaterally, or little conspiracies of the great powers foisting off their oligopolistic deals on the rest of the world

… for them, legitimacy, particularly via the sovereign equality of states, is a problem.  

Copenhagen just showed, for those who hadn’t thought this problem applied to them and their existentially important issues, that legitimacy means, among other things, that you’ve granted a “hold-up” to whomever you’ve ascribed legitimacy. Apparently that includes Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez.  That’s not a problem for me, because I ascribe minimal legitimacy to the UN and zero to the General Assembly and its members qua members.  But for a large number of international law experts, professors, academics, think-tankers, diplomats, journalists, and global governance devotees, this is a problem.


As to the academics:  Let me now predict a sizable number of law review articles in the next three years, devoted to showing ways in which the General Assembly and its member states together, and its organs and appendages, and the Group of 77, are not legitimate when it comes to holding up deals on matters of “existential” import to law professors.  Hooray for global oligopoly!!  But those same law review articles will also have to show, presumably, how all this is consistent with the many things said against unilateral action by one state in particular, and consistent with actions by congeries of states acting as great powers to impose on others in the world.

(I’d add as well that for the first time in quite a while, international law professors, who are the minor clergy of global governance, will suddenly discover reasons for writing about the institutional United Nations – a topic under some neglect in comparison to the academic love affair with international tribunals and international criminal law.  I predict a whole wave of law review articles giving a new theory of UN legitimacy, showing how it is true, and has always been true, and could never not have been true, that East Asia is at war with that global governance is really a theory of Some States Know Best, and that expertise, specifically in the form of climate change panels, confers legitimacy.  It is even possible that law professors will conclude that the General Assembly, through its resolutions, does not make international law, not even when cited by the International Court of Justice.)


Genuine climate change believers might therefore consider that the price of hitching their wagon to the UN might well have cost them the game, at least for some time to come.  Versus, for example, a series of robust bilateral or multilateral deals among key players that simply ignored the UN and the motley of the General Assembly specifically.  It always appears tempting to take a global problem and enlist the global go-to organization … but more attention to the history of the UN and its processes might have suggested that, if one were truly serious about the issue, the UN was precisely the venue to avoid.

It is perhaps difficult for the environmental climate change community to understand that, from the UN’s standpoint as a historical player (a standpoint that the UN itself is unable to articulate, however) climate change is not the defining issue and never was.  The defining issue is the UN itself.  Climate change policy is simply the latest, and particularly aggressive, vehicle that the international community hopes will drive forward toward UN global governance.  If the history of UN causes, values, and agendas is any indication, climate change will be tossed aside if, and when, it too proves a bridge too far for global governance.

The wheel of politics turns at the UN – with the UN itself as the constant.  Perhaps climate change and global warming will be the issue that alters the wheel of change and not-change, but so far there is little indication of that.  None of this exhausts – far from it – the range of issues that swing in and out of fashion at the UN, particularly with respect to human development and global welfare.  Not long ago, on account of the Asian tsunami, it was natural disaster.  For a while it was pandemic disease.  These are all important issues – let us have no misunderstanding – but they are also “flavors of the month” (as the NGO expression has it) among funders, at the UN, in the international community.  They are also deserving of well-considered, well-funded answers.

As are the environmental issues that are not CO2, air pollution and water pollution, and many other environmental problems that cannot be captured in a global negotiation around the presumption that this percentage shift up or down in carbon emissions today will have one degree or a half degree or whatever degree at some far point down the road.  The science behind the connection might be perfectly defensible, but it’s a purely notional idea, whatever the science behind it, so far as the negotiators are concerned.  “I’ll give you half a degree z-decades from now and you give me $x-billions-today”?  It would require remarkable faith in one’s discounting models to make deals like that – but its real-world significance is how much any future presumed degree shift translates into payments today to the developing world or, more precisely, to its rulers and their regimes: legitimacy, again.  It is not entirely dissimilar from bank managers looking to single number indicators of risk from their derivatives and securitizations – the number is notional and anyway they don’t understand its derivation, but that doesn’t matter because it is merely a marker in negotiation.

Climate change has, for the moment, swept the field as the “it-girl” issue of the UN and all its processes.  The confluence of “experts and enthusiasts,” together with the permanent search by the UN bureaucracy for the issue that will drive “global governance,” and the permanent seeking by the worst actors who dominate the General Assembly, snuffling around for new resources, ensured that whatever the merits of the issue, the actors would goad each other on to further and further claims – for money, for legitimacy, for political governance.  Those who come to the governance issues from the inside of a single substantive issue, such as climate change, are perhaps taken by surprise, because, for the UN’s permanent actors and constituencies, climate change is just another issue on which to plump for global governance, on the one hand, and a hold-up premium on legitimacy, on the other.  There were other, quite unrelated issues, for which the same governance claims were made; they failed, as this one likely will but, from the standpoint of the permanent interests of the UN, what matters is not any particular issue, but the perennial claim to governance.


Secretary General Ban meant it quite sincerely when he said that the world faced an existential crisis over climate change.  What he meant, however, was not limited to climate change – but rather for global governance, for which climate change is an existential driver.  But so might many other things, and will be, if this one does not work out.  Because what matters for the UN is not finally climate change or anything other substantive issue, but the claim to legitimate governance of as much as possible.  This is what the UN bureaucracy always says, about every issue, in which there is a suggestion, a hint, that it might be the thing that cracks open the possibility of the governance to which the UN believes it is legitimate heir.  (The legitimacy question will not go away – and the international law experts will have to make some hard choices about what they prefer, their substantive outcomes on certain global issues or their hithertofor views of legitimate global process.  I foresee much squaring of circles in the academic literature.)

But if your issue is climate change, query that you might not have given sufficient attention to the long history at the UN, across a wide range of issues, serially proposed to constitute “existential crises” for which only global governance could save us.  There was something before, and there will be something after; seen specifically from the standpoint of the permanent and objective interests of the UN, climate change is not just a substantive issue, it is also a card to be played in a much longer game.  Believing in Ban and in themselves, and believing that this time around there were clever answers to the collective action questions, the advocates before and at Copenhagen, the experts and enthusiasts, ratcheted up and up the agenda of things that would have to be addressed in this “existential” crisis.  The agenda finally looked largely indistinguishable from the permanent wish list of governance – check back at previous instantiations of UN crises, however, whether 2005 or earlier ones, and much the same pattern emerges.  Unable to withhold the “hold-up” of global governance legitimacy that goes along with the principle of sovereign equality, equally for Mugabe as for Brown or Wen or Obama or Merkel, demands went up and up.  Then the bubble began to collapse.


Other issues will come to the fore as this one recedes, for a time or until the next big review conference at which hundreds of millions of dollars can be spent on the peculiar culture and social affairs of global elites or else permanently.  At the UN, however, these issues are inevitably part of the institutional cycle of permanent crisis.  Whatever importance they have on their own, within the dynamics of the UN, they have a specific role to play in the waxing and waning of crisis-and-stasis.

Does the bubble of misplaced expectations, and its pricking, matter?  Of course it matters if and to the extent one thinks that climate change is an important issue.  Moreover, it is a humanitarian and welfare disaster for important issues, ranging from development to the global epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, etc., to peacekeeping and post conflict peacebuilding that have a moment in the sun, but then are displaced by some new enthusiasm on the part of the international community.  There is a long list of issues that need to be addressed multilaterally, in some useful sense of multilateral, but serial, crisis attention is not the way to do it.  The marching, but marching in place, of the UN, and its cycle of equilibrium sustained and weirdly strengthened by punctuated crises, has profound costs.

(PS.  Stewart Baker’s take is very interesting, here, at Skating on Stilts.)

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