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Beyond The Zero-Sum World?

A factory in Hyderabad, Pakistan.

A factory in Hyderabad, Pakistan.

In the run-up to the UN climate conference in Cancun earlier this month, the emphasis was definitely on low expectations. The hangover of Copenhagen was palpable.

So when the results of Cancun were tallied up, the consensus was that the gathering exceeded those low expectations. In fact, Harvard University political scientist Robert Stavins argued compellingly in “The Christian Science Monitor” that Cancun was “hugely successful.” He noted that the failed Kyoto process was flawed because it divided “the world into competing economic camps.” The Cancun accords, by contrast, embodied a general recognition that the industrialized world must recognize their responsibility for historical emissions and that all countries must take responsibility for future admissions.

This might seem like common sense to outside observers, but it is a huge victory for the process of creating a process for confronting climate change, if not a victory for actually confronting climate change. Blogger David Hone agrees that the conference “opened up a number of new work streams.”

As someone who is more than a little concerned about climate change (as well as about the other impacts of unchecked industrialization and consumption), I might have been disheartened by such result if I hadn’t happened to be reading Gideon Rachman’s “Zero-Sum World” at the same time. Longtime economics journalist Rachman gives a sweeping history of economics and politics since the late 1970s and argues that since the 2008 global crisis, “a win-win world is giving way to a zero-sum world.” “After a long period of international co-operation [following the collapse of the Soviet Union], competition and rivalry are returning to the international system,” he writes.

Rachman notes that, on the face of things, issues like terrorism and climate change and failed states have global impact and should serve to bring the international community together. But the weakening of the Western free-market/democracy model and, particularly, tensions between a declining United States and an ascendant China make broad cooperation increasingly difficult.

The world’s political, economic, and natural resources are increasingly viewed as finite and politics is becoming a competition to grab as much of what’s left as possible. It is almost like a “sprint to the finish” in a horrific global version of the tragedy of the commons.

Since politicians everywhere tend to prioritize short-term political survival over long-term planetary survival, it seems unlikely that the world’s major powers will sacrifice the elixir of growth on the altar of environmentalism. That, indeed, seems to be the lesson of the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit. Instead, there will be an effort to return to economic growth as usual – combined with inadequate efforts to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. This failure to tackle global warming will, in itself, turn into a major and continuing source of international tension. Fairly quickly, it is likely to merge with more traditional complaints about foreign economic competition.
Seen in this dim light, the progress from Copenhagen to Cancun in just one year seems positively remarkable. Rachman writes that “the obvious conclusion [from Copenhagen] was that the UN was simply incapable of delivering a meaningful climate deal.” By most all accounts, the conclusion from Cancun is less damning.

At the end of his book, Rachman searches for light in the gloom, trying to find a way out of the zero-sum mind-set. Some of his rays of hope – such as that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seriously intends “to challenge some of the authoritarian thinking associated with his mentor and predecessor as president, Vladimir Putin – seem to be a desperate grasping for thin reeds.

But on climate change, his advice seems realistic and promising:

An international project, mobilizing the scientific and engineering talents of China and the United States, could do crucial research on a range of subjects from renewable energy to geo-engineering. It should also incorporate scientists from India, Europe and the rest of the world. If a global climate research project received high-level backing from the leaders of the U.S. and China, it would provide a valuable example of the two nations co-operating on a vital topic of shared interest.
And once such a project got truly under way, it isn’t unimaginable that the two countries – which together account for 40 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, Rachman notes – might be propelled by their own research to take action.

Of course, the clock is running. Carbon dioxide now stands at about 390 parts per million and is rising steadily.

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