We Need a Global Treaty for Climate
In this excerpt from his new book, The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic, Stan Cox argues that we need more than a transition to sustainable energy to effectively curb climate change. We need to immediately begin reducing the use of fossil fuels, enforced by strong international treaties.
While community and regional governance of resources should occur under a national umbrella that guarantees both limits and fair shares, the national effort must in turn connect to an international mobilization. Otherwise, humanity’s total emissions can’t be driven down to zero in time. Therefore, once the United States begins turning off the national fossil fuel tap and pursues a just transition, with local governance ensuring fairness and equity, Washington can begin forming alliances with other countries that also commit to direct elimination of fossil fuels. At that point, we would land right in the thick of a nascent global movement that’s pressing for a “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Recognizing that the Paris Agreement is utterly incapable of preventing runaway atmospheric warming, advocates for a non-proliferation treaty want to create what would in essence be a global version of Cap and Adapt. The treaty would be modeled explicitly on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that was put forward in the 1960s and has been signed by almost all the world’s nations. Whereas the nuclear treaty required nations to agree never to develop nuclear weapons, the fuel treaty would require nations to agree to leave most of their fossil fuel reserves in the ground forever. The nuclear treaty required disarmament; this new treaty would provide for dismantlement of the infrastructure that enables fossil fuel extraction and use. The nuclear treaty provided assistance for “peaceful” development of nuclear energy capacity to states that agreed not to develop weapons; the fuel treaty would provide funds and technology for renewable energy development, through a “Global Transition Fund” that would help low-income countries supply their energy needs without dependence on oil, gas, and coal.
Citing the example of yet another landmark treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, advocates for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty foresee provisions for “mutual verified compliance” among nation-states, through independent accounting of oil, gas, and coal reserves and production, with monitoring and inspection. They note that the “upstream” nature of the controls (aimed directly at the wellhead and mine), along with the relatively concentrated ownership of most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves and infrastructure, would make global accounting much simpler, more accurate, and far less open to lying and cheating than controls have proven to be in carbon emissions trading systems. In 2021, the Dalai Lama and 100 other Nobel laureates in peace, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, and economics signed a letter giving the treaty full-throated support, declaring:
Leaders, not industry, hold the power and have the moral responsibility to take bold actions to address this crisis. We call on world leaders to work together in a spirit of international cooperation to:
• End new expansion of oil, gas and coal production in line with the best available science … ;
• Phase out existing production of oil, gas and coal in a manner that is fair and equitable, taking into account the responsibilities of countries for climate change and their respective dependency on fossil fuels, and capacity to transition;
• Invest in a transformational plan to ensure 100% access to renewable energy globally, support dependent economies to diversify away from fossil fuels, and enable people and communities across the globe to flourish through a global just transition.
The thorniest issue, given the huge disparities among countries in their quantities of fuel reserves, their energy needs, and their economic status, is the question of burden sharing. How could the treaty determine, for such disparate nations, their permitted fuel extraction and required rates of reduction? Treaty advocates Peter Newell and Andrew Simms of Sussex University have suggested three principles: That the burden of action should be borne primarily by wealthier nations; that nations creating the most greenhouse gas emissions from their own fossil fuel reserves should act first; and that emissions should be reduced most rapidly by nations that have the greatest historical use of fossil fuels. Based on those criteria, they recommend that the wealthy nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) plus Russia take the lead in setting short-term targets and timetables, and start phasing out fossil fuels quickly. Next would come large countries with high current emissions but much less historic responsibility for climate change, such as China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia. Finally, meeting fossil fuel reduction targets in low-emitting, low-income countries, they write, will depend on lots of international aid to build up their non-fossil energy capacity and meet other development needs.
Any effort to come to global agreement on eliminating fossil fuels involves an international analogue to our domestic just transition: What to do about the nations around the world, from Nigeria to Ecuador, that are deeply dependent on revenue generated by fossil fuels for maintaining their people’s living standards and preventing widespread poverty. The nonprofit groups Oil Change International and Stockholm Environment Institute have declared, “The need for a just transition—and the management of other social costs—should be taken into account to determine not the pace of transition [which must be fast], but the manner in which it is implemented and the resources devoted to it. Neither driving a rapid transition, nor making it just, should be used as an excuse for not delivering on the other.”
Principles of environmental justice, they write, dictate that fossil fuel extraction should be ended first and fastest where local communities and their environments are harmed by fossil fuel extraction more than they are helped by the use or sale of the fuels. The next criterion would be to reduce extraction most rapidly where dependence on fossil fuels for jobs or tax revenue is low, and after that, where economies and institutions have the highest capacity to absorb the costs and difficulties of the transition away from fossil fuels.
Achieving global adoption of any agreement to end fossil fuel extraction is a daunting prospect. To get around the typical “You go first!”/“No, you go first!” standoffs among high-emitting nations, some treaty supporters are suggesting, as I have above, that smaller alliances of nations (“clubs”) get together to work out their own joint fossil fuel reduction plans as a proof of concept, and then at some point clubs and nations could coalesce into a movement toward a global nonproliferation treaty.
Excerpt from The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic by Stan Cox (City Lights, 2021) appears with permission of author and publisher. Copyright © 2021 Stan Cox.
Stan Cox is the author of many books, including The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic, The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present and Future of Rationing, and How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia (co-authored with Paul Cox). His writing has appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Salon.