In the late 20th century, as issues of the environment, climate change and global warming caught international attention, the need for action at a global level gave rise to climate change politics. Climate change politics is largely characterized by the constant tussle between the more developed countries of the global North and the lesser developed countries of the global South. The North-South divide means any action that is taken at an international level must be the average of what all countries agree to.
Here comes in the entire debate of consensus in climate change politics. Presently, it is widely agreed that any international forum aims at consensus. The very nature of politics and diplomacy right now is branded by the objective of reaching an agreement acceptable to all parties, without compromising individual states’ interests. Applying the same logic, and also considering how the question of the environment is always a transnational one, any international environmental action is pointless unless it is based on consensus. But the consensus that is reached often renders the action itself useless due to its watered-down nature as it tries to please all countries— thus creating a Catch 22 of sorts.
A glance at history would show how most problems of the environment today are the cumulative effect of what started with the Industrial Revolution and the Colonial era, and was then intensified with the development drive of the newly-independent countries in the Post-World War 2 era. The countries of the global South argue that the North, through their reckless exploitation of resources and industrialization created the problems of climate change. The North, with their now-superior level of development and technology, contend that immediate drastic action is required, cutting emissions from industries around the world. The problem arises when a balance between economic development and environmental protection is required— what of the developing countries? How can they have equal chances of development if their industries are limited by more stringent environmental legislations?
This is where the North-South consensus becomes a let-down. While the North pushes for greater action on the climate front, the South has to strike a new balance between development, social welfare and environment protection. There is a gap in the proposed targets or goals between the North and the South, and often, long negotiations do not result in fruitful outcomes.
Take the example of the 2015 Paris Agreement— the recent Conference of Parties (COP24) in Katowice tried to come up with a rulebook for the Paris Agreement. The negotiations were tense and went on longer than expected, and the final results drew mixed responses from the international community. One bone of contention at the COP24 was with regard to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on limiting global warming to 1.5°C increase in temperature. The agreement on the 1.5°C limit itself is was the result of tedious bargaining and negotiations, and the COP24 could barely agree to ‘welcome’ the IPCC report (which would mean having to act on it). Similarly, the COP24 failed to agree upon the rules for voluntary market mechanisms to be adopted, pushing this discussion to the next conference— the COP25, which could be equated to hitting the ‘snooze’ button on the climate change alarm.The problems of the Paris Agreement are not limited to it, these are the same obstacles to all international environmental action. As seen from the case at hand, the long drawn out process of reaching a consensus negates the very action being taken— the terms agreed upon by countries are based on a ‘least common denominator’, and are virtually ineffective. Yet, unless there is a global consensus, one can question, can we even act at so large a scale? These questions remain to be answered.
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