The Washington Consensus As Climate Governance

A whisper of global government already exists. We don’t call it that, usually, unless we happen to be conspiracy theorists talking about UN black helicopters. Our experience of the all-encompassing modern state makes the fragile spiderwebs of global institutions seem unfamiliar. 

The world government – a framework of agreed action through laws and common permanent forums –  is there, though. It’s found in pretty much the places you might expect – the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or the World Trade Organization. Political theorists need to make fine distinctions between global confederation and other forms of government, but when almost every nation is in the club, lines begin to blur.

In this familiar list of institutions, all but one were designed and driven to creation by Cordell Hull’s State Department in the flurry of institution building at the end of WWII. This is not to discount the role of other nations in this multilateral process, but it required extraordinary circumstances, and a new superpower, to bring them to the table.

The exception is the World Trade Organization, which took fifty painstaking, special interest-coddling years to come into being. As an example of the problem, the WTO is an effort to promulgate a Washington Consensus of free trade, but no Washington administration thought it could really commit to it when it came to free trade for its welfare-queen farmers. And the US was by no means unique in this regard, with Japan and continental Europe (later the EU) in the same position.

The Washington Consensus method for climate governance is like the construction of the WTO, or the European Union: get everyone from everywhere in a big room and marinate them in money and compromise until enough people are ready to sign what they were all taught at politician school was a pretty good idea in the first place. (WTO is reheated Ricardo and supra-national republican government is reheated Kant.) Kyoto is fourteen years old and deep in the same sort of diplomatic sausage mince GATT was in for half a century.

In other words, this solution is the solution we’ve been trying for a while now. It has some advantages. The incessant talking and committees are a conflict management technique, the idea being that people talking aren’t shooting one another. This is well and good, but an approach which relies on the benefits of inaction isn’t going to have much near term impact on a problem of industrial and economic inertia. There is always going to be some governments who see national advantage in derailing any more radical change than slow consensus.

My prediction is that we will not have any serious multilateral regulation of carbon, say through a World Climate Organization, before 2050. It and the Kyoto process may be part of the ongoing management of the climate, eventually,  but they won’t be a solution to the current industrial and economic design problem. We’ll be up to our ankles in cholera flavoured glacial melt and ecosystem failure by then. 

Al Gore’s right to say politics can be non-linear: but not in this forum. Solving climate governance with the Washington Consensus would, like the UN,  require a pre-eminent superpower focusing a group of allies on the issue; a climatological Coalition of the Willing. If Kyoto was going to fix climate change, it would have done so by now. It’s a needed process, but solutions lie elsewhere.

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