Time for a new geopolitical climate bloc: Part 2

Recent climate conferences have shown how bankrupt current geopolitical alliances have become.

protest durban
At the conclusion of the Durban climate conference, it became clear that there is a need for a new geopolitical climate bloc with enough power to lobby for stricter requirements [EPA]

In Part One of “Time for a new geopolitical climate bloc”, Kozloff discussed the Kyoto protocol and how its requirements may not be strict enough to prevent runaway climate change. At the Durban climate conference, it was agreed to keep the global temperature rise at a maximum of two degrees Celsius. But small island nations say that is not enough to keep them safe from rising sea levels, and in Africa, it will not be enough to prevent even more severe droughts.

Many environmentalists also believe that a two degree Celsius maximum increase is not enough to stop the worst effects of climate change and that the date agreed upon for enforcement of Durban’s [vague] agreement, 2020, will be too late and will push the earth “over the brink”.

At Durban, it became clear that the US is not the only obstacle to climate change negotiations, as other emerging emitters are seeking to shirk their responsibilities too.

Geopolitically, Durban proved illuminating: Brazil, earlier believed to be on the way to becoming a champion on climate change, turned out to be more interested in its agribusiness and oil interests. ALBA, comprised of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador… sought to shame the US and others into taking more collective action and to limit any increase in temperature to one degree Celsius but ALBA was simply seen as an annoyance by most of the other nations.

Part Two of the series will discuss the role of the EU, Africa and the Middle East in the climate change talks and whether or not a new geopolitical climate bloc will be formed.

The EU crack-up

With some doubt now hanging over the long-term fate of the EU and financial turmoil roiling the continent, it’s interesting to speculate what this all might mean for climate change. As a whole, the EU has been much more progressive than both the US and BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China). Yet, the bloc hasn’t shown much leadership, saying it would be reluctant to sign on to a new UN treaty if other big economies failed to participate as well.

Additionally, there’s some evidence that EU leaders, far from acting as innovative trailblazers, instead move to squelch meaningful change. According to WikiLeaks documents, the Europeans secretly negotiated with the Americans and agreed that it was imperative to “work around unhelpful countries such as Venezuela or Bolivia”.

EU member Britain has been particularly bad, with climate secretary Ed Miliband accusing Bolivia and other left-wing Latin American countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua of hijacking UN climate talks and “holding the world to ransom” to prevent a deal from being reached. Even environmentally progressive EU member Denmark became “fed up” with Morales and the pesky left-leaning ALBA bloc of countries from Latin America, which kept on mounting “propaganda arguments” against the Copenhagen accord.

The US and the EU need to… work much more closely… to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future train-wrecks on climate.

– US representatives at Durban

Moreover, the Europeans have held discussions with the Americans concerning both blocs’ common need to “push back against co-ordinated opposition of BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) to our international positions”. When the Americans remarked that “the US and EU need to… work much more closely and effectively together… to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future train-wrecks on climate”, the Europeans agreed to lobby BASIC as well as the G-77 group of poor nations in advance of the Cancun, Mexico, climate conference.

The fallacy of ‘German leadership’

Despite these unsavoury revelations, one might argue that an EU crack-up would endanger climate negotiations even further. That is because within the EU, smaller countries generally take their cue from Germany, a nation that hasn’t been terrible on climate change. According to WikiLeaks cables, Germany has been angered by the likes of Italy and Poland, two countries that resisted making emissions cuts.  
Upon closer inspection, however, Germany doesn’t look all that great, either. Historically, Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear to the rest of the EU that she doesn’t think the bloc should go it alone on climate change. Without clear trailblazing German leadership, the EU has dumbed down its expectations at international conferences. Far from raising the bar, the bloc has merely sought to achieve modest agreements.

To make matters worse, Germany and the US reportedly lied about a joint satellite programme ostensibly designed to collect information about climate change. In reality, Germany had no intention of employing the satellites for any such purpose – the technology would be simply used for spying.

Africa and the Middle East

Like South America, where a growing fissure could emerge between Brazil and its smaller and more environmentally concerned neighbours, Africa too could see geopolitical divisions over climate change, with South Africa taking some flak from more impoverished nations. As a member of BASIC, South Africa has sought to tread a fine line: The country is the continent’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, but Pretoria would like to ensure friendly ties with other African countries.  
At times, South Africa has reportedly been willing to bring emerging economies under international emissions commitments, but in other instances stands shoulder to shoulder with BASIC, presenting a common front against the global North. If South Africa continues to side with BASIC, the country could fall afoul of such nations as Ethiopia. Recently, the drought-prone East African country announced its intention to become carbon neutral by 2025, and the authorities have embarked on an ambitious tree-planting programme.  

Saudi Arabia… declar[ed] that climate change agreements shouldn’t limit oil-producing income.

What are the chances that threatened sub-Saharan countries might receive crucial support from another quarter? With the continuing unrest in the Middle East, it’s interesting to speculate about what might happen within the 22-member Arab League, including Palestine.

Perhaps, as the bloc throws off the yoke of local despots, the grouping could become a key voice on progressive issues like global warming. Such hopes, however, seem far off.  For the time being, Arab League members like Saudi Arabia stand in the way of change, with the kingdom declaring that climate change agreements shouldn’t limit oil-producing income.  

Forging a new climate bloc

With the current geopolitical milieu looking rather bleak as far as climate change is concerned, the world is desperately in need of more innovative blocs. While it’s certainly a discouraging picture, perhaps new configurations such as the so-called “Cartagena Dialogue” could point the way to a better future. The bloc, which was originally formed in 2010 in the coastal Colombian city of Cartagena, now includes more than 30 countries. The body is not a formal negotiating group but could provide a crucial space for informal and creative talks in the future.

Interestingly enough, the Cartagena Dialogue includes countries from almost every negotiating group, with particularly strong leadership from Latin America. With ALBA looking like a geopolitical dead-end and Brazil negotiating in other networks, the need has never been greater for Latin American unity on climate change. Mexico, which has been irked by Brazil’s manoeuvrings, has chosen to participate in the new bloc, as well as others such as Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, Chile and many others.  

Colombia is particularly interesting. The country currently has a conservative government in place under Juan Manuel Santos, but just like Brazil, a new generation of urban youth has taken to environmental politics. During the last presidential election, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus of the Green Party garnered more than 20 per cent of the vote, suggesting that in Colombia, as well as in wider South America, greens may yet have a political future. At Durban, Colombia was a leading voice supporting EU calls for a more progressive climate change agreement.
The Cartagena Dialogue, which stipulates that all countries should reduce carbon emissions commensurate with their relative economic capacities, could serve as a crucial bridge between the developed and developing world. In addition to the many island nations, Cartagena Dialogue includes some of the more progressive European states like Denmark, Germany, Belgium and the UK.

With the EU now fraying at the edges, perhaps these states can help to shape a new agenda along with Australia. The G-77 is facing similar fissures due to shenanigans within BASIC, and in this sense, African participation within the Cartagena Dialogue is particularly noteworthy.

Recent climate conferences have demonstrated just how bankrupt and crass our geopolitical alliances have become. Perhaps Durban represents the first step towards building a new consensus.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.