Climate change will kill national sovereignty as we know it
AS WE collectively hurtle into the era of climate change, international relations as we’ve known them for almost four centuries will change beyond recognition. This shift is probably inevitable, and possibly even necessary. But it will also cause new conflicts, and therefore war and suffering.
Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, diplomats have — in peacetime and war alike — for the most part subscribed to the principle of national sovereignty. This is the idea, enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, that foreign countries have no right “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
The concept was born, along with the entire system of modern states, in the physical and psychological rubble of the Thirty Years War. Starting in 1618, the European powers intervened in one another’s territories almost willy-nilly. Round after round of war left about one in three central Europeans dead. It was in that continental graveyard that statesmen (they were all men) stipulated that it was best if every state henceforth minded only its own business.
Nobody at the Peace of Westphalia was deluded enough to think that this realist notion would end war as such. After all, by acknowledging sovereignty, the system accepted that countries pursue their national interests, which tend to clash. But at least the new consensus offered the chance of preventing another indiscriminate bloodletting.
Even then, the principle of sovereignty was never absolute or uncontroversial. For a long time, the best idealist counterargument was humanitarian — that countries have not just the right but the duty to intervene in other states if, say, those are committing atrocities such as genocide.
Now, however, there’s an even more powerful case against sovereignty, put forth by thinkers such as Stewart Patrick at the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s that in a world where all countries collectively face the planetary emergency of global warming, sovereignty is simply no longer a tenable concept.
That insight has probably also dawned on many delegates to COP26, the United Nations climate summit now underway in Glasgow. What’s at stake in those negotiations is not any country’s “national” interest as such, except insofar as it’s part of the collective interest of our species in preserving the global commons: the atmosphere and biosphere. And although aviation regulators might disagree, the borders around our territorial jurisdictions just don’t extend up into the air.
A carbon dioxide molecule emitted in China, the US, or India will waft who-knows-where and accelerate climate change everywhere. It will flood cities in Germany, burn forests in Australia, starve people in Africa, and submerge islands in the Pacific. All the world’s people, therefore, have a legitimate interest in the greenhouse gases emitted in any given jurisdiction.
An early and tragicomic demonstration of this shift in international relations was the dust-up in 2019 between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. Bolsonaro, a populist firebrand, was at that time allowing fires to burn wide swathes of the Amazon rainforest. It happens to be the world’s primary “lung” or “carbon sink,” pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and storing them in trees. Except now the Amazon was belching carbon back into the air.
Speaking for many, the French president accused his Brazilian counterpart of abetting “ecocide.” Sounds like the new genocide, doesn’t it? Bolsonaro shot back that Macron was a neocolonialist and followed up with a sexist jibe aimed at Macron’s wife.
The underlying issue was sovereignty: Is a rainforest located in Brazil the business of Brazil or of the world? Would, in a hypothetical future scenario, an alliance led by France be within its rights to declare war on Brazil to prevent ecocide, and thereby humanity’s suicide? (Fortunately, 100 countries including Brazil this week pledged instead to cooperate in phasing out deforestation).
This opens a new line of thinking about world affairs. Policymakers are already steeped in analyses of the new types of conflict that global warming will cause within and between countries. Those include wars over access to freshwater, the disappearance of arable land or mass migrations.
But the creeping obsolescence of Westphalian sovereignty as the operating system of international relations would cause even more upheaval. And this looks inevitable. Some powers or alliances will in the future contemplate military interventions in other states to end what they will define as ecocide. Others may even go to war if they believe rival countries are taking unilateral measures against climate change that threaten their own interests.
America’s National Intelligence Council, for example, has thought about what would happen if some country were to spray huge quantities of aerosols into the stratosphere. Such geoengineering might reflect sunlight and cool the planet, as ash does after a big volcanic eruption. But it could also change weather patterns and rob other countries of their livelihood. Who in this scenario would be sovereign over what?
The time to think about the demise of sovereignty is now. Maybe we’ll need an ecological equivalent to what the World Trade Organization is to commerce: A new international body that makes the conundrum explicit and attempts to maintain order. Even then, the world is likely to become more unstable and dangerous, not only ecologically but also geopolitically. We all dread environmental Armageddon. But we don’t want another Thirty Years War either.