From bad to worse – the current UN climate negotiations prove that Hobbes was the one who best understood human beings

The Warsaw talks bring the UNFCCC process one step closer to complete failure: Australia’s head start into abyss has opened all doors for other nations to follow and for the rich to control global politics as back in times of feudal states, bringing us farther away from true democracy than often claimed.

Ignorant of the dramatic consequences of Hayian in the Philippines and other extreme weather events that torture societies around the globe, the current Conference of the Parties (COP), the nineteenth in the UNFCCC process might likely have been one of the more disappointing ones. Although it could have been expected that other governments would be inspired by the selfish and reckless path of the Australian people[1], the fact that hundreds of members from NGOs saw themselves forced to walk out of the negotiations due to the ridiculously disappointing outcomes should definitely make one shudder, no matter how little they care about environmental degradation. Climate change is no longer (or never was) a question of environmental management, but one of whether global justice and democracy are simply utopian constructs and if we humans can hope to eventually negotiate global citizenship.

Australia being the leader in the downward strategy makes a good example of the wider problematic of justice talks, with climate change becoming a war between classes, not between nations despite of being negotiated among UN member countries. Ever since I arrived in Australia a year ago, I am speechless and disappointed by the discrepancy between Australians’ perception and their behaviour. While most of them think of themselves as being very environmental friendly, they seem not to understand how mediocre and selfish they really are. The September elections showed very clearly that all Australians really care for is their own wealth. And while it demands too much courage from individuals to openly confess caring less about some drowning pacific islanders than their own car, voting against the climate goes silently without anyone seeing and protesting.

Australia, like most economies on this planet, is mainly driven by capitalism, wealth and the monetary greed of its citizens[2]. And while it is capitalism that – in absence of proper policies – exploits resources at the highest speed, society’s primarily concern is employment, not climate change, despite of living in a time that is marked by the devastating consequences of an increasingly degraded environment. We are all more concerned of losing our jobs than of losing the fight against climate change. It is this simple fact that is being used by corrupt politicians who bring ignorant and careless citizens to vote for them by blackmailing voters with job loss and cost increase threats as just happened with Tony Abbott’s election. There are two reasons for our behaviour: first, there is this fatal thinking “it won’t hit me first” and second, because it’s the poor who will suffer first and most, but their voices are not as loud as others.

A good example of my claim was the reactions to 9/11, an incident that caused so much dismay in Western societies. Yet, from a neutral perspective the majority of us didn’t know anyone who had died in the incident and hence, the victims were not different from those in the Hayian catastrophe. Besides, the total fatalities of almost 3000 people (I agree that it was 3000 too much) was nothing compared to all the people we lose every year due to environmental degradation, a number that will likely increase dramatically without accordant action on climate change. The victims of Hayian were definitely not to blame for the typhoon either and were bigger in number than those of the 9/11 incident. What really affected us about 9/11 are not the innocent people who had died but the fact that all of a sudden our own lives[3] were no longer safe. I dare to claim that the cries of dismay for the Hayian victims were never as loud as after 9/11 and the “international” grief will be gone before long, although it will take ages for the wounds to heal in the Philippines where the tragedy happened. We are all first individuals caring for our own security before thinking as members of a global society. This couldn’t be better demonstrated than with above example.

Thomas Hobbes, often criticized for having been too pessimistic about human beings[4], was the one who best understood that humans are selfish and that the only thing that binds them to a society is a potential overall benefit for the individual itself. Unfortunately, academia mainly limited itself to criticize Hobbes’ thoughts and consequently, politicians and scientists fail to take him into account when considering current environmental negotiations. If they’d understand that people primarily care about what affects them (and the microcosm they live in) most, they would understand that it’s useless to negotiate carbon emission reduction targets between nations that are ruled by a few individuals who control their countries by blackmailing ignorant voters with threats such as “excessive costs” of and “competitive disadvantages” from climate action.

There is more we could have taken from Hobbes: a society controlled by intrinsic interests of a few members who best know how to exploit non-compassionate capitalism for fulfilling individual goals will never come close to what we often describe as democracy. In fact, the majority of todays’ so called democracies are rather plutocracies, ruled by a few tycoons. Taking this into account when talking politics and looking at the forms of government of different nations from a broader perspective, we will find that democracy might not be the often imagined (or hoped for) final stage in a rather slow process, but rather a utopian ideal that exists in theory but may never be achieved in praxis[5]. In this light, Hobbes’ thinking might be timelier than ever considered: while it’s challenging enough to negotiate a fair contract between selfish members of a society, it is likewise more challenging to negotiate contracts between a large number of nations with similar challenges but at different stages of development.

Once we look at climate talks and the UNFCCC from a Hobbesian perspective, it might become much clearer why the process has largely failed to be a success story despite the huge efforts and monetary resources invested[6]: in a contract that is being negotiated with unequal powers among selfish individuals, there will automatically be losers and winners. The losers will be the masses because their voting power counts less. Unfortunately, this was not considered when setting-up the UNFCCC[7]: by giving the power to a few corrupt governments representing the richest nations who are disproportionately benefiting from environmental degradation, it was doomed to fail right from the start. Now, that we get closer to the point when real action is required, this becomes more evident than ever. One after the other, liar states are uncovering their disguises showing their real faces and/or confirming that they were never sincere with any promised action. Not because citizens of those nations are crueller than others, but because humans are selfish; and where a contract between selfish individuals seeks to achieve justice, there must necessarily be a mediator who makes sure that all participants have equal rights and importance. Only then can the outcome of negotiations be representative, a fact that the UNFCCC fails to achieve and the reason for it not being a neutral process. Instead it has been one controlled by wealthy pseudo-democracies with the only target to protect the interests of exploiting polluters.

COP19 might be the peak in a disappointing process proving that we are not able to come even close to global justice. Badly designed in the first hand, the UNFCCC has become a ridiculous tool made up by unequal partners and controlled by those who benefit from environmental pollution and who suffer disproportionately less from its degradation. Hobbes had predicted that contracts among individuals with different interests are not possible, not because humans are bad but because they are selfish. Unfortunately, we didn’t listen.

[1] I say people because the government was elected by the people on the promise that it would dismantle carbon emission targets and minimize any efforts to mitigate climate change.

[2] The USA, Canada and Japan are not any better in these regards.

[3] The lives of citizens in Western nations

[4] It is often said, that Hobbes lacked objectivity as a result of the time he lived in and that he had a bad opinion about humans in general because he lived during England’s civil war, which of course influenced his work.

[5] This thinking can be found in the works of J.J. Rousseau: “The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of the Parliament; as soon as the Members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.” (Rousseau J.J., 1968. The Social Contract. p.141. Harmondsworth: Penguin.)

[6] I would even argue that in the current form it contributes more to further climate change than it does against it, considering the thousands of representatives flying around the globe to be sitting in air-conditioned rooms and talk for hours without outcomes.

[7] To be fair: it was likely considered. However, not with the aim to have a fair process but to make people believe the process was meaningful.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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6 Responses to From bad to worse – the current UN climate negotiations prove that Hobbes was the one who best understood human beings

  1. marekzyskowski says:

    The people in democratic countries are much smarter and less selfish than you may think. They understand that treaties related to carbon emissions are essentially a small group of elite people trying to impose a global tax. This is the socialists’ dream. Today it is carbon emission yesterday it was biodiversity, rainforests etc…
    If there was a treaty that all countries had to follow (include China) and there was some reasonable way to make sure they could be forced to follow it. Then that would probably be ok. Instead the current idea is to make only western countries pay. Oh yeah the important detail is carbon emissions will continue to rise.
    I am much more optimistic that the western democracies will let the rest of the world struggle on their own with the problem of rising energy prices and probably develop alternatives to their particular energy problems thus helping reduce global emissions. Likewise in the western world we continue to develop and practice more environmental behavior like driving less, recycling, and investing in green energy. All while no international organizational overlord is in charge.
    Congratulation to Australians for dumping the carbon tax. A wise, not selfish move. 

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