The Case for Unilateral Action on Climate Change

I have been somewhat occupied lately with understanding and trying to influence Israel’s policy, or to be frank lack of effective policy, on Climate Change.

There are no real technological barriers to stopping greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction and usage of fossil fuels. Certainly In Israel we have plenty of sun and also some possibility for offshore wind.  There is a need for energy storage solutions which are also available, in a variety of forms.

The real barriers to a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions are all ultimately social. These social barriers are to a considerable extent internal to each country. In Israel for example we do not have much free land space. So quite a lot of plans to set up solar farms are met by opposition of one sort or another. Dual usage of space on roofs or above roads etc also lead to social and economic issues.

Still I would like to deal here with one objection people raise to implementing sensible policy on climate change which is the international conundrum. I have heard this argument in Israel, however it is used elsewhere as well.

As I have heard it the international conundrum has been stated as follows. Israel is a small country whose emissions are a small portion of global emissions.  Whether or not we we reduce emissions will make very little difference to  global warming. Hence why bother ?.

One answer obviously is that we do not wish to be the straw that breaks the camels back. In the case of climate change we are talking about the very real danger that warming will reach a critical level at which it will spiral out of control as feedback mechanisms kick in. As we have no precise way of knowing when this will happen it is best to err on the side of safety.

However the argument i wish to advance here is simpler than that. Humans are social creatures and heavily influenced by one another. Same goes for countries. Humanity will have to take rapid action to substantially reduce greenhouse gasses. Human nature being what it is some countries will realise this and take substantive action. Others will not. We will then get back to the scenario recognised by all of a struggle between the forces of good and evil.  The forces of good will have to win if we are to have a future worth living.

The next question is how many countries are needed at minimum to take up the struggle for action on climate change. The answer is One.

If one looks back on historical change , change has always started at one place. Whether it is Democracy or Communism or Fascism or Female Emancipation or whatever while there may have been a level of support in different countries it is always one country which has taken a lead. Even football in its modern form started in the UK and has spread globally.

Any country which transfers to renewable energy sources can gain economically in the long run. First of all by saving on the cost of purchasing energy from other countries and secondly if desired and possible by exporting energy to other countries. There will be temporary economic costs associated with the transfer as a great deal of equipment will have to be replaced. Hence it is obvious that a country which is de carbonizing its economy should place restrictions or tariffs on trade with retrograde countries in order to protect its industries. Free trade should be reserved for trade between countries which have broadly similar regulatory systems. There will also be strategic benefits to transferring to renewable energy, a fact which China despite its very spotty environmental record has recognised.

A country which is serious about combating climate change could and should both persuade and pressure other countries to behave responsibly.  Tariffs and sanctions are legitimate instruments.

Which countries will be first to take the plunge and get serious about combating climate change both at home and abroad ? Obviously in an ideal world there would be simultaneous action. I have heard that in the past some popes have reportedly been elected by universal acclamation. However in the world that we live in this is extremely unlikely to be the  case. Obviously it would be easier for a major player on the world stage such as the EU or the US to take unilateral action of the sort I have outlined here. However it is perfectly possible for any country to take the lead. I think the countries which are most effected by climate change and which have low fossil fuel usage anyway could also band together and push and pull the other countries to get serious about climate change.

In short we need one country or more to take the lead and then we need a coalition of the willing to wage this existential struggle for our future. 

If we do so then we will have hope for a better future and who knows maybe some new countries will come to prominence on the world stage.