00:03[Music]00:07hello and welcome i’m lynn fries00:08producer of global political economy00:10or gbe news docs today i’m joined by00:13nick00:14buxton he’s going to be giving us some00:16big picture context on the great00:18reset a world economic forum initiative00:20to reset the world00:22system of global governance a worldwide00:25movement crossing not only borders but00:28all walks of life00:30from peasant farmers to techies is00:33fighting against this initiative on the00:35grounds that it represents a major00:37threat00:38to democracy key voices from the health00:41food education indigenous people and00:44high00:45tech movements explained why in the00:48great00:48takeover how we fight the davos capture00:52of global governance a recent webinar00:54hosted by the transnational00:56institute today’s guest nick buxton00:59is a publications editor and future labs01:02coordinator01:03at the transnational institute he’s the01:06founder01:06and chief editor of tni’s flagship01:09state of power report welcome nick01:13thank you very much liam nick the01:16transnational01:17institute was was co-organizer of the01:20great takeover webinar so what is it01:24that you’re01:25mobilizing against uh in opposing this01:28great01:28reset initiative what we’re really01:31concerned about is01:32this initiative by the world economic01:34forum01:35actually looks to entrench the power of01:37those most responsible for the crises01:39we’re facing01:40um and in in many ways it’s a trick it’s01:43a sleight of hand01:45uh to make sure that things continue as01:48they are01:49to continue the same and that will01:51create more of these crises more of01:53these pandemics will01:54deepen the climate crisis which will01:56deepen inequality01:58and it’s not a great reset at all it’s a02:00great corporate takeover02:01and that’s what we were trying to draw02:02attention to what we’ve been finding02:05in in recent years is that um really02:07there is02:08something i would call it a kind of a02:10global02:11silent coup d’etat going on in terms of02:14global governance02:15most people don’t see it and people are02:17familiar have become familiar with the02:19way that corporations02:21have far more influence and are being02:24integrated into policy-making and02:26national level02:27they see that more more in front of them02:30people see their services being02:32privatized02:33and they see the influence of the oil02:36companies or the banking sector that has02:38stopped02:39actions such as regulations of banks or02:42are dealing with the climate crisis what02:43people don’t realize is at a global02:45level02:46there has been something much more02:48silent going on which is that their02:50governance which used to be by nations02:53is now increasingly be done by02:55unaccountable bodies02:57dominated by corporations and part of03:00the problem is that that has been03:02happening in lots of different03:03sectors but people haven’t been03:05connecting the dots03:07so what we’ve been trying to do in the03:08last year is to talk with03:11people in the health movement for03:12example people involved in03:14public education people involved03:17in food sector to say what what is03:20happening in your sector and what we03:22found is that in each of these sectors03:24global decisions were used to be03:25discussed by bodies such as the wh03:28o or such as the food and agriculture03:30organization03:32were increasingly done by these these03:34unaccountable bodies03:36and just to give an example uh we have03:39now the global pandemic and one of the03:41key bodies that is now making the03:43decision03:43is is a facility called kovacs you’d03:46have thought03:47global health should be run by the world03:49health organization it’s accountable to03:51the united nations03:53it has a system of accountability well03:55what’s actually happening is that world03:57health organization03:58is just one of a few partners that04:01really04:02has been controlled by corporations and04:04corporate interests04:05in this case is gavi and sepi and they04:08are both bodies which which don’t have a04:11system of accountability04:13where it’s not clear who chose them who04:15they’re accountable to04:17or how they can be held to account and04:20what we do see is that there’s a lot of04:22corporate influence in each of these04:23bodies04:24what this webinar was about was bringing04:26all these sectors together04:28who are seeing this silent coup d’etat04:30going on04:31in their own sector to map it out and so04:34one of the things that you’ll04:35have seen in the in the webinar is is04:37this mapping of the different sectors04:40who are um who are seeing this going on04:43and the04:43idea is just to give a global picture04:45that this is something happening we’ve04:47had04:48we’ve had more than a hundred of these04:50um of these mult they’re called04:52multi-stakeholder bodies04:54uh coming to coming to the fore in the04:57last 20 years04:58um and and there’s been very little kind05:00of taking note of that and taking stock05:02of what’s emerging05:04and what’s emerging is this silent05:06global coup d’etat05:08so what you find then in the big picture05:11that you’re getting05:12is that a global coup d’etat has been05:15silently emerging and at the heart of it05:18is a move05:19towards multi-stakeholder model of05:21global governance and05:23that this is the model that’s the path05:25and mechanism05:27of a corporate hijack of global and05:29national governance05:30structures and the world economic forum05:32agenda fits into all this is the wef of05:35course is05:36one of the world’s most powerful05:38multi-stakeholder institutions05:40so nick in explaining what all this05:42means let’s start with some of your05:44thoughts05:45on the history of how we got here05:49i think what we had was in the 90s was05:52the kind of height of neoliberalism we05:53had05:54we had um the increasing role of05:56corporations as05:58and the deregulation of the state and it06:01really started to come through in 200006:02with the global compact06:04and where the un invited in uh you know06:07corporations and the idea was that we’re06:09going to need to involve corporations06:11one because06:12we will need private finance became the06:15kind of motto06:16the mantra so we need to involve06:18corporations they can be part of the06:20solution so it was06:21partly financed it was partly the06:22withdrawal of state06:24from kind of global cooperation um06:27and and that started to invite06:30corporations into the global government06:32where corporations were increasingly um06:34being invited into these kind of bodies06:37that dovetailed with this whole movement06:39um called06:40the corporate social responsibility that06:42sid corporations06:44weren’t just profit-making vehicles they06:46could be socially responsible06:48actors um and and so increasingly06:51corporations were pitching themselves as06:53as not just um corporate entities but as06:57global citizens06:59um and and one of the key vehicles for07:02that of course is the world economic07:04forum which has07:05really been articulating07:08through klaus schwab and through their07:10whole and through their whole07:11work uh this idea that’s that07:14corporations07:16should firstly be social responsible and07:18secondly as part of that they should be07:20treated07:21as social entities and should be07:24integrated into governance and decision07:26making07:27that we needed to move from what was07:29considered an07:30antiquated state-led07:33multilateral approach to a much more07:36agile governance system07:38and this is again the kind of mantra of07:39coming in of the private sector being07:42efficient07:43that the private sector if you involve07:44them in decision making07:46you would get more faster decisions you07:48get agile decisions you’d get better07:50decisions07:51and so this all really came together um07:53and and07:54in in some ways it’s even being07:56consolidated even further07:58the irony is that as as you’ve had08:00nationalist governments come to power08:03that the kind of trump america firsts of08:06the world or modi08:07india first they articulate a08:10nationalist agenda but they haven’t08:12actually questioned the role of08:14corporations in any way whatsoever08:16and as as they’ve retreated from08:18multilateral forums like the united08:20nations08:21they’ve left a vacuum that corporations08:23have been able to fill08:24corporations now say we can be the08:27global actors we can be the responsible08:29actors08:30we’re the ones who consort to tackle the08:32big crisis we face such as inequality08:35such as climate change08:37um such as the pandemic and so so really08:40this08:40this we’ve had this convergence of08:42forces coming together08:44where as states have retreated um08:47corporations have filled the vacuum08:49you mentioned earlier that the world08:50economic forum was one of the key08:52vehicles for these08:53ideas and the wef also went big in08:57filling that vacuum that you’re talking09:00about09:00tni reported the wef global redesign09:04initiative09:05stretching back to 2009 created09:08something like09:0940 global agenda councils and industry09:12sector bodies so in the sphere of global09:15governance the wef09:17created space for corporate actors09:19across the whole spectrum09:21of governance issues from cyber security09:23to climate change you name it09:25so yeah the global redesign initiative09:27was one of the first initiatives that09:29the world economic forum launched09:31in the wake of the financial crisis um09:35and their idea was that we needed to09:37replace what was09:39uh an inefficient um multilateral system09:42that was not able to solve problems09:45with a new form of things so they were09:46saying instead of a multilateral where09:48nations make decisions in global09:50cooperation09:51we needed a multi-stakeholder approach09:54which would bring together09:55all the interested parties in small09:58groups09:59to make decisions and the global10:01redesign initiative was really a model10:03of that they were trying10:04to say okay how do we resolve um10:07issues such as the governance of the10:09digital economy10:11and their answer to it is we bring the10:13big tech companies together we bring the10:15governments together and we bring a few10:17civil society players10:19and we’ll work out a system that makes10:21that makes sense10:23um and and so you had a similar thing10:26going on in all these other redesigned10:28councils really their models10:29for how they think governments should be10:31done and some of them have not just10:33become models they’ve actually become10:34the real thing10:36so many of the multi-stakeholder10:37initiatives we’ve seen emerge today10:40have emerged out of some of these10:42councils10:43um the coalition for epidemic10:45preparedness one of the key ones leading10:48kovacs right now the response to the10:49pandemic was launched at the world10:51economic forum so the world economic10:53forum is now becoming a launch pad for10:55many of these10:56multi-stakeholder bodies we should also10:59note the world economic forum is a11:01very well funded launch pad as11:04a powerpoint from the great takeover11:06webinar put it11:08corporations do not pay tax but donate11:11to multi-stakeholder institutions and11:13the wef of course11:15is funded by powerful corporations and11:18business leaders11:19the powerpoint also noted the bill and11:21melinda gates foundation is one of the11:23main funders of multi-stakeholder11:26institutions11:27in contrast multilateral institutions11:30are being11:31defunded on the back of falling11:33corporate tax revenues11:35for nation states given it depends on11:39government donors the11:41u.n regular budget that’s the backbone11:43of funding for the one country one vote11:45multilateral11:46processes of intergovernmental11:49cooperation and decision making11:51has taken a big hit perhaps you could11:54comment on some big picture implications11:57on this kind of11:58changing dynamic that’s going on between12:01corporate actors and nation states12:03yeah yeah i think i think what we’re12:06seeing is that the12:07um as gradually the corporations have12:09become more powerful12:11they they have weakened the capacity of12:14the state12:15so they have reduced the tax basis you12:18know most corporations have seen12:20corporate tax rates drop12:21forward dramatically and even more12:23trillions are now siphoned away in tax12:26havens12:26so the the entire corporate tax base12:28which used to play a much bigger role in12:30state funding has reduced um at the same12:34time12:35they they their influence over policies12:38which benefit corporations12:40has increased so they’re reducing the12:42regulations that were on them they’re12:43reducing all the costs that used to be12:45opposed12:46on the things so you’ve had a weakening12:48of the state and the strengthening of12:49corporations12:51and what’s happened at a global12:52governance level is that they have also12:54moved12:55not just from influencing dramatically12:58through their power12:59their economic power political decision13:01making13:02but in an easy global governance thing13:04it’s the next step forward because13:05they’re not just saying13:06that we want to be considered and we13:09will lobby to have our position heard13:11they’re saying13:11we want to actually be part of the13:13decision-making bodies themselves13:16um and the classic again is if we look13:18at the pandemic with kovacs13:21is that um what i looked actually at13:24just at the board of13:25gavi the the global alliance of vaccines13:28um if you look at the body it’s the13:31board is dominated firstly13:33by big pharmaceutical companies um13:36secondly you have some nations and some13:39and13:40civil society representatives but you13:42have far more13:43interest in the almost half a large13:45number of the board13:46are financiers they come from the13:48finance sector they come from big banks13:51um so they’re they’re i don’t know what13:53they have to do with public health13:55um and wh show is just one of the13:58players so it’s it’s suddenly over14:00crowded by others who have no um14:03public health representation they’ve14:06been dominated by finance and14:08pharmaceutical companies14:09starting to really shape and guide um14:12decision-making14:13and and on the finance side of course14:15bill gates foundation14:17has is now the big player in many of14:19these things and it’s14:21it’s it’s not just donating it’s also14:23involved now in shaping policy14:25so those who give money um in a14:28philanthropic way14:30no matter how they earn that money or no14:32matter what their14:33remit is and who they’re accountable to14:35they’re only accountable to the14:37to to bill and melinda gates um14:40ultimately are now part of the decision14:42making process as well14:44and this has become so normalized that14:46there seems to be very little14:47questioning of it14:48and we will bring together these players14:50now who chose them14:53who who chose this body to come together14:55who’s it accountable to14:56there was a british parliamentarian14:58called tony ben he says if you want tounderstand democracy you need to askfive questions
- what what power do you have
- who did you get it from
- whose interest do you serve
- to whom are you accountable and
- how can we get rid of you15:14if you look at a body that such as15:16kovacs um15:17who who where did they get the power15:19from they just self-convened15:21they just brought together a group of15:23powerful actors15:24they will make a token effort to involve15:27one or two civil society representatives15:29but the power very much lies with with15:32the corporations15:33and and with the financiers those who15:36are financing it15:38and it’s not accountable they chose15:40their body15:41uh if the interests are very clear who15:43it serves it clear15:44it serves the pharmaceutical companies15:46they will of course do certain things15:49um within the remit um but ultimately15:52they will not undermine their best15:53business15:54model even if that business model is15:55getting in the way of an effective15:57response to the15:58pandemic we can’t get rid of them16:01because we never chose them in the first16:02place16:03so it fails really the very fundamental16:05principles of democracy16:07and yet it’s now been normalized that16:09this is the way that global governance16:11should happen16:12nick comment briefly on an agreement16:14that was quite a milestone16:16in this process of normalization of16:19multi-stakeholderism16:20as the way global governance should16:22happen i’m thinking16:23of the uh strategic partnership16:26agreement signed16:27by the office of the un secretary16:29general with the world economic forum in16:322019.16:33so what’s some background in your16:35response to that16:37uh un-w-e-f agreement16:41well the world economic forum has been16:43um advocating this mod16:45model of multi-stakeholder capitalism to16:47replace multilateralism for a long time16:50and and they have been um gradually16:54i would say kind of setting up parallel16:56bodies these multi-stakeholder bodies to16:58make decisions17:00um on major issues of global governance17:02whether it’s the digital economy or17:04whether it’s17:04how to respond to a a pandemic17:08um and and so they’ve they’ve been17:10advancing this model17:11um alongside the un for some time but17:14what what was really concerning to us is17:16that they’re starting17:18to increasingly um17:22engage with the un and start to impose17:25this and start to push this model within17:27the united nations17:29and the classic example was this17:31strategic partnership which was signed17:33in17:33i believe june of 201917:37i don’t think it went even in front of17:38the general assembly so it wasn’t17:40discussed amongst the members it was a17:42decision17:43by the secretariat of the un without any17:46at least any17:46formal systems of accountability to sign17:49a deal with the world economic forum17:51that would essentially in start to17:53involve you17:55world economic forum staff within the17:58departments of the un17:59they would become so-called kind of18:01whisper advisors that18:02the world economic forum would start to18:05have its staff mingling with un staff18:07and starting to make decisions18:09um and there was no system of18:10accountability there was no system of18:12of um of consulting more widely18:16and and we know the world economic forum18:19is is this business forum if you look at18:21its board it’s completely controlled18:23uh by by some of the most wealthy and18:26powerful corporations and many of those18:27corporations18:29are responsible for many of the crises18:31we face and yet here they were being18:32open18:33open armed and welcomed into the united18:37nations to play a very significant role18:38and18:39and we we protested that we said that18:42this is not18:43this is not a way to solve global18:45problems to involve those who have18:47actually responsible for the crisis to18:48resolve it18:50will only lead to solutions that are18:51either ineffective or actually deepen18:53the crises we face18:55um we understand why the u.n is doing it18:57it’s because of this18:58lack of national support is because of19:00the defunding19:02they’re looking to kind of survive as an19:03organization and they’re going to the19:05most powerful players in the world which19:07are the corporations19:08but what they’re going to end up doing19:09is as ultimately undermined in the19:12united nations it will actually19:14damage the united nations because it19:15will remove all the democratic19:17legitimacy that it currently has19:20we desperately need global collaboration19:23and cooperation19:24but it must be based on public and19:26democratic systems of governance19:29not um unaccountable secretive forms of19:32governance dominated by corporations19:35so that’s pretty clear you oppose19:38multi-stakeholderism because it’s an19:40unaccountable19:41secretive form of governance dominated19:44by corporations19:45so as well as being unaccountable the19:49multi-stakeholder model is a voluntary19:52and a market-based approach to problem19:55solving19:56comment on how that also uh fits into19:59why you oppose the multi-stakeholderism20:03yeah the the solutions they’re looking20:05for are volunteeristic20:07where you can come in or out and they’re20:09market-based20:10so they will never actually challenge20:12the business model as it is ultimately20:14what happens is that they make decisions20:16which are not binding and actually force20:19actors like corporations to do certain20:21things20:22they’re based entirely on this voluntary20:23meth model um but it’s a kind of to take20:26it or leave it governance where you can20:28do things that you20:29that look good for your for your annual20:31report20:32but don’t actually change the way you20:36actually operate20:37um and so ultimately they won’t resolve20:39the crisis that we’re facing20:41so it’s not just that they’re20:42unaccountable but they’re actually20:44ultimately very ineffective so if we20:45look at the climate crisis for example20:47we’ll say20:48the only way that we can deal with the20:50climate crisis is market solutions20:52even if we know that really the scale of20:55the climate crisis the urgency20:57and the timing requires us to take much20:59more drastic solutions which will be21:01state-led which will require21:02corporations to reduce emissions21:04and that will start to transform21:06economies um21:08that will have to be taken these kind of21:10public decisions21:12we’re ignoring that entirely for a model21:14which is based on of market21:15incentives which really do nothing to21:18change the business model that has21:19created the climate crisis21:21okay so that goes a long way in21:22explaining why you say the world21:24economic forum great21:25reset initiative is no reset at all21:29nick briefly touch on some of your21:31further observations21:33like why is the multi-stakeholder model21:36is based on21:37market solutions when push comes to21:41shove21:42the profit motive will always win out21:45under this21:45approach to global governance yeah no21:48absolutely i mean corporations will21:50accept market solutions which give them21:52the power21:53to uh to really control the pace of21:56change21:56and so you’ll see it they’re very happy21:58to to produce these corporate social22:00responsibility reports but22:02they will fight tooth and nail for any22:04regulation which actually enforces22:06social environmental goals and so and22:09they will22:10fight on an international level to have22:13trade rules to actually22:14prevent states imposing social22:17environmental goals22:19so so there’s very much an approach22:21where they’re willing to have22:22been washed they’re willing to have the22:24propaganda around social environmental22:26goals but they will absolutely oppose22:29and in any rules would actually22:32control their their environmental and22:34social impacts22:36they do not want anything which actually22:38requires regulation22:40and and impacts which will actually22:42force them to do certain changes they22:44want their changes to be very much ones22:46that they22:47control and which they shape and22:48ultimately that they can ditch22:51at the moment it starts to challenge the22:53profits that they want to make22:55let’s turn now to the coalition in22:58in fighting for a democratic reset23:01on uh global governance so a future23:04where decision making over the23:06governance of global commons like23:08for example food water health and the23:11internet23:12is is done in the public interest and i23:15see this23:16coalition put together resources and23:18it’s posted on your website23:19you’re in the nexus of all this so this23:21time around in the wake23:23of the covet pandemic what’s your read23:27on the situation23:28of peoples versus corporate power23:31this global coup d’etat that’s been23:34going on silently in so many different23:36sectors has been advancing because there23:39hasn’t been enough information and23:41knowledge about it23:42and also people haven’t been connecting23:44the dots to see this is happening in23:45every sector23:47so what’s really important this year in23:49as23:50as and i think it’s particularly23:52important in the wake of the pandemic is23:54that23:54so many movements are coming together um23:57people’s health movement23:59has come together a lot of groups24:01involved in food sovereignty uh the24:04trade union sector24:05coming together they’re all saying uh we24:08do this24:08this is not in our name um and of course24:11these are all groups that you’ll never24:12see24:13in a in a multi-stakeholder initiative24:16whenever they do have civil society24:18partners they don’t involve people on24:19the front lines you won’t find one24:23health union worker in in the kovacs24:27initiative you won’t have public health24:29people really represented24:31represented so these are movements now24:33starting to come together to say that we24:35don’t want this and24:36one of the things we did was launch this24:38letter it’s an open letter and it’s24:40really saying that24:41it’s really alerting people to what’s24:43going on it’s saying that we’re facing24:46this24:46in so many different sectors uh the un24:49is is opening the door the un secretary24:52i should say is opening the door wide24:54open24:55uh to the world economic forum which is24:57the key body advancing24:58multi-stakeholders25:01and and it’s changing governance as we25:03know it it’s25:04and it has no systems of accountability25:06or justice embedded in it25:08and these movements are now coming25:09together to say we we’re25:11we’re opposing this we’re uniting our25:13forces25:14and we’re going to fight back against25:16this we know25:18more than ever before with the pandemic25:20that nationalist25:21solutions to the global crisis will not25:25work we need global cooperation we need25:27global collaboration25:29but if we hand over all that decision25:31making to the pharmaceutical companies25:34for example we won’t be dealing with the25:36real issues25:38such as as trade protection and trips25:42and i um patents and everything that25:45that really benefit pharmaceutical25:47companies and don’t advance public25:48health because they25:49are in control of the process they won’t25:51allow things that affect their profits25:54so we need global solutions but they25:55cannot be led by the corporations25:58which are actually worsening deepening25:59the crisis we face26:02so as we close i just wanted to play a26:04clip of a comment26:06you made back in 2015 about a book you26:09had co-edited26:11titled the secure and was dispossessed i26:14found a review of the book26:15so relevant to our chat today i just26:17want to cite a few lines26:19it said among the books that attempt to26:21model26:22the coming century this one stands out26:25for its sense of plausibility26:27and danger it examines several current26:30trends in our responses26:32to climate change which if combined26:34would result in a kind of oligarchic26:37police state dedicated to extending26:40capitalist hegemony this will not work26:43and yet powerful forces are advocating26:46for it rather than imagining and working26:48for26:49a more just resilient and democratic way26:52forward26:53all the processes analyzed here are26:55already26:56happening now making this book26:59a crucial contribution to our cognitive27:02mapping27:03in our ability to form a better plan27:06so nick in wrapping up briefly comment27:10on that book27:11and then uh play the clip yeah back in27:142011 we noticed a trend going on in27:17terms of climate change where there was27:19was27:20was a lack of willingness to really27:22tackle the climate crisis on the scale27:24it needs and with the27:25with the with the tools and instruments27:28that it needs27:29but there was increasingly uh plans by27:32both27:33the military and corporations for27:35dealing with the impacts of climate27:37change27:38um and they very much looked at it in27:41terms of how do we27:43secure the wealth of those and secure27:45those who already have power and wealth27:48um and and and what that would mean so27:51in the face of climate crisis27:53the solution was very much a security27:55solution we’ve already seen27:57really an increasing role of military28:00and policing28:01and security and the real process28:04of militarization of responses to28:06climate change the most obviously in the28:08area of the borders28:09we see we see border walls going up28:12everywhere28:13the response to a crisis has been has28:16been to kind of retreat between behind28:18fortified fortifications no matter the28:20consequences28:22um and so that that was really that’s28:25that’s really a trend that we28:26that we see increasingly is that climate28:29our response to climate adaptation by28:30the richest28:31countries is really to military to28:33militarize our response to it28:36and that’s that’s a and that’s a real as28:38as that quote you just read28:40that’s a real concern because um it’s28:43the kind of politics of the armed28:45lifeboat28:46um where basically you rescue a few and28:48then you28:50and then you have a gun trained on the28:52rest28:53and it’s it’s both totally immoral and28:55it’s also ultimately28:57one that will sacrifice all of our28:59humanity because29:01we need to collaborate to respond to the29:03climate crisis we need to find solutions29:05that protect the vulnerable29:07we cannot just keep building higher and29:09higher walls29:10against the consequences of our29:11decisions and we need to actually start29:13to tackle the root causes of those29:16crises and that that was very much29:19a picture we started to paint back in29:212015 with the launch of the book the29:23secure and the dispossessed29:25but if anything it’s more pertinent and29:27more pressing than ever before29:30nick paxton thank you thanks29:36keeping the profits the huge profits29:38rolling um even though it’s wrecking the29:41planet so they have no intention long29:42term29:43of changing their business model their29:45business model is wrecking the planet29:47and their determination is how to keep29:49that going and what we see in all of29:51this is that29:52corporations in the military are very29:53much responding29:55in a in a paradigm of control it’s it’s29:58security29:59and this word security suddenly infected30:01every part of30:02daily debate we see it food security30:05we’ve seen it really recently now with30:07everyone saying we need30:08security of our borders to protect30:09against refugees we need water security30:12and in all of these cases what you see30:15is those who are being secured30:17are the corporations and those who have30:20wealth30:21and those who are losing out are those30:22who are actually suffering the most from30:24climate change30:25so the peasant who has their land30:27grabbed in the name of food security30:30the community that no longer has control30:32of their river30:33because a corporation has has taken it30:36in the name of30:36water security all the protesters30:39against coal power station are actually30:40trying to stop the climate crisis30:42being repressed and having the civil30:45liberties taken away in the name of30:47energy security30:49in each of these cases the security is30:51quite clearly30:52for a small proportion of people and30:55insecurity30:56for the vast majority i think this is30:58one of the most important issues of our31:00age is31:01is do we want to leave our future in the31:04hands of corporations in the military
Climate change is the major environmental challenge facing nations today, and it is increasingly viewed as one of the central issues in international relations. Yet governments have used a flawed architecture in their attempts to forge treaties to counter it. The key agreements, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris climate accord, have relied on voluntary arrangements, which induce free-riding that undermines any agreement.
States need to reconceptualize climate agreements and replace the current flawed model with an alternative that has a different incentive structure—what I would call the “Climate Club.” Nations can overcome the syndrome of free-riding in international climate agreements if they adopt the club model and include penalties for nations that do not participate. Otherwise, the global effort to curb climate change is sure to fail.
In December 2019, the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Madrid, Spain. As most independent observers concluded, there was a total disconnect between the need for sharp emission reductions and the outcomes of the deliberations. COP25 followed COP24, which followed COP23, which followed COP22, all the way back to COP1—a series of multilateral negotiations that produced the failed Kyoto Protocol and the wobbly Paris accord. At the end of this long string of conferences, the world in 2020 is no further along than it was after COP1, in 1995: there is no binding international agreement on climate change.
When an athletic team loses 25 games in a row, it is time for a new coach. After a long string of failed climate meetings, similarly, the old design for climate agreements should be scrapped in favor of a new one that can fix its mistakes.
THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Concepts from game theory elucidate different kinds of international conflicts and the potential for international agreements. A first and easy class of agreements are those that are universally beneficial and have strong incentives for parties to participate. Examples include coordination agreements, such as the 1912 accord to coordinate the world measurements of time and, more recently, the agreement to use “aviation English” for civil aviation, which coordinates communications to prevent collisions during air travel. A second class of agreements, of medium difficulty, rely on reciprocity, a central example being treaties on international trade.
A third class of international agreements confront hard problems—those involving global public goods. These are goods whose impacts are indivisibly spread around the entire globe. Public goods do not represent a new phenomenon. But they are becoming more critical in today’s world because of rapid technological change and the astounding decline in transportation and communication costs. The quick spread of COVID-19 is a grim reminder of how global forces respect no boundaries and of the perils of ignoring global problems until they threaten to overwhelm countries that refuse to prepare and cooperate.
Agreements on global public goods are hard because individual countries have an incentive to defect, producing noncooperative, beggar-thy-neighbor outcomes. In doing so, they are pursuing their national interests rather than cooperating on plans that are globally beneficial—and beneficial to the individual countries that participate. Many of the thorniest global issues—interstate armed conflict, nuclear proliferation, the law of the sea, and, increasingly, cyberwarfare—have the structure of a prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma occurs in a strategic situation in which the actors have incentives to make themselves better off at the expense of other parties. The result is that all parties are worse off. (The studies of Columbia’s Scott Barrett on international environmental agreements lay out the theory and history in an exemplary way.)
International climate treaties, which attempt to address hard problems, fall into the third class, and they have largely failed to meet their objectives. There are many reasons for this failure. Since they are directed at a hard problem, international climate agreements start with an incentive structure that has proved intrinsically difficult to make work. They have also been undermined by myopic or venal leaders who have no interest in long-term global issues and refuse to take the problem seriously. Further obstacles are the scale, difficulty, and cost of slowing climate change.
But in addition to facing the intrinsic difficulty of solving the hard problem of climate change, international climate agreements have been based on a flawed model of how they should be structured. The central flaw has been to overlook the incentive structure. Because countries do not realistically appreciate that the challenge of global warming presents a prisoner’s dilemma, they have negotiated agreements that are voluntary and promote free-riding—and are thus sure to fail.
MORE KNOWLEDGE, NO PROGRESS
The risks of climate change were recognized in the UNFCCC, which was ratiﬁed in 1994. The UNFCCC declared that the “ultimate objective” of climate policy is “to achieve . . . stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
The ﬁrst step in implementing the UNFCCC was taken in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Kyoto’s most important innovation was an international cap-and-trade system for emissions. Each country’s greenhouse gas emissions were limited under the protocol (the cap). But countries could buy or sell their emission rights to other countries depending on their circumstances (the trade). The idea was that the system would create a market in emissions, which would give countries, companies, and governments strong incentives to reduce their emissions at the lowest possible cost.
The Kyoto Protocol died a quiet death, mourned by few.
The Kyoto Protocol was an ambitious attempt to construct an international architecture to harmonize the policies of different countries. Because it was voluntary, however, the United States and Canada withdrew without consequences, and no new countries signed on. As a result, there was a sharp reduction in its coverage of emissions. It died a quiet death, mourned by few, on December 31, 2012—a club that no country cared to join.
The Kyoto Protocol was followed by the Paris accord of 2015. This agreement was aimed at “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” The Paris agreement requires all countries to make their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions.” For example, China announced that it would reduce its carbon intensity (that is, its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP), and other countries announced absolute reductions in emissions. The United States, under the Trump administration, declared that it would withdraw from the agreement.
Even before the United States withdrew, it was clear that the national targets in the Paris accord were inconsistent with the two-degree temperature target. The accord has two major structural defects:
- it is uncoordinated, and
- it is voluntary.
It is uncoordinated in the sense that its policies, if undertaken, would not limit climate change to the target of two degrees. And it is voluntary because there are no penalties if countries withdraw or fail to meet their commitments.
Studies of past trends, as well as the likely ineffectiveness of the commitments in the Paris accord, point to a grim reality. Global emissions would need to decline by about three percent annually in the coming years for the world to limit warming to the two-degree target. Actual emissions have grown by about two percent annually over the last two decades. Modeling studies indicate that even if the Paris commitments are met, the global temperature will almost certainly exceed the two-degree target later in the twenty-first century.
The bottom line is that climate policy has not progressed over the last three decades. The dangers of global warming are much better understood, but nations have not adopted effective policies to slow the coming peril.
Why are agreements on global public goods so elusive? After all, nations have succeeded in forging effective policies for national public goods, such as clean air, public health, and water quality. Why have landmark agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris accord failed to make a dent in emission trends?
The reason is free-riding, spurred by the tendency for countries to pursue their national interests. Free-riding occurs when a party receives the benefits of a public good without contributing to the costs. In the case of international climate change policy, countries have an incentive to rely on the emission reductions of others without making costly domestic reductions themselves.
Focusing on national welfare is appropriate when impacts do not spill over national borders. In such cases, countries are well governed if they put their citizens’ well-being first rather than promoting narrow interests such as through protectionist tariffs or lax environmental regulations. However, when tackling global problems, nationalist or noncooperative policies that focus solely on the home country at the expense of other countries—beggar-thy-neighbor policies—are counterproductive.
Free-riding lies at the heart of the failure to deal with climate change.
Many global issues induce cooperation by their very nature. Like players on athletic teams, countries can accomplish more when acting together than when going their separate ways. The most prominent examples of positive-sum cooperation are the treaties and alliances that have led to a sharp decline in battle deaths in recent years. Another important case is the emergence of low-tariff regimes in most countries. By reducing barriers to trade, all nations have seen an improvement in their living standards.
However, alongside the successes lie a string of failures on the global stage. Nations have failed to stop nuclear proliferation, overfishing in the oceans, littering in space, and transnational cybercrime. Many of these failures reflect the syndrome of free-riding. When there are international efforts to resolve a global problem, some nations inevitably contribute very little. For example, NATO is committed to defending its members against attacks. The parties to the alliance agreed to share the costs. In practice, however, the burden sharing is not equal: the United States accounted for 70 percent of the total defense spending by NATO members in 2018. Many other NATO members spend only a tiny fraction of their GDPs on defense, Luxembourg being the extreme case, at just 0.5 percent. Countries that do not fully participate in a multiparty agreement on public goods get a free ride on the costly investments of other countries.
Free-riding is a major hurdle to addressing global externalities, and it lies at the heart of the failure to deal with climate change. Consider a voluntary agreement, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris accord. No single country has an incentive to cut its emissions sharply. Suppose that when Country A spends $100 on abatement, global damages decline by $200 but Country A might get only $20 worth of the benefits: its national cost-benefit analysis would lead it not to undertake the abatement. Hence, nations have a strong incentive not to participate in such agreements. If they do participate, there is a further incentive to understate their emissions or to miss ambitious objectives. The outcome is a noncooperative free-riding equilibrium, in which few countries undertake strong climate change policies—a situation that closely resembles the current international policy environment.
When it comes to climate change policies today, nations speak loudly but carry no stick at all.
In light of the failure of past agreements, it is easy to conclude that international cooperation on climate change is doomed to fail. This is the wrong conclusion. Past climate treaties have failed because of poor architecture. The key to an effective climate treaty is to change the architecture, from a voluntary agreement to one with strong incentives to participate.
Successful international agreements function as a kind of club of nations. Although most people belong to clubs, they seldom consider their structure. A club is a voluntary group deriving mutual benefits from sharing the costs of producing a shared good or service. The gains from a successful club are sufficiently large that members will pay dues and adhere to club rules to get the benefits of membership.
The principal conditions for a successful club include that there is a public-good-type resource that can be shared (whether the benefits from a military alliance or the enjoyment of low-cost goods from around the world); that the cooperative arrangement, including the costs or dues, is beneficial for each of the members; that nonmembers can be excluded or penalized at relatively low cost to members; and that the membership is stable in the sense that no one wants to leave.
Successful international agreements function as a kind of club of nations.
Nations can overcome the syndrome of free-riding in international climate agreements if they adopt the club model rather than the Kyoto-Paris model. How could the Climate Club work? There are two key features of the Climate Club that would distinguish it from previous efforts. The first is that participating countries would agree to undertake harmonized emission reductions designed to meet a climate objective (such as a two-degree temperature limit). The second and critical difference is that nations that do not participate or do not meet their obligations would incur penalties.
Start with the rules for membership. Early climate treaties involved quantitative restrictions, such as emission limits. A more fruitful rule, in line with modern environmental thinking, would focus on a carbon price, a price attached to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. More precisely, countries would agree on an international target carbon price, which would be the focal provision of the agreement. For example, countries might agree that each will implement policies that produce a minimum domestic carbon price of $50 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. That target price might apply to 2020 and rise over time at, say, three percent per year in real terms. (The World Bank estimates that the global average carbon price today is about $2 per ton of carbon dioxide.)
Why would carbon prices be a better coordinating device than the quantity of emissions? One important reason is that an efficient path for limiting warming would involve equating the incremental (marginal) costs of reductions in all countries and all sectors. This would be accomplished by having equal carbon prices everywhere. A second and equally powerful reason involves bargaining strategy, a point emphasized in the writings of the economist Martin Weitzman. When countries bargain about the target price, this simplifies the negotiations, making them about a single number: dollars per ton. When the bargaining is about each country’s emission limit, this is a hopeless matter, because countries want low limits for others and high limits for themselves. A bargain about emission limits is likely to end up with no limits at all.
A treaty focusing on an international target carbon price would not mandate a particular national policy. Countries could use carbon taxes (which would easily solve the problem of setting the price) or a cap-and-trade mechanism (such as is used by the European Union). Either can achieve the minimum price, but different countries might find one or the other approach more suited to its institutions.
The second and critical feature of the Climate Club would be a penalty for nonparticipants. This is what gives the club mechanism its structure of incentives and what distinguishes it from all current approaches to countering climate change: nonparticipants are penalized. Some form of sanction on nonparticipants is required to induce countries to participate in and abide by agreements with local costs but diffuse benefits. Without penalties, the agreement will dissolve into ineffectiveness, as have the Kyoto and Paris schemes.
Although many different penalties might be considered, the simplest and most effective would be tariffs on imports from nonparticipants into club member states. With penalty tariffs on nonparticipants, the Climate Club would create a situation in which countries acting in their self-interest would choose to enter the club and undertake ambitious emission reductions because of the structure of the payoffs.
One brand of penalty could be a countervailing duty on the carbon content of imports. However, this approach would be both complicated and ineffective as an incentive to join a club. The main problem is that much carbon dioxide is emitted in the production of nontraded goods, such as electricity. Additionally, calculating accurately the indirect carbon content of imports is exceedingly complicated.
A second and more promising approach would be a uniform tariff on all imports from nonclub countries into the club. Take as an example a penalty tariff of five percent. If nonparticipant Country A exported $100 billion worth of goods into the club countries, it would be penalized with $5 billion of tariffs. The advantage of uniform tariffs over countervailing duties is simply simplicity. The point is not to fine-tune the tariffs to a nonparticipant country’s production structure but to provide powerful incentives for countries to be part of the Climate Club.
SANCTIONING THE NONPARTICIPANTS
There is a small academic literature analyzing the effectiveness of clubs and comparing them to agreements without sanctions. The results suggest that a well-designed climate club requiring strong carbon abatement and imposing trade sanctions on nonparticipants would provide well-aligned incentives for countries to join.
I will illustrate the point using the results of a study I presented in my 2015 Presidential Address to the American Economic Association and summarized in my Nobel Prize lecture. (The former provided a full explanation of the model, the results, the qualifications, and the sensitivity analyses; the latter was a nontechnical discussion of just the key results.) The study divided the world into 15 major regions. Each region has its own abatement costs and damages from climate change. Because of the global nature of climate change, however, the abatement costs are local, whereas virtually all the benefits of a region’s emission reductions spill over to other regions. Even for the largest players (the United States and China), at least 85 percent of the benefits of their emission reductions accrue abroad.
Voluntary international climate agreements will accomplish little.
The modeling of the study tested alternative uniform tariff rates, from zero to ten percent, and different international target carbon prices, from $12.50 per ton to $100 per ton. It then asked if there were stable coalitions of countries that wanted to join and remain in the club. One case is a regime with a carbon price of $25 per ton and a penalty tariff of three percent. With this regime, it is in the national interest of every region to participate, and it is in the interest of no region to defect and free-ride. The coalition of all regions is stable because the losses from the tariff (for nonparticipants) are larger than the costs of abatement (for participants).
The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris accord can be thought of as regimes with zero penalty tariffs. Both history and modeling have shown that these induce minimal abatement. Put differently, the analysis predicts—alas, in a way that history has confirmed—that voluntary international climate agreements will accomplish little; they will definitely not meet the ambitious objectives of the Paris accord.
Such detailed modeling results should not be taken literally. Modeling offers insights rather than single-digit accuracy. The basic lesson is that current approaches are based on a flawed concept of how to manage the global commons. The voluntary approach needs to be replaced by a club structure in which there are penalties for nonparticipation—in effect, environmental taxes on those who are violating the global commons.
TOWARD EFFECTIVE POLICIES
The international community is a long way from adopting a Climate Club or a similar arrangement to slow the ominous march of climate change. The obstacles include ignorance, the distortions of democracy by anti-environmental interests, free-riding among those looking to the interests of their country, and shortsightedness among those who discount the interests of the future. Additionally, nations have continued with the losing strategy (zero wins, 25 losses) pursued by the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties structure. Global warming is a trillion-dollar problem requiring a trillion-dollar solution, and that demands a far more robust incentive structure.
There are many steps necessary to slow global warming effectively. One central part of a productive strategy is to ensure that actions are global and not just national or local. The best hope for effective coordination is a Climate Club—a coalition of nations that commit to strong steps to reduce emissions and mechanisms to penalize countries that do not participate. Although this is a radical proposal that breaks with the approach of past climate negotiations, no other blueprint on the public agenda holds the promise of strong and coordinated international action.