Op-ed: It’s time to listen and save multilateralism

Mary Raines Alexander, contributor

President Biden, adorned in a pristine and well-pressed suit, addressed the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27, Nov. 11 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. 

This occurred while Gambian farmers watched saltwater creep into their crops and Fijian villages were upended and displaced. As affluent leaders spout glorious claims of a green future, the climate-induced Congolese hunger crisis rages on while their oil-rich rainforest is auctioned off as a commodity. Such multilateralism — the collaboration of multiple states under a common, international objective — led by wealthy nations is not the solution. Instead, this trend, especially within the UN, is the root cause of continuous, inadequate attempts at international cooperation and peace.

Within his address, Biden avoided the pressing topic of  “loss and damage,” a movement for financial reparations to developing nations unable to economically adapt to climate crises’ effect. In the name of American leadership, money was thrown into empty promises, and Biden’s claims failed to meet the 2021 pledge of $11.4 billion in aid annually by 2024; only $1 billion of that has been secured by Congress. He further ornamented the American climate movement with false hope, asserting that by 2030, with full “confidence,” the United States will meet its emission standards, a global attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. However, American greenhouse gas reductions must move at a pace three times faster than its current speed in order to achieve such an elimination of emissions.

If wealthy nations reevaluate their climate strategy to consider the platform, value and resources of developing nations, the age of climate disregard would end, as the urgency of developing countries’ would generate more tangible and appropriate policy. If the UN is to survive, its hegemonic entanglements must be sacrificed in the name of global justice, and we as a nation must step down from the podium. 

Despite the sweet sound of numbers and dollars, the United States’ show-and-tell of what they have “accomplished” in coalition with developed nations worldwide holds value only in a vacuum; Putin’s war ravages Ukrainian energy efficiency, and China and India are nowhere to be found at COP27. Despite Biden’s claims of complete elimination, the inadequacy of American policy knocked the country’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI) score from 24th in 2020 to 43rd in 2022 with only 6% to 28% of energy emissions meant to be reduced by 2030. However, the lack of proper climate action is not merely an American issue but rather a global issue of laxity. The European Union, China, the United States and India — the world’s largest emitters — have yet to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

The largest emitters, the ones that bear the utmost responsibility in the matter, do not deserve to have such a platform, as the narrative has been curated and designed to fit American, Chinese, German and British power politics. Their pledge to “climate justice” through the Green Climate Fund has become a mere public display of the incapable hands our future is held in. Following the Fund’s 2020 deadline, Oxfam discovered that of the $100 billion promised, only $83.3 billion of financial support was offered; however, due to wealthy nations’ dishonest inflation of their contributions, only $21-24.5 billion of that fund was deemed by Oxfam as the “‘true value’ of climate finance.”

While such governmental laxity can be attributed to domestic politics, the current mode of multilateralism through international institutions only adds to current political hesitation. Climate inaction is a result of the institution’s failure to uplift and prioritize the voices of developing nations and the urgency of their plight. The UN and its respective conferences should not be treated as a projection of hegemonic power without proper political restraint, as they now fail to achieve their mission statement of “the promotion of the well-being of the peoples of the world.” 

The existence of hegemonic leadership within such an organization raises my concern, as it diverts the interests of the international community to center upon a wealthy state, such as the United States. This is not a call for some sort of global exit from the UN, but the immediate reconfiguration of member countries’ current understanding of climate and humanitarian leadership is a necessity.

However, with such a proposition, the question of U.S. hegemony comes into play. Some may argue the leadership of wealthy nations, specifically the United States, has the ability to coerce other less-developed nations into more progressive and proactive policy, while the United States engages in the practices they condemn. Such hegemonic leadership is a root dilemma of the current movement. For example, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military used an estimated 1.2 million barrels of oil each month, increasing the environmental burden on foreign lands. 

We cannot depend on hegemonic countries to rescue the global climate movement. It allows developed nations to  delegate responsibilities away from the nations that hold the most responsibility for such a crisis, meaning, the blame of environmental issues can then be placed upon either the population growth or recent industrialization of developing nations. Coercion itself becomes the obstacle in the longevity of climate policy because no true, dependable promises are made — rather, fingers and guns are pointed. 

Additionally, such a proposition assumes that developing nations are mere amenable resources to exploit, where if climate policy is even enacted, poorer nations remain as stepping stools for the augmentation of wealthy nations’ power. The goal of the climate action movement should not be the expansion of hegemony over other countries but rather collective action under a common goal, regardless of state interests. The climate crisis has inspired a level of indignation that cannot be glazed over and should rather be broadcasted on the global stage. 

During COP27, not only was loss and damage achieved through the pressure of developing nations but also from climate justice movements protesting outside of the conference, such as the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance and the Climate Action Network. Their anger came to fruition to create accountability that should only further flourish rather than occur singularly within conference settings. Their frustration is not a direct end to U.S. hegemony nor U.S. prestige. Rather, it is a chance to use such power to amplify the innovative policies and concerns of those developing nations facing the disproportionate effects of the global climate crisis. 

Within developing nations themselves, financial support and resources must be devoted to a bottom-up approach rather than the typical top-down system of state policy. The focus of the state should be its people and expounding upon their capabilities to further innovate and advocate within their communities, either through more dependent education initiatives or communal agricultural systems. However, the focus upon developing nations’ empowerment should be to emphasize the importance of their voices in the matter. This is how states can come together in a multilateral effort to cultivate a clean, green future.

Mary Raines Alexander is a first-year international affairs major. She can be reached at [email protected].