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Vermont Quarterly

Asim Zia

Asim Zia
photograph by Joshua Brown


Asim Zia

So far, international efforts to deal with climate change have been — many experts argue — a spectacular, maudlin failure. And United Nations treaties — including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that the United States chose not to ratify — have formed, at best, a very leaky bucket for catching greenhouse gases.

But unlike nuclear weapons, the climate problem doesn’t sleep. It grows.

What to do? Asim Zia’s list of ways to reduce our accelerating output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide includes: respecting tropical forests, “dematerializing” consumption, re-directing waste streams into productive uses, and, “shifting to local, organic food systems,” he writes.

But, mostly, it will require getting off our fix to fossil fuels. Replacing energy and transportation systems that run on oil, gas and coal — with renewable sources — is an astoundingly complex task. And yet it’s the only way to avoid global climate catastrophe, he argues.

To get there will require more than voluntary targets and technocratic input, Zia believes. He has written a new book, Post-Kyoto Climate Governance, that calls for a deep re-thinking of our politics and economic assumptions, a clearer understanding of the cleavage between the developed and developing nations, and a shift away from expert-based international organizations, like the World Trade Organization, to “democratically anchored governance networks.”

In his book, Zia, an assistant professor in Community Development and Applied Economics and fellow in the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, ranges over several disciplines, looking for the causes of failure in international climate policy. And he’s looking for solutions. These may require dramatic new approaches, like global taxes, new forms of organized confrontation, and a willingness to reconsider reflexive attachments, he argues, like a belief in the benefits of free trade.

We spoke with Asim Zia about his new book, published on Jan. 28, by Routledge. We wanted him to lay out his map for developing new global climate governance, a post-Kyoto approach that, as he writes, “ confronts the politics of scale, ideology, and knowledge.”

Q: We’ve known about the threats from climate change for several decades, but have made little progress. Why?

A: We have made some small attempts at fixing this problem, but, so far, the efforts have been at the margins. There are institutions and practices that need to be fundamentally reformed for us to be able really tackle this problem.

My new book is about understanding those institutional and governance challenges. And it also looks into the last twenty years of the United Nations climate treaty negotiation process to understand what needs to happen next.

My fundamental conclusions are that we need to put up an international trade tax, and, secondly, we need to have an international carbon tax, at a global scale, and, thirdly — this is still questionable — that we need to reform the U.N. system.

Q. How much time do we have to do this work?

A. In my recent NPR blog, we present the carbon budget that is available to us if we want to stop global warming below two-degrees centigrade. And that leaves us maybe seven years, maybe ten years. We are probably running neck-to-neck with the time we have left.

Q. There’s a lot of new science and concern about blowing far past the two-degree target. Now I see reports about a “four-degree world.” Has four degrees becomes the new benchmark?

A. Maybe. At the beginning of the Doha round of negotiations, for example, the World Bank released a report on a four-degree centigrade world.

And then there have been a bunch of other papers saying that even if we take action now, it’s becoming unlikely that we’ll hold to a two-degree centigrade world unless we do some kind of reverse engineering or geo-engineering — which in itself is highly questionable.

Part of the problem is that the 1992 climate negotiations in Rio left the goal vague: that we, as a community of nations, should not cross dangerous thresholds in the atmospheric limits.

Those dangerous limits have typically been interpreted as two degrees centigrade. Some, like Bill McKibben or the groups doing planetary boundaries work, are focused on 350-parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some people talk about 550-parts-per-million — but it’s not necessary that 350 or 550 would translate into two degrees.

What I am trying to communicate in this book is that instead of fighting about these goals and targets, we need to reform institutions.

Q. For example?

A. For example, free trade. International free trade is an institution that has not been touched upon in any climate negotiations! International free trade is mandated under the World Trade Organization — which is, in itself, a big multilateral negotiation process at the global scale.

But, essentially, when you promote free trade of goods and services, it’s the “externalities” from the production of those goods and services that leads to the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Our global institutions since the end of World War II have been designed to perpetuate a production and consumption process that is leading to perpetual and increasing growth of fossil fuel-induced greenhouse-gas emissions. So, till the time that we reform these international institutions that are leading to the greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot deal with this problem adequately.

Q. Challenge free trade? But that’s the quasi-religion of countries around the world. How does advocating for limits on free trade fit into real politics?

A. That’s really the problem here. I call it, in my book, the politics of ideology. There’s a free-market, free-trade ideology that is dominating the discourse in an institutional setting.

Or take the carbon tax. In the EU, the carbon tax has been aligned with certain green parties or some left-wing parties, so there is a radicalization of the discourse.

But if you look at it rationally, if you look at all the analysis, these coupled human/natural system computer simulation models will tell you that the carbon tax and trade tax have low transaction costs, and they would stimulate local markets.

This approach could revitalize local communities that are losing their vitality to grow, for example, local organic food. And this kind of food production is an important piece in this picture for reducing methane emissions and reducing carbon emissions from agro-industrial systems. Then there are energy implications. Decentralized energy systems could be promoted, like solar and wind and community-based energy systems, through taxes and institutional reforms. But that is not being talked about.

Whenever somebody mentions international carbon taxes someone else says, “Oh, that’s not politically feasible.” Well, why is that? It’s not really feasible because those lobbies have been able to hijack the discourse.

Taxes are sticks. For example, tobacco taxes have been successful in reducing tobacco use in this country. Similarly, gasoline taxes have been successful in Europe in improving the fuel economy of cars. These taxes are proven.

Q. What’s wrong with carbon markets and “cap and trade?” Can’t those work within existing free trade arrangements?

A. Let’s look at deforestation. Twenty percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from tropical deforestation. I’ve studied tropical forests for the last nine years in many countries including Peru, Tanzania, Vietnam, Brazil and Indonesia.

These loose market mechanisms, like carbon markets and cap-and-trade and REDD+ have not been able to adequately deal with or stand against the free market mechanisms, which are causing the problem in the first place.

International free trade rules result in lifting a lot of environmental regulations that were put in place inside these countries to protect tropical forests. They’re now being deforested because of globalization of their markets. It’s not just the local timber mafias. The major drivers are the international agro-industries. You have all kinds of companies — mining, coal, Chinese companies, Canadian companies —  cutting down tropical forests, releasing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

These cap-and-trade mechanisms, like REDD+, are still just starting to be negotiated and piloted in a few countries. But I am very skeptical about their effectiveness. It is just creating a new artificial market for carbon with the same problems as the European carbon market, which tanked after the global recession.

Cap-and-trade has only been successful in few isolated conditions, like the sulfur dioxide market in the U.S. — and that was successful because the market was clearly defined. We knew exactly which coal-fired power plants to tackle so you can do effective monitoring of those plants.

Global carbon markets, and cap-and-trade mechanisms like REDD+ and the U.N.’s Clean Development Mechanism were designed as experiments under Kyoto. We should acknowledge that that experiment has failed.

Q. How much do your proposed governance reforms require a kind of human rationality, an enlightened self-interest, that seems in rather short supply when it comes to climate change?

A. There is this game theoretical perspective — that leads to this “prisoner’s dilemma” situation, which we are observing right now, where each actor tries to protect their own interests and the institutions are also designed in a way to protect individual interests — like the market economy, for example.

But the result is the tragedy of the commons: when everyone protects their own interests, at the collective level we are not able to protect anyone’s interest. The atmosphere is called the pure tragedy of the commons because it’s such perfect application of that idea.

Q. Noboby owns it, and so we all dump our trash in it?

A. Exactly. That view is deterministic and tragic — and leads to a point where we are looking at not a four-degree-centigrade world but maybe an eight-degree-centigrade world by 2200, and we’re toast. It’s that sad.

Even if you look at some of the more advanced modeling applications, they suggest or recommend that high-greenhouse gas emitters, like the United States, not take any action but wait until the last minute, because then they’ll get a “better deal.” They are so cynical about that.

That model has limitations: it is probably good at describing one situation, but this kind of modeling is not good at setting norms, the value-based discussion that we need to have.

We should look to international cooperation practices and international norms that have been built over thousands of years of negotiations and wars. Climate change is a global-scale crisis that we cannot just keep under the carpet and say that this is going to happen sometime in the future. It’s happening now. It’s not going to be one country’s problem. If we have climate refugees, they are going to migrate. It will create security challenges like terrorism and economic destabilization.

Q. What is it going to take for governments to change and adopt new approaches to climate?

A. This is a democracy. So there are always checks and balances, and that is one of the challenges in climate change. Historically, policy changes are incremental unless you look at revolutions like the Stalinistic revolution or the Iranian revolution. And the climate change challenge is that we need fast change, radical change, within existing institutions. A carbon tax, an international trade tax: these are radical changes.

Q. The hope and need is to seek for quick change that doesn’t result in toppled governments and bloodshed?

A. Exactly. There will be some adverse impacts of carbon taxes and international trade taxes, but there are established compensation mechanisms that could be used to compensate people in vulnerable populations who are affected adversely.

But I don’t think that cost will be higher than the cost of not taking action. The cost of not taking action will be enormous in terms of mass migrations, extreme weather events, and just the sheer chaos that can be expected under an eight degree centigrade warmer world.

Q. What are your personal hopes and fears about climate change?

A. I, myself, come from a developing country. Pakistan is very vulnerable. Both Pakistan and India are very vulnerable to climate change — and they have done the least to cause it, but they would suffer the most in the first fifty years or so.

I have been working there — and some of work is reported in this book — in setting up early warning systems, dealing with climate-refugee problems. If you look at the map, Pakistan is on both sides of the Indus River. The massive flooding in 2010 was part of the trend of more and more flooding during the monsoon season. If you look at the last sixty years of data, you can see that this is caused by climate change. So we are trying to understand the planning regime in Pakistan so that we don’t have more development in those regions which would be affected by floods or droughts.

That is very personal to me. I have been in the refugee camps. I have seen people who have been displaced for years. After 2010 floods, 20 million people were displaced and two million are still displaced today, after three years. I was there two months ago and visited a couple of camps. It’s very personal to me, because those are the people seeing climate change up front.

We need to tackle and reform those global institutions that are causing local problems. It’s not going to happen by just creating new markets — that’s my main message.


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