Wake up, there is no Planet B

For a global Green New Deal to work, countries will fast have to find ways of collaborating while ensuring that stronger nations do not overpower weaker ones. (David Cliff/NurPhoto)

For a global Green New Deal to work, countries will fast have to find ways of collaborating while ensuring that stronger nations do not overpower weaker ones. (David Cliff/NurPhoto)


The Green New Deal proposed by progressives in the United States cannot be achieved in isolation. To tackle climate change and inequality, all countries will need to agree to new rules for international co-operation.

The start of such a rethinking began a decade ago. In April 2009, the G20 met in London and promised to deliver a co-ordinated response to the global financial crisis, followed by a future of more robust growth.

Then, in December of that year, world leaders meeting in Copenhagen under the auspices of the United Nations promised big cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
The first conference ended with the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, announcing a “new world order” founded on “a new progressive era of international co-operation”; the second ended in disarray. Yet, looking back, the false dawn of that “new progressive era” has proved to be the bigger obstacle to a secure and stable future.

For a decade, the post-crisis recovery has oscillated between anaemic growth spurts and recurrent bouts of financial instability, owing partly to advanced economies’ discordant mix of aggressively loose monetary policies and dogged fiscal austerity. And this has been supported by a huge build-up of debt, which has increased by more than $70-trillion worldwide since the crisis.

But the recovery’s sluggishness also owes something to the intertwining of corporate and political power under financialised capitalism.

As economic power has become increasingly concentrated, inequality — both in and among countries — has reached grotesque heights. With financial speculation now commonplace, so, too, are fraud and instability. Meanwhile, investment in public goods, globally and nationally, has stagnated, and growth has become dependent on resource extraction and energy consumption, both of which are proceeding at such a pace as to threaten human civilisation.

For all the ambitious talk in London a decade ago, little has changed. Debates about improving global governance still revolve around ideas such as “corporate social responsibility”, “public-private partnerships” and “free-trade agreements”, none of which will bring about a fairer and more stable economic order.

Complicating matters further, global environmental conditions have become increasingly fragile since 2009. And even before US President Donald Trump’s truculent decision to abandon the 2015 Paris climate agreement, there was no clear path to keeping global temperatures below a level that scientists deem safe, let alone to preventing a more catastrophic breakdown.

Against this dismal backdrop, bold proposals for a “Green New Deal” have been gaining political traction, notably in the US, where the idea is to transform the economy through a harmonious marriage of economic justice, social solidarity and environmental rehabilitation. The Green New Deal has already triggered a rich debate on policy options, and provoked a predictable response from vested interests and their political retainers.

But the marriage Green New Dealers envision cannot be left to the benefaction of a global hegemon. Capital is mobile, and carbon-heavy growth is no longer the preserve of the advanced economies. For the Green New Deal to work, it must also be globalised through international co-operation.

The problem is that multilateral rule-making in recent decades has been subject to the same political pressures as domestic policymaking. It is not a coincidence that the current framework for governing the global economy primarily benefits financial entities and large multinational corporations.

The original goal of post-war multilateralism was to protect the weak from the strong so that they could grow. Yet its current version encourages strong countries to impose their preferred development model on the weak, thereby producing a world of winner-takes-most outcomes.

Under these conditions, fine-tuning existing arrangements will not do. To make a global Green New Deal work, many of the multilateral programmes that have accumulated over decades will have to be culled, and a new generation of smarter institutions will have to be established.

Still, the multilateral landscape itself would continue to resemble what US President Franklin D Roosevelt envisioned when he called for a mutual understanding that would “secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world”.

What we need, then, is a new set of principles to replace those that have underpinned rule-making in the age of hyper globalisation. Looking ahead, global rules must be recalibrated toward the overarching goals of social and economic stability, shared prosperity and environmental sustainability, and rule-making bodies must be protected from capture by the most powerful.

Moreover, the international community must decide on common but differentiated responsibilities for collective action to ensure an adequate supply of global public goods and protect the commons across different domains.

At the same time, individual countries should have the space to pursue national development strategies within the framework of global rules and norms. Embedded in that framework should be regulations to strengthen the international division of labour, and to prevent countries from pursuing destructive unilateral actions that prevent others from realising common goals.

Finally, global public institutions will have to be more accountable to their full membership and, to achieve that end, should maintain balanced dispute-resolution systems. They also must be open to a greater diversity of viewpoints, and at least cognisant of new voices when they emerge in global debates.

For a decade, the international community has failed to heed Winston Churchill’s advice “to never let a good crisis go to waste”. Unless that changes in the coming decade, those looking back at the current period in 2029 won’t get another chance. — © Project Syndicate

Richard Kozul-Wright is director of the division on globalisation and development strategy at the UN Conference on Trade and Development. Kevin Gallagher is professor of global development policy at Boston University.

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