books climate change globalisation

Book review: Climate change and the nation state, by Anatol Lieven

Last week I reviewed Global Planet Authority, a book arguing that international governance was the only viable way to manage the planetary boundaries. This week, a book arguing the opposite: Anatol Lieven’s Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case.

The book argues that given the urgency of climate change, nations are best placed to lead action. It is completely in their interests, because the mounting damage of the crisis will erode infrastructure and social cohesion, making climate change a very clear risk to governments and states. Like any risk to a state, that needs real concerted action. “It is necessary to reframe the struggle against climate change in nationalist terms: the defense of nation states, their interests, and their future survival.”

As Lieven describes, our view of risk is badly distorted. Billions are spent on fighting terrorism or worrying about a new Cold War with Russia, when climate change should be considered “an existential threat to all major threats.”

There are a whole series of threats that will test the stability of world governments. There is the economic toll. There will be internal displacement and left-behind regions. Critical water shortages are only a matter of time in many places, including India and China. As some parts of the world are devastated, people will move. While some places might think they are basically immune from climate change and are free to ignore it – Russia being a leading example – they have forgotten how climate change will affect their neighbours. Lieven points out that migration will be the biggest challenge to Russia and many other states. Consider the de-stabilising effect of the relatively small numbers of refugees leaving Syria and heading West in recent years, Lieven suggests. That was enough to substanitially re-shape the political landscape in Europe. Imagine the consequences of tens of millions of people on the move.

Part of the problem, Lieven points out, is that many parties with the best policies on climate change also have generously liberal policies on immigration. Conversely, the parties that talk about people’s fears of immigration tend to ignore or even deny climate change. The divisions over migration are preventing us from addressing climate change, even though migration will be one of the biggest destabilising consequences of climate change. One of the hard messages for those on the liberal or green side of politics is that they need to compromise on immigration.

Another counter-cultural message is that nationalism could be the most useful force against climate change. A knee-jerk reaction against nationalism forgets that it has been used for the public good in the past: the US used nationalism to integrate immigrants around a common vision of what it meant to be American. Sure, nationalism can be stoked to legitimise and motivate war. But it is also vital to creating unity around big changes, such as the creation of the welfare state, or big infrastructure projects. There are also different kinds of nationalism. Lieven argues that we must avoid ‘ethnic nationalism’ at all costs, and build ‘civic nationalism’ instead.

Nationalism has a fairly unique capacity to demand sacrifices. It can draw on the past and project into the future, getting beyond short term thinking. It can break through individualism and ‘the eternal present’ of consumerism. While it is fair to be suspicious of nationalism, Lieven argues that the “monolithic” opposition to nationalism has led Western elites to overlook its usefulness in the climate crisis. Or as he puts it it, our general reaction to nationalism is to “throw out the bathwater, the baby, the bath, and the entire municipal drainage system”.

As an example of how nationalism could be used productively, the last chapter of the book describes the idea of the Green New Deal. A major national project of that kind is exactly what we need, but it will need to be stripped of some of the more ideological elements. “Progressives need to keep firmly in mind that if we fail to limit climate change, the resulting world is extremely unlikely to be friendly to the causes they have tried to load onto the climate change bandwagon.”

Climate Change and the Nation State is brilliantly international in its scope, written by a journalist and researcher with decades of experience in Asia, Russia and the Middle East. It is blunt in tone but compassionate in its ethics, and entirely lives up to the ‘realist’ description in the subtitle. It will be uncomfortable reading for some, but it deserves to be read and argued about.

4 comments

  1. I am all for the ratcheting up of public health measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic. But why is it that the world can take immediate radical action to control coronavirus but not to prevent dangerous runaway climate change?
    The UN Secretary General, António Guterres says the fight against climate change is far more important than the pandemic and yet globally fossil fuel companies are still subsidised with £300bn each year. Guterres said,
    “I call on everyone ― from government, civil society and business leaders to individual citizens – to heed these facts and take urgent action to halt the worst effects of climate change.”
    I agree with Matt Mellen, we have to keep the pressure on world leaders. Not only should the virus not distract them from the bigger threat to humanity but they should also ensure that pandemic stimulus packages drive the green transition rather then yet again handing taxpayer’s money to the most polluting corporations. #towardsoikos

    1. … why is it that the world can take immediate radical action to control coronavirus but not to prevent dangerous runaway climate change?

      It’s because there’s a huge difference between the two: whereas Covid-19 is recognised throughout the world as something that has to be tackled urgently, that’s not true of climate change. The countries where scientists, the media, academia, commentators and leading politicians are concerned about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate are essentially all in Western Europe, North America and Australasia. Although that doesn’t mean it’s an unfounded concern, it explains why, despite the West’s emissions declining from 11 billion tonnes p.a. in 2000 to less than 10 billion today, global emissions have increased by 46 percent over the same period – from 26 billion p.a. to 38 billion tonnes. Most of the world (the source of 75 percent of emissions) either doesn’t care or doesn’t see the issue as a priority. That could hardly be more different from how it sees Covid-19.

      Data here: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=booklet2019.

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