The Climate Club and New Environmentalism

Benjamin Zander’s 2008 TED Talk is one of the very few that have stuck with me for nearly a decade now. Zander gripes over the way classical music fans approach the genre’s (un)popularity:

How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you be? If you thought, “Three percent of the population likes classical music, if only we could move it to four percent.“ How would you walk or talk? How would you be, if you thought, “Everybody loves classical music — they just haven't found out about it yet.“ See, these are totally different worlds. 

Benjamin Zander’s approach to classical music—to meditate on a subject while listening to a classical piece—was baked in the then-growing practice of mindfulness, which accepts that thoughts do pop up in one’s head, but it is the act of sublimation that raises the thought—and piece— to new heights. That a thought was not just wanton, but could be connected back to the performance is a deliberate and cooperative process of call and response that great art has always achieved.

More importantly, Zander’s above quote, stating that“everybody loves classical music” with so much conviction, recognizes the capability that every human being has for individual change. For Zander this means the potential to enjoy classical music, but for our habitat, it means People’s capacity for understanding climate change and moving to solve it.

Thus, it is a challenge to hear the uninspired, cowardly objectives developed within treaties like the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change, who declared that their ultimate objective was to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In this objective, I don’t hear a group of leaders finding opportunity in aligning our global values with that of our habitat’s sustainability. I hear a small being asking for bulls to be a little more careful within china shop.

Then the 2015 Paris accord had a new wording, looking to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” So at least they’re not just saying “let’s just not destroy our habitat to dangerous levels” like the UNFCCC, but now they’re saying “let’s keep our own destruction at a level not much higher than before this millennia-long mistake”.

Imagine two prisons with two different objectives for its inmates. The first seeks to find opportunities for inmates to find interests that long distance them from their criminal past. Hobbies, jobs, discussions, all facilitated in a way that tries to understand why the inmate committed their crimes and what would satisfy them so much that they don’t think about criminal activity anymore. The second prison seeks to just stop them from committing more crimes. Solitary confinement, threats of losing parole, a half-way house that keeps the inmates socially separated from “normal citizens”, and a lifetime marker that one had committed a crime, so employers can stay well away from this Other. Which prison has the most potential to create a better person after they have been lawfully punished? Of course, the first prison won’t always succeed, but the second prison is so set on keeping that person a criminal that the first prison at least appears to be a chance at something better.

The Paris accord and Kyoto Protocol are so disappointing in their vision that the only way its enactors could make it exist is by reassuring each nation that they don’t actually have to follow its regulations. This is a prison that not only wants to punish its inmates, but wants its inmates to voluntarily submit themselves for punishment. So to answer the original question: if we seek to turn climate change action into punishment rather than reward, then yes, climate change action is faced with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for in a world of resource competition like we have right now, we see our place in the world through economic means rather than through national and global values.

This is all affirmation of William Nordhaus’ contention in the [Foreign Affairs essay “The Climate Club”] that climate change action should be guided with the carrot, not the stick. Within the realm of global capitalism, nations would be willing to participate in carbon emissions reductions if they find that there are great economic and political opportunities in doing so. Thus, Nordhaus introduces a club structure to climate change participation:

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 of the enjoyment of low-cost goods from a round 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 a relatively low cost to members; and that the membership is stable in the sense that no one wants to leave.

The only thing I’m not a fan of is his wording for the status of nonparticipants: rather than rewarding participating club members, Nordhaus proposes that nonparticipants or member nations that don’t fulfill obligations should be penalized. I agree that non-committal club members should be penalized by being kicked out of the club or by reducing rewards. Nordhaus is accidentally circling back to the Stick Method. The Carrot Method is this: follow the obligations set by the club and have access to economic, political, and military access of its members; fail these obligations and become a nonmember, losing these benefits. A fitness club can only “punish” non-members by charging higher daily rates—which is not really a punishment when the non-member opted to accept that inflated rate—so why would the “Climate Club” be any different?

Nordhaus admits that the club’s purpose is to provide “powerful incentives” for countries to be part of it, so I know we’re both on parallel lines, but the words “penalty” and “sanction” do not develop greater visions; these are words for an institutions that has little regard for its members or potential invitees. To show respect, you reward and support those who follow the obligations set by the club, highlighting their methods of success.

This club should be exciting to join and fruitful once a member. A nation’s people should look upon its members like one used to keep up with the Joneses. To do this, the standard of obligations must not just be stringent, but also futuristic. The incentives should promise—and deliver—a bright future for that member nation’s people, for the Climate Club will inspire no one by being an organization for earth, but an organization serving People by protecting their habitat. A bright future is not achieved by giving up things, it is by providing a vision of the world that inspires people to forget that they don’t even have something because their values are so fundamentally changed. Perhaps the Climate Club’s membership incentives won’t even have to be economic or military: political capital can be collected on one’s success and innovations in aligning the nation with the sustainability of their habitat.

We are trying to get away from those climate change activists who wish that they could just minimize—or “stabilize”—our destruction. Every single person on this earth, when presented with a new vision of our relationship with our habitat, will live and breathe a sustainable life. The Climate Club has the potential to make even warlords and oil barons jealous by showing what kind of futuristic toys and organizations can be made when sustainability is a fact of life rather than part of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Club just needs the right members to make a habitable world cool again. I think the Club could do with more New Environmentalists.

P.S. Interestingly enough, the Climate Club also falls into the New Identity Movement, the near-decade old phenomenon in which exclusion has become a foundational element of identity. The New Identity Movement stipulates that identities must either raise their standards for inclusion or break off into specifically defined subgroups to maintain a feeling of personal connection between its members. Possibly as a reaction to the passively inclusionary Kyoto-Paris agreements, the Climate Club (at least the one I’ve described) develops exclusion as a way to motivate non-members to step up their game to reap the rewards of membership support.