Global decisions are still structured around the territorial state, where sovereign governments make policy decisions in the context of their local circumstances. It is true that globalization has weakened many of the barriers between states that limited trans-national trade and policy cooperation. Indeed, global communities are more integrated today than at any time in human history, yet the geography of socio-economic differences remains a powerful divisive force.
Herein lies the challenge for Obama and like-minded leaders who believe that forceful, binding action on climate change is needed. How do leaders address the unequal geographies of resource consumption and environmental degradation that limit their ability to reach agreement on meaningful climate change policy?
As geographers know all too well, the human contributions to climate change, and its resulting impacts, are not distributed across the planet in a spatially even pattern. A few countries (notably China and the U.S.) generate the lion’s share of harmful emissions, while consuming an unequal portion of the world’s natural resources. Meanwhile, several billion people in many more countries around the world live desperate, impoverished lives, with little ability to cope with devastating droughts, fires, floods or other impacts of climate shifts.
The “tragedy of the commons” is that the majority suffers because of the actions of the minority. Yet the global system has no meaningful mechanism to hold the minority accountable for their actions—or inactions, in the case of climate policy.
Meaningful climate change strategies require that individual countries look beyond their self-serving approaches to the problem. Our global environment, and the climate geographies that shape patterns of settlement, agriculture and other human activity, must be viewed as the common heritage of humankind. Neither pollution nor fearsome storms recognize artificial political boundaries. The acid rain created by power plants in the U.S. does not stop at the Canadian border on its northeasterly journey just because the Canadians do not want it! Similarly, destructive fires triggered by El Niño cycles or cataclysmic hurricanes spawned by warmer Atlantic waters do not discriminate based on territorial boundaries. The reality for humans is that climate change impacts, whatever their root cause, do not distinguish between the minority or the majority, the responsible or blameless.