Billions of people aren’t enough leverage?

The Hindu recently published a rather interesting opinion piece on Chinese foreign policy, that looked over the history of how China has annoyed almost every neighboring country in the past couple of decades, and consequently is feeling a little lonesome. While India is one of those countries, as the two have previously come to blows over a border dispute, a number of different international factors is driving the two to look past those squabbles and focus on the need for joint international action on various issues. Chief among those reasons to unite forces would be climate change.

But the fact that China and India must tactically coordinate in order to influence international policy actually leads to only further questions. Both nations are by far the largest single-state portions of the global population, and the coming decade China is predicted to outpace the United States as the world’s largest economy. While both superstates have per capita wealth that’s dwarfed by the US, Canada, Australia, and much of Western Europe, there’s clearly indications that their economies are actually more stable and in a sense more robust than those of “more developed” countries.

In spite of this, India or China acting independently on the issue of climate change would apparently get nowhere. There’s two potential explanations for that. For one, as individual countries they’re in such completely unique positions that their political views, while influential, fails to connect with the interests of others. Alternatively, their needs are at least somewhat similar to not only each other but many other countries. In spite of that, even when working collectively, their capacity to influence world affairs is disproportionately small. It seems as though both are highly plausible arguments.

For one, a frequently used socio-economic category for countries used since the fall of the Soviet Union and disintegration of the idea of a capitalist first world, socialist second world, and unaligned third world, has been that of BRICS. The steadily more democratic Brazil, ostensibly more open Russia, developing India, increasingly Western-friendly China, and post-apartheid South Africa represented to many analysts a confusing and new national category in the changed global landscape. They were unified by recent indications of growing prosperity and bright political futures in spite of past histories of violent repression and extensive concentration of wealth in a small elite. Likewise, they were all populous regional powers that contained diverse religious and ethnic groups. Occasionally, Mexico and Indonesia would be included within the category as similarly emergent powers.


(The BRICS countries, from here. They contain for approximately 2.9 billion people. If Indonesia and Mexico are included in the same category, they account for 3.3 billion people.)

As negotiations over the original Kyoto Treaty began to become more urgent in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they successfully pushed for the exemption of “less developed countries” (which included all of their categorical members except Russia) from stipulated cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The economic development of the poorest countries in the world, which to some extent still included the BRICS countries, was understood as an acceptable alternative to stricter environmental protections (especially since most of the historical emissions had been produced in wealthy developed countries).

That said, the classification of Russia as a developed country has led to it pushing for policies more in line with those proposed by Japan, the US, and Canada, rather than India or China. As Al Jazeera’s coverage of the discussions shows, the EU is essentially the lone voice within the “developed world” in even entertaining the idea of a second or additional periods of proposed cuts. India and China have disagreements between each other, and with the coalition of the poorest and most flood-prone countries, but have the beginnings of a consensus among “less developed” countries. The positions of South Africa and Brazil are unmentioned, but it’s unclear why they would disagree with those other nations.

Even assuming that the positions of India and China are unacceptable to their fellow BRICS-type countries, inadequately strict for the most vulnerable nations, and anathema for the developed world aside from the EU, those three collectively are 3 billion people of the planet’s 7 billion. Surely, a few additional millions can be found in places too poor to be considered “developed” and too secure from rising tides to be considered among the most at-risk. Reaching a plurality if not a majority of the world’s population in terms of signatory states to a new treaty is not some unthinkable prospect. But it’s still treated as a long-shot.

The only explanation is that not all countries’ votes count for as much. The treaties are non-binding and there’s not really any clear context for punitive measures for refusing to sign on. So the majority of the population of the “developed” world can burn what we want without a care, even if we number a noticeably minor portion of the world’s people. The oil-rich gulf states (another tiny minority) seem to gladly agree to our right to do that, since they can turn a tidy profit from it.

Not only does climate change spell out a future where your race and class within wealthier countries may determine your security, but the same factors play out across the entire globe. And China and India might be better situated than other nations, but their voices are still devalued in the current debate, even if their nations represent a third of the world.

Edit: I apologize for erroneously calling China the world’s current largest economy in the original published version of this article. I was confused by misleading representations of this argument, that China may have a much larger GDP than largely believed.

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One thought on “Billions of people aren’t enough leverage?

  1. […] in this warming world, have done much less to create the current situation, and unfortunately have significantly less international power to influence the developing crisis. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying, […]

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