“Swimming against the tide”

Climate strike in Frankfurt in March 2019.

The Bangladeshi scholar Saleemul Huq has been observing international climate negotiations from the start. In our interview, he assessed the EU’s role.

In what sense is the EU important in climate talks?
It is extremely important because it is a block of rich nations which are still willing to be ambitious. By contrast, the USA under President Donald Trump is abandoning the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. His administration is now arguably the most corrupt government in the world. It has entirely sold out to the special interests of fossil fuel industries. The governments of other important countries, such as Japan, Australia and even Canada, have not declared intentions to quit the Paris Agreement, but they really aren’t doing much to live up to the promises made in Paris. The EU is thus the only block of prosperous nations that developing countries can still rely on in climate negotiations, and without its proactive stance in past talks, we would never have got the Paris Agreement. We must not forget, moreover, that the prosperous nations emit much more greenhouse gases than least-developed countries do. It is therefore good that the EU, as a big group of countries, is still committed to climate action.

European environmentalists find its action unconvincing however.
Yes, and they have a point. We should acknowledge, of course, that it is difficult to achieve consensus in a supranational orga­nisation with so many members. At the same time, there is an irritating ambivalence. Germany, for example, tends to be a leader internationally when it comes to spelling out ambitions, but your country is currently lagging behind the targets your own government set. Let’s hope you will speed up climate protection and not begin to lower the ambitions. The international community really needs to aim much higher. The climate crisis is escalating faster than even some of the most worried scientists predicted, but policymakers are not responding to the growing danger. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has evidently failed. In its context, we keep patting one another on the shoulder for all too moderate aspirations. At the same time, extreme weather keeps having worse impacts – from wildfires in California to drought in the Sahel region and the devastating typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes that build up over all three oceans. The multinational system is not working.

What do you want Europe to do in this setting?
At this point, I no longer expect much of governments. What I find inspiring is the energy and dynamism of protest movements like the school strikes or Extinction Rebellion. The young people understand that their future is at risk, and they are taking the lead. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager, inspired millions of her peers to rally for climate protection. It adds force to their protests that they are skipping lessons and thus breaking rules. This international movement started in Sweden, spread to other European countries and is now mobilising young people everywhere. This is the spirit we need. We need global action to rise to global problems, and global solidarity must be the foundation. Nation states on their own cannot rise to the climate challenges. As governments tend to respond to public opinion, however, protests may yet make a difference, egging them on to more effective cooperation.

Is it a coincidence that both the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion started in Europe?
No, it is not. First of all, the young people want their governments to rise to the challenges and fulfil environmental promises made in the past. That is the same in the USA, where the young generation is demanding a Green New Deal. It also matters that international media are still dominated by institutions like the BBC, CNN or Deutsche Welle. They are based in prosperous nations and define what is considered important around the world. However, they really only take into account what is happening in their own world regions. Teenagers in Dhaka, our capital city, are just as worried about global heating as members of their age group are in Europe, but they cannot get the kind of attention that Greta got in Stockholm. The international media are only interested in our countries when we suffer disasters. They do not cover the legitimate policy demands we raise. Al Jazeera is different. It does not run the same headlines. The good news, how­ever, is that the climate protests we have been witnessing for about a year now are indeed international.

You say the multilateral system is not working. How do you assess the Sustainable Development Goals, which, by the way, EU members endorsed?
I think the SDGs are valuable. They are not legally binding, so they are only soft law, but they do reorient policymakers’ attention to crucial issues. Our prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, for example, keeps referring to them as a yardstick. She is also a UN champion, promoting the water SDG at an international level. It is crucially important, moreover, that the SDGs are a truly global agenda and not just something developing countries are supposed to finally take care of. That was what was irritating about the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs emphasise global efforts, and that we need that, cannot be stated too often. My impression is that we are all swimming against the tide, but we have to keep on fighting. Perhaps we can still make a difference, and in that context, the SDGs are a resource.

Soft law is not enough for rising to global challenges though. We need binding commitments. Do you see the EU as a model for supranational governance?
As far as I can tell, various regional organisations are copying the EU approach to trade issues, establishing free trade areas, customs unions et cetera. How effective those organisations are, varies from region to region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is more dynamic than the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has been hampered by India and Pakistan always being at loggerheads. However, not even ASEAN is doing anything to stop the human-rights offences against the Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and Bangladesh must take care of the refugees on its own. So no, I don’t see supranational governance evolving according to the EU model.

Unlike most other regional organisations, the EU has powerful joint institutions, including an administrative body, a law court and a parliament. It has indeed pooled sovereignty. Is that desirable?
Yes, I think it is. I have lived in Britain with my family for two decades. We have dual citizenship. We very much appreciated the growing sense of a European identity which is increasingly supplementing many people’s national identity. The Erasmus programme which allows students to spend a semester at a university in another EU member country is wonderful in this regard. My son went to Spain. It is interesting to note, moreover, that many Britons now appreciate their European identity more than they ever did in the past. Before the Brexit referendum, the European flag was hardly ever seen in the United Kingdom. Now, “remainers” are displaying it all the time. That said, Brexit has proven incredibly disruptive and it has been distracting people from more urgent matters, especially the climate crisis.

But doesn’t the British government insist it will not trim down environmental standards?
That is what it says, but the deregulation agenda it is pursuing speaks a different language. The Brexiteers pretend that British industries will become more competitive once they are basically allowed to do whatever they want. Environmental regulations obviously limit that freedom. More generally speaking, I find it striking that climate denial is common among right-wing populists everywhere, and that is true of many Brexiteers too. It is quite evident that powerful fossil industries are supporting this trend. We know now that Exxon scientists accurately predicted how the climate crisis would evolve in the 1980s, so the top management must have known too. Nonetheless, fossil industries have always fought determined climate action and they still are doing so.

So they are running the show?
Well, apart from mass climate protests, there is another bright light: private-sector investors are now shying away from coal. Only governments worried about voters in coal-mining regions still invest in that sector. Who knows: if mass rallies manage to raise more awareness internationally yet, that may stop too.

Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) in Dhaka. He is also a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.


Originally this interview was published on November 15, 2019 at  D+C Development and Cooperation Website.