The landmark Paris Climate Accord has been hailed as a breakthrough, and with good reason. For the first time, all of the world’s nations have acknowledged the existential threat posed by the warming planet, and each has pledged to do its part to slow or reverse the deadly trend.
But the agreement is not enforceable. And if the past is any indication, it will prove easier for governments to sign under the bright lights of television than to follow through in the cold light of day.
An enforcement mechanism would, of course, have been a hard sell. Besides, how would it have worked? Hard to imagine a Global Emissions Police Force, or an International Climate Court. So for the moment, we shall have to rely on good will and best efforts.
But what if that is not enough? What if non-compliance is widespread, and global emissions by 2025 do not decline sufficiently to save small island states, or major coastal cities? Or to address the consequences of climate change, like extreme weather events, mass migration and conflicts arising from shifting land uses? What then?
If (or when) the world finds it necessary to add teeth to a global climate agreement, it may find a useful precedent in a doctrine adopted a decade ago for the protection of people, also by unanimous agreement of all UN member states: the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P.
R2P grew out of the frustration and shame caused by successive atrocities in the latter 20th century: the killing fields of Cambodia; Rwanda; Srebrenica; Kosovo. Before its adoption, genocide and ethnic cleansing carried out behind the “shield” of state sovereignty lay beyond the reach of the international community, no matter the level of horror going on within a state’s borders.
R2P changed all of that by imposing, for the first time since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1693, a limitation on state sovereignty. Where mass atrocity is imminent and a state’s government is unable or unwilling to protect its population, the international community will assume that responsibility and, through the United Nations, take steps to prevent an atrocity and protect the state’s population.
But what has that to do with climate change? Well, perhaps a great deal. The differences are obvious (there will not be military intervention to enforce a climate commitment). But when the constituent elements of R2P are examined, we find a logic that can apply in a different context to encourage compliance by each state with its climate change pledges.
A parsing of R2P discloses three essential elements: a universally supported goal; a recognition of the individual state’s primary role within its borders in achieving that goal; and an acceptance that if the individual state cannot or will not act to achieve it, the international community will take steps to do so.
Applying that paradigm to the environment, the Paris Accord (or its successor agreements) recognizes our planet’s survival as a collective goal. Each member state’s pledge remains its own responsibility, and each is to be the “first responder” in its own jurisdiction. But should failure or refusal by individual states threaten the shared goal (and indeed the future of life on the planet), the R2P paradigm permits the international community to take steps. Those steps might include offers of help, like assistance in the buildup of adaptive capacities. But they might also involve steps intended to modify behaviour, such as political measures, economic sanctions, or targeted penalties aimed at those shown by forensic investigation to be profiting from inaction.
And how fitting that a doctrine meant to prevent mass atrocities should be adapted to deal with equally threatening environmental risks. Climate change is often linked to large scale migration, instability and conflict, as we have seen in Darfur, South Sudan and the Middle East.
In the few weeks since the Paris Climate Accord was signed, there has been a general feeling of relief and optimism. We all earnestly hope that each state will now do its part to address a clear threat to our future. But the past teaches us that we should also prepare for the worst. And if good will is not enough by itself to save the planet, we should be ready to take more effective measures.
If that eventually leads to a discussion of binding obligations and effective enforcement, the R2P model may well provide the very mechanism we need.
– Lloyd Axworthy is a former foreign minister of Canada, former president of the University of Winnipeg and now Chair of CUSO International. Allan Rock is the President of the University of Ottawa, a former Attorney-General of Canada and former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations