Sir Christopher Meyer supports view that political realism will dominate scientific realism at international climate change conferences for the foreseeable future

March 11th, 2011 by Sir Christopher Meyer

Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG addresses the audience at Ecobuild 2011 (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG is the former UK Ambassador to the USA and to Germany.  Sir Christopher spoke at an ecobuild conference on 3 March 2011.


I am going to sit because I am a pessimist and I prefer to sit down when I am delivering a bad message.

There are all kinds of things in the three speakers (Jack Straw MP, Lord Paddy Ashdown, Bianca Jagger) that we’ve heard with which I have agreed.  But I think I am probably at the most pessimistic end of the spectrum.

I do not believe in progress.  There is progress technologically, medically if you like, but morally there is no progress whatsoever in world affairs as in individual human affairs.

I think what we are now seeing in the early stage of the twenty-first century is a revival of something, which a lot of post modernists have said is dead, and that is the revival of virulent nationalism, virulent national identities, and as Henry Kissinger has said, a battle for natural resources among world powers reminiscent of great power competition in the nineteenth century, and I am afraid to say that that is the international framework in which not only climate change conferences take place but all kinds of international conferences from world trade and European Union debates that now take place.

Now what exactly do I mean by this?

It is perfectly true that the world, the international community, is confronted with a series of issues, which it does not lie in the gift of any one power to resolve on its own.  And climate change is above all the examplar of that.  You would think therefore that it was a matter of logic that if we are confronted with this kind of problem some kind of sense of global international values and solidarity and interdependence would emerge, which would make it relatively easy to come to practical and useful conclusions at conferences like that of Copenhagen and more recently Cancun.

But I am afraid that is exactly what does not happen and those who preach the gospel of global values, admirable though it may be – Tony Blair did this in a series of speeches he made at the very end of his premiership – I am afraid admirable though they may be they fly in the face of international reality.

Globalisation is a phrase much used and very poorly defined.  It is used as a kind of all-purpose argument prayed in aid in different areas of international and domestic policy.  And one of the things that people say about globalisation is that it has made the nation state redundant.  Don’t you believe it.  Of course things are happening that show national frontiers to be pretty porous, pretty transparent – electronic information, money, even people, cross frontiers now like they have never done before – cultural icons – you can go to Ulan Bator and buy a Madonna t-shirt and that is perfectly normal in this globalised economy.

But the interesting thing is that the more that national frontiers have been seen to be porous in some strange way it seems to demand of nations that they emphasise their national identity all the more to compensate for the physical weakness, if you like, of national frontiers.

And you don’t have to spend more than five minutes in places like Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Washington, D.C., to realise that nationalism is a very, very powerful force in international relations.  So that when you come to a conference like that of Copenhagen or Cancun, the representatives, the 180 or whatever it is, are coming with very precise national positions.

Some people will argue that the process of multilateral diplomacy, which has grown apace since the Second World War, can dissolve all this inside the framework of these multilateral conferences.

I believe that it is very rare for anything really substantial to be sorted out and agreed to in a binding fashion emerging from these huge multilateral jamborees, and so it has proven to be the case with climate change.

Because what actually happens is that if you are the Chinese, the American, the British representative at one of these conferences, the instructions that you bring for your diplomacy at the conference is decided in the national capital, and actually if you want to influence people to come a board for binding targets and timetables for curbing greenhouse emissions you don’t do it in the conference.  You do it in the capital so the instructions get changed.

If the multilateral negotiation goes wrong , of course the default position of the participant states is that of their national position, so in effect in Copenhagen what we had was a break down of the process, and in the end an extremely modest and rather dirty deal, effectively brokered by the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

I would wish it was something different.  I would love for us to deal effectively with climate change.  I think we must.

There’s a very great American writer called Bill McKibben, whose a bit of an expert on these things, and he wrote a piece in The New York Review of Books at the beginning of last year just after the Copenhagen Conference and he says there are two clashing forces at work in these big conferences.

One is scientific realism – that is to say the science of climate change.

And the other is political realism – that is to say the reaction of political leaders to what they think their electorates want.

And in his view the dynamic for these conferences would be the continuing dialectical tension between these two forces, and for the foreseeable future it is going to be political realism that dominates scientific realism.

I hate to say it but that is the way that I think things are going to go and we ain’t going to see big, multilateral, binding, international, legal, enforceable conventions any time soon.


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