Why Kofi Annan Is Wrong About National Self-Interest and Climate Change

03/12/2013 15:32 GMT | Updated 02/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Following the disappointing Warsaw climate talks last month, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has admonished governments to "put aside narrow national interests in order to ensure that the pledges made at the 2009 Copenhagen conference -- to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to pre-industrial levels -- are met". But is national self-interest really the barrier we think it is?

Annan's statement suggests that national self-interest and decisive action on climate change are mutually exclusive. Indeed, this seems to be everyone's general assumption. But they don't have to be. Strange as it may seem, making dramatic cuts in carbon emissions can be made to be in each nation's self-interest; not just in the longer-term (in the sense that we all need a stable climate to survive), but in the short-term too.

Contrary to Annan's implications, substantive cooperation is not about self-sacrifice, but is always about self-interest. As evolutionary biologist, John Stewart, points out, cooperation throughout evolution has consisted in "building co-operative organisations out of self-interested components"; that is, by making cooperation in each competitor's self-interest. Like it or not, to think nations will act out of altruism is to hope pigs might fly. Even the context of Typhoon Haiyan did little to influence any meaningful agreement in Warsaw. The question, rather, is one of design; of how an agreement to achieve dramatic cuts in carbon emissions can be designed to be in the immediate short-term self-interests of all nations, particularly those like the USA and China?

The difficulty, if there is one, is that a solution to almost any single global problem, like climate change, inevitably involves uneven costs. That is, it will be more costly for some nations than others. Dramatic cuts in carbon emissions would be far more costly for China or the USA to achieve than for any other nation because those two nations are the world's largest emitters. Having the highest costs, there's no incentive for them to co-operate--and not surprisingly, they don't! It's little wonder, then, that present UN-sponsored attempts to solve global problems routinely fail to achieve anything significant. The recent talks in Warsaw being just the latest example.

But what if UN summits were set to address two or more issues at a time? Rather than attempting to deal with climate change as a single isolated issue, the addition of another issue would allow nations that are disadvantaged by carbon reductions to be compensated for their efforts. What a nation might lose on the swings, it could gain on the roundabouts.

For example, if negotiations on a global tax on currency transactions (Tobin Tax) were included alongside a climate change negotiation, the countless millions of dollars this tax would raise from financial markets could be used to compensate those nations that may lose out by dramatically cutting their carbon emissions. In this way we can see, in principle at least, how it could be made in the self-interest of nations such as China or the USA to cut their emissions drastically and immediately; how it could be made in their interests to co-operate.

With the 2015 climate change talks in Paris before us, we will need more than the usual level of homework to make real agreement a possibility. Ahead of the talks I would like to see more progress on the following two recommendations:

- Change the way we think about self-interest: We must realise that substantive cooperation is not about self-sacrifice, but about self-interest: that an agreement that's in all nations' interests is primarily a matter of design.

- Move beyond single-issues: We should take on board that substantive cooperation remains unlikely unless and until we start mixing two or more complementary issues together. I propose commissioning a feasibility study on how high a Tobin Tax would have to be to generate sufficient funds to make cutting carbon emissions by 80% in the interests of each and all nations.

Most importantly, Annan and others should stop talking about the national interest as if it were an insurmountable barrier to cooperation. By thinking differently about the national interest and how different issues could be combined to produce win-win outcomes for all nations, we could expect more decisive action, not just on climate change, but on a whole range of global issues, thus transforming national self-interest into a powerful driver for global solutions.