paradigmatic shift in international politics

Photo credited to Karen Horton, flickr creative commons.

What is a paradigm?  According to Merriam-Webster it is: a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated;broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind

Paradigm shift currently is a popular topic across many disciplines and areas of existence.  There is no shortage of evidence that our ecology and human existence are undergoing profound shifts.  There is the economic drama, the climate drama, and a lot of talk about 2012 being a year of spiritual transformation for many humans.  Many people point out the inadequacy of Cartesian duality, a building block of western thought, in describing the true nature of reality, leaving our methods inadequate to explain the workings of many phenomena.

The collective consciousness shows that people understand that shift happens.  This is evident when we see businesses rush to market their eco-friendly disposition to remain competitive in the market as individuals consider our human impact on the planet and make their consumer choices accordingly.  The industrial revolution led us to where we are today and it is clear we need to find other ways of producing our energy and curbing our consumption in order to keep planet earth functioning at a safer equilibrium.

Photo credited to sorbyrock, flickr creative commons.

During December of this past year, many international officials gathered in Copenhagen to discuss the climate issue.  Many people want to legally bind countries to lower greenhouse gas emissions.  While some may see the inability for conference attendees to reach an agreement on this issue to come up with what Obama calls a “legally binding instrument,” I see it in a different light.

I suggest that these are discussions that must take place to solidify political will as a necessary step towards creating a legally binding pact, complete with effective an enforcement mechanism.  These discussions must take place now in order to gain momentum and support and to produce workable ideas as to how to actually implement a legal code that will- if done smartly- reward people, businesses, and governments to choose options that decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

People rally for climate change in Bali. Photo credited to Oxfam.

What I would like to highlight from the Copenhagen talks is evidence of the paradigm shift within international politics.  Nils Flaatten, Managing Director of the African Carbon Trust (, wrote an article, “Technical Summary: Copenhagen Climate Summit” (  In this article, he notes the continued struggle between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouses gases:

“[who] remained deadlocked behind closed doors until nearly the end.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived ahead of President Obama, upped the pressure by declaring U.S. support for the goal of $100 billion a year for developing countries, an offer that many African and small-island countries did not want to let slip by.  It was only then that Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei appeared to concede on U.S. demands that its actions be open to some form of international scrutiny.”

In the past, the US has not been a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, which gave the message that the US was not willing to take economic risks out of concern for the environment.  “Why take the risk of losing money and power in the world just to save the environment,” seems to be the thinking of decision makers during the Kyoto Protocol era, which is coming to an end in 2012.  This shift shows movement from an attitude of complacency and negligence towards the environment as well as the ability, quoting from Greek Historian Thucydides, of “the strong [to] do what they wish while the weak suffer what they must,” with respect to international agreements. The shift is towards, to quote Ghandi, “be[ing] the change you wish to see in the world.”

Photo credited to moonjazz, flickr creative commons

Instead of remaining stubborn in its attitude of national economic advantage over international ecological concern, the US shows its commitment to acting collectively rather than solely protecting its profits and power relative to other countries.  While still remaining with the upper hand of the powerful and demanding a behavioral change within the Chinese state, the US takes a step forward and leads by example by offering support for a $100 billion a year fund for developing countries to help mitigate impacts of climate change.  I find that this move strikes a moral chord.  It says that the US cares about this issues, understands its urgency, and is willing to act in a collective manner to address it.    I highly applaud this move of the US president’s circle.

Why is this phenomenon appearing within the discussion of climate change talks? Would we see this sort of cooperation happening in the context of nuclear power? Probably not.  A reason I find compelling is that the nature of the climate issue lends itself to cooperative action.  Matters of ecology and climate are unifying concepts.  When discussing issues of international concern, one must take into account the underlying motivations when attempting to understand the behavior of states.  The urgency of action pertaining to climate change is persuasive enough to motivate states to choose cooperation rather than defection.

Photo credited to flavio@flickr, flickr creative commons.

Some people may see this action as a temporary swing in the pendulum of left to right politics, which it may be.  However, it can be this as well as a progressive step that pushes the forward moving boundaries of what has been accepted and practiced in international politics.  This action has momentum and is symbolic of a moral commitment to humanity.  I also think it is a clever diplomatic approach to the Chinese people, some of whom are known for their beliefs in and value of Confucian moral teachings.  It shows that the US is making a moral commitment to humanity and therefore creates a motivation within others to also show up to make the moral commitment themselves.

[Again, my writings such as this one are meant to be akin to something that might appear in the opinion & editorial section of the worldwide newspaper; I hope I don’t get the facts wrong, but I don’t guarantee anything I say to be fact.]

4 Responses to “paradigmatic shift in international politics”
  1. Eytan says:

    Not sure if I share your optimism on the US vis-a-vie their 100 Billion aid offer. The US is simply trying to throw money at a problem they have long neglected, and continue to neglect. I liked your statement “shift happens” but I feel more these days, like when it comes to the environment, “sh*t happens”. This problem isn’t new, and yet all we get is reactive vs. proactive change. And the 100 Billion is a perfect example – “We are unwilling to tackle the problem of climate change and get on the ball with new energy policy, so instead let’s throw money at the problems this is causing, without fixing what is causing them”.
    Obama road in on a “green economy” platform. That was big for me. But when you bring up China, THAT is where the real action is – whether it is high speed trains that have been in place for years to get people around instead of through the (more polluting) air, or solar farms, or solar panels, China is able to (from the standpoint of an autocratic regime) dictate that they MUST find new sources of power. Here in the US, we seem to be dictated by the minority these days (who knew a 41 vote minority could actually dictate the agenda, or lack thereof?)
    I volunteered for headcount last week at a Wilco show. Headcount is a voter drive organization here in the US that actually registered the 2nd largest # of people after Acorn in the last election, and has the highest percentage of those registered who actually show up to vote (75%).
    Well, Headcount tackles many issues that its constituents bring up, and instead of focusing on all of them at once, they now try to bring one to the forefront for 6-8 week chunks. Currently, the issue they are bringing to the forefront is climate change. As part of that, they have a question at each event they volunteer at, and ask the people who come to the table and fill out the forms to pick on. Well, the community question was, “What is the best way to fight climate change?” The choices were:
    A: Personal responsibility
    B: Taxing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions
    C: Strict limits and regulations
    D: Climate change is a bunch of hooey!
    I would have hoped B or C would come in first place, but no, A, personal responsibility, came in at first place. To me, personal responsibility is basically do nothing.

    Bottom line to me is that people who care are ALREADY doing something about it. It is not enough. Going to a conference and saying you support doing something (after getting there in your jet and being picked up from the airport in the air conditioned limo) is akin to “personal responsibility”. B and C must happen, and non-to-soon (all this being said by a guy flying 3 times this year, and fully cognizant of the carbon impact he will have by doing that and therefore the hypocrisy he is spewing…).

    I’ll read the linked you posted later to see if my views change, but my optimism that we will manage to halt climate change is at an all time low. My feeling at this point is the climate will continue to change and therefore change us to respond to it, rather than us changing our ways proactively so as the climate will not change too drastically.

  2. Eytan says:

    I’ve had a couple of days to think about this and digest, and had a talk with my brother about my disappointment over ‘Personal Responsibility’.
    He rightfully pointed out that without a personal stake, without peoples own inate desire to do what’s right, laws and regulations will do nothing. If this is not ‘be the change you want in the world’ I don’t know what is. Thank you for your well thought out essay Prentiss.

  3. Personal Responsibility is definitely a catalyst for change, because this in turn determines our market choices, and a lot of what we are experiencing with respect to climate change stems from over consumption. I also think that govt’s need to use laws and regulations to expedite shifts among businesses and consumers to change their lifestyles. For example, creating incentives to make it cheaper to live near where you work might motivate people to change their behavior. Would they do it otherwise? Some would, but many wouldn’t.

    How many people don’t even believe that climate change is happening? It’s outrageous, but it is also a complex subject that an average person will see as a headline among many other confusing things happening in the world. We are bombarded with fleeting information. How can you expect the message to get through to everyone? Amidst the debate of “it’s real” and “it’s a hoax,” migraines ensue.

    I think it’s less about halting climate change- we aren’t going to stop anything. Instead, we adapt, and we chart a new course for the future, which we hope will equilibrate potentially disastrous events such as natural disasters, mass human extinction, the Amazon changing to a savannah, the death of the Great Barrier Reef, and a severe disruption of the Jet Stream. Oil money and the owners of the means of production are powerful powerful powerful people and networks. There is only so much that the “rest” of the world can do, but it’s exactly what we have to do and it’s how we reach the light at the end of the tunnel. It is clear what needs to happen- lower CO2 and shift away from non-renewable energy sources- and it will be a dance between the public and the elite of the world to manifest this reality.

  4. Daniel Goleman does a nice job of analyzing humans, I think. He’s written a book on Ecological Intelligence. He has something pertinent to say here, taken from an excerpt of this book:

    Signs of the dawning of this shift in collective consciousness are amply visible globally, from executive teams working to make their companies’ operations more sustainable to neighborhood activists distributing reusable cloth shopping bags to replace plastic ones — wherever people are engaged in creating a way of interacting with nature that transforms our propensities for short term trade-offs into a long-term, saner relationship. High- profile investigations into the innumerable dangers human activity poses to our planet’s ecosystems, like the growing study of global warming, are a bare beginning. Such efforts help raise our sense of urgency. But we can’t stop there. We need to gather the on-the-ground, detailed, and sophisticated data that can guide our actions. That takes a thorough and ongoing analysis, determined discipline — and the pursuit of ecological intelligence.


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