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An ‘Ordering Moment’ for Climate Change. Awaiting the Leap of the Brainless Frog?

It was often after sizable wars that international politics has taken leaps. So-called ‘ordering moments’ have followed the last two centuries’ grandest conflicts. At these points in time, Great Powers have collaborated and taken the lead to restructure international affairs and try to work for sustainable peace. Today, we await an ordering moment of a different kind. The global consequences of climate change endanger the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people. Melting polar caps and the significant decrease of sea-ice cause sea levels to rise, oceans to warm, biodiversity to drop and weather conditions to become extreme. The very different interests of today’s Great and small powers, of developed and developing countries, and a lacking sense of urgency make collaboration difficult. The Climate Conferences in Paris and Marrakech in 2015 and 2016 are important steps towards international collaboration, but it remains to be seen whether the Great Powers will be able to follow through. Smaller powers should therefore not await these Great Powers, but take the initiative themselves.

International institutions

During and after historical ordering moments the roles of Great and small powers are quite distinct. In Vienna in 1815, but also in Yalta in 1945, Great Powers created international institutions such as the famous ‘concert of Europe’ in the nineteenth century or the United Nations in the twentieth century. At the same time, the Great Powers made sure that the transfer of political autonomy to these institutions was limited. The creation of ‘the Allied Council of ambassadors’ in 1815 and the ‘Security Council’ in 1945 respectively restrained the participation of smaller powers and secured the Great Powers’ position as the ‘four policemen‘ of the new international order.


Hotspots of climate change

The consequences of climate change, as actually experienced by the world’s smaller powers in particular, might affect the preponderance of Great Powers in international politics. Many so-called ‘hotspots’ of clime change are located on smaller power territory. Water has specifically been singled out as ‘the frontline of climate change’ since river deltas are particularly vulnerable ecosystems. These are also densely populated areas. They cover only one per cent of the earth’s surface, but are inhabited by about 500 million people. Estuaries, such as the Ganges delta in Bangladesh are, and will be, confronted with flooding, coastal erosion and salinization. These circumstances endanger living conditions and sanitary and food security for millions of people. In 2014, a family fleeing from the submerging Polynesian island of Tuvalu became the first formal ‘climate refugees’ when New Zealand’s government issued them a residence permit on humanitarian grounds. For small powers like Bangladesh and Tuvalu the problem is too big to handle solitarily. Since coordinated efforts by the Great Powers to tackle the climate issue seem absent, fleeing may remain the only solution.

Demonstration for Tuvalu during the Copenhagen Climate Conference 2009, source: Wikimedia.org

Demonstration for Tuvalu during the Copenhagen Climate Conference 2009, source: Wikimedia.org

Too slow to notice?

The misguided idea that climate change is not yet impacting people’s daily lives has precluded collective action, and Great Power involvement, for decades. Global warming happened too gradually to provoke a sense of urgency and incite response. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was rather toothless, the Unites States did not even ratify it. The Copenhagen Agreement came with very little strings attached. Tellingly, over the last two decades, the environmentalist metaphor of the boiling frog grew into a cliché. The metaphor has recently been criticized because the original experiments actually involved frogs with their brains removed. Frogs with their intelligence intact, it turned out, jumped out of the pan when water temperatures reached 25 degrees.


Finally, the world may be about to jump: the general understanding of climate change’s relevance is transforming. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was the first-ever universal and legally binding global climate deal. More importantly, it was quickly ratified by, among others, China, the EU, the United States and Brazil. Multinationals such as Shell and Unilever also support the Paris Agreement and call for action. Moreover, the US military has elevated the issue to a matter of national security. Over 1500 coastal military bases on and outside US territory are in danger of submersion due to rising sea levels. Rising sea levels also excite the smaller powers, and even give rise to a unified effort to tackle this climate problem. In May of this year, the Netherlands has built on the success of Paris by launching the International Delta Commission in which twelve important estuary countries, such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Egypt, join efforts to make their deltas more resilient to climate change.

Presidents of the United Nations Climate Conference Ségolène Royal (right) and Salaheddine Mezouarduring (left) during the opening ceremony in Marrakech 2016, source: Wikimedia.org

Presidents of the United Nations Climate Conference Ségolène Royal (right) and Salaheddine Mezouarduring (left) during the opening ceremony in Marrakech 2016, source: Wikimedia.org

Forging collective action

How far can the new-found optimism stretch? The Climate Conference in Marrakech earlier this month was overshadowed by Donald Trump’s election. Official and non-official actors have urged the President-elect to support the Paris Agreement. His recent and ‘provocative’ claim that ‘there is ‘some’ link between humans and global warming’ might suggest that the POTUS-to-be is not a brainless frog. Will China, with its smoggy cities, now be the leading Great Power in confronting climate change? Perhaps, but instead of awaiting on the Great Powers to finally bring about a collaborative body that leads the climate efforts, the initiative to make significant changes may now be taken elsewhere.


The International Delta Commission exemplifies that it would be a smart move to intensify collaboration between the smaller powers that are already living with the consequences of climate change. Among them, there is a clear sense of urgency and a willingness to cooperate. Moreover, especially in deltas and international river basins, states already learned how to cooperate in international commissions. In the field of navigation, the CCNR has fostered international collaboration in the Rhine Delta for over two hundred years. More recently, collaborative initiatives in water management and ecological protection were developed along the Congo and the Ganges. Another ordering moment might thus be in the making, this time with smaller powers in the grandest seats.