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Alternative global visions

By Peter McMahon - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002


At the very same time the World Summit on Sustainable Development – focused mainly on alleviating world poverty and dealing with global warming - was under way in Johannesburg, the man who seems to be the actual President of the United States, Dick Cheney, laid down the Bush doctrine regarding military intervention in other countries by the United States.

In essence it appears that, in direct contravention of the usual bases of international relations, the US claims the right to use military force anywhere it sees a possible threat.

It is rare that history offers such obviously contrasting visions of the future simultaneously, but we should be aware that what is being presented is two alternative visions of the reconstruction of society at a global level - otherwise known as globalisation.

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Johannesburg is the spiritual child of Rio and Kyoto. At these meetings a completely new form of social development on Earth was proposed, built on the realisation that humanity’s problems are now global in character and have to be dealt with on a global basis, through global cooperation.

Nations could no longer pretend that only their own interests mattered.

So, just as this principle of social change is becoming established with the most profound implications for the future, along comes the most ideologically defined US administration in decades. Which, starts talking as if the world has shifted back to the ‘bad old days’ before World War Two, when military power was the final arbiter of world events.

Although there is still debate about the specifics, the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists agree the planet faces critical pressure due to global warming. Unless it is dealt with, projections suggest that any hope of economic progress will be wiped out within decades; due to the costs of climate change and subsequently human civilisation. Then life itself will be threatened by out-of-control global warming.

Unlike previous problems of international urgency, such as the arms race, this problem cannot be negotiated away. It will not disappear if we stop thinking about it.

The Rio summit in 1992 was the first time that the world’s nations met under the new concept of global responsibility for a global problem. Later the Kyoto Protocols were developed in 1997 to begin action to deal with global warming.

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Critics (such as Australian environment minister, David Kemp) have pointed out that the Kyoto regime – which basically aims at lowering greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 to 1990 levels - will make little actual difference to the progress of global warming. Of course they are right. There are estimates that it will take up to a 50% cut in current greenhouse gas emissions to actually prevent serious global warming.

But this misses the point. Kyoto is in fact, what is called in international relations, a confidence building measure. It is a framework in which countries act, and in so-doing show that cooperation can work.

This is particularly important these days because the growth of globalisation has emphasised the competitive relationship between nations. Attempts at remedying climate change must therefore deal with the free rider problem, so an overarching regime of cooperation must be put in place to share the costs.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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