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Climate Action Dialogue: Becoming Better Humans

Published onOct 26, 2023
Climate Action Dialogue: Becoming Better Humans

In this dialogue between Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and renowned climate fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, we discuss the geopolitics and economics of global climate action, stress the need for international institutions and arenas to coordinate climate action and adjudicate disputes, and consider whether human rights is a helpful foundation for addressing the climate crisis.

Introduction: Finding Hope

Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR): Zeid, it’s good to see you again, and just to explain to our readers, we met at COP26 [editors’ note: the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021, in Glasgow], where you were one of my teachers—my principal teacher.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (ZRAH): Thank you, Stan. I’m delighted to be part of this conversation.

When I was serving as UN Human Rights Chief, there were many facets to the job which were uplifting. There’s real heroism in human rights and people taking the most extraordinarily courageous actions in opposing repression, oppression, violence, and injustice. But also you see the malevolent side of the human character. My wife would always remind me that to find hope, you need to keep moving. There’s this movie that my children used to watch when they were younger, Finding Nemo, and one of the characters, a small fish, has this refrain: Just keep swimming—so long as you keep swimming, you have hope. I think that’s what animates all of us, and your writing in particular allows us to believe the destinations are there.

Empowering the Referees

KSR: I’ve been following up The Ministry for the Future [editors’ note: his renowned 2020 near-future novel about humanity rushing to contend with the disastrous impacts of the climate crisis through a messy tapestry of international cooperation, from carbon sequestration and renewable-energy transitions to financial maneuvering] with an endless stream of events. It’s never happened to me before. Usually I write a book and put it out there and go on to the next one. That has not been true in this case. So I’ve been trying to follow up—what can I bring to the conversation that’s new, beyond what’s covered in the book itself?

For one: the petrol states, those nations on this planet that rely crucially on their fossil-fuel income to function as a government. They can’t do what they were doing before, or else the planet is cooked. They’ve even signed the COP agreement that says that they won’t. But they’ll now go bankrupt and they’ll have social disruption, and then your refugee problem for UN Human Rights will be exacerbated to a fantastical degree. One thing I’ve been talking about that is appalling to many people is that we are talking about trillions more dollars to compensate the petrol states to give them an exit ramp to break their addiction to fossil fuel sales and ramp down. As I’ve been saying, this will have to be discounted, it’ll have to be amortized over decades, and it’ll have to be entailed by requirements that they become [United Nations] Member States in good standing. I have an essay in Noema Magazine1 that lays out the lineaments of the problem.

Everybody shudders at this problem, and yet it seems to me it’s real. I’ll bring up Colombia. When [President] Gustavo Petro and [Vice President] Francia Márquez were elected [in 2022], they said, Look, we want to stop selling our coal, and Colombia is the fifth biggest coal producer in terms of nation-states. But, they said, we’ll need financial help. And I don’t see them getting it. And then also, Alberta. It turns out that in Canada, the provinces have the rights to their fossil fuels way more than the nation-state, and Alberta has been living large off of its oil, and now its tar sands. There’s good governance, and there’s a willing population there, well educated, that perhaps, if they knew that they weren’t going to crash financially, would be willing to keep it in the ground, as they say.

The other thing I’ve been pursuing since Ministry is this notion of slowing down [the melting and sliding of] the glaciers in Antarctica to preserve sea level, which is being pursued by glaciologists. It’s a minor expense compared to what we’ve been talking about so far, really a matter of just a few billion a year to drill through those glaciers and suck the water out from underneath them. You would need a navy like the U.S. Navy. You would need people repurposed from the oil industry to aid the glacial slowdown project. It’s exactly the same expertise, and even the same equipment.

ZRAH: I wonder whether you’ve given thought also to the fact that some of the oil and gas producing countries, like Norway, have quite large sovereign wealth funds that function as a future guarantee against an imploding economy. Other nations don’t have these funds, and so I wonder how one would approach that.

There is also the required change in the way that we approach international systems as such. Ministry depicts how the colossus that is climate change will hit us very quickly. Some of the modeling suggests that we will hit 1.5 [degrees Celsius of global warming] by 2030, or close to 2030, and then, when we hit 1.7, the changes could be extremely profound. I was listening to a program the other day saying that researchers at the University of Reading in the UK have identified an increase in clear-air turbulence for air travel by between 17 and 55 percent over the North Atlantic during the last decade, as a result of climate change.2 And so flying, especially internationally, becomes more perilous, given the wind shear that occurs at altitude.

What you’ve suggested is that because of this universal pressure that we’re going to experience—if we haven’t experienced it already, it is coming—we essentially become better human beings. All of us become better human beings because we can’t possibly solve these problems in a mindset that is of the past. It is a mindset of the future, and it’s a way of approaching these issues rather differently.

One of the most profound changes that we will need to see happen is to move into the space of accountability rather decisively. You address this in Ministry, and I think making that move will be tough. The way to think about it, in my mind, is through the metaphor of a professional sports league. When you look at a league, where does the power reside? Where the power resides is in the owners of the franchise. They have all the money, so they can buy and sell players. From there, power resides in the star players. They have enormous reach, and they’re very rich as well. Okay, so who is the referee who is officiating these high-stakes sporting events? You might see the name. You don’t know anything about them. You don’t know what their income is. Clearly the officials are going to be paid much less, they have no status outside of the stadium, and so you can argue that they are very weak. But they’re not, because, of course, during the game they award the points. They assess the penalties and police infringements on the rules, and they can send players off. So, on the court or field, inside the stadium, they have enormous power.

We need a UN or another international organization—a universal organization—that is like that, a referee or umpire, housed at or hosted by the UN. Most of these international agreements, whether they deal with maritime law or shipping or international communications, weight standards, measurements, have a refereeing entity like this. For flights, it’s the International Civil Aviation Organization. For climate, in terms of a referee that is willing to call governments out, we’re not there. This has to change, and governments have to accept that they give this power to an international body, which will hold them to account if they are delinquent or defaulting on their commitments. We know that civil society already does this, along with people like yourself, the press, political opposition within these nation-states. But it’s at an intergovernmental level that we need it to happen.

KSR: I’ve heard this formulated as moving from the nation-state to the Member State. And most major countries are Member States of the United Nations. But there are certain nations who consider that to be merely notional. The European Union is crucial as an exemplar of what this Member State status would look like, and with all of its faults and problems, the EU is one guideline for how the world could become a union of a similar sort, and give some sovereignty to a larger body to solve this problem. This is where the United States and China, if they were to agree to be Member States in good standing, they would lead by example, and that would be a crucial move.

Going back to the function of the referee, I’ve heard other people describe the function of the UN through another sports metaphor. The sport is golf, and the nation-states are the golfers, with some of the more prestigious and wealthy states being the star golfers. And the UN people say, we’re just driving the damn golf carts from one hole to the next. In other words, they have no regulatory authority, no ability to punish. If the UN climate agency, the golf cart driver, were to say, You are to be punished for breaking this rule, the golfer would simply say, Well, I don’t believe in that rule, and walk off. So yes, we need a change in political consciousness to a stronger sense of global membership in this shared planetary problem. It’s a transformation in the structure of feeling, as [cultural theorist] Raymond Williams calls it.3 I wonder if this happens by osmosis, or by everybody paying more attention to world history. Or the feeling of danger and dread might spark something new, combining up by the millions into a kind of populace, or a multitude.

ZRAH: What you have tried to suggest in your literature is a sort of rekindling of the Thor Heyerdahl idea [editors’ note: Heyerdahl was a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer who led the Kon-Tiki expedition, aiming to demonstrate that lengthy sea voyages would have been possible for ancient peoples]: you’re on a raft, and no matter where you come from, if you believe you are in peril, you will find a way of working together even if you’re under stress, because if the raft overturns then everyone suffers. There’s a sort of primal instinct within us that will force cooperation at some stage, and I think what you’re urging everyone is to say, Look, we have to be serious about this now, and if we are, we can actually turn the corner. It’s difficult to know the exact sequence, all the little steps in between, how we get from here to there. But we need the willingness to give it a strong go, and not to give up.

This reminds me of two things. First, of this wonderful book published in 1936, by Cecil Arthur Lewis, Sagittarius Rising, which is a lyrical account of his experiences in the first World War. He makes reference in one passage to the invincibility of man’s stupidity. I think he meant humans, but he says “man,” so maybe that’s the more appropriate way of looking at it.

That, in turn, reminded me of an epiphany I had thirty years ago. I flew to Germany to meet the German Foreign Minister, as part of the UN peacekeeping operation in Bosnia Herzegovina, in the former Yugoslavia. And we couldn’t land in Erfurt [a city in central Germany] because of ground fog. So we flew to Weimar, and we were circling over Weimar and it was drenched in sunshine, staggeringly beautiful, and we were looking down at the central part of the town, and thinking this town is associated with the heights of German literary enlightenment: Johann Gottfried Herder [an eighteenth-century philosopher and theologian], Friedrich Schiller [an eighteenth-century German playwright, poet, and philosopher], and of course Goethe all lived there. As the plane was circling over, to the northwest, there was a cloud bank that was sort of over this hill, basically hugging the top of it. And it was all dark, and it was Buchenwald [the World War II Nazi concentration camp]. My epiphany was this: that you can focus on our brilliance and the ingenuity of the human mind, but every now and then you’re confronting the bestiality as well. And I think we need, in the climate crisis, a few revolutions without the bestiality.

We need to work our way into a space where we can build relationships of trust, which are too easily torn asunder by some stupidity that we contrive as being in the interest of a small group against the countervailing interest of the whole. It will require some thought and some engineering. It’s an effort to keep the geopolitical dynamics at bay long enough to strengthen the synapses, to give these forms of cooperation a chance to breathe. We need to be doing two things at the same time: continuing to invest in climate action but somehow keeping that other side at bay.

KSR: Following up on what you just said, it occurs to me that the feeling of fear having increased, this feeling of being on a raft that could tip, has driven a couple of really good developments that I found startling in the extreme, even astonishing. The COP for biodiversity in Montreal [editors’ note: the UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15, in December 2022], where the Chinese forced a 30 by 30 treaty through that everybody signed. Well, that’s astonishing and it’s huge news. If 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is protected for our fellow species by the year 2030, then this is a gigantic step, and maybe it’s like what you’re saying, it’s a new synapse in the world brain that can succeed. And then the other agreement is for the oceans, same thing, similar process—if 30 percent of the oceans are not fished by the year 2030, that will go a long way towards dodging the mass extinction event [editors’ note: this agreement, the High Seas Treaty, was formally adopted by the UN in June 20234]. Why are these remarkably good things somewhat underreported by the world of media? People seem to focus on bad news. They look at Buchenwald and they ignore Weimar, or they forget it, or they take it for granted. But in this case, these two gigantic things have happened in the last year, underreported but huge. They are just promises, and you spoke to me about this [at COP21] in Glasgow, that this is a system of promises, there is no sheriff.

If we live up to our promises out of fear, and then through a kind of mutual aid, then we could indeed squeak through. And so I’ve taken heart a couple of times in this long process. For you, it’s been thirty years, for me, it’s been three. I don’t know how you do it.

The Role of Storytelling and Moving Beyond Silos

EF: What is the role of storytelling in affecting these changes? Building on your insights about Weimar and Buchenwald, when we talk about imagining the future, we’re talking about things that can be named and said—what things we make visible, and invisible, through our shared imagination. With respect to climate action, what we’re doing right now is to take things that seemed impossible twenty years ago and move them into a space of possibility. So, what stories, scenarios, and visions of the future are currently helping to move the needle in terms of climate policy? What are some of the new stories that we need to confront the climate crisis effectively?

ZRAH: My wife likes to tell me that we’re often trapped in the three O’s: ego, silo, and logo. We live in an era of intense specialization, highly technical knowledge, and you only have to take a person steeped in one area and move them a fraction of an inch outside of it, and they’re lost. So, to solve these problems you need gifted generalists: those who have expertise in quite a few different areas all at the same time. They can form chains of knowledge that produce the sort of originality of thinking that can solve problems. Not that the technical specialists aren’t needed, but often they’re so deep in their domain, it’s difficult for them to see outside of it.

And we need to ask some questions that cut across these silos. For instance, why is it that we have a highly developed international human rights system and a relatively poorly developed international health system, or a poorly developed climate system? We have the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is of tremendous importance, but we don’t have a Climate Change Council to comprehensively organize intergovernmental cooperation. We don’t have a permanent body evaluating voluntary declarations and commitments around climate action. And one has to ask why this is the case. Why can’t we just have a system that is competent and efficient across the board?

What’s so brilliant about literary thinkers like Stan is that they are able to ask these cross-cutting questions, to transport us into these areas that we don’t previously know anything about. When he writes about pumping water from underneath the sliding glaciers in Ministry, I had never thought about that issue before, but Stan was able to take me there. If you don’t have a background in finance and economics, Stan can take you into those rooms, and he can also give us a visualization, in almost a tactile sense, of a deadly heat wave in Uttar Pradesh, which is a staggeringly powerful scene. That’s the power of fiction, as well as well-crafted nonfiction: to convey to readers like myself the immense work that needs to be done and what’s at stake, but also to fill us with the sense that we can actually do it. That climate action is not beyond the possible, but also appreciating the large amount of work that we need to do.

KSR: I appreciate that very much, Zeid. I will say that I wrote Ministry for the Future specifically as a best-case scenario that you could still believe in as you read it. So there would be no break point, no crevasse or wall, where the reader would say, No, that that can’t happen. You can be beguiled over the course of thirty years, with things going wrong all along the way and yet, still, a good result at the end, because of the good things overwhelming the disasters. So it’s been obvious to me over the past three years [since the book’s publication] that people are really hungry for that story: the story of us getting to a good place by legal means, by the ordinary workings of the institutions that we already have, governmental, nongovernmental, financial, all of them combining, so that you don’t need superheroes, you don’t need magic, you don’t need outlaws, you don’t need the supernaturally competent and intelligent super-heroic human that saves us all. Instead, you see the systems that we’ve already got operating at their best. The hunger for that story is intense.

It's been the strangest thing in the world for me to gather with groups of experts—this speaks to what you were talking about in terms of being stuck in your silo, your specialty. Say I’m speaking to a group of bankers, or to military planners inside the Pentagon, or talking about regenerative agriculture with a group of organic farmers. Well, it’s ridiculous on the face of it. They all know more about the topic I’m speaking to them about than I know. It’s like the bad dream that you have where you’re standing up naked in front of a group of people, and you haven’t done your homework. But this is what I think happens. These people, when I say to them, Well, what do you think? I’m seeing in your field movement in this direction, and can you please speculate on that? Everybody wants to generalize. They want to get out of their silo and talk across, horizontally, to everybody else working outside of that silo. They become science fiction writers in this sense. They want to plan, to talk about future possibilities. They don’t get that opportunity often enough. My appearance is giving them permission to become generalists, to become science fiction writers, to talk about what things mean and how to get there. Everybody does this in their personal life; it’s not as if people are bad at it. They’re actually quite good at it, because everybody’s done the science fiction exercise for themselves, and they move outward from there.

The Refugee Crisis and Universal Rights

KSR: About fifteen or twenty percent of the text of Ministry for the Future is about the refugee situation, what it’s like to live in those environments. But very few people comment on that part of the novel. It’s as if nothing can be said, that we’re looking into a hole too dark to contemplate. Or people look away, even though it’s one-fifth of the text.

ZRAH: There’s a part of Ministry that really struck me, about the establishment of a sort of universal international citizenship. There’s a character in the novel who, upon learning that she could finally go home, she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to or not. Having spent so long in a refugee camp, she wasn’t sure that she could trust the opportunity. What does it mean to trust other human beings? And is it truly possible that she could go home, even though she could go anywhere else as well, with this new international status. It gets at this idea of rethinking belonging: perhaps in this future, belonging to a territory or an identifiable nationality becomes less important than identifying with the globe as such. The human race, one home. What would it mean to see ourselves, beyond our local governments, as humans with universal rights, and to have those rights not just broadly understood, but upheld?

Of course, it strikes fear in the brains of many when you raise the possibility of moving to this sort of global governance. But perhaps there is a way of making it less frightening. As you touch upon in the book, blockchain technology could be the modality through which banking in the future could be much better developed across the entire globe, with less opportunity to hide money and avoid taxes. We could use tools like this, as part of climate action, to move towards a just society, to use the climate scare to produce better human beings in ourselves and collectively. I’m sure this is your intention, and let’s hope it comes to pass.

A Human Rights Framework for the Climate Crisis?

EF: To close out our conversation, does human rights provide a framework to contend with the climate crisis? We don’t currently have a good imaginative structure to contend with the vast, abstract, slow-rolling disasters of climate change. Would it be more useful to frame the climate crisis of it as a human rights issue, to tell stories about it and regulate climate action through that paradigm?

ZRAH: The system for international human rights involves nine major agreements, like the United Nations Convention Against Torture [editors’ note: the Convention Against Torture came into force in 1987] and then a series of other related treaties, in the form of additional protocols around these agreements. You have a UN Human Rights Council that meets year-round, evaluating the records of all 193 countries. It’s a universal peer-review system that is continuously in motion. Aligned to this, you have a group of eminent academics, special rapporteurs who produce independent reports. All of this then connects to regional human rights bodies, to national human rights committees, independent organizations, and then civil society and governments. It’s a complete system in which you have peer review, independently produced reports, people like me when I served as UN Human Rights Chief, being loud and putting pressure on governments through oral statements—sometimes being very critical. That all adds up to a fairly well-developed system. When you look at climate, you have the Paris Agreement, which is rightly a very important agreement, and you have the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but it leads to a major event that meets just once a year, then you have the IPCC, which is oriented primarily towards showcasing the latest research and scientific knowledge. You don’t have a system that meets year-round, evaluating constantly the performance of countries in real time, and that’s what we need. We need high-resolution understanding of the effects of climate change in each country in real time, to inform where the money needs to go to support climate action, and to ensure that countries and agencies have access to those funds. This kind of system would enable us to see the climate crisis, and responses to it, as a global issue, and not one for each individual nation-state.

KSR: There’s a very good book by Robert Meister, Justice Is an Option, which is hard to understand but important.5 Meister means option in the financial sense. His idea is that nation-states could force international finance to give up some of their ill-gotten or artificially gotten gains to pay for justice itself, in the form of universal basic income or basic social services. We’ve seen that this can happen when there’s an emergency like COVID, but then things snap back to the way they were.

This is where this latest Nicholas Stern paper comes in, starting with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.6 If you were to raise the poorest humans, the lowest quintile in terms of wealth, out of inadequate services and immiseration, that would also help to address the climate crisis. Stern and his coauthors estimate a global investment of $4 trillion per year to create justice and human rights, with everyone at adequacy, and decarbonize and address the climate crisis at the same time, because global climate action is a full-employment project. Everybody is needed. It will be essential to get everyone into a decent job, doing meaningful work. This all comes together into a global climate action project that we can describe. Whether we can execute it is a matter of focused day-to-day work—the long march through the institutions, as Raymond Williams puts it. The long march through the institutions is indeed long, but now it needs to go faster, so we’ll see what happens.

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