So Let Us Seize Power Then!

International policy could be a strong engine of transformation to put a limit on climate change. But policy is already failing because of its own conditions. Beyond those disappointments, there still remains enough space for uncoordinated yet effective forces.

By Hans-Jochen Luhmann

Translated from the German by: Bianca Gerards, Olympia Klassen, Annika Marie Wagener and Franziska Friedrich

Within nation-states, power is exercised through law. In a nation-state structure with several levels, which has existed within the European tradition of modern times, the rule “rank always wins” always applies. Domestically, this applies to all levels of a nation-state, but it does not apply to the relation between nation states and the United Nations. In this case, the exception applies that law has no power – international law is not based on the power to push something through. Not even WTO

Global Policy as UN Policy

In the context of climate change, Canada’s recent move reminded us of this. Canada wanted to use its oil sands and also took this route. By doing so, it completely neglected its international commitments on national emissions limitations. A muted apology was all that was heard.

This process shows something general. It is often not clear enough that international climate policy is dependent on the foreign policies of nation states. However, the respective foreign policy of a nation state is a function of its domestic policy. From this we can deduce the following: a successful coordination of national domestic policies with respect to their foreign policy goals is beyond realistic expectations, at least where important national issues are concerned. Thus, a chaotic and irrational streak does not only exist on the level of the UN but also or in particular regarding the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

The actual driving force of international climate policy lies in the national domestic policy– thus within us, on our level. We are powerful! This sentence is important. It is not an act of auto-suggestion. You only have to understand it the right way. It does not say that we are omnipotent, that we have the power to enforce the desired or needed outcome the way we want it. It is not like that. But reflection suggests: there is no leverage point that is more powerful than this one – the national domestic policy. At the moment, the climate concern only has limited influence within domestic policy. This has to be changed!

Our usual act of mentally pushing away the conditions of reality – with us being part of the scene – expresses our longing for something and quite rightly so. The example of climate policy shows us that there is a need for a global domestic policy. A successful global domestic policy is a condition for the continuing existence of humanity in general and thus for a successful climate policy in particular. However, this insight is no reason to cover up the fact that global domestic policy today is not a political reality, but a utopian concept of policy. This tension has to be endured – in both directions.

On the one hand, it is not legitimate to be disappointed if a difference between what should be and what is  is the result – it is expected to be the norm. Anyone who expects an unlikely event has to do what the word already suggests – they have to wait.

On the other hand, one way to disguise the utopian is to try to pursue utopian concepts through political reality. EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger recently provided an example for this. According to media reports, he just distanced himself from the minus-40 percent goal of the committee of the EU Commission that he is part of. For him, a “global commitment”, in other words a global climate agreement, is a condition for EU-wide and therefore national climate policy. However, one has to resist the temptation of utopian policy. Therefore, one has to stay sober and pursue practical politics.

Global Policy as Realpolitik and Imperialistic Policy

International climate policy is of course not just conceivable as UNFCCC policy. There are also conventions of Realpolitik concerning real imperialistic politics. These are also applicable in the interest of global climate policy – but sadly also against it.

It is part of the nature of imperialistic politics that the goal is to apply them extraterritorially. This aim conflicts with the principles of the UN, which is an assembly of the governments of ‘sovereign’ territorial states. According to the definition, these states have the right to rule on their territory without external intervention. Real world powers, such as the USA, use this political approach virtuously and successfully, while disregarding this right. Laws valid outside the US territory are, for example, regulations against money laundering or the Foreign Account Tax Compliant Act (FATCA) which forces foreign banks with branches in the USA to report data on overseas accounts of US citizens to the American tax authorities.

The predecessor of the UNFCCC, the UN Regime for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, was put into political practice in the form of a club approach with a strict commercial penalisation of all countries that would have refused to join – so all countries joined. The outstanding sanctions, together with the authority of the USA behind it, were simply too strong.

This is the approach that the EU wants to enforce with its 20-20-20 targets of 2008 and 2009 respectively that are extremely ambitious and innovative regarding global politics. The EU determined four extraterritorially applied double fields and policy approaches. A fifth approach – the most extensive with external protection through equalization payments for ‘dirty’ manufactured goods from abroad – only made it to the draft level but not into the final version. At this point, fear of their own courage arose.

The first two measures dealt with emissions that resulted in advance from imported fuel–this was specifically directed against Canada’s tar sands and agrofuels from sources at adventurous locations in South East Asia and South America. In measures three and four, the EU set regulations on emissions that are emitted in regions of the earth’s surface that are ownerless with respect to the jurisdiction of the UN – at sea or above the oceans. The EU assessed these emissions in the course of its flagship project on international air traffic. This traffic is accountable for about one third of the global air traffic emissions – and the EU included this in its emissions trading system starting in 2012. It sounds courageous. 

But this courage has already been lost because the USA, China, Russia, India, Japan and others decided on a catalogue of economic countermeasures that could give you the shivers. For example, the EU decided to back out of its foray into an imperialistic political approach regarding its international climate policy. The European Union is giving up on the concept of its foreign policy on climate change. Approaches to dealing with maritime shipping and fuel quality can no longer be implemented. Since the EU gave up on its plan, it is clear that imperialistic political approaches in climate policy are reserved for the USA and China; and the EU accepted that. What is left is for international climate policy to influence the domestic policies of the USA and China.

What is left: Globally Uncoordinated Approaches

So the options of worldwide political coordination are extensively discussed. I can think of only two more options that would be worth being put to the test again. There would be a) the proposal of Nixon that the topic ‘environment’ should not be handed to the UN, as it was implemented at the Conference of Stockholm in 1972, but to the NATO. And b): The approach of the UNFCCC focuses only on the demand. Additionally, the supply of fossil fuels, the phasing out of it, could become an instrument of internationally coordinated policy.

What is left then, is uncoordinated – yes, this is also possible at an international level. I would like to take up three of these issues.


There are two things that characterise infrastructure: it is the most durable capital good and it normally complements technologies that consume energy. In infrastructure there is almost complete independence from (international) competitive pressure and market values as well as – despite globalisation – freedom of structuring on a regional basis. And also the misleading by, for example, short-term market values for CO? can be easily avoided: investments can be made according to CO? prices that correspond to the costs of damage, i.e. they exceed today’s merely misleading market values. In developing countries, whose projects are financed by international development banks, the financing states have already imposed this regulation on the receiving states. It seems reasonable that we apply this smart rule as well– we can learn even from developing countries.

Let’s take our buildings as another example. Their energy demand is regulated by law. The relevant paragraph states that each building is to be constructed in a way that it does not consume more energy than is economical – details are stated in a regulation. If it is assumed in this regulation that within the next few decades the oil and gas prices valid at the moment remain constant, even nominally, and CO? prices are ignored, then with this maxim alone, these environmental pollutants are produced in the energetic design of the buildings like those we have, for instance, in Germany – not to mention in Great Britain. Today’s enormous need for reconstruction is already produced; it is nothing more than the result of an unprofessional interpretation of law over the last 40 years. It does not take much to avoid this at least in the future. Only common sense which is used on a global level.


The development of technologies is a central motivator and bearer of hope. I think from the perspective of the end: I cannot imagine that we will have solved the climate issue, having greenhouse gas emissions of zero or from year 2070 on even ‘negative’ emissions, with CO? prices of approximately EUR 100 per tonne and more, with a system of leadership based on the control of the CO? currency – more or less without misuse. The leadership to come cannot achieve anything better than today’s control of financial flows – anything else would be an illusion. There will always be small farmers and mafia-like structures that will find a loophole in this system of leadership.

I only see a solution if climate-friendly options are made more competitive than climate-damaging ones. The change of the competitive relations has to come from technology development. The policy of technology development satisfies these requirements only partly in a traditional way, but in the end they do not really fulfil them. A rather qualitative leap is needed for that. One of those leaps was the development of photovoltaics through the German Renewable Energy Act (EEG). For the repetition and transmission of that, the requirements of this success have to be closely examined. It is not enough to simply say that it was due to the EEG. I would like to point out four of the requirements:

Modularity is crucial;

It has to be accepted that development and market introduction are dependent on each other – when they are ripped apart according to the old concept, the requirements for success are destroyed;

This is why it is extremely expensive. And the budgets of classical R&D policy cannot afford it. In this respect, an international need for coordination is due;

It is not possible to do so without at least temporary protection from external influences in the international trade, as it has been done with e.g. the patent principle. What happened to the German photovoltaic industry is a catastrophe for the acceptance of such a large-scale form of technology development.

Model of Society/Sufficiency

At the end comes probably the most difficult one. But also the most promising.

With the fossil-based industrial society, Europe has created the model of a society that is, from a global perspective, a role model without peer – which is an incredible success for a ‘brand’. At the same time, this describes a central mechanism of climate change – even if it is here the negative, climate-damaging side: the mechanism of role model and realisation, the urge of following elites – and then of the crowd – to become part of a model of prosperity, of demonstrated status symbols of wealth, erotic and power. This mechanism works regardless of the reification of the status symbols. In this way, the energy of becoming part of one of the abovementioned can be easily used to change the image whose copy people try to match variously. The mind has to change, that is all. This is what we call sufficiency at the Wuppertal Institute in Germany.

Dr. Hans-Jochen Luhman is a Senior Expert at Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany. This article is a slightly adapted excerpt of his speech at the KLIMA.FORUM NRW to the topic Ohne Grenzen: Effektive Klimapolitik von Essen bis Brüssel (‘without limits: effective climate policy from Essen to Brussels’) on 30 January 2014 in Düsseldorf, Germany. In factory S/HE – Gender, he recently wrote about a biography of the environmental pioneer Rachel Carson.

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