Time to Get Creative: Cold War Lessons for Climate Negotiators
You might wonder what the Cold War has to do with climate change, but as
I listened last month to historian James Graham Wilson talk about the “triumph of improvisation”
that ended the nearly 50-year stare-down between the United States and
the U.S.S.R., I was struck by the parallels. The idea of individual
leaders escaping the momentum of conventional approaches and adapting on
the fly to solve a major global issue deeply resonated with me. It’s
exactly what international climate change negotiations desperately need.
There are models for such an approach. In a number of publications,
Barry Blechman, Micah Ziegler, and I have examined the example of
international weapons treaties. Efforts to control nuclear weapons also
started with UN members negotiating along highly idealistic lines (the
seeming Cold War non-starter of “general and complete disarmament,” for
example). But when the Cuban Missile crisis dramatically reminded
everyone of the dangers of unrestrained nuclear weapons proliferation,
the conversation quickly became more practical. One-by-one, smaller
agreements began to prohibit nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in
space, and under the seas; set a framework for limiting the spread of
nuclear weapons; and peel off other parts of this knotty challenge.
Smaller groups within the UN, as well as regional and bi-lateral
approaches, proliferated, even when larger negotiations floundered. The
results haven’t been perfect, but where most informed observers thought
there would likely be two dozen or more nuclear powers by the end of the
20th century, there are currently only nine.
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