Alex Evans

About Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) at New York University, where he works on international development, foreign policy, and resource scarcity. He is currently working primarily on the post-2015 development agenda and future global climate policy, and also writing a book on psychology, myth and sustainability. He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Full biog here.

The morning after the US-China climate announcement (updated)

Never have I seen such a wave of social media euphoria as the one that swept through my Twitter and Facebook feeds this time yesterday, as news broke about the US-China deal on climate change. But now that it’s the morning after, a few quick reflections.

China’s 2030 peak emissions date may be a big deal politically, but it won’t help the climate much. Since 2000, China’s carbon emissions from energy consumption have risen from 3 billion tonnes to around 9 billion tonnes today. They’ve tripled in ten years. China’s per capita emissions are now bigger than the EU’s (though still a long way off those of the US). So forgive me for not cracking open champagne at the news that China may be willing to taper off this unbelievable rate of emissions growth in another sixteen years. I admit that the 20% renewables target is a big deal – right now China’s at about 7% – but even this still leaves plenty of space for emissions to rise as energy demand and coal capacity continue to grow.

On the US side, too, all the hype about a 26-28% cut below 2005 levels by 2025 strikes me as overdone. Obama had already committed to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. He made that announcement five years ago, at Copenhagen. So 26-28% by 2025 does no more than more or less extrapolate that forward another five years (in fact, as Maarten Hajer at PBL points out, yesterday’s commitment is actually a little less ambitious than the forward curve implied by the 2009 promise) – there’s no actual ratcheting up of ambition.

The policies and measures unveiled in yesterday’s US-China announcement are awfully thin. There’s a “renewed commitment” to technology cooperation, with no funding numbers attached. Some stuff about a demonstration project on carbon capture and sequestration, which people have been talking about for over a decade now – it’s starting to sound like nuclear fusion. More cooperation on reducing HFC emissions, which do have massive global warming potential, but are incredibly easy for China to reduce – cynics like me think that China was actively inflating them so as to score Clean Development Mechanism permits, and is only now talking about a phase out because demand for CDM permits has collapsed along with EUETS prices. There’s a “climate smart low carbon cities initiative” which is basically a plan to convene a summit. And that’s pretty much it.

It’s kind of amazing how European progressives coo about anything China does on climate, but give Europe and the UK zero credit for the vastly more impressive lead they’ve taken on climate change. There was a particular classic of the genre yesterday in an extraordinary blog post on LabourList by Sunny Hundal that called the targets of the US (which work out at 16% below 1990 by 2025) and China (emissions can rise for another 16 years) “historic” while slating the EU (40% below 1990 by 2030) as – get this – “weak and lazy”.

Even more breathtakingly, the post was entitled “It’s time Labour joined the world in fighting climate change”, without at any point mentioning the small matter that Labour passed legislation – so far retained by the Conservatives – that (a) commits the UK to an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, (b) frames this in terms of a legally binding carbon budget, and (c) mandates an independent Climate Change Committee – of scientists, mark you, not politicians – to monitor progress and advise on whether the carbon budget needs to be tightened. (“Where is Britain? Nowhere”, the post concludes.) Would that the world followed Britain’s lead by setting a global carbon budget, and creating an independent monitoring body.

On which note – regular readers will have seen this coming several paragraphs ago – this is still, as it always has been, about the need for a global carbon budget, which (as usual) no-one is talking about. Instead, the UNFCCC process lumbers on, with its usual focus on something called “momentum” (whatever that is) as opposed to actual results. Not one person I know in the UN process expects Paris to agree a global plan for limiting warming to 2 degrees. Not one.

I was talking last night to a veteran climate negotiator from a developed country government, who observed that the climate priesthood has, for years, been having far too nice a time meeting up every six months for drinks and per diems. No one wants the party to end. There is no sense of urgency. No real deadline. She’s absolutely, 100% right. I started going to UN climate summits when I was a student. Next summer I’m 40. And the conversations in Warsaw last winter had basically not moved on since the first one I went to in the Hague a decade a half ago.

The only way this will ever end, she continued, is if policymakers give them six months to work out a solution, and make clear at the outset that at the end of this period, they can all piss off home. For good.  She’s right about that too. This is what they should agree, on a full global basis. I’m really not sure what else there is to say.

Updated: news is just emerging that there are some flickers of discussion of a carbon budget in the UN process. This has the potential to be a much bigger deal than the US-China announcement – more on this later.

How about this as a headline outcome from the Addis FFD summit?

Here’s a conundrum if you like riddles: how on earth is next summer’s Finance For Development summit in Addis Ababa supposed to take account of the vexed issue of reform of international financial institutions?

On one hand, the issue is almost impossible for the summit to ignore. IFI reform is a key ‘systemic issue’ in financing for development, and one that figures prominently in the Monterrey Consensus that emerged from the first FFD summit over a decade ago.

On the other hand, though, what exactly can governments say about the issue? An IMF reform package has already been agreed, after all – the problem is that it’s logjammed in the US Congress, and the results of the midterm elections have done nothing whatsoever to change that.

But what if, at Addis next July, European governments made a formal declaration that the next Managing Director of the IMF should be from a developing country – preferably, but not necessarily, matched by a declaration from the US that the next President of the World Bank should also be from the South? (Christine Lagarde’s five year term ends in July 2016; if Jim Kim also does a five year term, as Robert Zoellick did, then he would be due for replacement in July 2017.)

This declaration wouldn’t cost the EU (or US) any expenditure. It wouldn’t require approval by their legislatures. But it would send a real statement of seriousness about IFI reform by overturning the conventions of a European to run the Fund and an American to run the Bank.

Moreover, it would also be an outcome from the summit that would lead the front page of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal the following day – something that wouldn’t happen if the key summit outcome is (say) better targeting of ODA, or a new investment facility of some sort.

The key likely objection to the idea is that it would be at odds with the idea of merit-based appointments. I take that objection seriously, and especially agree that it would be essential to avoid the posts of IMF MD and World Bank President becoming subject to regions ‘taking turns’, as they already do on the post of UN Secretary-General.

But on the other hand, the EU and US already had positions saying they supported merit-based appointments before the last appointments to these jobs, and then promptly put forward Lagarde and Jim Kim – which didn’t exactly make them look open to breaking with tradition.

The political bottom line here is that IFI reform is one of the few issues within the post-2015 ‘means of implementation’ agenda that the BRICs actually care about. And the BRICs are already showing their frustration at the glacial pace of change with the creation of their new BRICs Bank.

If governments have nothing to say on IFI reform at Addis, then there’s a real risk that it’ll look like they’re simply giving up on the reform agenda. But by sending a strong message about continued commitment to change in spite of the awkward squad on Capitol Hill, the EU and US could take a big step towards changing the difficult political mood on post-2015.

The NGO campaign I’ve wanted to work on for the last 15 years (updated)

Tearfund has always been one of my favourite civil society organisations – above all because they have such a great track record of being a ‘pathfinder’ for other NGOs. They had climate change as a top campaigning priority long before most other development NGOs had really started to engage with it, for example. And now I think they’re about to do it again – with some deeply exciting work they’re doing on their future advocacy and campaigning strategy (which I’m involved in as a consultant).

Tearfund’s starting point in this work is a pretty radical one for a development NGO: a recognition of the basic paradox that the more the world succeeds on development, the more it fails on sustainability.

It’s a point we see most vividly in the fact that those countries deemed to have finished this process we call ‘development’ – developed countries – are also those with the highest per capita environmental impact. But you can see it as well in the fact that those countries that have seen most poverty reduction in recent decades are also the ones where emissions have risen fastest; China’s per capita emissions are now higher than those of the EU, for instance.

One purpose of their ‘Horizon’ project, then, is to start imagining what it would look like for us to move to an economy that was both just and sustainable – at all levels, from global policy right down to what it would mean for individual families. (You can read a background think piece that sets out some of our early thinking and ideas here – n.b. it really is just a think piece, and not in any way a statement of Tearfund policy.)

At the same time, the project also has a second purpose: exploring the new kinds of influence and change that will be needed to unlock change on this scale. Tearfund have recognised very candidly in their internal thinking that traditional ‘insider’ lobbying strategies will have limited power here. (Having spent the past ten years trying to support change in the multilateral system, I’ve reached a similar conclusion myself.)

Instead, alternative approaches will be needed – ones that propagate different norms, built new kinds of movement, create new coalitions for change, and use environmental, social, and economic shocks to fuller effect.

To help get this process underway, we ran a couple of fascinating conversations in London last week with various leading thinkers from government, think tanks, other NGOs, and business. Oxfam’s Duncan Green, who participated in one of the events, has written up a blog post with some reflections here. I distilled some of my own take-aways in a talk I gave at Tearfund after we’d run the two conversations, which you can read here.

Update: Green Economy Coalition’s Emily Benson, who took part in the other event from Duncan Green, has blogged her reflections on the conversation here.

The best climate change movie yet

Here’s the trailer for the new climate film Disruption, which came out earlier this month. As Upworthy summarise, “he sat down in a cold, grey room and proceeded to scare the hell out of me”. You can watch the full film for free here.

 

ISIS and the moral level of warfare

With all the atrocities that ISIS has visited on the people living in the territories it’s overrun in recent months, the humanitarian basis for military intervention in Iraq and Syria looks clear cut. What’s much less clear is whether the West’s strategy of airstrikes has any prospect of achieving its aims – especially given the risk that it will end up being actively counterproductive.

Start with the West’s stated objectives, listed by President Obama on 7 September on Meet the Press as (i) blunting ISIS’s momentum, (ii) degrading its capabilities, (iii) shrinking the territory it controls, and (iv) ultimately defeating them. What are the prospects for airstrikes achieving these aims? Here’s counter-insurgency writer William Lind:

Physically, the president’s strategy relies on air power. The reasons air power alone will fail, as it always has, are many. The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids. They will lose any specialized military equipment, but they don’t depend on that.

For an air campaign to be effective, it must act in cooperation with competent ground forces. In Kurdistan, those exist. They do not exist elsewhere in Iraq, as the disintegration of the Iraqi army demonstrated. Shiite militias will fight, but are usually poorly trained and bring moral baggage, as noted below. There could be an effective ground force working with our air power in Syria, in the form of the Syrian Arny of President Bashar al Assad and its highly competent ally, Hezbollah, but President Obama has ruled that out for ideological reasons. The “moderate Syrian opposition” he wants to rely on consists of twelve men living outside Syria in luxury hotels. It is a chimera.

But while it’s hard to see how the West’s airstrikes strategy will achieve its stated aims, it’s much easier to see how it could work to ISIS’s own advantage. As Lind continues later in the same article (emphasis added),

By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.

This concept of the moral level of warfare – first described by US military theorist John Boyd – is crucially important, and for hard-edged military reasons. As Lind put it in another piece back in 2003 (again, emphasis added):

To the traditional levels of war—tactical, operational, and strategic—Boyd added three new ones: physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical, operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other.

Our armed forces focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies’ successes on the strategic and moral levels, and we lose.

I’m a passionate supporter of the principle of humanitarian intervention. Back when I was a special adviser at the UK’s Department for International Development, I pushed as hard as I could for the UK to come out in support of formal UN recognition of the Responsibility to Protect.

But knowing why we should intervene in a conflict is not enough. We also need to know what we propose to do and how that will achieve the desired results. (It’s not as if there’s any shortage of examples of how badly things can go wrong when our intervention plan doesn’t extend much beyond “something must be done”.)

So when someone asks me “well, what would you do?”, I’d have to say: Nothing, militarily, at this stage. Not because I don’t see the humanitarian basis for intervention, but because I struggle to see military options that have a realistic chance of creating the effects we say we want to see – whereas I can easily see how they might make things very much worse, by winning physical battles but losing the moral level of the war.

By contrast, if airstrikes will just bolster ISIS’s legitimacy, its history and its recent actions give good reason to suppose that it’s perfectly capable of destroying its own legitimacy. Remember, after all, that ISIS is to a large extent the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – a group that counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen uses as a case study of a group that was ineffective at retaining control over its populations. As he writes in his book Out of the Mountains,

AQI is an excellent example of the brittleness that can result from too narrow a spectrum of capabilities. AQI established a terrifyingly effective ascendancy over the Sunni population, but because this dominance was based entirely on fear and coercion, it had no resilience. As soon as the [US] surge created a minimal assurance for people that they would survive the attempt to turn against AQI, and as soon as coalition forces in Anbar demonstrated that they could kill or capture members of AQI cells, the myth of AQI’s invincibility was shattered and the people turned on AQI in a flash and swept it away. And because the terrorist group had little to offer but fear and intimidation, it had no way to counteract or bounce back from its loss of control.

ISIS appears set to make similar mistakes this time around – look, for example, at reactions (like this) from even ultra-conservative Salafist imams to its threat to kill British hostage Alan Henning. But the West looks set to make a lot of the same mistakes as it did during the Iraq war, too.

I’d like to think that our actions on the ground were based on a clear theory of influence, above all recognition of the need to win legitimacy among Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria. But it’s hard to have much confidence in that given how little Western governments did about either repeated chemical warfare attacks by the Assad regime in Syria – a situation where airstrikes might actually have been able to achieve something – or the venality and vicious sectarianism of the Shiite regime in Baghdad.

Similarly, I’d like to think that smart minds in the Home Office are working on a sophisticated influencing strategy to engage with British kids who’ve seen YouTubes of horrific atrocities against their fellow Sunnis and want to do something about it. Again, though, it’s hard to be hopeful of that while David Cameron is strutting around characterising those kids as “psychopathic terrorists who are trying to kill us”.

Back in 2008, David Steven and I wrote an essay entitled Towards a theory of influence for 21st century foreign policy, in which we quoted Osama bin Laden’s mischievous assertion that “it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’ own goal”. Here’s hoping the West plays a smarter – and subtler – game this time around.