Back in 2007, Martin Wolf wrote an opinion piece in the FT in which he noted that,
“…the biggest point about debates on climate change and energy supply is that they bring back the question of limits. This is why climate change and energy security are such geopolitically significant issues. For if there are limits to emissions, there may also be limits to growth. But if there are indeed limits to growth, the political underpinnings of our world fall apart. Intense distributional conflicts must then re-emerge – indeed, they are already emerging – within and among countries.”
Wolf might equally have mentioned other resource scarcity factors such as competition for land, water scarcity and global food security, where similar worries and questions apply. But is he right that the issue of limits necessarily leads to a world of zero-sum games, resource nationalism and intensifying competition for dwindling resources? And if that outcome isn’t set in stone, then what kinds of multilateral action are needed in order to prevent it?
These are the questions at the heart of a new Center on International Cooperation report of mine out today, entitled Globalization and Scarcity. It tries to avoid falling into the usual trap of playing ‘fantasy multilateralism’ – imagining what a perfect international organogram for managing these issues would look like, which countries would sit on which new decision-making bodies, whether a new World Environment Organisation is needed and so on – and instead takes a much more functional approach that starts by asking: what is it that we actually need the international system to do in order to manage an age of growing scarcity?
With this framing in mind, the report looks at four key areas for action: development and fragile states; finance and investment; international trade; and strategic resource competition between states. In each case, it sets out where global (as opposed to regional, national or local) action is needed, and then identifies a range of actions needed in order to manage scarcity, grouping them into those that could be undertaken in the next year or two; those that will require greater political heavy lifting, and consequently need more time; and various underlying questions and issues that will need to be resolved along the way.
The report also marks the first published output of CIC’s program on Resource Scarcity, Climate Change and Multilateralism, which David and I are both heavily involved in – do visit the program’s homepage on CIC’s website, or this summary of what we’ll be looking at and who’s on the Steering Group.