When we talk about coming together to address global problems like climate change, what does a united international front even look like?
On September 9, scientists and other protesters involved in the Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched their latest direct action by marching daily on the Utrechtsebaan, which is part of the A12 highway around the Hague, in the Netherlands. 2,400 protesters out of around 10,000 were detained by police on Saturday, and a further 500 were detained on Sunday. XR participants are calling attention to national subsidies of the oil and gas industry: public funds for extractive economies responsible for the vast majority of climate change.
There have been nonviolent protests before, and there will be protests (nonviolent or otherwise) again. But underlying these acts of civil disobedience is an appeal through direct democracy for a deeper order of conversation around climate change. The People with their governments. The government with each state’s private industries. And the government with other governments, too.
The Hague is home to the International Criminal Court, one of humanity’s many attempts at the creation of political supra-structures: a “higher” level of public accountability, in a world of disparate nation-states and ideologies. We’ve been trying to advance international law and relationships that serve more of humanity for hundreds of years now. Has it ever been successful?
The struggle perhaps began in Europe, when Spain shocked its known world by encountering a “new” one. Far from Christopher Columbus just being “of his time”, his brutality was sharply rebuked by his contemporaries: people in Europe trying to make sense of the existence of non-Christians living in faraway lands with resources Europe wanted. Were they people? Did Spain and the Church have a responsibility to claim and convert them? Queen Isabella I and then King Ferdinand II issued royal orders for how Indigenous people were to be treated, as subjects under the crown’s protection, but a bit of parchment isn’t worth much to those busy enslaving, torturing, raping, and murdering for material profit halfway around the globe.
This was among our first run-ins with the difference between declaring something into being on paper, and… actually seeing it manifest in the greater world.
It would not be our last.
In the mid-20th century, scholars pitched the idea that the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 had been the starting point for notions of state sovereignty, and the foundation for modern approaches to international peace. This academic idea was more myth than accurate representation of the concerns actually hashed out around the treaties that ended the Thirty Years’ War, but so what? A mythic history still tells us a lot about contemporaneous priorities. When the story first took root, we’d already seen the League of Nations flop, and we didn’t know if the United Nations, signed into being after a war that revealed the worst of us to ourselves, would do any better. Telling stories about a long tradition leading to this transformative moment can help build confidence and excitement around the change itself.
Has the UN succeeded?
Even during the UN’s launch in 1945, the world found itself freshly pitched into a Cold War that would haunt subsequent decades: ideological conflict draped around material interests, playing out via extravagant military operations. Through our decades with the UN, we have certainly achieved some excellent showmanship, and at least normalized the practice of annual conferences where countries meet to hash out security and finance issues, climate change reforms, energy policies, and joint strategies for combating poverty and disease. UN peacekeeping operations, while imperfect, have also lessened some of the trauma in our deeply hurting world.
But the power of that Westphalian myth, with its idea that states could only develop better working relationships by first shoring up personal sovereignty, speaks to our twinned tension, when trying to live globally and locally in the world. Many of us want to respond to international problems more directly, as a broader collective of average human beings just trying to get by, but we also still view the primary actors in our global conversations as nation-states.
Yes, even when billionaires have become blatantly central figures in foreign affairs (say, through direct ownership of vital satellite equipment in war).
Even when entrepreneurs, far from showing fealty to their states of origin, leverage competing state standards to set up shop wherever makes the most financial and legal sense (at least, until their crypto-empires still come crumbling down).
And even when human beings still take to the streets together, united by common cause and trying to be heard not just by their governments, but also by other humans frustrated with various forms of state oppression and inaction.
As a self-proclaimed global humanist, I sorely want our species to remember that we are a family eight billion strong. I want us to remember that we all have such fleeting existences on this fragile lifeboat of a pale blue dot, and act accordingly.
But how does one apply such an ideal?
How can and should we meet each another on the global stage?
Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020) is a speculative near-future novel that also tries to bypass state projects to talk to average citizens. In proposing concrete strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change, it aims to reach people in positions of power, and also people feeling helpless from other social roles. Policy-makers might eye the volume from their desks, while in meetings with other people in power, and push the conversation toward greener policy. Average citizens, fresh from reading about carbon coins, might inform their local businesses about the possibilities of carbon sequestration for financial gain.
Literature like this is a different way of trying to unite the world.
But is it enough? That’s what we’re asking in this week’s Humanist Book Club. What does it actually mean to create a more global response to climate change?
The Ministry for the Future: Climate change strategies and challenges for review
- Quantitative easing: Is real carbon sequestration under capitalism possible?
- How do we make protests work for climate change reform?
- Do we have the technology to ease our melting ice sheets?
- Eco-friendly transportation? The good, the bad, and the pipe dreams
- The struggle for a more global response to climate change
- Can we ever truly combat climate change in a world at war?
- Fair taxation, or: How to spare billionaires from terrorist attack
Early in The Ministry for the Future, we get the novel’s namesake. Not every author can get away with huge chunks of exposition, but Robinson is among the few who do:
So at COP29, held in Bogotá, Colombia, the Parties to the Agreement created a new Subsidiary Body for Implementation of the Agreement, as authorized by Articles 16 and 18, to be funded using the funding protocols outlined in Article 8, which bound all Parties to the methods outlined in the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. The announcement said:
“Be it resolved that a Subsidiary Body authorized by this twenty-ninth Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the parties to the Paris Climate Agreement (CMA) is hereby established, to work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and all the agencies of the United Nations, and all the governments signatory to the Paris Agreement, to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. This new Subsidiary Body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protect.”
Someone in the press named this new agency “the Ministry for the Future,” and the name stuck and spread, and became what the new agency was usually called. It was established in Zurich, Switzerland, in January of 2025.Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)
In writing, verisimilitude goes a long way to creating a sense of authority. And this recitation of formal language and public report sounds feasible, doesn’t it? Colombia is currently run by a green-energy-driven leftist president. Recent UN climate change conferences have already seen members from the developing world push for much more accountability and proactive response. The financial mechanisms for funding a whole new subsidiary body dedicated to preemptive defense already exist. So… this future doesn’t seem entirely off the mark, does it?
But in Robinson’s highly technical language is also the mark of wishful thinking. Pay close attention to this line:
This new Subsidiary Body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protect.
You see the problem, don’t you? (You dear US readers most of all, after the fraught few years you’ve had politically.) There are many ways to gamify and derail the concept of “defending all living creatures present and future”. Robinson’s book takes for granted that this basic premise of the subsidiary body will be respected in its original, climate-change-oriented formation… but when has recent history ever given us reason to trust in good faith readings of political documentation?
In 2022, Chile tried to pass the world’s most ambitiously “green” constitution. This, too, was a document that made grand, sweeping claims about legal obligations to protect nature and future generations. But the motion failed, because it was set up to fail. This giant, intricate document had been drafted by an assembly of people from all walks of life, then reduced to a simple Yes/No referendum on the whole of the text. Although other stages in the process came closer to direct democracy than the world usually sees in the crafting of a constitution, the absence of a more nuanced referendum at the very end of the process opened the whole attempt to the usual political gamification. Single-issue voter campaigns. Scaremongering. Express misrepresentations of what the text actually said.
Robinson offers us a “cleaner” political future: one that’s facing global disaster unevenly, but at least soberly. His Ministry for the Future doesn’t get mired in social media whisper campaigns. Legacy media isn’t hyperfixated on the personal scandals of its members. You don’t have certain political parties raging on podcasts at its very existence as a sign of global “socialist tyranny”, and winning over alarming numbers of the voting public with negative press.
And yet, even if a new international body were somehow spared the usual sound and fury of our infotainment news cycles, it would still have a huge challenge on its hands: how best to deal with individual member-states dead set on tackling climate change in their own way, to hell with global consensus.
Even if at cost to everyone else.
After the Indian heat wave that frames this book’s haunting opening chapter, depicting brutal death counts within a wretched wet bulb incident, the Indian government is itchy for local solutions to the climate change crisis.
It chooses solar geoengineering: spraying aerosols into the stratosphere, to diminish the amount of solar energy reaching the ground in the first place. This is a risky short term solution that some feel necessary, and others feel will introduce too many further unknowns into an already difficult environmental context. We could lower our global temperature for a bit. We could also accidentally reduce crop yield, and trigger other difficult weather cycles.
But if the international community is going to keep dragging its feet on climate change response, while people in your own neck of the woods are dying off by the tens or even hundreds of thousands… wouldn’t the risk seem worth it, to you?
We flew most of our missions over the Arabian Sea, so the prevailing winds of late summer would carry the stuff over India before anywhere else. We wanted that, it was for us we were doing it, and some felt we might also avoid some criticism by doing it that way. But soon enough what we released would get carried by the winds all over the stratosphere, mostly in the northern hemisphere but eventually everywhere. There it would be deflecting some sunlight.
… Global effect was said to be like Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991, or some said a double Pinatubo. The total release was taken to the stratosphere in several thousand individual missions. … That was a lot of work. Of course it was a pretty small effort as these things go. And if it helped to prevent another heat wave, it was worth doing.
We knew the Chinese hated the idea, and Pakistan of course, and although we flew only when the jet streams were running toward the east or northeast, there were times when those countries lay in the path of dispersion. And all over the world people pointed out that the ozone layer would get hurt, which would be bad for everyone. Once a heat-seeking missile flew right by our plane, Vikram dodged it at the last minute, the plane squealed like a cat. No one ever found out who shot it at us. But we didn’t care. We did what we were told, we were happy to do it. Everyone had lost someone they knew in the heat wave. Even if they hadn’t, it was India. And it could happen again, anywhere in India and really anywhere in the world.Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)
This isn’t the only response India takes up independently, of course. Its government also nationalizes the rest of local energy companies, massively pushes to dismantle the caste system, and launches state-driven innovation campaigns for energy reforms. But something about the air makes the above policy choice much more meaningful, and concerning. What India chooses to do in its skies affects other countries in a way much easier to grasp, and protest, than what it chooses to do with its mining operations, waterways, and other terrestrial resources.
Meanwhile, a radical group in India (which we’ll return to in part seven) declares economic war on the world: no more using Indian labor and materials for external projects. The group does everything it can to disincentivize outsiders from investing in environmentally unsound production processes on Indian soil.
Is this last a grassroots movement rising up to defend itself from government failure to do more? Or a state actor using a radical front for plausible deniability, while pushing for more aggressive changes to India’s international trade relationships than the government can ever announce on its own?
Maybe a better question is: Does the difference matter, when the result is the same?
An uneasy peace: global groups and local actors
Ultimately, India’s fringe group is not alone as a radical actor on the global stage. Early in Robinson’s novel, we find out that the Ministry for the Future has a “shadow” group of its own, to support official UN missions while sustaining a veil of legal ignorance for its public-facing membership. And in part because of this “shadow” group, this imagined near-future UN ministry succeeds in many of its ventures, even if it has to play state rivalries and anxieties off one another to advance its global policies.
Meanwhile, what happens in Robinson’s imagined India is striking. The people, frustrated with Congress and the ruling party, push for change that ushers in an era of multiple parties in highly collaborative partnerships on the national level. One Indian region, Kerala, offers a new template for governance structures: a “high-functioning state … devolving power to the local” through a “state government alternating in a scheduled way between Left and Congress leadership”.
Land reform and agrarian innovation likewise can’t help but transform technology, industry, and politics in lockstep: together, the transitions in land use and local partnerships create new arrangements between laborers that do away with old class divides. The result, from local action groups all the way up to national governance structures, is a “polyglot coalition” that leaps India ahead politically, and makes “China, who so decisively stepped onto the world stage at the start of this century, look dictatorial, monolithic, brittle, afraid” in contrast.
All of which raises a bigger question: When we create new political supra-structures to deal with global problems, what existing structures are they actually unifying?
Is it as a group of distinct, sovereign nation-states that we’ll come together to form our global response to climate change?
As corporations, and through our changing market allegiances to them?
As billionaires, and in our public (in)toleration of them?
As individuals, gathered in action groups and mobilizing around shared interests?
The answer, for now, is “Yes. All of the above.”
But maybe this inclusive an answer isn’t serving us as well as another could.