By Paul Adler · On March 15, 2015
In September 1969, Nixon administration counsellor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a prescient memorandum about the rising carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Although noting the need for more scientific research to understand this trend, Moynihan felt confident declaring that it “very clearly is a problem.” He warned of a possible “apocalyptic” future if global warming caused sea levels to rise, declaring it would mean, “Goodbye New York. Goodbye Washington.”
A few years later, Moynihan (now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) again raised the alarm about an international crisis. In this case, Moynihan’s concerns focused on the challenge to U.S. hegemony posed by a coalition of Global South countries demanding the creation of a New International Economic Order (NIEO). Moynihan opposed the NIEO agenda, believing its implementation would weaken U.S. power while also proving economically ruinous to rich and poor nations alike. He thus urged the U.S. to oppose the “emergence of a world order dominated . . . by the countries of the Third World.”
More than forty years later, Moynihan’s calls to action on climate change and global development are still salient. Yet, where he saw only danger, humanity must find opportunity. For the world to effectively confront the climate crisis and end global poverty will require a new world politics – one that treats the climate crisis with the utmost seriousness, while drawing on the spirit of the NIEO to ensure justice for the vast majority of the world’s population.
Seeing climate change and development as inseparable is not a new idea, as policymakers have discussed these intersections for decades. Where such deliberations were at first framed around the idea of “sustainable development,” today’s watchword is the more pessimistic phrase, “adaptation.”. In practice, adaptation means implementing policies that deal with climate change as a problem of the present. Already, in communities around the world, local groups, international NGOs, and some aid agencies are designing development projects that can survive intensified droughts and storms. Yet, it seems unlikely that local or even national adaptation efforts can be sufficient to meet the challenges of climate change without a parallel international politics.