Climate Change Helped Global Cooperation. Will Coronavirus Undermine It?

Nives Dolsak, Aseem Prakash & Nicolas Wittstock (Department of Political Science. University of Washington)

Climate change and Coronavirus are global problems. The former encouraged global cooperation (although the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement) while the latter seems to create “us” versus “them” dynamics among countries. Would Corona-nationalism undermine global cooperation in the future?

Climate change is a problem of the overuse of a global common, the atmosphere. Because countries cannot unilaterally solve the climate problem, international cooperation is required. In 1992, climate cooperation began with the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). With the 1998 Kyoto Protocol, global climate cooperation was formalized. Every year national leaders meet at the Conference of Parties (C.O.P.) meeting. Scientists work together as an international team in the IPCC.

Coronavirus pandemic is affecting every country. It has disrupted global supply chains. Social distancing has caused a worldwide economic recession. Unlike climate change, the globality of Coronavirus has not bred global cooperation. Instead, it has sparked “us” versus “them” fights in several ways.

First, countries have closed borders to non-nationals even before initiating domestic lockdowns. The U.S. unilaterally banned travel from 26 European Countries, subsequently including the U.K. and Ireland as well.

Second, Coronavirus initiated a blame game among countries on who caused it. The U.S. blames China while China blames American soldiers who visited Wuhan in October 2019. For the U.S., the prevalence of unregulated “wet markets” in China allowed the virus to jump from bats to human beings. The U.S. further alleges that China played down the severity of the problem and did not share data in time with the global community. This anti-China rhetoric has led to the racially-motivated attacks on Asians in the US, Britain, and Australia.

While this sort of finger-pointing takes place in climate change as well, especially between “old” polluters” and “emerging polluters,” countries have found ways to address these issues. For example, the UNFCCC has adopted the principle of “shared but differentiated responsibility,” which puts greater responsibility for climate mitigation on “old” polluters.

Third, Coronavirus is encouraging countries to disrupt trade cooperation. Many governments, 69 according to the University of St. Gallen study, have blocked exports of medical supplies by refusing export licenses. The United States has demanded that 3M Corporation sends N95 masks exclusively to the U.S., even when they are produced abroad. India initially banned (but has now relented) the export of 26 pharmaceuticals, including Hydroxychloroquine, which is touted as a possible cure for Coronavirus.

Even worse, export restrictions are now accompanied by domestic procurement policies. Just like steel jobs, the United States wants to bring the pharmaceutical industry back home. For reference, the U.S. has a staggering level of dependence on China for pharmaceuticals: 97 percent of U.S. antibiotics are sourced from China. President Trump wants the U.S. government to purchase medical equipment and drugs from US-based manufacturers only.

Interestingly, import dependence has not encouraged “America First” policy on climate issues. The U.S. imports most of its solar panels and wind turbines. It completely relies on China for the imports of “rare earths” which are critical for electric cars.

Fourth, the Coronavirus is instigating an R&D war among countries. The Trump administration attempted to buy a German biotech company, CureVac, allegedly to corner the market for a potential vaccine. The company ultimately declined the offer. This incident was met with condemnation and outcries of national pride across German newspapers and social media.

Fifth, international cooperation is helped when international bodies play a leadership role. Unlike the IPCC, which is the source of global scientific and policy information on climate change, the WHO, is struggling to stay relevant in the Corona crisis. Even the global field trials for drugs to treat Coronavirus via the WHO’s Solidarity project are getting scant attention.

Future Ahead: More Global Cooperation or Less?

Will the “go-it-alone” mentality fostered by Coronavirus undermine global cooperation in other issue areas? It is possible that after November 2020 elections, the U.S. might re-engage with the world. But one should not depend only on this political event; a more durable institutional solution is required.

International cooperation survives when there is “deep” institutionalization. For public health, this requires that the focal international organization, the WHO, make sure that it appears to be an independent body.

Public health cooperation could be facilitated if there is a forum where national leaders regularly meet. The annual Conferences of Parties to address climate issues play an important role for climate cooperation. Another example is the annual meeting of I.M.F. and World Bank Governors, central bankers, and finance ministers, which allows for a regular high-level dialogue on economic issues. If global cooperation on pandemics is to be strengthened, a platform is probably required to facilitate an annual meeting of heads of states, or at least health ministers. The WHO is probably running low on legitimacy to organize this event. Perhaps the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust together could organize an annual World Health Forum, akin to the World Economic Forum in Davos, to create a platform for this purpose.

Acknowledgement: This blog post draws on a commentary published on (11 April 2020).

Nives Dolsak is Stan and Alta Barer Professor in Sustainability Science and Director of the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs. Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor and the Director of the Center for Environmental Politics. Nicolas Wittstock is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at University of Washington. All are at the University of Washington, Seattle. DISCLAIMER: Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of the University of Washington, nor any funding body.    

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