Covid-19 has provided a stark reminder that today’s world is both scarred by grotesque levels of inequality and populated by billions of vulnerable people. However, it has also stimulated renewed interest in “global public goods” (GPGs) and how this foundational idea might be utilized to address a range of social crises, including climate change.
Global public goods is a nice phrase, but what does it mean? The basic idea is simple: no person can be excluded from using the “good” in question. At the mundane or everyday level, streets and parks fall into the public goods category. At the global level, a stable climate would qualify, as would the means to achieve and sustain it.
A guiding principle for a GPG approach to climate protection can perhaps be expressed in one sentence: increasing emissions anywhere endangers people everywhere; reducing emissions anywhere benefits people everywhere. If this principle holds true, then the means of implementation will also either be themselves public goods or they will, almost by definition, be designed to serve the public good.
Jabbing the System
The response to the pandemic on the part of world leaders has drawn attention to the capacity of rich-country governments and multilateral institutions to take concerted action to address a global emergency. The response has given fresh lift to the concept of GPGs. In terms of public health, what had hitherto been considered politically unrealistic or “unaffordable” has suddenly become a priority.
In March 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “Covid-19 vaccines must be seen as a global public good. We see many examples of vaccine nationalism and vaccine hoarding in wealthier countries—as well as continued side deals with manufacturers that undermine access for all.”
At the global level, a stable climate would qualify [as a global public good], as would the means to achieve and sustain it.
Two months later, in May 2021, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response, co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, went further. It stated that “the international system requires fundamental transformation to prevent a future pandemic.” The Panel identified the urgent need to create a platform for “vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and supplies that can be distributed swiftly and equitably worldwide—shifting from a market model to one aimed at delivering global public goods.” Even the G7—following its celebrated mask-free meeting in southwest England in June 2021—referred to “extensive immunization as a global public good.”
The Climate Has No “Red List”
But if the GPG approach makes sense in terms of protecting everyone’s health, why can’t the same approach be taken to address some of the social crises that are perhaps more chronic and systemic? If governments can mobilize trillions of dollars to fight a pandemic, why can’t they do the same to address the climate threat? Certainly, many have noted that the implications of a pandemic-plagued world and one confronted by rising temperatures and climate instability bear similar characteristics. Covid-19 has provided a stark reminder that the political economy of capitalism is a hothouse for disease, and the world’s poor have borne the brunt of its health-related and economic impacts. Meanwhile, many of the world’s poorest are already dealing with climate instability. But there is no quarantine to protect against hurricanes and heatwaves, no “red list” that might restrict the movement of greenhouse gases from one country to the next. The latest major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) again reminds us that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying.” It is “already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways.” A global emergency therefore demands a global response.
If governments can mobilize trillions of dollars to fight a pandemic, why can’t they do the same to address the climate threat?
However, when considering responses, both cry out for an overarching narrative to anchor activism, advocacy, and (one day, perhaps) government policy. GPG could play that role. It has conceptual appeal in terms of broad principles, but it also provides a template for the development of bold proposals and effective political campaigns.
Shake Up, or Shake Down?
Implementing a GPG approach to global crises will, however, require a fundamental shift in the priorities of both global institutions and national governments. Is such a shift likely? According to Columbia University historian Adam Tooze,
It’s hard to avoid the sense that a turning point has been reached . . . Seeing 2020 as a comprehensive crisis of the neoliberal era . . . the coronavirus crisis marks the end of an arc whose origin is to be found in the 70s.
Nevertheless, history tells us that major shifts in global economic management occur only rarely, and they are produced not just by unforeseen events, but by political actors who are able to seize the opportunity to determine the direction of policy. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the impact of World War II led to the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) in the mid-1940s. Reflecting New Deal thinking, these institutions were designed to provide currency stability (International Monetary Fund [IMF]) and development assistance (World Bank) and to prevent the kind of 1930s trade wars that fueled military tensions and conflict (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, that in the 1990s morphed into the World Trade Organization [WTO]).
Thirty years later, “oil shock” recessions and hyperinflation of the mid-to-late 1970s set the stage for a neoliberal intervention that took control over those same institutions. Prominent neoliberals presided over and enforced a shift toward trade-led economic growth through the proliferation of trade agreements that favored the giant global banks and multinational corporations. As is well known, the ideological shift to the right unleashed a wave of “structural adjustment programs,” the main features of which were privatization, attacks on (where it existed) the welfare state, and efforts to limit the power of trade unions. Over time, neoliberal thinking became hegemonic in many of the UN agencies and processes, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocols.
As Tooze says, “In search of a positive agenda, centrists [have today] embraced environmental policy and the issue of the climate crisis as never before.” But centrists also have a clear view of the policies they wish to pursue, and the “turning point” they have in mind is not the one that the left can or should support. And climate “ambition” in the form of aggressive emissions reduction targets is not the same as meeting those same targets. As we will see, the global elite aims to constrain the GPG narrative, not extend it.
We’re All Stakeholders Now
If it is to shape the future, the GPG approach must overcome at least three formidable challenges.
The first challenge is the narrative lockdown imposed by dominant institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the club of billionaires, otherwise known as the World Economic Forum (WEF). Awash with enormous resources and a well-oiled propaganda apparatus, they have their own narrative for dealing with Covid-19, climate change, and other crises, namely, “The Great Reset” or, its close relative, “Build Back Better.” Countering this dominant narrative will be difficult, but it is nevertheless essential.
Implementing a global public goods approach to global crises will . . . require a fundamental shift in the priorities of both global institutions and national governments.
For WEF founder Klaus Schwab, the defining question of the current “Covid-climate” era is “What kind of capitalism do we want? If we want to sustain our economic system for future generations, we must answer it correctly.” Importantly, Schwab and the other designers of the Great Reset claim that “market fundamentalism” is a thing of the past. This is itself disarming. It is a mea culpa that provides cover for something that is every bit as regressive as the “structural adjustment” carnage in the 1980s and 1990s. In many respects, the climate dimension of the Great Reset closely resembles the “Inclusive Green Growth” framework proposed by the World Bank roughly a decade ago following the global financial crisis of 2008.
“Inclusive Green Growth” served a political purpose. It addressed the widely held view that the IMF and the World Bank were bullies, dishing out austerity and driving the most vulnerable into deeper poverty. The Great Reset is no different. For Schwab, “stakeholder” capitalism should replace “shareholder” capitalism. Sounds better, right? Either way, both assert that the fight against climate change will depend on public-private sector “collaboration,” which is essential to achieve a “resilient energy transition.”
But what makes the transition “resilient”? For this, governments need to “scale up funding and de-risk investments made with multi-year and even multi-decade time horizons. This is crucial for emerging markets and new, clean technologies, where the economics are not yet competitive with more-established energy investments.” In other words, public money will continue to be used to “de-risk” private investment and thus guarantee profits. Long-term contracts can be expected to provide a mechanism for profit-making in a manner typical of the “public private partnership” (or P3) model. This, we are told, will ensure “long-term sustainability” and “inclusive growth and long-term prosperity.”
Great Reset thinking also lies at the heart of the Biden administration’s Nationally Determined Contribution (2020) to the UNFCCC. The submission notes how “Strong and predictable policy
frameworks support private investment in innovation and deployment of carbon pollution-free technology and infrastructure, spurring markets that drive continued progress.”
The second challenge to the GPG narrative is the institutional weakness of its main advocates. In the multilateral system, the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has been something of a lone voice on the side of both GPGs and global governance reform.
According to UNCTAD, reform will require, for example, doing away with the now infamous investor state dispute mechanism (ISDM) contained in the Energy Charter Treaty. The ISDM has been used to prevent government actions designed to assert or reassert government control over energy options and prices. But the Energy Charter is just one of many investment treaties that have installed an intellectual property regime that keeps control over key technologies in the hands of large multinationals and rich countries.
Similarly, WTO rules have, says UNCTAD, made it difficult to “recognize key technologies as public goods,” and these rules should be replaced with rules that allow the world to move toward “open-sourcing key green technologies as global public goods, South-South cooperation on low-emission research and design, and green investment strategies that include technology transfer.” This means that “Increased public investment, minimum wages reflecting living costs, stronger collective bargaining institutions and universal comprehensive social protection are needed at the same time as rapid decarbonization.”
However, changes in WTO and Energy Charter rules, while a necessary precursor to a GPG approach, may not result in such an approach being pursued. Rule changes may help private interests in the South better compete with those in the North, but that’s not likely to produce the kind of turning point that’s currently needed. Moving the debate further forward, UNCTAD has successfully merged calls for a “New Multilateralism” with proposals for a Global Green New Deal. Against powerful opponents, UNCTAD is advancing a policy agenda “that rebuilds the rules of the global economy toward goals of coordinated stability and environmental sustainability, while deliberately respecting the space for national policy sovereignty.”
By clearly and consistently advocating for a GPG approach, unions and their allies in the social movements could build support for UNCTAD and others that see governance reform as an opportunity to advocate for a decisive shift away from neoliberal policies and to more effectively resist the “Great Reset” agenda.
Transformation through Cooperation
The third challenge is the need to anchor the GPG narrative in a clear set of policy proposals that might provide the basis for political campaigns and initiatives. These proposals must see beyond the reform of the multilateral system, however essential these reforms are in terms of providing the architecture for a new governance paradigm.
This is hardly straightforward. A GPG approach to pandemic avoidance and response already has a clear focus: vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and so on that can be distributed swiftly and equitably worldwide. But addressing climate change will involve radical and long-lasting changes in the global political economy—which is a humongous task, one that will entail full-on transformations of key sectors, such as energy supply, transportation, industry, food and agriculture, and the built environment.
But just as the response to the pandemic and the maldistribution of vaccines have highlighted the need to share knowledge, experience, and data, the fight against climate change will require unprecedented levels of cooperation of the kind that has for decades been impeded by the neoliberal legal architecture. As the IPCC itself has noted, “Effective mitigation [of climate impacts] will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently” and cooperation “can play a constructive role in the development, diffusion and transfer of knowledge and environmentally sound technologies.”
. . . [T]he International Energy Agency (IEA) referred to slow development and deployment of the technologies needed to reduce emissions, calling it a “public goods market failure.”
The idea of technical and other forms of cooperation becoming a global norm has a utopian ring to it, but it is surely no more utopian than the idea of “stakeholder capitalism” or “inclusive green growth.” Importantly, mainstream bodies are increasingly expressing concern about the private sector’s capacity to promote cooperation. In a 2020 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) referred to slow development and deployment of the technologies needed to reduce emissions, calling it a “public goods market failure.” It added, “The private sector has limited incentive to produce knowledge if firms cannot fully exploit the returns on their investment because that knowledge is easily available to others.”
Breakthrough or Breakdown
Both Covid and climate change have exposed deep cracks in the neoliberal order. But not all cracks lead to structural collapse, and many simply end up becoming part of the political scenery. However, there are real signs that key voices in the mainstream institutions no longer believe their own pro-market propaganda.
In an August 2021 report to mark the 75th Anniversary of the UN, Secretary-General António Guterres noted how “The balance between a global breakthrough and a breakdown scenario hinges on the choices we make now.” Based on a survey of more than a million people, Guterres’ report noted that there is overwhelming support across the global South and North for the UN to “strengthen the governance of our global commons and global public goods. This does not require new institutions. Rather, we need new resolve and ways of working together that are suited to the challenges we face.”
. . . [U]nions have already made useful contributions to developing a GPG alternative by showing how reclaiming the electrical power sector to full public ownership could help reduce emissions.
Fine words won’t change the world, but when those words are part of a language that expresses both the anxieties and the aspirations of hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of people, then a breakthrough, or a turning point, just might become real. Although much more needs to be done, unions have already made useful contributions to developing a GPG alternative by showing how reclaiming the electrical power sector to full public ownership could help reduce emissions. Partnering with UNCTAD, Public Services International, the Scottish and French energy unions, and unions in the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy network are developing a “Program for a Public, Low-Carbon, Energy Future” that is expected to be launched in early 2022. The International Transport Workers’ Federation’s efforts to promote modern public transport systems have also made an impact.
These are small steps, and no one knows where they might lead. We know that the Great Reset “stakeholder” capitalism is neoliberalism using public money to reinvent itself, and that’s a path that will surely lead to more tears and trauma. But to have a chance of turning the current historical moment into a real turning point, progressive social movements must rally behind the global public goods narrative.
2. Covid-19: “Make it the Last Pandemic by The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response,” available at https://theindependentpanel.org/expert-independent-panel-calls-for-urgent-reform-of-pandemic-prevention-and-response-systems/.
4. It is interesting that the G7 statement refers to “extensive immunization” as a global public good (GPG), not the vaccines themselves. The difference may sound innocuous enough, but
it isn’t. If the vaccines were a GPG, the next step would be to make them available to all. Immunization, however, can be defined as a public good because, if only 1 percent of a given population were vaccinated, it could still be described as a public good. Available at https://www.g7uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Carbis-Bay-G7-Summit-Communique-PDF-430KB-25-pages-5.pdf?utm_campaign=Carbon%20Brief%20Daily%20Briefing&utm_content=20210614&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Revue%20Daily.
5. IPCC, Press Release, August 9, 2021, available at https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2021/08/IPCC_WGI-AR6-Press-Release_en.pdf.
7. UNFCCC, Mechanisms Under the Kyoto Protocol, available at https://unfccc.int/process/the-kyoto-protocol/mechanisms. The three “Kyoto mechanisms” proposed to facilitate emissions reductions bear the clear mark of neoliberal thinking. With rich governments routinely failing to meet their foreign aid commitments, these mechanisms were also presented as a means of raising large amounts of capital in ways that could also generate private profit and allow the market to work its magic. The first and most important mechanism is international emissions trading (IET, often called carbon trading), and the other two mechanisms are the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI).
10. World Bank Inclusive Green Growth: The Pathway to Sustainable Development, 2012.
15. UNCTAD/Boston University: A New Multilateralism for Shared Prosperity: Geneva Principles for a Global Green New Deal, available at https://unctad.org/webflyer/newmultilateralism-
16. UNCTAD: Reforming the International Trading System for Recovery, Resilience and Inclusive Development, UNCTAD Research Paper No. 65, UNCTAD/SER.RP/2021/8.
17. UNCTAD/Boston University: A New Multilateralism for Shared Prosperity, op. cit.
20. United Nations, Our Common Agenda—Report of the Secretary-General, August 2021.
22. References to FNME/TUED/PSI/ITF.
Sean Sweeney is the director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York. He also coordinates Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), a global network of eighty-three unions from twenty-four countries. TUED advocates for democratic control and social ownership of energy resources, infrastructure, and options.