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We need a global government of land, air and water

Foreign Policy News

Jo Guldi is a data scientist, historian, and Associate Professor at Southern Methodist University. Her newest book, “The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights, 1881-1974 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022),” became available April 19.

Polls show that two-thirds of Americans believe that the government should do more to combat climate change.  Over the past decade, the People’s Climate March (2014 and 2017), Extinction Rebellion (2018-21) and the March for Science (2017) have come and gone without achieving systemic reforms or creating political mechanisms . That’s because Americans have only been thinking about America. To fight the unprecedented, planetary challenge of climate change, we need politicians willing to run on a platform of international solidarity that claims Earth as a space for human life.

Parochialism is entirely understandable. Climate change in the abstract is made real at home, literally.  All Americans, particularly indigenous, ethnic, and working-class Americans are near the brunt of climate change: they inhabit landscapes made toxic by corporate dumping or easily flooded by increasingly violent storms. Yet Americans’ experience is not unique. The same issues elsewhere articulate a global emergency. 

Housing that was once public in Britain and Europe has been bought at record levels by corporations associated with private equity. Among the biggest social movements of 2021 were the Punjabi farmers of India who demanded government support of small farms, which have been shown to be more ecologically sustainable than large ones.

Around the world, communities have gathered on data about ecology: environmentally-caused cancer and rates of air pollution. Some developed their own early warning systems for storms and other disasters. Through their work, international connections between housing, climate, and displacement have become visible.

Governing land represents a crucial step for repairing our harm to the planet.  Drawing carbon from the earth’s atmosphere requires massive changes in land use, including conservation agriculture, indigenous peoples’ forest tenure, and peatland protection. 

National governments can’t effectively coordinate binding resolutions to limit carbon and mandate sustainable land use on the urgent timeline we need, as we have seen while nations fail to meet their pledges to the IPCC to reduce carbon.  Building a coordinating infrastructure at the international level would save each nation from having to do the work of building the expertise to monitor and act on the data of toxic land pollution, atmospheric pollution, and water pollution. International coordination would also protect the cause of climate change from sabotage at the national level by populists and dictators.

Most readers will be familiar with the case for international government as a tool for corralling dictators and limiting human rights atrocities.  While less familiar, the case for international governance as a tool for limiting displacement by governing land and water is also strong.

At three points in the last century, a global movement united people of many nations behind policies and even new governments, courts, and bureaucracies charged with the administration of justice in land and water. 

At the beginning of the 20th Century, revolutionary governments in Ireland and Mexico presided over the mass turnover of land from aristocrats to peasants, rolling back the landlord system typical of empire and installing sustainable systems of capitalism. Their work formed a model for later postcolonial reformers in Egypt, India, and beyond.

At the end of the Second World War, soldiers returned from overseas, where they had interacted with other working classes, to find insufficient housing in their own cities. In Paris, London, and New York, urban leaders responded by setting out plans for affordable public housing, built and managed by governments on behalf of the people. The period that followed in the U.S. is well known for increasing rates of home ownership, spurred by government-backed mortgages.

As European empires began to fall apart after WWII, the United Nations and allied institutions found themselves working at the crux of burgeoning nations in the developing world, striving to support themselves.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization helped former colonies to buy and redistribute their land, providing small farmers with advice about seeds and irrigation, and supporting local governments in their efforts to map the land.

Each of these efforts made incredible strides. The last one is especially of note because, today, timely, global, coordinated action to limit carbon emissions would be possible with the reform of the United Nations into a centrally-coordinated, participatory institution tasked with the twin goal of fighting displacement of the world’s most vulnerable people and fighting against climate change.

Voluntary pledges to cut carbon, further climate summits, and billionaire flights to explore outer space will not save us. A refashioned UN, however, may unify working people of distinct identities with the goal of keeping the planet inhabitable. And that only comes through thinking internationally. READ MORE