Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Faculty News History

Without Accords, Goals to Curb Global Warming are Toothless and

DC Journal

Opinion Piece by Jo Guldi, a professor of history and a faculty member of the Data Science Institute at Southern Methodist University. Guldi is the author of “The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights.”

A month ago, COP 27 (the 2022 U.N. Climate Change Conference) had its last session.  What did it accomplish? A fund was set up for rich countries to pay for climate-related disasters in poorer nations. But the basic answer to the question of what COP 27 accomplished, now as in previous years, is still this: not much.

No new climate targets were agreed on. Meanwhile, most nations fail to meet the climate targets they agreed on in 2021. At COP 27, representatives at the congress released statements praising the potential of the renewables sector, essentially engaging in public prayer that the invisible hand of the market will present a solution. They frittered away a long and expensive opportunity for states to do something.

Today, the most specific and efficient plans for addressing climate change require national regulation in the form of land-use planning. In his book “Drawdown” (2017), Paul Hawken outlined land-use, agricultural and building policies that could limit carbon and keep us on the track to 1.5 degrees Celsius. These plans have the power to limit emissions and avert catastrophe. But enacting them requires using conferences like COP 27 to amplify states’ power over how land is used.

Land-use planning is hardly a radical solution; it’s part of the story of building codes and utilities planning in most modern countries over the last century.  The hand of government regulation is familiar in many other parts of everyday life, including the speed limit on roads and the requirement that all new buildings have roofs and running water.

There’s also a deep history of international cooperation around land management where the United Nations has taken an active role in previous generations. In the middle of the 20th century, some administrators at the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) noticed that a global wave of postcolonial rebellions was bringing with it demands for reparations in land to correct the land confiscations of European empires in centuries past.

Experts at the FAO recommended global land redistributions, or “land reform” —  a systematic remapping of the parcels of land the world over to ensure that every child born into a poor family in India, Africa and Latin America would be entitled to a small, farmable plot of land.

In the middle of the 20th century, such a scheme required an unimaginable investment in surveying and technology. An effective program of international land reform meant coordinating a global program of soil mapping so that one peasant’s 5-acre farm wouldn’t be loam while another’s was dry rock. A truly effective program would require much more — including roads, a seed exchange program, and global exchanges of information from agricultural science.

The FAO organized it all, and the maps, bibliographies and seed catalogs were swirling around the planet until the 1970s when U.S.-supported policies at the World Bank effectively pulled the plug. The episode of land reform as a whole offers a distant mirror to the activities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Environment Programme.

What would land-use planning in the name of climate solutions look like?

Consider the case of the fires in the rainforests of Brazil as another species of a moral storm — and one that stays the hand of effective legislation. The market can provide no solutions in Brazil so long as the property is disputed and the quarrels over ownership are innumerable. To whom do the forests belong — to the settlers burning forests for agricultural land? To the indigenous people who live there? Or to the planet as a whole? From the point of view of the market, the burning of the rainforest can’t be solved.

Yet there are solutions to dealing with the dilemma in Brazil. They require skillful working with land-use regulations, planning departments and property law. Since the 1970s, laws for governing land as commons have been enacted in the form of fisheries treaties and forest management plans worldwide. These precedents offer important support to climate policy today. Treating rainforests — and indeed fresh water and the atmosphere — like a commons is a natural extension of the changes in property law over the 20th century.

We live in a pro-market era but skeptical of using the state, even when the state’s action is urgently needed. But there is a long tradition of states managing land to make the world more livable. We urgently need those solutions now. READ MORE