‘Politics as Usual’ Will Never Be a Solution to the Current Climate Threat (or to Nuclear War)


C.J. Polychroniou interviews Richard Falk | DWF News - TRANSCEND Media Service

(Commentary added by Roger Kotila)

[DWF NEWS editor Roger Kotila has taken the liberty to add “nuclear war” to the title of this article, which discusses the idea that “politics as usual” will never be a solution to climate threat. And included throughout (in red) are his views from the perspective of the Earth Constitution/Earth Federation movement.]

17 Feb 2022 – There is an ever-growing consensus that the climate crisis represents humanity’s greatest problem. Indeed, global warming is more than an environmental crisis — there are social, political, ethical and economic dimensions to it. Even the role of science should be exposed to critical inquiry when discussing the dimensions of the climate crisis, considering that technology bears such responsibility for bringing us to the brink of global disaster. This is the theme of my interview with renowned scholar Richard Falk. (Roger Kotila commentary: There is a growing number of people who believe that nuclear war is the “greatest” threat to humanity.)

For decades, Richard Falk has made immense contributions in the areas of international affairs and international law from what may be loosely defined as the humanist perspective, which makes a break with political realism and its emphasis on the nation- state and military power. He is professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, where he taught for nearly half a century, and currently chair of Global Law at Queen Mary University London, which has launched a new center for climate crime and justice; Falk is also the Olaf Palme Visiting Professor in Stockholm and Visiting Distinguished Professor at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, University of Malta. In 2008, Falk was appointed as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. He is the author of some 50 books, the most recent of which is a moving memoir, titled Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim (2021). (Roger Kotila commentary: Richard Falk is a world citizen and top notch World Patriot. He is a courageous truth teller who, as UN Special Rapporteur, reported on the oppression by Israel of the Palestinians.)

C.J. Polychroniou: The climate crisis is the greatest challenge of our time, but, so far, we seem to be losing the battle to avoid driving the planet to dangerous “tipping points.” Indeed, a climate apocalypse appears to be a rather distinct possibility given the current levels of climate inaction. Having said that, it is quite obvious that the climate crisis has more than one dimension. It is surely about the environment, but it is also about science, ethics, politics and economics. Let’s start with the relationship between science and the environment. Does science bear responsibility for global warming and the ensuing environmental breakdown, given the role that technologies have played in the modern age? (Roger Kotila comment: Climate change is a great challenge which will need help from science, but nuclear war is even a greater challenge as we must end war itself. Both climate and war need to be dealt with at once. The present global war system will obstruct the necessary scientific steps needed to deal responsibly and effectively with climate change.)

Richard Falk: I think science bears some responsibility for adopting the outlook that freedom of scientific inquiry takes precedence over considering the real-world consequences of scientific knowledge — the exemplary case being the process by which science and scientists contributed to the making of the nuclear bomb. In this instance, some of the most ethically inclined scientists and knowledge workers, above all, Albert Einstein, were contributors who later regretted their role. And, of course, the continuous post-Hiroshima developments of weaponry of mass destruction have enlisted leading biologists, chemists and physicists in their professional roles to produce ever more deadly weaponry, and there has been little scientific pushback. (Kotila: Albert Einstein concluded that only world government could save us. These days many scientists are using their expertise to make nuclear weapons for first strike and for use in conventional warfare. Lawrence Livermore Lab located near San Francisco is part of this so-called nuclear “modernization” Life Extension Program (L.E.P.) according to Citizens Watch, but which DWF NEWS labels the Pentagon’s Life Extinction Program.)

With respect to the environmental breakdown that is highlighted by your question, the situation is more obscure. There were scientific warnings about a variety of potential catastrophic threats to ecological balance that go back to the early 1970s. These warnings were contested by reputable scientists until the end of the 20th century, but if the precautionary principle included in the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972) would have been implemented, then certainly scientists bore some responsibility for continuing to work toward more capital-efficient means of finding technological applications for oil, gas and coal. As with adverse health effects, post-Enlightenment beliefs that human progress depended on scientific knowledge inhibited regulation for the benefit of the public good. Only when civil society began to sound the alarm were certain adjustments made, although often insufficient in substance, deferring to private interests in profitability, and public interests in the enhancement of military capabilities and governmental control. (Kotila: Insufficient? Profit over people has been disastrous. The military-industrial-covert operations complex is out of control. The US is not in the defense business, it is in the War Business. The so-called UN “Security” Council P-5 veto powers, supposedly for peace and security, are the world’s leading weapons dealers. The world has suffered war after war after war despite the launching of the United Nations in 1945.)

Overall, despite the climate change crisis, there remains a reluctance to hamper scientific “progress” by an insistence on respecting the carrying capacity of the Earth. Also, science and scientists have yet to relate the search for knowledge to the avoidance of ecologically dangerous technological applications, and even more so in relation to political and cultural activities. There is also the representational issue involving the selection of environmental guardians and their discretionary authority, if a more prudential approach were to be adopted. (Kotila: Good point. Scientists have learned how to destroy the world.)

C.J. Polychroniou: The climate crisis also raises important ethical questions, although it is not clear from current efforts to tame global warming that many of the world’s governments take them seriously. Be that as it may, how should ethics inform the debate about global warming and environmental breakdown?

Richard Falk: The most obvious ethical issues arise when deciding how to spread the economic burdens of regulating greenhouse gas emissions in ways that ensure an equitable distribution of costs within and among countries. The relevance of “climate justice” to relations among social classes and between rich and poor countries is contested and controversial. As the world continues to be organized along state-centric axes of authority and responsibility, ethical metrics are so delimited. Given the global nature of the challenges associated with global warming, this way of calculating climate justice and ethical accountability in political space is significantly dysfunctional. (Kotila: National self-interest often betrays the world public interest. The Earth Constitution calls for a World Parliament representing “we, the people” of the world. The design for its “House of Peoples” is for 1000 electoral districts to represent the world’s 7.9 billion people, and offers a broader view of what needs to be done than the current UN system which gives rich and powerful nations too much authority over global affairs. Too often a nation’s selfish self-interest harms the world community at large.)

Similar observations are relevant with respect to time. Although the idea of “responsibility to future generations” received some recognition at the UN, nothing tangible by way of implementation was done. Political elites, without exception, were fixed on short-term performance criteria, whether satisfying corporate shareholders or the voting public. The tyranny of the present in policy domains worked against implementing the laudatory ethical recognition of the claims of [future generations] to a healthy and materially sufficient future. (Kotila: The UN is limited by what it can accomplish for future generations by its defective Charter which allows, for example, war after war. The Earth Constitution is designed to replace the UN Charter. Activists should be encouraged to support the demand for UN Charter Review to open the door for the Earth Constitution — which happens to be the first green constitution ever drafted, and which is designed to abolish war. Under the Earth Constitution nations in conflict must go to a democratically elected World Parliament or to a World Court to peacefully resolve conflicts — the advantage of a democratic world federal union government (ie, “new UN” under the Earth Constitution).

Taking account of the relevance of the past seems an ethical imperative that is neglected because it is seen as unfairly burdening the present for past injustices. For instance, reparations claims on behalf of victimized people, whether descendants of slavery or otherwise exploited peoples, rarely are satisfied, however ethically meritorious. There is one revealing exception: reparations imposed by the victorious powers in a war. (Kotila: I believe that it is highly relevant and wise to include history in decision-making.)

In the environmental domain, the past is very important to the allocation of responsibility for the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gas emissions. Most Western countries are more responsible for global warming than the vast majority of the Global South, and many parts of Africa and the Middle East face the dual facts of minimal responsibility for global warming yet maximal vulnerability to its harmful effects. (Kotila: Yes.)

These various ethical concerns are being forced onto the agendas of global conferences. This was evident at the 2021 COP-26 Glasgow Climate Summit under UN auspices. The intergovernmental response was disappointing, and reflected capitalist and geopolitical disregard of the ethical dimensions of the climate change challenge. (Kotila: The Earth Constitution under Articles 4.14. and 4.17 provides a better way than the UN Charter in order to regulate and supervise international capitalistic excesses which may hamper needed responses to climate change. No longer will Big Money be allowed to rule, but instead must adapt to serve “we, the people.”)

C.J. Polychroniou: Politics also figures prominently in the climate crisis, with questions being raised as to whether our current system of government, both at the national and international level, is adequate to meet the greatest challenge of our time. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Richard Falk: As suggested, addressing the global challenge of climate change with the tools developed for problem-solving in a state-centric world possessing weak institutional mechanisms for the effective promotion of the global public good is the organizational root of the problem. The UN was established with the ahistorical hope that the great powers of international relations would cooperate for peace as successfully as they cooperated for war between 1939 to 1945. Despite lofty rhetoric, the UN was designed to be a weak global mechanism. Why else disempower the UN by giving the victors of World War II a right of veto, which in effect was a recognition of the primacy of geopolitics? (Kotila: The World Constitution & Parliament Association anticipated the UN’s defective Charter, and proceeded over 30 years to draft the Earth Constitution (aka The Constitution for the Federation of Earth). While activists are putting into place what will become a democratically elected World Parliament, the UN General Assembly is being sought to launch Charter Review as a step to activating the Earth Constitution. The UN General Assembly could become the “House of Nations” in the EC’s World Parliament.)

Besides geopolitics, there were other obstacles to global-oriented problem-solving as a result of the persistence and expansion of statism after the collapse of European colonialism. This dominance of statism was reinforced by rigid ideological adherence to nationalism on the part of political leaders, shaping relations with other countries even if disguised somewhat by alliance diplomacy, “special relationships” (such as the U.S.’s relationship with Israel) and neoliberal patterns of globalization. (Kotila: Nationalism too easily becomes the evil of jingoism where we see belligerence toward foreign nations and lust for war. True national patriotism requires being a world patriot first and foremost — because what is good for our world is good for our country, because our country is part of the world.)

The core political issue is upholding the indispensable need for unprecedented degrees of globally oriented cooperation to address effectively climate change challenges that were being stymied by the continuing dominance of statist and geopolitical tendencies in international relations. These tendencies favor the part over the whole in multilateral forms of problem-solving. This structural reality has recently been accentuated by the rise of autocratic hyper-nationalist leaders in many important states, and by recent preoccupations with overcoming the COVID pandemic and containing its negative economic spillovers. (Kotila: Yes, we need “cooperation” on behalf of the whole world. But “cooperation” between nations [multilateralism] is unreliable unless buttressed by a well-written good government world federal constitution like the Earth Constitution.)

Until a robust mechanism for the promotion of global public goods is established, the political potential of present structures of world order do not seem capable of fashioning prudent and effective policies to cope with climate change. For such a mechanism to be established will require [either] the shock effect of future climate catastrophes, or a powerful, widely supported, militant transnational civil society movement dedicated to the protection of the Earth. (Kotila: The Earth Constitution is ready to go.)

C.J. Polychroniou: The climate crisis also reflects the failure of economics, with the argument being made that capitalism is actually the cause of the problem and climate change merely a symptom. Given where we are, and with the window of opportunity rapidly closing, should the fight against global warming be also a fight against capitalism? (Kotila: There is a place for both capitalism and socialism; like a bird it takes two wings to fly. Capitalism, however, will need supervision and regulation by the World Parliament as planned under the Earth Constitution.)

Richard Falk: David Whyte ends his book on ecocide with these stark words: “[W]e have to kill the corporation before it kills us.” The guiding idea of contemporary capitalism is to maximize short-term profitability, a posture that contradicts the kind of approach that would protect the natural habitat against the ravages wrought by contemporary capitalism. (Kotila: There are positive features to capitalism, but there must be strong regulation and supervision. Privatization, for example, has harmed health care systems where profits take away from patient care, and are overly expensive. Privatization tends to be bad for almost any public service such as public utilities, mass transportation, education, or health care.)

However, the issue may be broader than capitalism. Actually existing socialist governments, exercising greater state control over the economy, have exhibited no better record when it comes to environmental protection or taking responsible account of longer-term threats to the natural habitat. State-dominated economies may be less concerned about profitability, but their preoccupation with maximizing economic growth and susceptibility to corruption is as dangerous and destructive. (Kotila: A good point made here. Socialism, like capitalism, has its faults. The UN Charter which grants “sovereignty” for each nation, allows kleptocrats to steal from the people and the UN can’t stop the corruption. The “new UN” under the Earth Constitution with a World Parliament could address this problem if a nation goes corrupt using the Office of the Ombudmus.)

Until economic and political policies grounded upon a new kind of citizenship [prioritizing] humanity gain political traction, it seems highly improbable that ecological threats will be addressed responsibly. From your own perspective, how do we move forward in the fight against global warming? Indeed, what might be possible approaches to overcome climate inaction?

You saved the most difficult question for last! I do think education in the broad sense is key, including rethinking citizenship and activist civic participation. It is also essential that efforts be made to enable the UN to act more independently of geopolitical and nationalist manipulations, which have prevented the UN from playing an influential role throughout the COVID pandemic. This regressive interaction with states was highlighted by the hostility of Trump’s presidency to any kind of meta-nationalist approach to the control of the virus, including his disgraceful decision to defund and disengage from the World Health Organization. (Kotila: “enabling the UN to act more independently” will most likely require replacing the UN Charter with the Earth Constitution.)

A more credible UN requires independent and increased funding by way of an international tax, as well as curtailing of the right of veto by the five permanent members of the Security Council. Such global reforms will not happen without substantial pressure from civil society mobilizations coupled with the emergence of more enlightened leadership in important countries. (Kotila: Absolutely YES, but for a “new UN” using the Earth Constitution as its guide and model to establish the necessary world federal union government. The Earth Constitution movement must gain popular support for ratification, and be given the full attention from the UN General Assembly which currently has 188 nations denied voting rights.)

As suggested above, a reconstituted world order responsive to the magnitude and character of climate change challenge would seem to require the radical transformation of economic activity. This seems as though it could happen only through a revolutionary process, either as something that took the unprecedented shape of a transnational movement or spread from state to state as did the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, but without sparking a counterrevolutionary backlash. (Kotila: I’d like to see a nonviolent r- evolutionary movement — a renaissance, an awakening as described by Professor Glen T. Martin in his book “The Earth Constitution Solution.”)

Because there is no currently visible transition strategy to move from where we are to where we need to be, indulging the utopian imagination is a political act, envisioning futures attuned to the climate change agenda. (Kotila: A transition strategy is already underway with the Earth Constitution/Earth Federation movement. See earthfederation.info)

I believe that our escape from present entrapment depends on “a politics of impossibility.” Our leaders say, and the general consensus is, that politics should be conceived as “the art of the possible,” which assesses the play of forces to discover what is feasible. My argument has been that what is understood by the political class as feasible is insufficient to produce satisfactory policies and practices with regard to climate menaces. That is, the politics we know lacks the capacity to generate a solution. (Kotila: YES.)

It is evident that the impossible happens. This was manifested in recent international experience by the victories of national resistance movements in several major 20th- century anti-colonial wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. In each instance, before the impossible happened, experts deemed the outcome utopian or impossible, not worthy of the attention of serious persons. What seems clear is that the impossible happens only when the mobilization of people is great enough to produce outcomes that defy the perceptions of those forces committed to the permanence of the status quo. (Kotila: Yes, the “impossible is possible.” See below at the end of this article taken from the front page of the earthfederation.info website.)

This leads me to view the future as uncertain and unknowable. For this reason, whatever future we believe necessary and desirable can unfold, defying current expectations. This makes it rational and justifiable for patriots of humanity to engage on behalf of this better future. There are many signs that a green vision of the future is gaining support throughout the planet, especially among youth who have most to lose, and hence to gain. Youth may be the vanguard among those demanding ecologically responsible patterns of humane governance for the planet.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global Law, Faculty of Law, at Queen Mary University London,  Research Associate the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Fellow of the Tellus Institute. Falk is currently acting as interim Director of the Centre of Climate Crime and Justice at Queen Mary. He directs the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. His book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (2014), proposes a value-oriented assessment of world order and future trends. His most recent books are Power Shift (2016); Revisiting the Vietnam War (2017); On Nuclear Weapons: Denuclearization, Demilitarization and Disarmament (2019); and On Public Imagination: A Political & Ethical Imperative, ed. with Victor Faessel & Michael Curtin (2019). He is the author or coauthor of other books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance (2001), Explorations at the Edge of Time (1993), Revolutionaries and Functionaries (1988), The Promise of World Order (1988), Indefensible Weapons (1983), A Study of Future Worlds (1975), and This Endangered Planet (1972). His memoir, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim was published March 2021. He has been nominated annually for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2021.

Roger Kotila, Ph.D. is a peace activist and a psychologist (ret.) with many years of clinical experience with the California Dept. of Corrections doing psychiatric diagnosis and treatment with inmates. President of Democratic World Federalists he is co-editor of DWF NEWS, and editor of Earth Federation News & Views. He supports a “new UN” under the Earth Constitution. www.earthfederation.info Email: earthstarradio@aol.com

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Feb 2022.

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