What Can Nietzsche Tell Us About the Paris Conference?

In essence, the Paris conference may be seen as a ceremony to which nations come to reaffirm their promises in the presence of the global community, that is, to make a public commitment to play their part in the shared enterprise of combatting global warming.

This is so because virtually all delegations arriving in Paris have already pledged to reduce their country’s greenhouse gas emissions by a specified amount by a specified date, 2025 or 2030. By asking the parties to the Convention to lodge these Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in advance, the French have reduced the risk of an acrimonious collapse, even if the ambition of the targets has not benefited from the hot-house conditions of negotiating under the global spotlight.

What does it mean to make a promise such as this, an “intention” to reduce emissions? In his work On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche famously pointed to the ability to make promises as the characteristic of human beings that distinguishes us from other animals. So to make a promise is an act with philosophic freight.

In the first place a promise is a commitment to the future, which itself requires the act of anticipating a future. We are not adept at anticipating the future except in vague and usually rose-tinted ways. But before we can make a promise we intend to keep, we must anticipate a concrete or particular future.

Perhaps this helps to explain why responding to climate change has been so difficult, for it calls on us to bring to mind a particular future that we want to avoid. In preparation for Paris, states are being asked to anticipate such a concrete future. For many states this is a first because in the past their promises have been linked to an imaginary future, and an imaginary future demands only imaginary actions.

For Nietzsche, the capacity to make promises is constitutive of the self. A promise is a commitment to discipline oneself, to constrain one’s future actions, and thereby to close off the full possibilities of one’s freedom. Nietzsche regarded the ability to break one’s promises as a sign of one’s nobility because it kept oneself open to ‘futurity’. To break a promise and not care about whom it might offend was an assertion of one’s freedom.

When the United States and Australia broke the promises they made at the 1997 Kyoto conference by declining subsequently to ratify the protocol they were refusing to discipline themselves and were keeping open their futures, the option to burn as much fossil fuel as they liked. Yet by breaking their promises they appeared anything but noble.

A nation’s promise

But what does it mean for a state to make promises on behalf of its citizens, which is what 161 nations have done coming into Paris? If the state is legitimate we can regard it as expressing the collective wish of its citizens, so that if the nation fails to keep its promise then the citizens will feel ashamed.

The intensity of this shame is multiplied by the fact that when nations here in Paris make promises towards a particular future they are binding themselves into a global web or network of promises, one that creates a future only as long as it holds together.

The harms that would follow if a nation breaks its promise will be borne by the rest of the world and not just itself. And those harms are not only the physical ones arising from higher carbon emissions but the damage that reneging will do to the entire network.

At Kyoto, and up until the Copenhagen collapse, the world was operating on the assumption that such a network of promises could be woven by force of top-down pressure. As a result a number of nations made promises that staved off international criticism but which they either did not intend to keep or would keep only under certain conditions that they silently imposed. It was as if some nations made a promise with their fingers crossed behind their backs, which as we all know from childhood exonerates us from keeping a promise.

In fact, what is practically at stake at the Paris conference is not the promises themselves but the sincerity of them. How secure can we feel that the promises made leading in to the conference have been made sincerely? Nietzsche had some helpful advice: “Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!”

And so the foremost item on the Paris agenda is to leave with an agreement that guarantees, as far as it can, that the promises are heartfelt. The principal means for achieving this are the provisions that provide for transparency and accountability in each nation’s emission performance, to allow the rest of the world to see exactly how much a nation is emitting and whether its emissions are declining in the way promised.

The renewed emphasis on these provisions is aimed at communicating to reluctant parties that they ought not to make promises lightly.

So the negotiations will attempt to give the global community the capacity to check that parties are keeping their promises and not fiddling with the accounts. But more importantly, by agreeing to these provisions in a public document nations will be declaring: “I am not making this promise lightly. I intend to do my best to fulfil it.”

It is for these reasons that we ought to recognise the importance of China’s recent decision, after years of resistance, to open itself up to global scrutiny. It would be churlish to think that China had until then refused to allow the rest of the world to examine its books because it wanted to cheat, although it was perhaps embarrassed by the fact that its emissions data were poor and unreliable.

This is why the recent “revelation” (actually known to analysts for some time) that China’s emissions were some 14% higher than previously reported was a significant breakthrough, because the revelation signalled that China is being open and transparent.

The second vital item on the Paris agenda is the call for pledges to be reviewed every five years so that they may be adjusted should circumstances require it. Everyone knows that this will mean making stronger pledges. In some ways stronger pledges mean imposing greater restrictions on one’s freedom. Against this, rapid technological change – the other truly decisive shift in global conditions since Copenhagen – creates new opportunities and therefore more freedom to move.


First published in The Conversation, 24 November 2015

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© Copyright Clive Hamilton