Hannah Rose Kirk

‘All Under a Warming Atmosphere’ : What Chinese Ancient Philosophy Can Teach Us About Collective Climate Change Policy’

This article was my submission to the The Economist Open Future Essay Competition. It was awarded a prize as a long-listed finalist.

A climate crisis is indiscriminate to citizenship, cultural affiliation or race, instead affecting ‘all under a warming atmosphere

Our world and its climate is common to all global citizens. Governance of our shared environment requires collective commitment but Westphalian philosophy, compartmentalized into individual-state units, entrenches national self-interest. Turning to ancient Chinese philosophy could provide an alternative frame for global governance. The  3000 year-old concept of Tianxia (天下)translates literally as “all under heaven” but more generally describes an over-arching governance system prioritising the collective, not the individual, an all-inclusive harmonious existence. Employing this system, China’s longest lasting dynasty, the Zhou (1046-256 BC) prevailed over the powerful, state-centered yet fragmented Shang. In modern times, a fractious battlefield of individual states has raised nationalist parties across Europe and the States. Within borders, identity politics is best described by theorist Carl Schmidt’s “us versus them”; the same bifurcation damages dyadic international relations. Through philosophers’ eyes, climate tensions make a dismal Hobbesian chaos of failed states not an unlikely eventuality, and the certainty of Kant’s ‘perpetual peace’ an impossibility. If indeed history repeats itself, our current climate, both in environmental and political terms, calls for a new concept to transform hostility to harmony, 3000 years after the Zhou Dynasty flourished.

International cooperation and conflict is complex, yet the underlying behaviours approximate to strategic decision-making in multi-agent games. A ‘defecting’ strategy can win out in a single, one-shot interaction but introduce the ability to learn across time and an opponent’s undesirable behaviour becomes common knowledge. If each copies their opponents, players can be ‘equally stupid’, by all defecting, or ‘equally smart’, by playing harmoniously thus increasing payoffs for everyone. Reaching the mutually-beneficial long-term equilibrium requires what game theorists call a ‘stable evolutionary strategy’, what Chinese philosophers called Tianxia. In today’s global playing field, a new strategy of governance is welcome.

One of China’s most influential modern philosophers, Zhao Tingyang, upholds Tianxia as a unique notion of governance from unity across three realms. Firstly, respect for all environments ‘under heaven’, the natural world irrespective of human territorial claim. Secondly, a like-minded agreement between all citizens, relying on shared factors contributing to general wellbeing. Finally, a universal governance system responsible for maintaining the first two of these realms, the people and their environment, by shouldering a responsibility for world order. Harmonious existence, a state of Tianxia, requires three distinct realms, physical, psychological and political, to meld to one.

The astute reader might question the tenability of such idealistic dreams of world harmony. The Zhou ‘world’ was much smaller, culturally homogenous and collectivistic in structure, reflected even in the evolution of language. The character for public (gong 公) appeared in much earlier inscriptions than that for private (si 私). Interestingly, each still occupies an ethical meaning, the former synonymous with fairness while the latter with selfishness. A modern plurality of identities, circumstances and culture requires a more robust strategy for universal inclusion and commonality. ‘Common pasture’ became a human problem during the transition from nomadic to pastural life. Enter the Tragedy  of the Commons, a well-known phenomena in economics, pronouncing environmental degradation of shared but unowned land. The world, its atmosphere and its oceans, is one very large, very complex ‘common’. The nature of environmental damage, with geographical and intergenerational spillovers, makes the ‘common’ even more abstract. The scale of the problem is uncontained: further extensive damage to our shared ‘common’ risks its existence for all.

Advocates see Tianxia as a reachable reality only if individual rationality is relinquished for relational rationality with the mindset ‘existence requires coexistence’. Confucius, the well-known Chinese philosopher, framed the fragile individual against their broader environment. His concept of ren (人), defines an individual only in relation to others, not as a separate entity. Far from exotic, knowledge of global interconnectedness, the mutuality of life and destruction, explains cold war brinkmanship and nuclear strategy since. International organisations, of course, do already exist. In political governance, the UN has held panels across the globe from Copenhagen to Cancun, Kyoto to Paris, albeit with limited success. In economic terms, the international carbon credit market already applies Tianxia unknowingly, viewing emissions as unconstrained to one country, selling floating allowances across borders but holding total emissions fixed. However, ‘Too Big To Succeed’, supra-national organisations are blunt tools to encourage each government to meet arbitrary emission targets. Further complexities arise from imbalances of allowances and strategies for developed and developing countries. Perversely, despite birthing Tianxia, China itself has demonstrated reluctance to coordinate with these institutions to protect the shared environment.

Clearly, redesigning modern global governance in an all-inclusive Tianxia system is not a panacea. Yet, its past success can teach us how to begin making changes to promote international coordination. A plausible modification is two-fold. Firstly, coordinated governance becomes simpler by making the ‘world’ smaller. Greater homogeneity aligns compatibility of universal will and desirability of shared outcome. Professor David Victor, UC San Diego, advises that countries work in smaller groups to avoid gridlock between an ambitious number of bargaining bodies. With fewer than 10 countries responsible for 70% of emissions, sub-agreements need not involve all 193 UN members. Secondly, collapsing the complexity of the ‘common’ focuses efforts on one task. To mitigate commitment reluctance, an international governing agency requires a sole environmental mandate divorced from other UN matters. A World Environment Organisation has been proposed as a sister to the WTO. Institutionalizing a commitment to fairness, as achieved for trade, encourages a mutual reciprocity for emission reduction, exactly the relational rationality Tianxia is built upon.

What constitutes ‘all under heaven’? Some areas of policy remain nation-bound, where existence within borders is not reliant on the behaviours of those outside. Environmental policy is not one of these isolated domains. A climate crisis is indiscriminate to citizenship, cultural affiliation or race, instead affecting ‘all under a warming atmosphere’. Tianxia advises governance by compatible universalism on matters transcending political, racial and geographical boundaries. Global citizens require an ‘equally smart’ cooperative thinking to protect the common world, avoiding the ‘equally stupid’ mutual climate destruction at detriment to all current and future humans.