Global warming and global civics

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The climate change talks in Doha have come to a predictably acrimonious conclusion. As well as the baffling technical, economic and scientific challenges involved, the diplomatic deadlock throws up a fascinating question of political philosophy – do the citizens of one country have responsibilities to people in other parts of the world? If so, what are they? Internationalists might respond that we should have equal obligations to all human-beings. But, as a matter of fact, that is not how practical politics or human emotions work. Most people are willing to do much more for the people who are closest to them: family and neighbours. They also usually feel more willing to help compatriots than people on the other side of the world. They might, however, feel some obligation, or desire, to help people in far-off places. But how far do those obligations stretch?

Those questions lie at the heart of a fascinating new academic enterprise, pioneered by Hakan Altinay, a Turkish academic. I come across a lot of schemes to improve the world. But Altinay’s efforts to promote the idea of a “global civics” is one do-gooding idea that might actually really do some good.

In his book “Global Civics”, Altinay asks whether the citizens of the world can be made to feel genuine obligations to each other. His argument is that the future of humanity may depend on whether such a sense of “global civics” emerge. For, as he points out, many of the world’s most troubling problems are inherently international in nature, and can only be solved through international co-operation. The obvious ones include climate change, the protection of the environment, nuclear proliferation, trade and so on.

As well as posing the questions, Altinay and his colleagues are trying to do their bit to foster a sense of global civics amongst decision makers of the future, by crafting a university course that could be taken by students in many countries simultaneously. The first two universities to take part are Sabanci University in Istanbul and Fudan University in Shanghai. The lecturers that Altinay has lined up for his course, include academic stars from all over the world – including Ngaire Woods, the head of the Blavatnik School in Oxford, Jagdish Bhagwati, the trade economist at Columbia University, Gareth Evans, the pioneer of the idea of the “responsibility to protect” and Dani Rodrik of Harvard.

For those who are unlikely to take the course or read the book, there is also an hour-long film on YouTube, around the subject of “global civics”, made by the Chinese director, Jian Yi – and featuring interviews with ordinary people in nine countries, from South African miners to American students.

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