From November 28th through December 9th, the world’s nations are meeting again to discuss solutions to the urgent threat of rising greenhouse gas emissions, this time in Durban, South Africa. This meeting, the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been much less widely anticipated than the meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, two years ago. At that time, expectations were high, President Obama had just taken office, and for the first time ever literally dozens of heads of state were scheduled to attend a climate convention. Yet the result – a non-binding agreement called the “Copenhagen Accord” – was widely disappointing, and since then, the prospects for strengthening that agreement have only grown more remote. Indeed, even the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol (which the US did not ratify) is in serious doubt at this point.
What, now, are the prospects for a climate deal by Friday?
The biggest problem is obvious: COP17 saboteurs from the US State Department joined by Canada, Russia and Japan, want to bury the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol treaty. Instead of relaxing intellectual property rules on climate technology and providing a fair flow of finance, Washington offers only a non-binding ‘pledge and review’ system.
This is unenforceable and at current pledge rates – with Washington lagging everyone – is certain to raise world temperatures to four degrees centigrade, and in Africa much higher. Estimates of the resulting deaths of Africans this century are now in excess of 150 million. As former Bolivian Ambassadar to the UN, Pablo Solon said at last week’s Wolpe Memorial Lecture, “The COP17 will be remembered as a place of premeditated genocide and ecocide.”
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Earlier this fall, I crossed the Pacific Ocean from the island nation of Kiribati, which I am privileged to serve as President, to visit the United States.
In the days just before the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, I saw and heard many references to the “resilience” of the American people. President Obama spoke of it, the covers of magazines displayed it. There is no doubt that Americans have found within them the capacity to absorb tremendous shocks, to adapt and heal from unimaginable disaster.
I listened as my American hosts spoke about your economic challenges. I understand that the hardship in your country is great. I heard of many people who are jobless, “underwater” on their home loans, and struggling to make ends meet. I know the deep insecurity that many of you feel.
These same ten years have brought another sort of disaster to my country, a constellation of low-lying, reef-fringed islands scattered across 1.3 million square miles of the South Pacific. On average, our islands are just two meters above sea level. Scientists anticipate sea level rise of one meter or more as a result of climate change within this century. You begin to see the catastrophe that Kiribati faces.
In a previous post (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!) I posed the question: What do the worldwide debt crisis and global warming have in common?
They both represent economies drawing down assets faster than they can replenish them.
In the case of the debt crisis, economies are spending more wealth than they are accumulating. In the case of global warming, we are using up nature’s capital and its vital services at an alarming rate. Rather than adding to wealth – both financial and natural – economies are squandering it. This problem has occurred throughout history, although the tendency to waste economic and natural wealth has accelerated in recent times.
Which leads me to the climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, and especially the efforts to establish a financial mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) in developing countries.
What are the ethical responsibilities of sovereign nations? How can we expect nations to behave, in regards to climate change? We often hear that nations will inevitably try to shape policy in ways that serve their own interests, where “interests” are largely defined in terms of short-run economic growth. Yet, if every nation sets this as a goal, we are—to use a particularly apt colloquialism—cooked.
I’m afraid that economists are particularly to blame for this perverse framing of the issue. In the economics mainstream, people are thought of as autonomous individuals who are driven by a desire to maximize their own levels of personal satisfaction. Sociality, care, ethical responsibilities, and environmental impacts are not part of the story. The insistent teaching of this approach over the last century or so has led many people to believe that selfish and even opportunistic behavior is simply “natural” or “standard” in commercial life—and therefore both excusable and unavoidable. A number of scholars of economics, law, and politics have extended this approach to thinking about governments, considering states as simply “economic man” writ large.
It’s that time of year again.
This week marks the start of the 17th annual United Nations climate change conference, or Conference of Parties (COP). Held this year in Durban, South Africa, COP17 will bring together hundreds of official delegates along with thousands of demonstrators and other unofficial observers. It’s always possible that COP17 will reach an international agreement on a viable climate policy (17th time’s the charm!), but the complete lack of consensus seems likely to derail negotiations.
Climate change impacts each nation differently, and each nation would have very different costs from lowering emissions to safe levels. This diversity of impacts complicates climate policy negotiations and makes it very challenging for rich and poor nations to find common ground. But the broad range of climate impacts expected around the world has another critical effect on negotiations, one that receives very little media coverage or scholarly analysis: there is an enormous range of likely climate impacts not just between countries, but within them.
There they fell during 2011, one after the other in past-their-prime domino descent: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from Tunis, Hosni Mubarak from Cairo, Dominique Strauss-Kahn from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Muammar Gaddafi from Tripoli, Georgios Papandreou from Athens, Silvio Berlusconi from Rome, US football guru and sex-crime cover-upper Joe Paterno from Penn State University – with media baron Rupert Murdoch, soccer supremo Sepp Blatter, Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad and Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh looking decidedly shaky, too.
However, let’s be frank: in many cases the courageous push by the 99% against these 1% personalities only dislodged the venal creatures, not the system, so replacements crawled right back in.
As negotiators come together in Durban, South Africa, to discuss the fate of international climate policy, the balance between poverty reduction and emissions reduction is sure to be one of the most contentious issues. Economic growth in developing countries is likely to mean growing per capita emissions, though the increase can be limited by investment in low-carbon technologies. Climate policies will require diverting some spending away from other priorities, though policy can be designed so this burden does not fall on low-income countries. The twin goals of preventing dangerous climate change and fostering development don’t have to be incompatible. If economic development is swept under the table, however, they surely will be.