11/13/2013 - 08:41

Reason over realism

Pablo Solón suggests that addressing the climate problem as well as the needs of the poor will require the world "to abandon development as it is currently practiced and instead focus on redistributing wealth and achieving harmony with nature." Rolph Payet argues instead for "opportunities for the poor to create their own wealth—as long as they can do it in sustainable ways." In some regards my colleagues' views differ, but they have in common an emphasis on the primacy of the needs of the poor (a point that I have emphasized myself in this Roundtable) and on exploring development pathways fundamentally different from those that are followed today.

Some might say that this perspective is romantic—not very practical. But the current direction of climate negotiations, in which some perceive growing "realism," runs toward allowing nations to set voluntary emissions targets. This approach seems very unlikely to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees, and is utterly impractical for meeting the objectives established by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The realism that is necessary for addressing climate change—realistic acknowledgment of the problem—is often in short supply.

The World Meteorological Organization reports that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at a record high and that concentrations remain on "an upward and accelerating trend." The United Nations Environment Programme, in its Emissions Gap Report 2013, notes that "greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatons of [carbon dioxide] equivalent above the level that would provide a likely chance" of a reasonable pathway toward temperature increases of 2 degrees or less. Events such as Typhoon Haiyan provide regular reminders of what could happen if the climate continues to warm. But climate negotiations produce, instead of realistic responses to the problem, "realism"—just a euphemism for nations' unwillingness to take responsibility for climate change. The New York Times recently reported analysts' views that the likeliest outcome of the November climate negotiations in Warsaw would be "a weak pact that essentially urges countries to do what they can to cut emissions."

Realist thought, politics, and policymaking simply are not addressing the climate problem adequately. Nor are they solving development challenges in the Global South. Therefore, exploring alternative pathways to climate and development is entirely warranted—indeed, it may be the only way to overcome the poor world's development deficit and to close the emissions gap (probably the two largest challenges facing mankind). If alternative development pathways seem romantic or foolish, it is useful to remember that unchecked climate change could lead the world down very different, very unpleasant development pathways. Will exploring alternative development pathways prove easy? Not at all. But these options nonetheless must be discussed, given serious consideration, and introduced to the agendas of policymakers.

The British writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that "realism is simply romanticism that has lost its reason … that is its reason for existing." As world leaders embark on future rounds of climate negotiations—as they try to resolve tensions between a just climate outcome and their domestic political compulsions—they would do well to abandon their realism and recapture their reason instead.