Seeking climate equity

By Ambuj Sagar, Pablo Solón, Rolph Payet, November 19, 2013

Climate change, a global problem, demands a cooperative solution. But a cooperative approach can only be established and sustained if nations believe that other nations are doing their fair share to address the problem. In a world characterized by stark disparities in financial resources, technological capacities, and responsibility for the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, notions of equity can come into conflict with national interests, leading to contentious international negotiations. Below, Ambuj Sagar of India, Rolph Payet of Seychelles, and Pablo Solón of Bolivia grapple with this question: How should countries at various stages of development contribute to addressing climate change?

The Development and Disarmament Roundtable can also be read in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.

Round 1

A changed relationship with nature

Multilateral negotiations toward reduced carbon emissions are not getting the job done. According to the UN Environment Programme's Emissions Gap Report 2012, global carbon dioxide emissions amounted to 49 gigatons in 2010. If global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius—still a disruptive increase—emissions must be reduced to about 44 gigatons by the year 2020. What are nations doing to achieve this goal? Many are making nonbinding emissions pledges, often expressed in ranges from the less ambitious to the more ambitious. The UN Environment Programme reckons that if nations meet only their less ambitious pledges, while subjecting themselves to lenient accounting rules, global emissions in 2020 will amount to about 57 gigatons of carbon. This is only one gigaton less than would result from a business-as-usual approach. That is, all the effort expended toward the Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, and Doha climate conferences would decrease carbon emissions by less than 2 percent compared with business as usual. Even if nations meet their more ambitious targets and subject themselves to strict accounting rules, emissions would still decrease by just six gigatons from business-as-usual projections.

So what should UN-sponsored negotiations actually strive to accomplish? First, an emissions target for 2020 should be clearly defined: 44 gigatons of carbon dioxide is a reasonable goal, though a much lower amount would be preferable. That number, divided by projected global population in 2020—about 7.7 billion—works out to around 5.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita.

The next step would be to establish per capita emissions targets for each country. These should be calculated on the basis of the principles that underlie the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities. Nations with more responsibility for the carbon already added to the atmosphere would have to do more to cut emissions. Those with less historical responsibility would be allowed more space for economic development. And because many developed countries can outsource their emissions, national per capita targets must take into account consumption as well as emissions. If a European nation, for example, imports manufactured goods from a developing country, it makes no sense for the emissions generated in the manufacturing process to be counted entirely against the developing country.

All countries must adopt their target per capita emissions as binding commitments. There should be no "pledge-and-review system"—a system that, instead of demanding negotiated emissions limits, allows voluntary pledges. No country can be exempt from emissions limits, no matter how rich or how poor. In the short term, some nations would cut emissions more, and some would cut emissions less. Some would even be allowed to increase their emissions for a period of time, but it must be clear when they would begin to reduce emissions, and by how much.

In order to guarantee that binding commitments are indeed binding, a climate justice tribunal with sanctioning power must be established. The principle of common but differentiated responsibility should apply to compliance just as it should to emissions themselves: Nations that have added the most carbon to the atmosphere in the past should suffer the heaviest consequences if they fail to meet their commitments, while those with the least historical responsibility should suffer very light sanctions.

No state should be able to wriggle out of its binding commitments through offsets and carbon-market mechanisms. Initiatives like reducing emissions associated with deforestation and forest degradation in other countries, or promoting "climate-smart agriculture" and "blue carbon" projects are problematic not only because they create permits to pollute but also because "carbon credits" are financial derivatives that could contribute to a speculative financial crisis.

Additionally, climate agreements should guarantee that at least two-thirds of the world's proven fossil fuel reserves remain underground. This is in line with the International Energy Agency's view that no more than one-third of proven reserves can safely be consumed before 2050.

Finally, the right to development—which the United Nations recognizes in its Declaration on the Right to Development—should not be understood as the right to pollute as much as others have polluted in the past. In most countries, where poverty results from the concentration of wealth in very few hands, eliminating poverty does not even require development. The main task in addressing poverty is redistributing wealth at the national, regional, and global levels. The right to development should be understood as the right to attend to people's fundamental needs, not the right to pursue a development model that doesn't take into account Earth's limits.

Ending endless growth. Climate negotiations make slow progress not because climate science is unconvincing or public awareness is lacking. Rather, elites and multinational corporations have captured the negotiations. Though diplomats from many countries understand that emissions of greenhouse gases remain too high because of consumerism and the pursuit of economic growth, few are willing to discuss changes to the economic system that drives climate change.

If climate change is to be meaningfully addressed, the world must abandon the paradigm of endless growth that is the basis of the capitalist system. Nations must abandon their insane competition with one another and instead promote solidarity among peoples. Economies that aim to grow beyond the limits that nature allows will sooner or later collapse, and democratic systems cannot survive if societies do not adopt different relationships to nature. Governments that treat nature as an object will exploit their people as well, treating them merely as consumers or sources of capital.

The climate crisis cannot be solved through technological patches such as biofuels, nuclear energy, genetically modified crops, carbon capture and storage, or geoengineering. These dangerous approaches only undermine nature's cycles even further. Indeed, to address climate change and the other pressing issues that face the world, human beings must embrace certain attitudes to life that predate capitalism—as expressed, for example, in the ethos of vivir bien (living well). According to this set of principles, associated with indigenous peoples of Latin America, humans are an integral part of nature; people and nature are not two separate identities. The main goal of vivir bien is seeking balance, rather than growing at the expense of others or of nature. "Living well" means living in harmony with nature and with other people, complementing instead of competing. What does vivir bien indicate about climate change? That human beings, to face this challenge, must recover their humanity and fundamentally change their relationship with nature.

This essay was updated on October 17, 2013, to correct an editorial error.

More than lip service

Linkages between development and climate change are not new: Many believe, for example, that changing climate contributed to the collapse of Mayan civilization. But the climate problem that the world faces today is enormous in scale. In March of this year, for the first time, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere above 400 parts per million over a 24-hour period were recorded. In the 800,000 years before the Industrial Revolution began, carbon concentrations had never reached levels higher than about 280 parts per million. Of the world’s 7.2 billion people, 44 percent live in coastal regions, where they face risks from rising sea levels and strong storms. People elsewhere could face a future of severe drought or other disruptions. All told, billions of people could suffer direct effects as the climate warms.

One reason that a workable multilateral solution to global warming has remained elusive is that carbon dioxide emissions bear a strong correlation to economic output and are closely linked to nations’ stages of development; countries at different stages of development view the issue of reducing emissions in different ways. Some in developed countries argue that all nations, regardless of development status, should move aggressively to reduce carbon emissions. But developing countries tend to argue that richer nations, which are responsible for most of the carbon that has entered the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, bear more responsibility for reducing emissions. Developing countries, they say, should not be forced to curb emissions to the point that their development will be impeded. Both outlooks are understandable, but I sympathize more with the view that climate mechanisms must take into consideration a nation’s stage of economic development. One size does not fit all.

Is it feasible to build a low-carbon global economy? Yes, and the effort must begin with the nations that together produce about two-thirds of global emissions: China, the United States, the countries of the European Union, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, India, and Japan. But beyond that, time-specific targets for global emissions must be set and, within this framework, individual countries must adopt mitigation strategies and technologies appropriate to their own circumstances.

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord is meant to be a step in this direction. The accord, unfortunately, remains nonbinding, and this provokes strong concern among many parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—including small island states such as my own nation of Seychelles. Still, the accord deserves credit for envisioning specific emissions reductions for each country (to be achieved by 2020) and taking into consideration each nation’s stage of development.

The emissions pledges made since the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference include, for example, a US pledge to reduce its emissions 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. China, on the other hand, does not pledge to reduce its emissions per se, but rather to reduce its carbon intensity—that is, the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic output—by between 40 and 45 percent. These different approaches, of course, make it difficult to compare and assess individual countries’ climate mitigation efforts, as do details such as China’s additional pledge to expand its forest cover by 40 million hectares by 2020, and uncertainty in the United States about legislative action on emissions.

Several studies have been undertaken to assess the effectiveness of the Copenhagen pledges. A 2010 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that national emissions targets are not ambitious enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. However, the OECD study indicates that "these efforts do represent a significant break from current trends," assuming the reductions are implemented.

If the world is to move forward more meaningfully, however, cooperation is key. Because the costs of mitigation will vary among countries, depending on factors such as nations’ technological capabilities, economies of scale, and policy environments, enormous opportunities for cooperation exist. They exist in areas like carbon trading, energy efficiency, development of low-carbon energy sources, and perhaps even geoengineering. For example, the establishment of a more robust and representative mechanism for global carbon trading would result in lower overall decarbonization costs than if each country were to develop its own trading mechanism. Investments in renewable technologies like solar energy will drive prices down for poorer countries, making these technologies more accessible. Similarly, if the United States achieves technological advances that reduce its transportation-related emissions, nations elsewhere will be positioned to reduce their own emissions. China, meanwhile, is in the midst of investing $43 billion in smart-grid technologies, technologies that might result in large emissions reductions over the coming decades as the world continues to urbanize.

Climate change will entail unequal costs. Richer nations will pay more for climate mitigation—but poorer countries will suffer more serious consequences from climate change itself. From the perspective of developing countries, the main thing is that international climate efforts must do more than pay lip service to a looming human catastrophe.

Global commons, wicked problem

Climate change—because of its potential impact on nations, individuals, and ecosystems, and because of the challenges that human beings face in addressing so vast a global-commons problem—is likely to be among the 21st century’s defining issues.

But responsibility for accumulations of greenhouse gases is distributed unevenly. Many nations are significant emitters of greenhouse gases—but some are more significant emitters than others. All nations will suffer the consequences of climate change—but some will suffer more than others. And many of the countries affected most adversely will bear little responsibility for creating the problem.

At the same time, nations have differing capabilities—human, financial, technical, and institutional—to reduce emissions or ameliorate the impacts of climate change. And the scale of the climate problem means that enormous resources are needed to avoid "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system," which is the main objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This combination of factors makes climate change a "wicked problem"—that is, a very complex problem not susceptible to easy resolution. And the longer action is delayed, the more costly it will become to meet any given climate goal.

So how should countries at various stages of development contribute to addressing climate change? In one sense, the answer is quite straightforward. The Framework Convention, a treaty to which 195 states are parties, requires nations to protect the climate system "on the basis of equity and in accordance with … common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities." The convention specifies that "the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof."

The approach to climate expressed in the convention has both an ethical and a practical basis. From an ethical point of view, it is only fair that those who contributed most to the problem, and who possess the greatest resources, should bear the greatest burden for addressing it. From a practical standpoint, developed countries are best positioned to marshal the significant, sophisticated capabilities that are required to mitigate climate change. After all, according to 2012 numbers from the World Bank, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was $1,489 in India and $6,091 in China; it was $46,720 in Japan and $49,965 in the United States. Also, richer countries are generally able to invest a greater fraction of their GDP in research and development.

But developed countries are not really "tak[ing] the lead." Not only have a majority of developed countries failed to reduce their emissions to an adequate extent (in many cases, their emissions have even increased), but developed nations’ appetite for achieving reductions appears very limited. In fact, according to a 2011 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute in which studies of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and 2010 Cancún Agreement were assessed, the climate mitigation pledges of developing countries exceed (on an absolute basis) the pledges of developed countries.

Strong mitigation policies in developed nations are important for two reasons. First, emissions in these countries must decrease if dangerous climate change is to be averted. Second, mitigation policies in the developed world can create markets for low-carbon technologies, drive down costs, and provide incentives for further innovation.

But given the scale and urgency of the climate challenge, nations at other stages of development also must play a part in addressing the problem—even though many of these countries face major development challenges that require their attention and resources. Fast-developing countries must urgently explore ways to alter the emissions trajectories of their economies, while also remaining mindful of their development challenges; some of these nations may require financial and technical support in order to alter their emissions trajectories. Meanwhile, some countries are already beginning to feel the effects of climate change, and they must begin to develop and put in place climate adaptation plans. This too will require financial and technical support.

Global-commons problems require global cooperation. But climate negotiations have not been particularly successful at engendering cooperation or developing fair, systemic approaches for burden-sharing. Instead, the world had gone down the path of voluntary commitments by individual nations. This, as a form of cooperation, is weak and ineffective indeed—and so far, as detailed in the report by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the combined mitigation pledges of the developed and developing worlds do not constitute action on the scale that is needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Will parties to the Framework Convention stay true to its objectives and principles, or will they abandon those objectives and principles for the sake of political expediency? I certainly hope it is the former. Will the community of nations manage to develop a paradigm of cooperation that makes possible a fair and effective solution to the climate problem? I certainly hope so. But only time will tell.

Round 2

The poor, lighting their own way

Global consumption patterns are beginning to outstrip the planet’s ability both to produce resources and to maintain climate balance—but so-called economic progress depends on the perpetuation of unsustainable consumption patterns. Meanwhile, consumption varies greatly among countries, with some nations characterized by dire poverty and others by resource-hogging wealth. This set of problems can only be aggravated by a model of development in which poor countries aspire to rich-world levels of consumption. What’s needed instead is for overall consumption to be limited to levels consistent with the planet’s capacity to sustain human life.

Consumption in rich countries clearly must decrease, but if that is to happen, consumers will have to understand the true costs of what they consume (costs that include carbon emissions). The economic system in the rich world fails miserably to communicate costs. Everything from the global trade regime to corporations’ big marketing budgets agitates for more consumption. In the United States, to cite one example, handsets are replaced every 21 months on average—and consumer electronics are a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions. Worrisomely, consumption patterns in developing countries appear to be following trends established in the developed world. China, for instance, once known as the land of bicycles, has become the world’s largest market for automobiles, and is paying the price in air pollution and traffic jams.

So high consumption does not represent the right path toward economic development and poverty eradication. But perhaps climate mitigation does represent such a path. Today’s energy economy is largely centered on a few oil-producing countries and a few others with large stakes in refining, distribution, and so forth. If the global economic order depended on sustainable energy instead of fossil fuels, energy production would be broadly distributed and energy would be consumed close to where it is produced. This would eliminate many middlemen and speculators, allowing local control and creating local opportunities to improve living conditions. The widespread use of renewable energy technologies like solar pumps and lamps has a chance to transform the world’s poor regions.

In Round Two, Pablo Solón argued strongly for global wealth redistribution (and also for more modest levels of consumption). But instead of redistribution, I favor the creation of opportunities for the poor to create their own wealth—as long as they can do it in sustainable ways. Yes, developed nations must cut their emissions, but it is also important that poor countries avoid the costly mistakes that rich countries have made. Sustainable (and often cheaper) energy systems are a key element of this.

Climate mitigation cannot be achieved through a single approach, but it can be informed by a single principle: the idea that energy use must be sustainable. At the national, regional, and global levels, measures should be put in place that communicate to consumers the true costs of the things they consume (though technological progress must not be impeded). Use of sustainable technologies like the good old-fashioned bicycle should be encouraged (even if some consumers perceive such policies as technological regression rather than progress). And local ownership of energy should be encouraged as well. Give poor people solar lamps and they will light their own way to prosperity.

Harmony through redistribution

A central tension underlies several of this Roundtable’s essays. It is the idea that climate change must be mitigated but, as mitigation is pursued, the poorest people’s right to energy access must not be undermined. How can these two imperatives, apparently in competition, be simultaneously addressed? My answer is that they can be addressed through redistribution of wealth—but not through a capitalist development model.

Development as it’s currently practiced, far from solving the climate problem and meeting the needs of the poor, is harming the poor. It is on its way to killing Mother Nature. Capitalist development does not concern itself with nature or human beings, but only with profits for corporations and elites. This holds true in both the developed and developing worlds.

The last few decades have witnessed a great deal of economic growth, including in many developing countries, but poverty has not been eradicated. Does eradication of poverty seem an unrealistic goal? It really isn’t—as long as redistribution of wealth is the basis on which poverty eradication is pursued. According to a study recently published by the Center for Global Development, eliminating poverty would require redistribution equal to only 0.2 percent of global gross domestic product, if poverty’s threshold is set at $1.25 a day. Ending poverty with the threshold set at $2 a day would require redistribution equal to only 1 percent of global GDP. (But how realistic a threshold is $2 a day? Have you ever tried to live on $2 a day?)

If the capitalist development paradigm hasn’t eradicated poverty during times of strong growth, it seems unrealistic to believe that it will do so now, when many of the world’s major economies are trapped in chronic crisis. In fact, capitalist development seems more likely to increase inequality further—in the developed and developing worlds alike. In the United States, according to The Economist, the richest 1 percent of the population has reaped 95 percent of the economic gains achieved during the recovery from the Great Recession. The Hindu reports that in India, between 1983 and 2012, consumption among the poorest 20 percent of urban residents stagnated or increased only marginally, while consumption among the top decile increased by more than 30 percent. This pattern held true even during the country’s periods of strongest economic growth.

Overcoming old logic. Ultimately, no contradiction exists between addressing climate change and addressing the needs of the poor. All that’s required is to abandon development as it is currently practiced and instead focus on redistributing wealth and achieving harmony with nature.

Elites, of course, can be expected to fight with all their might to preserve their privileges—even though these privileges come at the expense of nature and the rest of humanity. Elite efforts to protect privilege account for much of what occurs in international climate negotiations.

It’s not that the rich are evil. It’s that their behavior is determined by the logic of capitalism. If a capitalist doesn’t maximize his profits, he becomes a loser in the market. To avoid this fate, he is willing to exploit nature and other human beings.

So redistribution is really just a first step—if the logic of capitalism is not overcome, that logic will soon reassert itself and wealth will become concentrated again. Overcoming the logic of capitalism will not be an easy task. But it is the only way that equilibrium with nature, including in the climate realm, can be restored.

Put development first

In Round One, my colleagues wrote essays underpinned by the same concern—that not enough is being done to avoid dangerous climate change. But they displayed different attitudes toward national responsibilities for climate mitigation. Pablo Solón favors hard emissions targets and timelines. He bases his approach rather strictly on the principles underlying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), particularly the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Rolph Payet, meanwhile, gives highly qualified support to the Copenhagen Accord, which allows nations as they formulate mitigation pledges to take into account what they see as feasible. The two authors’ views hint at the fundamental differences of perspective that play out in climate negotiations.

My view is that two issues must stay center stage as the world constructs mechanisms for climate mitigation: effectiveness and equity. Effectiveness means doing enough to address the climate problem. Equity means ensuring that the burdens allocated to individual nations are fair. An equitable outcome that does not adequately address the climate problem is meaningless, whereas any inequitable arrangement is likely to be ineffective.

The Copenhagen "pledge-and-review system" (strongly criticized by Solón in Round One) may be unable to deliver either equity or effectiveness. It certainly hasn’t so far. Regarding effectiveness, the emissions pledges that nations have made to date represent some positive action but leave a substantial "emissions gap" in the aggregate. Regarding equity, it is difficult to argue that the Copenhagen process has produced a fair outcome when developing countries’ pledges to reduce emissions, on an absolute basis, exceed those of developed countries.

This is not to say that greater effectiveness or equity would result from carbon allocations based on UNFCCC principles. But at least climate efforts would head in the right direction if they started from global emissions targets and then, based on established principles, allocated each nation an allowable level of carbon emissions. Such an approach would reduce the horse-trading that characterizes climate negotiations—bargaining of the sort that often puts developing countries at a disadvantage. Moreover, large national differences in carbon allocations would result from such a process, and this would promote carbon trading, a useful form of international cooperation. But the real question, of course, is whether the UNFCCC signatories—or even the major countries—could agree on the details of such a system and maintain political commitment afterward.

Using the headroom. In years to come, climate mitigation will absorb an increasing share of global resources and policy attention—but this must not distract the world from meeting development challenges such as the provision of modern cooking fuel to the 2.6 billion people who lack it, or electricity to the 1.3 billion who lack it. Sometimes, pathways to addressing these development challenges will be seen as unfriendly to the climate, for instance when it comes to providing fossil-fuel–based electricity to the poor.

Tensions such as these (whether real or perceived) can generally be resolved—but only if basic human needs in developing countries command sufficient attention in the first place. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary to approach climate mitigation from a "development first" perspective. (This would differ from the "co-benefits" approach, which assigns highest priority to climate mitigation itself even as mitigation options are assessed, in part, on the basis of the ancillary development benefits they provide.) In any event, putting development needs first should not be seen as undermining mitigation efforts. Rather, it is a way of ensuring fair treatment for the large swathe of humanity whose low historical emissions have provided everyone else a bit of headroom for orderly climate mitigation.

Round 3

Cooperate or perish

Pablo Solón argued in his Round Three essay that "[t]he climate problem will not be solved through international climate negotiations," and I must agree. Or, in any event, it is clear that harmful climate change will not be averted through negotiations alone.

This is not to suggest that war might solve the problem. But if the world doesn’t implement measures to save the planet and also save the poor, conflict is bound to result. Climate change is already creating food and water insecurity, and one need only look at Darfur to see how such insecurity can contribute to conflict. The risk of war can be markedly reduced, on the other hand, by cooperation on issues such as water, as detailed in a recent report by the think tank Strategic Foresight Group. So what’s needed is not more negotiations, but rather more—and more effective—cooperation.

When nations strive for ever greater economic growth and measure their success by gross domestic product per capita, they subscribe to economic theories based on an incomplete picture of how human beings behave. These theories discount the human potential to resolve issues through collaboration. They fail to recognize that economic interdependency, and interdependency in natural resources, can deliver great benefits.

Some might characterize cooperation among nations as a romantic notion, but in fact cooperation is a pragmatic approach embedded in many natural systems. Cooperation involves working together toward a common goal that provides mutual rewards; there are no outright winners or outright losers. This approach stands in stark contrast to the neoclassical economic attitude that values maximization of profit above all.

If the playing field for human beings were, instead of Earth, the entire universe—a place with limitless resources, energy among them—climate change would never have emerged as a preoccupation of this generation. But because humans do live on a single planet, and because they have developed a level of consciousness that allows for notions such as universal human rights, the question becomes: Why are nations continuing to practice business as usual in the climate realm when that approach is demonstrably failing? Every year, nations meet. Nations negotiate. And every year they demonstrate that they have failed to learn from nature itself—they fail to perceive that the climate problem can be addressed through cooperation or not at all.

Cooperation must start with an acknowledgment that the human beings alive today represent the only possible climate solution. Future generations demand that the current generation address the problem. The other species that inhabit this planet make the same demand. Attributing blame for climate change is relatively unimportant; what’s important is humanity’s collective ability to solve the problem.

It is increasingly clear that the solution to climate change does not lie in selfish approaches that depend on certain parties benefitting at the cost of others. A cooperative rather than a zero-sum attitude toward climate—though it may not solve the global problem of how to distribute wealth equally—will at least guarantee that every human being has the right to food, shelter, and indeed existence.

A fight that must not be lost

In the midst of this Roundtable, global climate talks involving 193 nations got under way in Warsaw. Just days previously, Typhoon Haiyan had struck the Philippines, leaving thousands dead and an estimated 4 million displaced.

One might expect a typhoon as powerful as Haiyan to inspire extra urgency in climate negotiations (even if it's not possible to attribute a single weather event to global warming). One might expect nations to promise greater reductions in their carbon emissions, and rich countries to commit significant support to initiatives such as the Green Climate Fund. But negotiations in Warsaw have moved backward. Japan, the world's fifth-biggest carbon emitter, has backed off a previous pledge to reduce its 2020 emissions by 6 percent below 1990 levels; now its emissions would increase by 3 percent over 1990 levels. Meanwhile, data released amid the Warsaw conference showed that pledges to international climate funds so far in 2013 are 71 percent lower than during the same period in 2012. The response to Haiyan has been even worse than business as usual.

When I find myself complaining to negotiators about disappointing climate talks, some say that "this is just how negotiations work." Negotiating an emissions pledge, much less a firm commitment, is time-consuming and difficult—and negotiators, who receive their instructions from national capitals, are not empowered to move talks forward on their own. Others say that there is no point in asking nations to do more than they are willing to do, and indeed a new climate treaty should be tailored to fit the agendas of the United States and China (though such an agreement would in fact be tailored to burn the planet). "At some point," still others say, "governments will react to the climate crisis." But when? How many more people have to die? And what if countries react so late that the chance to limit warming to a tolerable level is lost?

The climate problem will not be solved through international climate negotiations. No hope lies in governments, which are focused on the next elections or other political imperatives, which have been captured by corporations and elites. Elites simply don't care about devastating typhoons and the like. If climate change begins to inconvenience them, they can take a plane to a different part of the world, buy a new house, and start a new business.

Hope lies in people, and climate solutions must emerge from the streets of Washington, Beijing, and elsewhere. People must start to realize that climate justice concerns not just environmentalists and climate activists but everyone on this planet. It concerns them, for example, because democratic governance and long-term employment are not compatible with societies whose relationships to nature are badly out of balance. Economies that grow beyond the limits that nature imposes on them will sooner or later collapse.

National and global climate policies will change only when strong social movements embrace the fight for justice—across countries, across continents, and along the economic, political, and environmental dimensions. The fight must embrace concrete goals such as shutting down coal mines, stopping pipeline construction, halting fracking projects, imposing carbon taxes, preserving indigenous lands, and putting an end to land grabs. These goals must be pursued through diverse means—from political pressure to consumer boycotts to civil disobedience to hunger strikes. Capitalism's greatest advantage is inertia, and overcoming it will require the involvement of workers, peasants, indigenous people, women, youth, faith communities, migrants, intellectuals, artists, and human right activists.

The struggle at hand is both to stop climate madness and to create a world where human beings and nature are respected. This is a fight that must not be lost.

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.

Topics: Climate Change


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