It’s been a while since the last climate conference, COP8, long enough for the remorse to fade and long enough, even, for a bit of revisionist history. It’s certainly been long enough for lessons to be counted, and conclusions drawn. And, alas, they have been, with a vengeance.
If you’ve been following the climate talks, you’ll know what we mean. For while the new science demands new urgency, the negotiators can step only haltingly, if at all. With the U.S. withdrawn into its strange neo-conservative agonies, the global economy gone manic-depressive, and Kyoto’s progress stalled by Russian temporizing and, no doubt, sleazy back-room deals, no nation North or South seems much disposed to visionary leadership. The long term seems long away, and it is given to the scientists to tell us that, in fact, it is breathing down our necks. In the corridors and plenary halls, another logic rules. Realism, the usual realism of short-term, national self-interest, is the watchword.
This is, perhaps, as it must be. There is writing on the wall, and we all know it, but it’s easy, just now, to understand why so few want to stop and read it. The well-paid lunatics of the Right announce, brazenly in the face of accumulating evidence, that global warming is just an apocalyptic myth, and that Kyoto is dead. And what can we do but rise to politely object Kyoto, we announce, is very much alive, and this is very much for the best, for we cannot take a second step until we secure the first. As for the denialists, James Inhofe and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Bjorn Lomborg and all their ilk, we can only hope that the Arctic melting will soon render them vile in even their own children’s eyes. As for the long term, we’ll get to it later, if we can.
No wonder that the mood is grim. There’s still hope around – when it comes to climate activism, hope is a good part of the job – but, frankly, it’s heavily leavened with pessimism. Sure the technology is changing fast. And, sure, the time of the Bush people will not last forever. But as COP8 demonstrated, the North-South divide is as bitter and dangerous as ever. This may be the calm before the tipping point, but we’d be remiss were we not to notice that positions are hardening, and that the climate negotiations are settling into a path that promises neither adequacy nor equity.
The political scientists spend a lot of time these days talking about “path dependency” and “lock in,” and we’d do well, we climate folk, to wonder at our own situations, and at the consensus now locking in around us: that only incremental steps are possible, that “equity” is still too dangerous to put on the table in any real way, that technology may yet buy us enough time, that (and here’s the pivot of what we climate folks know, today, as realism) only proposals that radically limit costs to all parties have even a snowball’s chance in hell.
A Different Reading
We, for our part, read the writing on the wall quite differently. Nothing has happened – in Washington or New York, in New Delhi or Baghdad or Cancun – to make us doubt either the urgency of the situation or the need for a brave new departure, one capable of seizing the opportunity offered by the rapidly-approaching second commitment period negotiations.
Some of us, at least, must attend to a new realism. And it begins here: If we’re going to prevent catastrophic climate change, we must accept that we have only a sharply limited global carbon budget to work with, and then face the implications of this knowledge. Impossible though it may now seem, we must work towards a global accord that can draw both the U.S. and the major developing countries into honest transition planning.
Don’t get us wrong: we know how the climate negotiations really work. We know what realism is. But we do not believe that the coming debates – over adaptation, the right to protection from climate harm, the management of free riders, or the right of all people to share the global atmospheric commons – will be made any easier by their deferral. Most importantly of all, we believe that me must stop ducking the question of money.
We all know we’re going to need a crash program of clean energy development worldwide, and that we’re going to need it soon. Eventually, and the sooner the better, we’re going to have to face the hard bit: either the wealthy and high emitting countries – and it’s no accident that in general they are the very same – are going to pay most of the cost of this transition or, frankly, it’s not going to happen.
Fortunately, and believe it or not, we can afford it. Which is a damn good thing, because if we couldn’t, we’d be in serious trouble. Still, making a rapid clean-energy transition will be very much a matter of realpolitics. And here’s the twist: the idea of climate justice will, paradoxically, play a critical role. Without an articulate vision of a fair sustainability transition we will not make one.
This, then, is how we read the writing on the wall: that it’s time to stop waiting for the U.S., and too late to start waiting for Russia; that we should, instead, leave the door to Kyoto open, but at the same time set about to build a coalition committed to bringing the equity principle down from the skies. That we should meld it with adequacy, shape it into something concrete and operationalizable. That we should put it, finally, on the table. That, more particularly, it’s time to look forward, to outline a next-generation climate protocol based on equal rights to benefit from the atmospheric commons.
It won’t be easy. For just as per capita allocations are the only viable framework for a global treaty, pure per capita will not do. There are tough cases, and we have to face them. We have to find a way to take proper account of relevant national circumstances, even though doing so will mean a whole new argument.
It would, after all, be the right argument, as necessary as it is difficult. And if, by forcing ourselves to be concrete, we forced ourselves, as well, to painful debates about the state of the world, and about historical responsibility, these too are long past due. They are, in fact, the price we must pay if we want to isolate the carbon cartel.
Briefly, What Happened in Delhi
Recall that, in November of 2002, when COP8 brought the annual climate road show to New Delhi, it arrived with an air of guarded optimism. Despite the U.S.’s boycott of Kyoto, there was a widespread belief that Russia’s ratification would soon bring its entry into force, and mark a new beginning. Between Kyoto and Marrakesh, the negotiations had created both infrastructure and a modest amount of political momentum, and while no one expected big moves in Delhi, it seemed not a bad time to begin looking forward.
But Northern negotiators – and this should not be a surprise – were not looking forward through the same lenses as their Southern colleagues. Indeed, the Europeans came to Delhi with the sense that, after Marrakesh, a post-Kyoto agreement might soon, and relatively painlessly, come to include enough developing countries to encourage U.S. re-entry. The G77/China were, alas, less impressed by the distance thus far covered, and were by all accounts (minus, of course, the Saudis and the rest of the fossil cartel) still waiting for actual Northern reductions to begin. Sure the South wanted to talk, but not about emission limitations or even about “adequacy.” It wanted to talk about development, and adaptation, and how the North was going to help it cope with the impacts of a warming that’s becoming ever more clearly inevitable.
As we know, things didn’t work out very well. We’re not going to review the whole sad story in any detail, particularly as both Hermann Ott and Benito Mller have already done fine jobs of this, and from two quite usefully different viewpoints. For the details, check out, first, Ott’s Warning Signs from Delhi: Troubled Waters Ahead for Global Climate Policy, and then Muller’s Framing Future Commitments.
In any case, the events that transpired during COP8’s near train wreck are of far more than historical interest. This is particularly true because the Europeans, though raising the question of new commitments, clearly felt that they were doing so gently, and judiciously, and with all due consideration to the sensibilities of the South and the problem of equity itself. That they were nevertheless firmly and even coldly rebuked must, therefore, be taken as a very serious warning indeed.
The situation, after all, remains essentially unchanged, and even Russia’s ratification would do little to alter it. Baldly, it’s like this:
* Kyoto cuts are inadequate, save as a first step, and future reductions must include at least the U.S. and, before long, the large developing countries.
* The U.S., however, is engrossed in a slow-motion civil war. It may yet pull back from the brink, but it’s not likely to step honestly up to the demands of multilateral leadership anytime soon.
* Southern negotiators feel that new commitments should absolutely be off the table until the North has delivered on the leadership called for in the UNFCCC and the Berlin Mandate.
* Moreover, Southern negotiators are acutely aware of their relative powerlessness. Given this, and given their fear that the climate regime will become a terrible new fetter on their already constrained development, they resist even elliptical talk about new commitments, or approaches to the science that threaten to imply that developing country commitments may be necessary. This fear, moreover, is entirely justified. The global economy, after all, is hardly structured around the right to development, sustainable or otherwise. And fine words, spoken in rarified international conferences, rarely rebound to the benefit of the poor.
Frankly, it’s too late to pretend that words can bear the burden of missing and inadequate actions. And, contrary to the EU’s evident anticipation, its previously announced support for the “green funds” weren’t taken as significant action. Which, when you think about it, shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. These funds (totaling a bit less than half a billion a year starting in 2005) are, if not paltry, certainly inadequate to the scale of the problem. And given that contributions to them are entirely voluntary and (notwithstanding the somewhat controversial EU burden-sharing arrangement) unrelated to any measure of responsibility, they’re likely to stay that way. As tokens of leadership, they aren’t even in the right ballpark.
No wonder that, when the Danes, on behalf of the EU, called for abstractly “equitable” limits on future emissions, they found a hostile audience. To us, indeed, they looked nave, for they weren’t making any specific proposals at all, but only calling for a new “process.” As if such a process could be innocent. As if invocations of “equity” could, somehow, substitute for something real. The key section of the Danes’ statement (our italics) is worth reading:
… the EU believes that ministers, in a Delhi Declaration, should decide to kick-off a process leading to further action under the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol in a more inclusive and longer-term global co-operation, based on a broader and balanced participation. The process should aim at:
– enhancing the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, to deal effectively with the adverse effects of climate change and to contribute to addressing greenhouse gas emissions, and
– agreeing on how to reduce global GHG emissions beyond 2012, consistent with the ultimate objective of the Convention and in accordance with our obligations under the Convention and the KP, including our common, but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities. The EU believes that we should take into account the need for equitable and appropriate contributions by each developed country Party as required in the Convention and the necessity to move towards a globally equitable distribution of GHG emissions, while building on the ongoing co-operation between the IPPC and the Convention and KP bodies.
As bureaucratic climate rhetoric, this is quite good, even excellent. But what possible reason did the South have to accept the invitation To believe that such a process would yield a result commensurate with the problem, that it would produce a workable approach to fairly differentiated emissions limits Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee had already, in his opening address, itemized the reasons why he thought any search for developing country commitments was “misplaced,” and had even gone out of his way to assert, apropos such commitments, that ‘we do not believe that the ethos of democracy can support any norm other than equal per capita rights to global environmental resources.'(1)
Was anyone listening Did anyone stop to recognize that, as Benito Mller has pointed out, these remarks were “made against the background of a long and very bitter history of North-South disputes over fair resource allocations” It does not seem so. It seems, rather, that the EU negotiators, following the traditional habits of Northern elites, simply dismissed Vajpayee’s rather calm and straightforward words as empty rhetoric.
This may not, however, have been the case. Vajpayee, after all, was simply stating a position that has become commonplace among Southern negotiators, that fairness is not after all a very difficult matter, and that when it comes to developing country commitments, it has a great deal to do with per capita rights.
The problem, of course, is that the North will not officially talk about per capita rights. It’s a taboo subject, which (like “responsibility”) is off limits because, almost everyone assumes, it would imply immense Northern liabilities and thus spell the end of any honest hope for a workable global accord.
In fact, “costs” and “rights” are very different issues indeed. We’ll not deny that they are linked, but the linkage is hardly a simple one, and is founded as much in politics and ideology as in economic or technological reality. In fact, it’s easy enough to construct scenarios, and even models, that indicate that rights-based regimes would be more efficient, and thus cheaper, than the alternatives, particularly for low emission futures.
The real problem, though, is the taboo itself. And the sense of reality that underlies it.
Look at it this way. Given Russia’s temporizing, and given especially the power which the fossil cartel has won over the American state, it’s easy for Northern delegates (and NGOs!) to argue that their hands are tied. That no real money is available for adaptation assistance or trust building. That progress can only be make on the sly, by a “stealth strategy” of quiet initiatives that draw developing countries to “engage” more deeply with “the climate process.” That the way forward is by the contrived ambiguity of “voluntary commitments” and “growth targets” and all their many cousins. That equity, at least for the moment, will have to play its usual role as chimera and decoration.
We’re going to hear a lot of this in the years just ahead, so let us, please, take a moment to recall just how brilliantly abstract rhetoric played in Delhi.
(Not) Drawing the Line
To be fair, and as many of our readers know, there’s actually a lot of very concrete discussion going on about the structure of a second commitment period extension to Kyoto. The problem is that these discussions are confounded by the fact that Kyoto is still in limbo, and more essentially by the fact that no one is yet willing to pay for an adequate treaty.
The realism of the climate mainstream demands that next steps be consistent with this existing “unwillingness to pay.” Thus, it relies on the very small steps – extending the CDM, say, or getting a few wealthy developing countries to take some kind of targets – that are believed to be saleable, even under existing circumstances. The adequacy of such steps to the task of protecting the climate system, or rather their inadequacy, is never even considered.
The logic of this approach can seem quite compelling: the long-term climate problem can’t be solved without the participation of the U.S. and the large developing countries, but the two sides currently have irreconcilable positions. The U.S. won’t agree to emission limitations without evidence of similar developing country commitments, and the developing counties, similarly, won’t commit to anything without evidence of U.S. reductions. Thus, stalemate. To break it, the negotiators (largely Europeans), analysts and NGOs that comprise the broad climate mainstream are straining to contrive a pragmatic if not magical formula that generates “no regrets” movement on all sides, or at least holds the game together while we await a much anticipated techno-economic tipping point.
With wind power and hybrid cars already breaking out, and the security and employment advantages of renewables already receiving lots of new attention, it’s easy to think that such an approach will do. That, in effect, even modest constraints on emissions can accelerate technological change enough, and reduce costs enough, to make significant acts of climate stabilization acceptable, even to a public that quite explicitly lacks the “political will” to take on the larger problem. Over time, presumably under the impetus of visibly creeping or catastrophic climate change, more substantive policies will become possible.
In the meanwhile, honest talk about sharing the global carbon budget – or even overly pointed talk about the scientific trend, and what it’s telling us about how low a safe carbon budget will have to be – is being painted as dangerously premature and explicitly counter-productive.
There’s quite a bit of this being said, though little gets written down. Fortunately, Jonathan Pershing (the new head of the World Resources Institute’s Climate, Energy and Pollution Program) and Fernando Tudela have been good enough to argue this position in print. Here’s how they put it in the (July 2003) public draft of their forthcoming paper, A Long-Term Target:
“Assuming consensus of the level of acceptable risk could be reached, target-setting encounters a second set of political obstacles. It implies the need to apportion effort – to allocate emission allowances or other burdens or responsibilities. The enormous difficulty in the debate over differentiating emission targets in the Kyoto Protocol, when the commitment was only short-term, merely hints at the difficulties that might be anticipated in attempting to allocate rights and obligations over the long term. Setting the target and allocating burdens are, of course, separate exercises. But insofar as the target defines the total burden or rights to be allocated, its establishment becomes weighted with all the attendant political and economic stakes. The target is in this sense seen as a proxy for a multitude of politically charged decisions.”
Pershing and Tudela then go on to argue that, if we’re going to talk about targets at all, we should approach them at the level of “activities,” the latest code for sectoral or technical goals like “decarbonizing the energy sector by 2100”.
The appeal of such goals is precisely that they defy the quantification of total costs, which is not coincidentally the reason that they’re safe to advocate. The problem is that, for just this same reason, their likely effectiveness is extremely difficult to model. And, in fact, Pershing and Tudela acknowledge that “Unless the goal is sufficiently broad or stringent (e.g., full energy decarbonization) there is no assurance that it will in fact deliver the desired outcome of reduced climate change impacts.” Moreover, and this is crucial, activity targets will have clear, easily identifiable losers. Pershing and Tudela recognize this, but we will be explicit about the implication: it’s unlikely that, all else being equal, stringent activity targets will be adopted any time soon.
And we don’t have much time.
Which is why we’re being so difficult. We want to put the larger challenge on the table, for we feel that, by so doing, we’re plowing the ground for the recognitions and reckonings that will actually determine our fate. Technological changes are essential, as is the energy security/jobs message of new renewables movement (see the Apollo Alliance) but more is needed, and we don’t believe that activity targets and sectoral goals name the missing ingredients. They’re useful tools, but that is all, and the kind of incrementalism they promise is unlikely to push us to the real tipping point, which is political.
In the end, the strongest argument against the stealth strategy is simply that it is a stealth strategy. By design, it avoids even laying the groundwork for the arguments that will eventually have to be won if we’re to make it to the soft-landing corridor. It avoids, particularly, the crucial argument that rich to poor-world redistributive transfers are both necessary and justified, at that without them we are extremely unlikely to make a soft-landing.
The stealth approach counsels us to wait until “willingness to pay” increases before clearly speaking this awful truth. But there’s no reason to think that it will increase, not unless we explain why it must. As we see it, the stealth logic leads us to a world in which we’re fatally unprepared. For, conveniently or not, the political conflicts over climate-related transfer payments will only sharpen when – and this may be soon – the need for more restrictive reductions can no longer be plausibly denied.
As for costs, the reality is that the longer we wait before really acting, the higher we allow emissions to increase, the steeper the decline that we’ll need if we’re to return to anything like a “safe” emissions level. And, of course, the more it will cost to do so.
Imagine a world in 2010, in which by some massive good fortune the U.S. has fought off the neo-conservative putsch and returned to something like normality. Imagine that, while this was happening, a pragmatic coalition of European and developing-country governments has somehow drawn Russia into the Kyoto regime and thus brought it fully to life. Imagine that the EU and the G77/China have agreed to put off discussions of post-Kyoto commitments until 2010 and that, in the meanwhile, the EU has achieved its targets on the basis of a semi-reasonable mix of domestic action, CDM and hot air.
And 2010 has now come. Imagine (it shouldn’t be hard) that another watershed must now be crossed, and that everyone knows there can be no further steps without the U.S.’s reentry. Imagine too (this should actually be easy) that the U.S., the highest (Annex I) per-capita emitter, has made the least effort to reduce its contributions to an every more visible and threatening warming. And add this: the per-capita emissions of the non-Annex I countries will still be only a fraction (probably 20-25%) of Annex I emissions.
And, one last thing: imagine that, in 2010, the science is clear enough that Kyoto’s signatories decide that they need to meet a 450 ppm carbon concentration target, and that, further, global emissions must peak by 2020.
What’s would happen
Without presuming to know the future, it seems fair enough to guess that most everyone would demand that the U.S. pick up the biggest share of the post-2012 reduction burden. That, in fact it pay for its over-emissions by buying permits from the rest of the world, whether through projects or a global cap-and-trade system or by some equivalent mechanism. That, one way or another, it pay.
What happens then
Most likely, the U.S. asks, yet again, why it should be expected to pay much “while China and India don’t have to pay at all.” And this time, with the battle well and truly joined and only a decade remaining before global emissions must finally peak, someone will have to give the honest answer: Because you use, and have used, far more than your share; Because they use and have used, far less. Because you’re free riding and they’re not.
And if, by 2010, this most obvious fact is not already a familiar part of the landscape, even in the U.S., we’re going to be in real trouble.
The U.S., of course, would not have to ratify. It could, and many will argue that it should, pursue an “American Way” strategy – leveraging the local and state-level actions and McCain Lieberman and all the rest – and thus do its part, but on its own terms.
Would this be ok More particularly, would the Democrats, and the U.S. environmental establishment, plead yet again that the rest of the world must understand their problems Would anyone still dare to suggest that the developing countries should take on emission limitation commitments, while we wait for the Americans to join, more formally, in round three
We’d like to think not. We’d like to think that, even in a post-Bush America where the lunatic right remained a clear and present danger (as it would), the global reality would finally be obvious to all. If we’re to make it into a soft-landing corridor, changes will have to come fast. The developing world will have to embrace the greenhouse challenge, and it will not do so, not with sufficient brio, unless the U.S. formally “engages” with the international process, and in a real way. And we’d like to think that, by 2010, no one will any longer pretend that there’s another way forward.
Which, of course, would bring us right back to the need to broach the question of the U.S.’s obligations and, indeed, its responsibilities and ecological debts.
And, here, vague talk itself becomes the problem. It’s one thing to say that the developing countries will only move if the U.S. does as well. It’s another to pretend that, having said this, we’ve said enough. The reality remains as it has been for some time: we must begin defining the specific terms of a post-Kyoto regime that the U.S., and China, and India, and all the other countries that would follow in their train, could abide. And to do this, we must stop equivocating and understand that only certain kinds of frameworks can be both adequate and fair.
The elephant in the room is “rights to the global commons.” Proposals that continue to ignore it are only setting themselves up to be defeated by “Byrd-Hagel II,” the inevitable replay of the strategy that killed Kyoto in the U.S.: “It’s not fair that we should have to pay when other polluters don’t.”
And of this you can be sure: if the U.S. demands quantified targets for low per-capita-emitting countries (e.g., China and India), with Europe’s tacit or explicit support, those demands will be firmly rejected. Unless, that is, and this is the all-important proviso, they are actually fair targets, minimizing grandfathering today and guaranteeing equal per capita rights in the medium-to-long run.
Be clear: Everyone agrees that the South won’t soon agree to Kyoto-style targets. But no one can effectively claim that the South would reject targets that were actually fair, targets that gave them emissions rights to sell today in excess of their needs, in compensation for the expenses they will incur in the coming decades to build a low-carbon economic and energy infrastructure, targets that guaranteed their rights to a fair share of the benefits of the global commons. No one can effectively argue this for the simple reason that such a fair proposal has never been put on the table.
Almost all proposals for finessing the developing country commitments problem count on keeping any developing country permit surplus (often pejoratively labeled “tropical hot air”) to an absolute minimum, thus reducing the squeeze on the developed countries. Even “Contraction and Convergence”, which admirably makes a robust case for equal per capita emissions rights, concedes an indefinite (that is, negotiable) period in which current over-emitters are grandfathered permits at a level that Southern countries will never be allowed to achieve.
But this sort of pragmatism, not to say avoidance, has a price. Because, given the science, the remaining global carbon budget is quite small. Thus, under any reasonably precautionary cap, an adequate treaty will have to be openly redistributive in order to be fair.
And we’re better off just facing it.
It’s fine to say that different countries can have different interpretations of fairness, but given the need for a small global carbon budget, and the equally compelling need for just and sustainable global development path, we’re going to have to talk about money sooner or later. And when it comes to the basic argument between North and South about who should pay, the simple fact is that the moral (and political) positions of the U.S. and India are not equally credible. The U.S. is rich, and can pay, and this wealth can in important ways be tied back to its history and its “ecological debt.” India does not have the same ability to pay, and neither does it have the same responsibility to do so.
We are aware of the fact that our argument will strike many as unpalatable. In fact, however, we’re only being frank about a situation that even the hardest realists, straining to entice developing countries with cost-free “growth targets,” have found themselves unable to ignore. Such proposals must, almost by definition, create essentially cost-free targets for the South. Thus they all accept, if only implicitly, the obvious fact that developing countries cannot yet be expected to make substantial and costly emissions reductions. They even allow developing country emissions to grow, though they do so only grudgingly.
Which, actually, will not do. Because keeping developing country targets cost free while taking adequacy seriously – bending the global emissions curve sharply enough to reach a “soft-landing corridor” – means drastic cuts in the North beyond 2020. Such cuts would be expensive, and Northern resistance to expensive reductions will of course be intense. Thus, in the absence of a rights-based allocations framework, developing countries can reasonably fear, and even expect, that growth targets will lead to an “abate and switch” scenario: cost-free targets today, but no compensation when the crunch comes.
The point is that the status quo is free-riding by the North. Even the European states now pledged to meet their Kyoto targets are, meanwhile, overusing scarce atmospheric space without compensating those who will never get the chance to follow their easy path to development. The allocation, in other words, is ongoing, and to the benefit of the North, and the South is painfully aware of this. Pretending it’s not is just deferring – and worsening – the inevitable confrontation.
A Prolog to the Future
What does all this imply today, when even Kyoto’s fate is not assured We believe it has two consequences. First, that we must establish a new coalition which explicitly seeks to establish an adequate and equitable climate treaty. See our Northern Call for Southern Leadership for more on this. Second, that such a coalition can and must be formed around a post-Kyoto drive for equal rights to benefit from the global atmospheric commons.
We’re not going to try to spell out what we think a fair and adequate treaty would have to be like, not in any detail. But we will hazard a few key claims, which we think define any possible post-Kyoto path worth fighting for.
It must be demonstrably adequate
The post-Kyoto climate regime must offer a reasonable possibility of taking us, all of us on this benighted planet, into a plausible soft-landing corridor. And neither indirection or appeals to faith will suffice in this regard. Whatever the way forward, it must be specific enough to be comprehensibly modeled, and thereby shown to be consistent with the scientific knowledge we now have of the climate system.
It must be rights-based, but not naively
To survive the coming crunch, the climate regime must be based on an explicit and quantifiable theory of emission rights. And emissions rights must be seen for what they really are, aspects of and means to a more fundamental right, the right to just and sustainable development.
It must consider national circumstances
Finally, the climate regime must be fair, and be seen as fair. In practice this means that it must be based on a principle of equal per capita rights, but it also means that national allocations must be partially based on national circumstances. There’s a debate to be had here, but the point is simply that, given the complexity of our predicament, there are cases in which equal rights, taken literally, would decrease rather than increase fairness.
Three simple if daunting criteria. Do we think proposals which meet them will emerge anytime soon Indeed we do, for the simple reason that the situation demands them.
It’s no accident, for example, that Contraction and Convergence has found so much high-level support, most recently when the German Advisory Council on the Global Environment (WBGU Report) decided “to base its in-depth analysis of the implications of emissions allocation on the contraction and convergence model.” Contraction and Convergence, after all, offers a compelling framework that, in practice, can be made both adequate and fair; as such it’s a big step forward. And other, further, steps are also being taken. Researchers around the world are worrying the problem of the post-Kyoto regime, and some are drawing interesting conclusions. We ourselves are offering our small resources by articulating the so-called “Per Capita Plus” approach, which seeks to move the equity approach forward by factoring national circumstances into it in a systematic and defensible way.
But this takes us into another story, which will have to wait. Right now we need to resolve this one, and the only honest way to do that is with problems, not answers. For the problems are both clear and daunting. Indeed, when you consider the state of the world, and the ever clarifying science, they are nothing less than terrifying.
It comes to this: If we’re to make it to a soft-landing corridor, everything will have to go well. There will have to be a green technological revolution, and soon, even while the fossil cartel does everything in its power to delay it. There will have to be a new spirit of international cooperation, which isn’t going to come easily, if it comes at all. There will have to be a pervasive sense of fair dealing, one strong enough to hold a cooperative international system together when the crunch comes, which it will. Refract all this through the concerns of this essay – climate first among them – and it means that the rich world will have to sharply reduce its emissions, and at the same time pay for a clean energy transition in the poor. Not the whole bill, but a good deal of it: enough to be fair, and to ensure that the transition happens quickly. Enough to demand legitimation not as aid, but as a matter of human rights and environmental justice.
Which leaves us, of course, with problems, a whole host of problems: from defeating the denialists, to reducing rich-world emissions, to collecting “transfer payments,” if you will, for the excessive emissions that still remain. From distributing those payments fairly, to ensuring that it actually goes to clean-energy development. And it leaves us, too, with the certainly that our analysis here will be dismissed as lunatic utopianism.
At least for another few years.
And even when those years have passed, there will still be the fossil cartel, and all the vast infrastructure of business as usual. And there will still be the United States.
It’s easy to despair, to sink into a pessimism in which nothing but inadequate reform and blind hope remains. It’s easy, but it’s not necessary. For the world is changing, and even the U.S. is changing with it. We will not, in 2010, know it as we know it today. We will know something better, or perhaps something far worse, but all that it is given to us to do, just now, is to throw our small weight to the former possibility.
Soon, even in the U.S., the denial will become absurd, the stuff of hacks and tobacco-company PR. But this hardly means that America will be ready to face the redistributive implications of climate adequacy. Most Americans, rather, will solace themselves with their traditional faiths, technological deliverance first among them. It is, after all, a profitable religion, and easy to preach. But at the same time, the world is changing, and Americans too can sense the new winds. They are looking out to the larger world, and they will listen, if someone speaks. It’s the job of NGOs and progressive climate analysts do so, and to be very clear about the basics: American emissions must drop, and fast, and the only alternative – a poor one but a real one – is for rich overemitters to pay for their excessive emissions.
Can this sort of an approach fly We think it can. We think, that is, that a principled realist argument for equity can be effectively made and, in time, that it can be won. Even in the U.S.
Remember that political beliefs in the U.S. embrace an amazing range of contradictions. Global responsibility and equal opportunity are foundational beliefs, right alongside racism and blame-the-victim market ideology. Even today, a good many Americans would find it quite immoral, in the face of their short-terms inability to reduce their emissions, for their country to simply refuse to pay for the damages that their excessive emissions cause. They would, that is, if they were asked. And depending, of course, on how the question is framed.
Americans won’t immediately agree to a $100 per ton carbon tax, or to anything like it. But the point here is a different one – a fair climate treaty needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, sold to U.S. citizens solely on the basis of their self interest. We’ve been free-riding on the atmosphere, and we need to admit it. And we need to agree that if we’re going to use more than our share, we should at least pay for it. And this is something that Americans can understand.
As for the South, it clearly knows that the U.S., in particular, is free riding. And it’s high time for the Europeans, if they really want to be helpful, to state this publicly, and to admit its implications. It’s time to think creatively, say in terms of real sanctions, perhaps border taxes on the carbon content of exports from countries that refuse to accept their responsibilities, with proceeds earmarked for adaptation and impacts management in the poorest and most vulnerable countries. In any case, if the Europeans refuse the realities of the situation, and instead continue to play the sort of short-sighted games they tried in Delhi, they’re not going to be happy with the results. It’s too late for bullshit. This, to return to our beginning, is the real meaning of the writing on the wall.
— Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer
1. Speech of Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the High Level Segment of the Eighth Session of Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, New Delhi – 30 October, 2002, (COP8-speech)