The Climate Talks: Could an equity tipping point be on the horizon?

On April 29th, at the UN Campus in Bonn Germany, the post-Copenhagen negotiations began in earnest. There were two surprises. The first was that the mood was good. Most everyone was on their best behavior. Even the US delegation was in charming mode. This will no doubt change as we move closer to the Paris winter of 2015, where the next big showdown will take place, but still, it was a relief, and a good sign.

The second surprise is that, with the whole meeting dedicated to shaking out new ideas, we actually got a few. These included an encouraging proposal from AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, to immediately focus the short-term ambition agenda on international support for scaled-up renewable and energy-efficiency deployment. And (the subject of this post) they included the emergence of a global strategy – still tentative, but increasingly defined – for breaking the deadlock on “equity.”

The background here is that the equity agenda continues to haunt the climate negotiations, as it has done since their inception. Nor is this just a matter of North / South bloc-politics-as-usual, though it’s certainly true that “equity” has been a political football since the earliest days of the climate talks. The real problem is that 1992’s UN Framework Convention of Climate Change very clearly obligates the developed countries to “take the lead” in facing the climate problem, and, when all is said and done, they have simply not done so. Even worse, the whole “development” project – the only project that has recently managed to lift significant numbers of people out of poverty – is being thrown into crisis by the scale and severity of the climate threat. In this context, the slogan is clearly right – equity is indeed “the pathway to ambition.” Absent a working agreement on its principles and implications, it will be extremely difficult to shift the negotiations onto anything like a high-ambition track. In may even be impossible.

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The new Carbon Bubble report

All we have to do is decide to not commit civilizational suicide – and the markets crash!

The first Carbon Bubble report, released a few years, was a very big deal. It told us that the whole “peak oil” trope was just wrong, that the real name of the problem was Unburnable Carbon. And it led Bill McKibben to publish his fabulous Rolling Stone article. And then came the Do the Math project, and the whole carbon divestment movement. Definitely a very big deal.

And now comes the second Carbon Bubble report, Wasted Capital, which was just released. It’s Phase II of the project and, far from being a rehash, it’s proof that the fundamental approach is sound. In fact, it’s huge news. Lord Stern (of the Stern Review) is now fronting. The modeling has been fine tuned, and now shows – among other things – that Carbon Capture and Sequestration is extremely unlikely to save our bacon. There’s an improved geographic analysis which shows just how hard the Carbon Bubble is going to hit the emerging economies of the developing world. There’s a huge amount of evidence that, not just stars like Jeremy Grantham but mainline financial analysts around the world are taking the argument on-board, and in a big way. There’s even a bit of speculation about how this is all going to interact with new round of the climate negotiations, which will reach their (next) crisis in the winter of 2015, six years after Copenhagen.

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Everybody Knows

Climate Denialism has peaked. Now what are we going to do?

It was never going to be easy to face the ecological crisis.  Even back in the 1970s, before climate took center stage, it was clear that we the prosperous were walking far too heavily.  And that “environmentalism,” as it was called, was only going to be a small beginning.  But it was only when the climate crisis pushed fossil energy into the spotlight that the real stakes were widely recognized.  Fossil fuels are the meat and potatoes of industrial civilization, and the need to rapidly and radically reduce their emissions cut right through to the heart of the great American dream.  And the European dream.  And, inevitably, the Chinese dream as well.

Decades later, 81% of global energy is still supplied by the fossil fuels: coal, gas, and oil.[1]  And though the solar revolution is finally beginning, the day is late.  The Arctic is melting, and, soon, as each year the northern ocean lies bare beneath the summer sun, the warming will accelerate.  Moreover, our plight is becoming visible.  We have discovered, to our considerable astonishment, that most of the fossil fuel on the books of our largest corporations is “unburnable” – in the precise sense that, if we burn it, we are doomed.[2]  Not that we know what to do with this rather strange knowledge.  Also, even as China rises, it’s obvious that it’s not the last in line for the promised land.  Billions of people, all around the world, watch the wealthy on TV, and most all of them want a drink from the well of modern prosperity.  Why wouldn’t they?  Life belongs to us all, as does the Earth.

The challenge, in short, is rather daunting.

The denial of the challenge, on the other hand, always came ready-made.  As Francis Bacon said so long ago, “what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes.”  And we really did want to believe that ours was still a boundless world.  The alternative – an honest reckoning – was just too challenging. For one thing, there was no obvious way to reconcile the Earth’s finitude with the relentless expansion of the capitalist market.  And as long as we believed in a world without limits, there was no need to see that economic stratification would again become a fatal issue.  Sure, our world was bitterly riven between haves and have-nots, but this problem, too, would fade in time.  With enough growth – the universal balm – redistribution would never be necessary.  In time, every man would be a king.

The denial had many cheerleaders.  The chemical-company flacks who derided Rachel Carson as a “hysterical woman” couldn’t have known that they were pioneering a massive trend.  Also, and of course, big money always has plenty of mouthpieces.  But it’s no secret that, during the 20th Century, the “engineering of consent” reached new levels of sophistication.  The composed image of benign scientific competence became one of its favorite tools, and somewhere along the way tobacco-industry science became a founding prototype of anti-environmental denialism.  On this front, I’m happy to say that the long and instructive history of today’s denialist pseudo-science has already been expertly deconstructed.[3]  Given this, I can safely focus on the new world, the post-Sandy world of manifest climatic disruption in which the denialists have lost any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, and have ceased to be a decisive political force.  A world in which climate denialism is increasingly seen, and increasingly ridiculed, as the jibbering of trolls.

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A new interpretation of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities”

If you take a real bird’s-eye view of the climate negotiations – one in which only the largest features are visible – then you might say that they began in earnest with 1992’s negotiation of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The next big event was the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 1997.  Then came Copenhagen in 2009 and the following daze, which finally lifted in late 2011 with the Durban Platform, which provided for “a Protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force, applicable to all countries” to be negotiated by 2015 and to go into effect in 2020.

Those negotiations are now proceeding in earnest, and they’re taking place within civil society networks as well. One of those networks, the most established and extensive of all those working within the climate talks, is the international Climate Action Network, which consists of over 700 NGOs from around the world.  And CAN, as it is called, has now agreed on its own positions, which will be the basis of its lobbying and outreach as we approach the big year 2015.  These positions are represented by two “submissions” to the UNFCCC secretariat.  The submission to “Workstream 1” (which covers the post-2020 regime that is now being negotiated) is here.  The submission to “Workstream 2” (which covers the effort to increase ambition prior to 2020) is here.

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The New Abolitionists

Global warming is the great moral crisis of our time

You may have already read Wen Stephenson’s The New Abolitionists. It was published in the Boston Phoenix some time ago, and it’s bounced around. But just in case you missed it, stop and take a look.  Now, if necessary.

I don’t mean to say that this essay is above criticism.  It contains nothing on the global side of the crisis, for example, and this even though the climate crisis is quintessentially global.  And the discussion of worst-cases (the Tim DeChristopher meets Terry Root passage) is more than a bit thin.

Which is where this bit comes in:

“Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future,” DeChristopher tells Tempest Williams, “I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back.”

Actually, DeChristopher does allow some hope. “If you look at the worst-case consequences of climate change, those pretty much mean the collapse of our industrial civilization,” he tells Williams. “But that doesn’t mean the end of everything. It means we’re going to be living through the most rapid and intense period of change that humanity has ever faced. And that’s certainly not hopeless. It means we’re going to have to build another world in the ashes of this one. And it could very easily be a better world.”

This, I have to say, just doesn’t work for me.

Another weakness.  There’s next  to nothing here on how the rich / poor divide makes it next to impossible for us to succeed, not as long as we remain a “climate movement” per se.   Even a “climate justice” movement, as DeChristopher and Stephenson mean the phrase, doesn’t put justice front and center.  

Still, this piece is a keeper.  It’s not just good, it’s damn good.  Kudos to Stephenson.

Climate Change Will Cause Food Prices To Soar

I’ve noticed that when people draft their “scare the shit out of you” summary paragraph — the one that, it seems, we’ll be reworking for the rest of our lives — they often forget food prices, which will be rising fast and soon.   This is unfortunate, in all sorts of ways.  Human suffering, for one.  Game changing political movements, for another.

Anyway, Oxfam is taking the lead on this front, and its work deserves a great deal more attention that it’s received.  Start with Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices: The costs of feeding a warming world, which was published last September.  Joe Romm wrote a nice summary here.

For a bit more historical context, don’t forget Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera, wherein we get this little bit of advice: However much you twist, whatever lies you tell, food is the first thing, morals follow on.”  (Click to listen to a fantastic version!  Listen to it loud!).  

Thinking hard about "Equity Reference Frameworks"

The Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios project recently organized an interesting workshop of Equity Access to Sustainable Development.  The public report of the workshop is here, and it’s well worth spending some time with, particular because of the depth and sophistication with which it engaged with the problem of Equity Reference Frameworks.

See in particular the paper the report from the workshop, Relfections on Operationalizing EASD, and the backgroup paper on Equity Reference Frameworks and their operationalization, by Xolisa Ngwadla of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. 

Ngwadla introdues the idea of “Equity Reference Framework,” or ERF, in this manner:

“The underlying philosophy for an ERF is the universal application of egalitarian principle to guide a  distributive view that seeks to address historical, current, and potential inequities in respect of  contribution to emissions, and as such is corrective in character, and distributive in approach. In  respect of the metric/non-metric chasm, a stepwise consideration is proposed, where there is an ex  ante assessment of fair effort in a non-binding framework, with binding commitments proposed by  parties and therefore catering to national circumstances.

However, the process of inscribing such commitments includes a Party-driven process to assess the  adequacy of proposed commitments against the computed fair efforts, and as such drive ambition  whilst reconciling a top-down and bottom-up approach. An important characteristic of the output of  the ERF is that it reflects a relative fair effort by a Party, without prescribing only a level of emission  reduction, but expecting a total contribution that includes means of implementation, thereby  providing flexibility in terms of the mix of commitments a Party can use to achieve its responsibility at any given temperature goal.”

One further note.  There is still a lot of unnecessary complexity swirling around the notion of equity.  As far as the negotiations, and of finding a way forward in which the pursuit of equity and the pursuit of ambition buttress and strengthen each other, there are really only two relevant options — the Historical Responsibility approach and the Responsibility and Capacity approach.   One of the reasons why this workshop was so interesting is that this baseline reality was recognized by the participants, who were thereby able to look forward and build upon it.  In particular, they were able to have a coherent discussion about how the ERF debate could be folded into and play a helpful role within the UNFCCC process.

“Participants then discussed how the ERF could be constituted: at the prescriptive end it could be  perhaps through a COP decision that could engage the IPCC and SBSTA and at the facilitative end it could be outside the formal UN process but exert influence through informal channels. Further discussion focused on the possible content of the ERF: it could contain objectives for adaptation and mitigation, based on global temperature goals (2 and 1.5 °C); and corresponding relative fair efforts by countries. Participants identified a list of functions the ERF could perform: it could inform the types of commitments countries could take, their timing, the legal form these commitments could take and the compliance consequences that could follow.”

The free-market case for world government

(in five bullet points)

• The sine qua non of free market economics is secure property rights.

• The likelihood of severe and potentially catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is in part a consequence of our inability to enforce any right to protection from the harm to life and property caused by the cross-border impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.

• A secure regime of property rights requires enforcement and (in the long run) legitimacy.

• The existence of cross-border impacts requires the cross-border reach of enforcement and legitimacy.

• This implies a relatively strong version of world government.

What could be clearer?

–Paul Baer (

Atlanta GA, USA