Fair Shares — the Basics

Well here I am again at the climate talks, this time in Bonn: the latest stop on the long slog in the latest attempt to break the stalemate.  It’s not looking too good right now, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that the wealthy countries are still not doing, or proposing to do, anything like their fair shares of the global effort that would be needed to stabilize the global climate system.

More on this later.  For now here’s a primer that I wrote for this morning’s issue of ECO, the daily NGO newsletter.

Everybody always talks about equity, but no-one ever does anything about it. In hopes that someday the Parties might, ECO would like to offer this quick cheat-sheet.

It’s not true that “equity is in the eye of the beholder.” Sure, there’s a lot to disagree about, but the UNFCCC really does give us someplace to stand. Three places, actually, for when all is said and done, the Convention affirms three high-level precepts: 1) Avoid dangerous climate change, 2) Divide the effort of doing so on the basis of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” and 3) Protect “the right to sustainable development.” If it’s consistent with these three principles, it’s probably fair, or at least a fair enough start.

It’s CBDR+RC, not CBDR. Those last words in the second principle – “respective capabilities” – may be challenging, but they’re not any more challenging than “historical responsibility,” and in any case they’re not going away anytime soon. And just because some Parties wish that the responsibility issue would just fade away, that doesn’t mean that other Parties are being helpful by trying to push capabilities off the boat. Two wrongs, as they say, don’t make a right. Not even a development right.

The climate crisis is a global commons problem – emphasis on the word “global.” However you understand your climate obligations, they’re global obligations nonetheless. The responsibility that each nation has to do its fair share is a responsibility to all other nations, or rather, to all the people (and creatures) of the world. If you have a lot of responsibility and capability, and if you thus have more tons to mitigate than it is possible to mitigate within your own borders, then doing your fair share means going beyond your domestic mitigation, and also providing the finance and technology needed to mitigate elsewhere. Which is to say that finance is part and parcel of your mitigation obligation.

Finally, we don’t have to absolutely agree about what’s fair and what’s not. Approximate agreement is a whole lot better than stalemate and standoff. Think of the problem politically. We need to be able to identify climate leaders (who are actually doing their fair share) and climate laggards (who are doing, or proposing to do, much less).  In this regard, a rough common understanding is quite enough. ECO believes that if we can win such an understanding, all else will follow.

Well, maybe not “all else.” Because no common understanding will substitute for ambitious finance. We know Paris isn’t just about finance, but if we don’t get some, COP21 is going to be a grim affair indeed.

– Tom Athanasiou

Countdown: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?

(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)


COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Alan Weisman
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages

During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.

First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.

Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.

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