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Climate Change: Post-Paris Challenges and Concerns

26 Jan

 

Hilal Elver and Richard Falk

 

[Prefatory Note: This jointly written post was previously published in Truthout on January 20, 2016 in slightly modified form, and with the title “Will Countries Follow Through on the Climate Pledges Made in Paris?” Our title here tries to broaden the scope of inquiry to encompass the problems with the agreement that extend beyond fulfilling the pledges. We focus especially on the insufficiency of the pledges given the goals with respect to average earth temperature, how to address climate change in a manner sensitive to the concerns of climate justice, especially the harm being imposed by global warming on various categories of vulnerable people.]

 

 

It is time to move on from the aura of good feelings of accomplishment created by the Paris Climate Change Conference of last December, and begin asking some hard questions. Above all we need to assess whether an agreement that consists of voluntary pledges that gained the participation of every country on the planet is workable and sufficient, and whether its contribution to slowing global warming should be celebrated or lamented at this stage.

 

Does the agreement really provide a realistic hope that the international community is going to regulate adequately human caused (anthropogenic) climate change? Or, should the Paris Agreement be dismissed as a ‘fraud’ as James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist turned activist, advises? Is every one of the 195 signatories at Paris genuinely committed to and capable of upholding the agreement? Are their pledges realistic and appropriate? The answers to such questions vary depends on who is giving the answers. Fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal) producer countries, along with most energy companies, are not happy with the agreement as it strongly anticipates shifts to renewables that threaten to eliminate fossil fuels altogether by the end of the century. At the same time, clean energy companies (wind, solar, and even nuclear) are understandably enthusiastic, expecting a surge in governmental and market support for their technologies and dramatic increases in demand for their products.

 

It is strange that the agreement never explicitly mentions that ‘fossil fuels, or coal and oil are going to be phased out.’ Yet everyone in Paris realized that fossil fuels were the elephant in the room. Drafters of the Paris Agreement were crafty enough not to use provocative language, while still sending clear signals to energy investors that the future belongs to the renewables. We should appreciate the fact that developing countries will continue to rely on traditional energy resources for a long time, and take into account the reality that the developed world has been relying on fossil fuels without restriction since the industrial revolution. It is not fair to insist that developing countries stop using fossil fuels because it is bad for the climate, without these richer countries shouldering the financial burden of the costly switch to clean energy, which would impose burdens on their development and poverty reduction plans. Ideally, this kind of transfer payment would be financed by a tax on transnational financial transactions, hedge fund profits, or international airline flights, but this seems highly unlikely to happen so long as the neoliberal ideologues of global capital continue to pull most of the strings that determine economic policy. The Paris Agreement is suspiciously silent about how such transfer payments will be financed, leaving it to individual states to decide.

 

Although the agreement lowered the threshold of tolerable warming by half a degree centigrade (from 2 to 1.5 degrees Celsius), the means to reach the goal is far from adequate. Even in the unlikely event that every country keeps its promises, the average earth temperature will rise at least 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and this will cause havoc in many parts of the planet. With this in mind, skepticism about the Paris outcome seems justified. The existence of this wide gap between the predicted average temperature rise expected by a consensus among climate scientists and the insufficiency of even full compliance with the Paris targets is a core dispiriting reality. There is a reset feature contained in the agreement that would allows parties to make an upward adjustment in their emissions commitments that would be more in keeping with what the scientific consensus on global warming. But how likely is this to happen? As with other aspects of the agreement this possibility is voluntary and vague, and so its value in enhancing the climate ambition of governments will depend on their increased dedication to ensuring a prudent future for the planet and upon the degree to which civil society pressures makes such action seem politically expedient as well as socially responsible.

 

Reducing Emissions Voluntarily

 

The climate change regime has a unique structure to differentiate responsibilities among the developing and developed parties by taking account of the needs and situation of developing countries, and assesses the historic responsibility of developed countries to explain the imposition of unequal obligations. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries and accumulates over time, making activities in developed countries responsible for current levels of global warming. Despite this, the Paris Agreement avoids mentioning ‘historical responsibility’ as this would be ‘a red flag’ that might agitate the Republican-controlled United States Congress, and maybe make some other governments as well so nervous as to repudiate the entire Paris arrangement. Excluding any reference to historical responsibilities was definitely a psychological victory for developed countries, but whether it also has substantive relevance only time will tell.

 

These richer countries led by the United States also achieved some big victories that were substantive as well as symbolic. They succeeded in weakening the ‘loss and damage’ principle, which was intended to make the developed countries financially responsible for addressing some of the adverse impacts that developing countries are experiencing due to climate change. Financial responsibility to repair the damage caused by extreme weather events could be extremely expensive. Such damage could be particularly catastrophic for acutely vulnerable low-lying coastal countries and several small island states. Their economic viability and even physical survival is at grave risk in the near future.

 

Without doubt, the biggest, and most disturbing, diplomatic success at Paris for the developed countries was to make the agreement formally voluntary in all of its aspects. Even the central pledges (‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ or INDCs ) of countries with respect to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are presented as voluntary. The language of the agreement is worded in ways that allow multiple interpretations, and its behavioral consequences are uncertain at this stage even if we grant good faith participation by all governments. Parts of the agreement are inflected with a tone of Orwellian doublespeak apparently intended to disguise any differences between agreeing to do something and not being obliged to do what was agreed upon.

 

There are many reasons why this feature of the Paris approach is most troublesome. Its presence mainly reflects America’s diplomatic muscle exerting a downward pressure on the negotiating process that produced a kind of linguistic race to the bottom. The Obama presidency if it were acting on its own would definitely be supportive of a stronger commitment process. It is rather the intimidating expectation that any international agreement of this magnitude would be considered as a treaty if it imposed financial and behavioral responsibilities in obligatory language and included dispute settlement procedures. Such an approach would constitutionally required the agreement to be submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification by a two-thirds vote, which would be unobtainable, meaning that the treaty would die in the legislative chamber, and likely that kind of more robust Paris undertaking would quickly become irrelevant. It should also be noted that several pivotal developing countries, including Brazil, China, and India also favored this kind of voluntary framing of national commitments, and seemed content to let America do most of the dirty work of watering down the language of what was agreed upon.

 

The good news is that the agreement will make all national commitments transparent, reviewable, and even expandable. The pledges do not become operative until 2020, and then starting in 2025, after each interval of five years, there will be a review of performances with respect to the fulfillment of pledges and an opportunity to reset the earlier emissions reductions commitment. If a signatory fails to live up to its pledge, it is presumed that it will be asked for an explanation. Will it then face any negative consequences? The preliminary unnerving answer is that ‘none at all’ are likely to follow– at least nothing is prescribed. At most, a process of ‘naming and shaming’ may be forthcoming that could conceivably tarnish the reputation of a state that inexcusably fails to meet its pledge. Of course, if such a non-complying state is the victim of extreme weather events or is in the midst of war, civil strife, or economic crisis, its disappointing performance will be overlooked. Even when the excuses for failing to meet the pledges are not credible, the etiquette of diplomacy makes most states reluctant to be critical of one another in public spaces unless the target of criticism happens to be an adversary.

 

Parallels with Human Rights Commitments

 

The coming struggle for climate compliance will no doubt resemble the long story of success and failure associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1950), perhaps the most influential ‘voluntary’ set of commitments ever made. The very reliance on the word ‘declaration’ was meant to reassure governments that states were not any way obligated to uphold what was set forth as ‘rights’ in the text. When the UDHR was drafted and approved after World War II there was little expectation that the standards set would be met in practice, but what was created, and proved surprisingly effective, was a normative architecture that bestowed on the human rights community in civil society a powerful tool for the exertion of pressure that did create compliance incentives outside the international instrument itself. It turned out that most governments, although not all, cared sufficiently about their international reputations that they bent policy to satisfy many of the demands of human rights NGOs. In their turn the NGOs were discreet and deferential, doing their best to avoid embarrassing a government if it cooperated in ending an abusive pattern and appeared to be acting in good faith.

 

We believe the Paris Agreement creates a similar tool that can be used to great advantage by civil society. At this point it is far from clear whether a soft law, or voluntarism of this character even if effective within its term will prove nearly sufficient to curtail the menace of global warming. As with human rights the prospects for implementation will depend on whether NGOs and social activists exert sufficient pressure where it is most needed. We cannot be too hopeful about this. Climate activism varies greatly from country to country, and sometimes where needed most, it is absent or weak. But, there are also some positive developments. It is encouraging that the climate movement is becoming transnational and will be able to highlight the failure of some governments to make INDCs at appropriate levels and to offer criticisms of those that inexcusably fail to fulfill their pledges. If such activism is effective, it will also encourage governments and international institutions to be more vigilant with respect to their own implementation efforts, inducing ‘virtuous circles’ of compliant behavior, and even reset pledges that increase emission reductions.

 

Settling for a voluntary framework was the biggest departure from the approach taken by the Kyoto Protocol, the earlier climate change regime that had also been greeted with great fanfare when negotiated in 1997. In some respects the comparison is misleading. At Kyoto only developed countries were made responsible for greenhouse gas emission reductions. As a result the US and several other important countries gave this one-sidedness as their reason for refusing to adhere to the emissions reduction agreement. Therefore, Kyoto was virtually stillborn, engaging a group of countries that were responsible for only 12% of global emissions, and making almost no impact on the dangerous continuing overall buildup of GHGs despite the positive attention the agreement initially received in environmental circles.

 

From this point of view, the Paris Agreement is very different from Kyoto. As mentioned it makes all commitments voluntary, but participation is extended to all countries, rich or poor, developed or developing. ‘Differentiated responsibilities’ as imposing concrete duties on developed countries and leaving developing countries free to act as they wish has been replaced by a state-by-state approach in which each government indicates what it is prepared to do to cut emissions. Countries make these promises based on national assessments of their specific capabilities and circumstances. It will be important to examine objectively whether some countries submit unreasonably low INDC pledges, as well as to monitor whether the promises made are being kept in good faith.

 

The Paris approach is also reminiscent of the relationship between the UN and its predecessor organization, the League of Nations. The League had treated all countries as having an equal sovereign status, while the UN deferred to geopolitical realities by giving the five winners after World War II a right of veto and permanent membership in the Security Council. In effect, ‘a Faustian bargain’ was struck in which universality of participation was achieved at the price of giving geopolitical actors the discretion to disobey the Charter whenever their interests or those of their friends so dictated and to make respect for the authority of the UN essentially voluntary. Paris makes an equivalent tradeoff. In exchange for getting all states to participate, the content of what was agreed upon is seriously compromised, and prospects for compliance diminished, leaving the underlying challenge inadequately addressed.

 

This is not just a conceptual issue. The grossly different material circumstances of states, together with their great disparities in vulnerability and capacity to withstand climate change damage, makes it more problematic to achieve the collective good of climate stability. In this context, the free rider problem seems seriously to weaken incentives to comply, with countries standing to gain if others act conscientiously while they do less than is expected, either by making their INDC unreasonably small or by cheating and falling short. This vital concern is nowhere addressed in the Paris Agreement, and awaits future efforts to set standards, create a stronger sense of collective responsibility, and establish responses in the event of non-compliance. It is to be hoped that civil society will be especially vigilant in assessing whether the free rider aspects of the Paris Agreement are undermining compliance and the raising of the commitment level by important emitter countries.

In sum, the United States government, at least the White House, most Democrats, and the majority of citizens, are pleased for the present about what emerged from Paris. After all the agreement embodies the American-led insistence on a voluntary approach that is long on rhetoric while being short on commitments, yet rhetorically responsive to the asserted urgency of curtailing global warming. The large American delegation provided influential leadership on drafting issues before and during the conference using its good offices to foster a constructive atmosphere of compromise and accommodation among the assembled governmental representatives. Even the energy companies were not too disappointed. They succeeded in avoiding being openly targeted in the agreement. Beyond this, they were given enough adjustment time to accommodate major changes in the way energy was supplied.

 

Delays and Abstractions

 

Parties are not asked to start fulfilling their emission pledges until 2020. That is when the Paris agreement goes into effect. After this there is another five-year period until assessments of performances are made. This gives energy companies ample time to bring petroleum resources under their control to market and at the same time, making large investments in clean energy technology to ensure future returns on capital for their shareholders. Taking an even longer view, these companies have until the end of the century to become clean technology suppliers, and will be benefitted in the process by government subsidies and a downward trend in production costs for renewables.

Transparency and monitoring for the fulfillment of the INDC s are important. China was reluctant, at first, to accept even this limited form of oversight, but in the end went along. It appears that its cooperative posture was induced by Obama’s skillful courtship. The United States shared with China the informal status of being dual leader in the shaping of a voluntary approach the broad contours of which had been agreed upon even before the Paris conference began. China seemed satisfied with the agreement, apparently relishing its own prominent role, and in the end promising to make a large financial contribution to Green Fund established to support the adaptation efforts of developing countries. China is also looking forward to selling their cheap and efficient solar technology around the world. At the same time the severity of China’s domestic air pollution problem reached emergency levels during the conference, making urban pollution in the country an urgent priority. The direct link between China’s polluted cities and reducing carbon emissions for the sake of climate change undoubtedly also encouraged Chinese support of the Paris proceedings. At the same time, it is important to understand that polluted cities are distinct from the sort of atmospheric blockage that GHG emissions have caused. In effect, the global warming dangers could be just as great or even greater than at present, while the cities of the world enjoyed healthy and clean air.

 

It may seem strange that climate change negotiations often seem to be more about finance, development, and energy policies than about preventing global warming. If you were in the great halls and back rooms where governments were trying to overcome their disagreements, you might well conclude that the conference was about money not emissions. There was a tug of war involving decisions about how much assistance a particular country will receive, and which countries would accept responsibility for contributing specific amounts of funds.

 

There are also voiceless communities that were essentially unrepresented in Paris, including one billion persons struggling with extreme poverty and hunger, 350 million indigenous people that constitute ‘nations’ that often exist as captive communities within sovereign states, and the plight of future generations faced with the prospects of rising temperatures and sea levels. Only states that were members of the UN participate directly with voice and vote in international lawmaking conferences. A recent Oxfam report on Extreme Carbon Inequality confirms that the poorest half of the global population of about 3.5 billion are responsible for only around 10% of total global emissions attributed to individual consumption, yet live disproportionately in the countries that are suffering most from climate change.

 

For those at these margins, the concern is less about the abstractions of money, than the concrete issues of daily subsistence, quality of life, and even survival. Human rights activists were conscious of the plight of those excluded from real representation at Paris, and did manage to insinuate these social concerns in the text of the agreement, but only in its Preamble (rather than among the operational articles). Mention in the Preamble gives civil society activists ‘a hook’ with which to raise such issues of climate justice, and provides an ethical context that is relevant to future interpretations of what was agreed upon if issues are brought before an adjudicating institution.

 

The Paris Agreement is awkwardly abstract and indefinite about how it will fund its central undertaking to limit global warming. There is an estimated need for $16 trillion over the next 15 years if the average global increase in temperature is to be kept under 1.5 C. The developed world has so far agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to cover both the costs of emission reductions and to defray the adaptation expenses of measures adopted by developing countries to adjust to rising temperatures. This pledge is as voluntary as it gets, and doesn’t even take effect until 2025. One consequence is that any loss or damage experienced will not provide the victim society with any entitled basis of recovery assistance. It must rely on charity and the efficacy of its begging bowl. Judging from past experience the financial goals set are highly unlikely ever to be reached. From all that we know from the past there has been created a dangerous shortfall between what will be needed and what has been pledged, and thus the financial dimension of the Paris Agreement is as susceptible to disappointment as is the emissions dimension.

 

What Can We Expect Post-Paris?

 

After this closer scrutiny of the Paris outcome we need to ask ourselves ‘what can we reasonably expect from post-Paris?’ With the coolness of retrospective eyes, the Paris Agreement failed to ensure that the necessary concrete steps will be taken to avoid future climate change harms, yet still pretended to the world that finally the challenge of climate change had been successfully met by the collective energies of multilateral diplomacy under UN auspices. This could have the debilitating effect of complacency, leading many to think that Paris overcame the challenge of climate change, that was what the cheering at the end of the conference was about.

 

At the same time, there are some bright silver linings. The outcome in Paris did bear witness to a consensus among governments that strong collective action was needed to reduce carbon emissions in coming years to avoid catastrophe. Furthermore, the experiment of making the agreement an evolutionary process, with opportunities for correction every five years, does enable a heightening of commitments if public pressures about climate change grow in the future as the planet continues to warm.

 

Beyond this, the very obvious shortcomings of the Paris Agreement should encourage vigilant and militant transnational activism, and hopefully give rise to a robust climate justice movement that could exert a benign influence by inducing countries to revise their emission pledges upward at the periodic reset five year intervals, which start at 2025, and to spread burdens equitably. To confine issues of human rights and climate justice to the Preamble of the Paris Agreement, and to exclude considerations of equity and food security altogether is to reinforce the misleading impression that addressing climate change effectively is only a matter of climate science and economics. In our view, without adding climate justice to the policy equation, unacceptable climate suffering will accompany even good faith efforts to slow down further overheating of the planet. In this respect, the woeful saga of desperate waves of refugees perishing at sea or clinging for life in overcrowded boats is a telling metaphor of an inhumane world order, and a warning of worse to come as pressures mount to leave overheated and impoverished societies.

 

Now that the Paris Agreement exists, our attention needs to shift to whether countries are fulfilling their pledges and what can be done to make up for the deficiencies in this supposedly historic approach to climate change. It is particularly opportune to focus on the reset opportunity for closing the gap between what was agreed upon in Paris and what climate experts agree is needed. This would seem to be a logical next step. What has become crystal clear is that our human future will depend more than ever on the transnational mobilization of civil society in support of both sufficient emission reductions and climate justice. Governments unless pushed hard lack the political will to do what is needed to ensure a sustainable and just future for the peoples of the planet, and we need to remember that will be pushed in regressive directions by well financed lobbies and special interest groups.

 

‘Voluntary’ International Law and the Paris Agreement

16 Jan

 

Now that the celebrations by the diplomats have ended, it is time to take a hard look at what was and was not accomplished by the Paris Agreement. No one can deny that it was impressive to obtain agreement from all 195 participating countries, an outcome many doubted. A further achievement was the acceptance of the scientific consensus that global warming was an unprecedentedly severe global challenge that needed to be addressed with a sense of urgency and commitment by the world as a whole. Further, it was important that the agreement set forth in its text the ambitious goal of 1.5C degrees as the prudent ceiling for tolerable warming, while seeking to avoid an increase of 2C degrees, even while being aware that this latter would still result in serious additional harm but would be far less likely to be catastrophic than if emissions are allowed to increase without a global cap.

 

Worrisome Concerns

 Closer examination reveals several worrisome concerns. It is widely understood that international law is often ineffective because it lacks adequate means of enforcement when it prescribes behavior that obligates the parties. That is, international law is inherently weak because unable to enforce what is agreed to, but Paris carried this weakness further, by raising serious question as to whether anything at all had even been agreed. The Paris Agreement went to great lengths to avoid obligating the parties, making compliance with pledged reductions in carbon emissions an unmistakably voluntary undertaking. This is the core cause for doubt about what was agreed upon, raising the haunting question as to what emerged from Paris is even worth the paper upon which it is written. Only time will tell.

 

Prior to the Paris Agreement there were two models of an agreement process to address climate change. Both of these are now viewed as failures. There was the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 in which a mandatory treaty framework was negotiated resting on a sharply delineated division between developed countries that were required to make enumerated reductions in carbon emissions and the rest of the world that was under no obligation because their right to unrestricted development was affirmed. Then there was the Copenhagen Accord contrived on an ad hoc basis in 2009 mainly at the behest of the United States, a loose agreement reflecting American post-Kyoto concerns that the only viable international response to the threat of global warming was by way of obtaining a series of unverified voluntary pledges from national governments.

 

It is evident that in its central endeavor the Paris Agreement seeks to improve upon the Copenhagen model while rejecting the Kyoto model. In effect, the stability of an obligatory framework has been exchanged for the benefits of an inclusive arrangement that involves all countries, that is, weak on substance, strong on participation. What makes Paris seem a success whereas Copenhagen was written off as a dismal failure is partly atmospherics, or put more concretely, the skillful French management of the proceedings so as to create an impression of genuine collaboration and transparency. Also helpful was the American adoption of a low profile, operating behind the scenes, exerting the kinds of influence that did not create the sort of resentment that so badly marred the Copenhagen outcome.

 

This repudiation of the Kyoto approach is disturbing in some respects, but understandable, and even laudable, in others. Kyoto, although legally authoritative, only managed to gain the participation of states accounting for 12% of total emissions. This tradeoff between the two agreement models parallels the experience of the League of Nations that respected the sovereign equality of states, contrasting with the United Nations that privileges the five states that prevailed in World War II. The more idealistic League was a total failure because several crucial states, including the United States, refused to join, while the UN, although disappointing in relation to its war prevention record, has managed throughout its entire existence to achieve near universal participation. Even alienated and isolated states have valued the benefits of their UN membership and refrained over the decades from opting out of the UN. This experience supports the significant generalization that international lawmaking often does better when it is procedurally ambitious than when it tries to override and constrain sovereign discretion to act in areas perceived as matters of vital national interest by leading states. In the climate change context this choice can be further rationalized by an acknowledgement that the US Congress has the capacity to block any legally binding agreement, and without the United States as a participant the whole effort is wasted. It should be appreciated that the US Congress may be the only governmental site of influence in the world where a majority of its members reject the scientific consensus on climate change and gives aid and comfort to the deniers.

 

Can International Law Effective When Adherence is Voluntary?

 Although this voluntariness is problematic, it may not doom the Paris Agreement. Some non-obligatory international norms have produced important results, managing to obtain voluntary compliance, and even exceeding the original expectations of their supporters. Among many examples in international law, upholding the diplomatic immunity of ambassadors is a clear example of where the norm is unenforceable yet diplomats from small countries have almost always received the same protection over the centuries as those from the largest and most powerful countries. Why? It better serves the interests of the powerful to sustain a reliable framework of diplomatic interaction than to diminish the status of diplomats from weak states. From a different domain of international concern, we can point to rules of the road on the ocean designed to promote maritime safety. International law tends to be effective whenever compliance is more or less automatic. This can happen either because there is no significant incentive to violate what has been agreed upon or there are reciprocal gains achieved by maintaining reliable standards.

 

There are additional settings where international law is effective. One of the most prominent instances, although controversial, is the selective implementation of international norms prohibiting the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The United States acts as a geopolitical enforcer, and has been relatively successful in preventing those governments that it distrusts or opposes from acquiring the weaponry. The nonproliferation regime is defective from a rule of law perspective to the extent it is not applied equally to all non-nuclear states. Israel’s secret acquisition of nuclear weapons has been overlooked, while Iran’a nuclear program has received unprecedented scrutiny with a commitment to enforce nonproliferation by recourse to war if necessary. Beyond this the NPT regime became negotiable in 1968 only because the nuclear weapons states formally committed themselves to seek in good faith nuclear disarmament. Their failure to do so should have undermined the treaty from an international law point of view, but so far this refusal of compliance has been rhetorically noticed by non-nuclear states, but without producing a challenge to the agreement itself.

 

Paris Vulnerabilities

 

Part of the reason to be skeptical about the Paris Agreement is that the United States is unable to play the role of being a credible enforcer, and this means that there is no robust informal extra-legal pressure to comply. This weakness of the Paris arrangement is accentuated by several other factors:

            –the challenge of global warming is truly global in scope, yet the agreement reflects the aggregation of national interests. Its voluntary nature reflects the ethos of the lowest common denominator. International society can often cooperate to solve transnational problems, but it falters when the problem is truly global, especially as here where the various states have vastly different policy priorities, material circumstances, and divergent perceptions as to how fairly to apportion national responsibility for emission reductions and financial transfers;

            –many governments are constrained by mass poverty and low levels of development and seem likely to give priority to jobs and economic growth if facing economic pressures, making them also susceptible to manipulation by the private sector and international financial pressures;

            –the Paris Agreement seems particularly vulnerable to ‘the free rider problem,’ creating incentives for states to make minimum contributions while benefitting from the contributions of others; this is especially true in the climate change context since the problems are not correlated with international boundaries and the causal connections between emissions and harm are notoriously difficult to establish. This means that a state will benefit from systemic responses even if it fails to do its agreed part, while being only marginally protected by its own emission curbs;

            –often the success of a negotiated complex agreement is a result of diplomatic leadership, which has been a role that the United States Government has played in the period since 1945. The elaborate treaty establishing the public order of the oceans, one of the great success stories of international law, came about only after a decade of negotiations that were shaped by American leverage, persuading groups of states to accept concessions in exchange for benefits. For instance, the territorial sea off the coast of countries was expanded, and an exclusive economic zone was established, in exchange for preserving the freedom of the high seas for naval vessels. Because of the unevenness of national circumstances in relation to climate change the need for this kind of leadership would undoubtedly have led to a more robust agreement. This was politically impossible because the US Congress is opposed to any US national commitment with respect to climate change that results in any economic burden or commitment relating to energy policy, and the Executive Branch, despite its acceptance of the scientific consensus as to the severity of the climate change challenge, could not ignore this weakness of domestic support without suffering a humiliating rebuff as happened after Kyoto that seems more damaging to regulatory efforts than giving up an insistence on binding legal obligations;

            –without enforcement or even an obligation to comply, there are some circumstances where ‘naming and shaming’ create pressures can induce a fairly high level of compliance. The Paris Agreement by emphasizing the transparency of commitment, the monitoring of pledge fulfillment, and the reset opportunities given at five-year intervals would seem to create a situation where naming and shaming could partially compensate for the absence of formal compliance mechanisms. Unfortunately, governments of sovereign states are normally very reluctant to criticize each other in public space, absent hostile relations. The UN also refrains except in extreme cases from voicing criticism of the behavior of its members that names and shames.

 

The Waiting Game

 

Against this background, it becomes evident that the Paris Agreement should neither be celebrated nor rejected. It is a process that is only scheduled to go into effect in 2020, with an assessment period of five years, meaning that there will be no official audit as to the adequacy of the pledging approach until 2025. Even should the pledges on record be upheld, which seems unlikely, the trajectory relating to climate change points toward an increase in global warming by over 3C by the end of the century, far above the 1.5C recommended by experts, and exceeding the 2C degree ceiling that the Paris Agreement sets forth as a goal. This gap needs to be made visible to the peoples of the world, and steps taken to raise pledging expectations to a level of problem-solving credibility.

 

There are two perspectives that are each useful in evaluating the Paris Agreement. First, there is the problem-solving perspective that views the essential issue as adjusting energy policies to global warming prospects through cuts in carbon emissions and increased reliance on renewable forms of energy. The discussion above, as well as the inter-governmental text emerging from Paris, viewed climate change as a problem to be solved, with success or failure measured by reference to the rising of global mean average temperatures throughout the planet.

 

Secondly, there is the climate justice perspective that focuses on the fairness of the negotiated arrangement from the distribution of burdens and benefits, and by reference to those who are most vulnerable to global warming. Those most vulnerable are societies and regions that seem likely to become hotter than the average or have low-lying, heavily populated coastlines and lack the financial resources and technical knowhow to prevent and react in ways that minimize the damage. It is also the case that the 350 million indigenous peoples were unrepresented in Paris, and for various reasons are particularly exposed to the harmful effects of climate change. Issues related to pre-2020 ambition involving financing and control of emissions are also mentioned in the Preamble. Also Finally, Paris did not make any serious effort to represent, worry about, and take account of the rights of future generations.

 

Due to pressures mounted by the governments of vulnerable states and by the civil society groups, climate justice concerns were not totally ignored, being enumerated as a laundry list in the Preamble. These concerns focusing on human rights are not addressed in the operational provisions that are the heart of the Paris undertaking. Their relevance is, however, acknowledged in the Preamble to the Paris Agreement. Normally, the language of the Preamble of an international agreement is window-dressing, without substantive relevance. Here it is different. NGOs can invoke the language of the Preamble to hold governments accountable.

 

In the end, the fate of the planet will be decided by people, and not by governments. It is only by populist mechanisms of mobilization that the human and global interest will be articulated and protected. Governments can cooperate to promote common or overlapping shared interests, but where these national interests are so diverse and often contradictory, the aggregation of national interests is not capable of generating an agreement that adequately serves the human and global interest. This limitation of state-centric world order is magnified in relation to climate change because of the numerous disconnects between the locus of emissions and the locus of harm; only a globally constituted framing of the climate change challenge could produce an outcome that was satisfactory from both problem-solving and climate justice perspectives, and this will never be achieved by way of a Paris style meeting.

 

A responsible and equitable response to climate change after Paris depends on militant civil society activism that builds a transnational movement that both monitors the harms and the behavior of governments, but also focuses attention on the root causes of global warming: the capitalist drive for consumption, the militarist drive for dominance, and modernist drive toward

Technological solutions. Beyond this what is at stake is the recovery of the humane wisdom and spiritual consciousness of indigenous peoples that survival and happiness depended on respect for the natural surroundings. Of course, we should not romanticize the pre-modern or demonize the modern. What we need and should seek is a moral epistemology that reconnects knowledge with human values configured so as to achieve justice, sustainability, and the pleasures of ‘a good life’ (community, material needs, humane governance, spiritual alertness, opportunity and enlightenment). Such is the knowledge background needed to launch the revolution of our time.

 

Pope Francis and Religious Cosmopolitanism

10 Jan

 

Points of Departure 

Perhaps, the most hopeful recent development in human affairs is the emergence of Pope Francis as the voice of global conscience. Although Francis speaks with papal authority to the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, he also increasingly speaks with human authority to the rest of us. How significantly this voice will resonate might be viewed as the ultimate test as to whether ‘soft power’ is overcoming the geopolitical death dance that imperils the human species as never before.

 

When visiting occupied Palestine in May of 2014 Francis prayed at the notorious Israeli separation wall in Palestine that the World Court had ordered dismantled as unlawful back in 2004. The pontiff chose to pray near a scrawled graffiti that read ‘Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.’ While in the Holy Land Francis articulated what justice should mean in relation to the Palestinian reality: the pope called the existing situation ‘increasingly unacceptable,’ defied Israel by speaking of the ‘State of Palestine’ while touring the West Bank, and urged the establishment of a ‘sovereign homeland’ for the Palestinian people where there would be freedom of movement (so long denied). By this visit and declaration, Pope Francis indirectly underscored the ethical insight of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu that after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the great symbolic moral challenge directed at the conscience of humanity is the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people. Such an affirmation also confirms Francis’ credentials as an independent world leader who will not defer to Washington’s craven submission to Israel’s continuous trampling upon Palestinian rights.

 

More broadly, Pope Francis has made it repeatedly clear that he is a critic of global inequality and of a capitalist world economic system that has produced ‘plunder of nature,’ a ‘frenetic rhythm of consumption,’ and worship of ‘the god of money.’ Above all, according to the German cardinal, Walter Kasper, this is a pope who “wants to lead faith and morality back to their original center” in authentic religious experience. Such leadership is definitely taking a form that is responsive to the array of unmet global challenges that threaten future harm to all peoples in the world, as well as to those most marginalized and vulnerable due to their particular circumstances. The spirit and substance of Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry is clearly within the framework of the Roman Catholic tradition, but its outreach is essentially ecumenical, touching deeply all who care about spirituality, survival, and global justice.

 

The Failures of Secular Global Leadership

 

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 there was a hope throughout the world that he would provide the kind of inspirational leadership that could nurture political confidence in the human future. Surely, such expectations are the only conceivable explanation for awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize the following year while America was involved in two major wars of aggression (Afghanistan, Iraq) and was pursuing a militarized foreign policy of global scope involving navies in every ocean, hundreds of overseas bases, and the potential weaponization of space. It still seemed plausible in 2009 to suppose that only a charismatic American leader possessed the will and ability to forge cooperative solutions serving the human interest in response to global challenges. The United States at its best managed to combine the pursuit of its national interests with some sense of responsibility for upholding global interests. This role was played by the United States with varying degrees of success. It has been a characteristic of world order since 1945.

 

In the months after his inauguration as president, Obama seemed to share this sense of historic mission by making in the Spring of 2009 rather visionary speeches in Prague proclaiming a commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and then in Cairo about turning a new page in the Middle East, including exerting pressure on Israel to create finally the political basis for resolving the conflict. Unfortunately, all too soon it became apparent to all who observed the scene that Obama was a president committed to the continuity of American global power and influence, and not at all ready to engage in battles against entrenched forces that would be required to achieve global justice. On both the Middle East and nuclear weapons Obama quickly yielded to those who insisted on the absoluteness of Washington’s support for Israel and gradually showed his willingness to appease the American political establishment that was far more interested in modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal than considering prudent moves toward its abolition.

 

On a global scale, the failure of all efforts to heed the warnings of climate scientists to curb carbon emissions on an urgent basis or continue the trend toward global warming with dangerous intensifications of its attendant harms. Conference after conference each year under UN auspices have exhibited the inability of states to cooperate for the global common good to nearly the extent called for by a prudent response to what the scientists are saying about climate change. What prevails in these gatherings of over 190 states is the unwieldy interplay of national interests, and a grim recognition that the only practical way forward is to rely on the voluntary pledges of governments, and in doing so, abandoning the goal of imposing ‘common but differentiated’ legal obligations on all states. In effect, this shift to voluntary undertakings gives up any pretense of establishing an effective public order of climate protection. There is no doubt, as has been evident since the failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the domestic political situation within the country makes it unrealistic to seek a responsible climate change treaty if it makes encroachments on national sovereignty, as it must, as well as likely on profit-making, economic growth, and employment. In effect, the structure of international society based on the interplay of sovereign states and market driven economic actors makes it politically impossible to reconcile patterns of global governance with upholding the human or global interest. This structural reality of statism has become more relevant given the inability of the United States to any longer possess credibility as the chief promoter of global interests of benefit to all peoples of the world.

 

There are also ideological resistances to acknowledging limits with respect to human activity, mainly associated with the persisting strength of nationalism as compared to competing transnational belief systems. As became evident as long ago as World War I, working class solidarity promoted by socialist values was no match nationalist sentiments supportive of European colonial interests overseas. In effect, political leaders of states, whether democratic or authoritarian, are products of political cultures that continue to be shaped by the predominance of nationalism. Such a reality underscores growing tension between the human exploitation of the natural environment and a variety of threats to ecological sustainability.

 

Pope Francis as an Agent of Global Revolution

 

It is precisely here that Pope Francis’ entry upon the scene has potential revolutionary consequences. In line with this, it seems entirely appropriate that his most concerted commitment to date is to awaken the world to the menace of global warming arising from unchecked climate change. The Vatican has announced the Pope’s intention to issue a major encyclical that will set forth an authoritative statement of the Catholic Church’s thinking on climate change. This will be followed by a speech to the UN General Assembly in the Fall and after that, by a Vatican call for a global summit of religious leaders drawn from around the world. What the Pope brings to the table is a meta-political promotion of the human interest that has so far been absent from all efforts, including those of the UN, to meet global challenges. In this sense, mobilizing the pope’s Catholic base and reaching out to other religions is the kind of global leadership needed to have any prospect of fashioning the sort of robust response to climate change that is needed with growing urgency.

 

I have long believed that within each of the great world religions there exists an ongoing struggle between sectarian and universalist tendencies. Both tendencies can draw on their respective traditions to support contradictory claims about the nature of the core religious message. What is exciting about Pope Francis is that he seems to be moving the most globally constituted and influential world religion in a distinctly universalist direction at an historical time when such an orientation is directly related to building a positive future for the peoples of the world, and even more generally, for the human species and its natural habitat. Whether he is able to attract other religions to exert their influence in similar directions remains to be seen. As has been already observed, there are some influential doubters within his own Catholic hierarchy, seemingly threatened by his assaults on their bureaucratic positions of prestige (he has notably accused the Vatican Curia of ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s and a ‘funereal face’) and privilege associated with its proper custodial role of administration and the protection of the traditions of the Church. Some forces within the Catholic hierarchy hostile to Pope Francis’ ministry are allied with predatory political and economic interests. It has also been reported, for instance, that the great majority of Christian evangelists are deeply suspicious of this pope’s emphasis on climate change as arising from human activities. They even accuse Francis of propagating a ‘false religion’ by undermining their religiously based belief that global warming and extreme weather are clear signs of an approaching apocalypse rather than being negative byproducts of a fossil fuel world economy.

 

There is a further concern. Even if the religious summit is a glowing success, it will not by itself exert a sufficient impact on the political system to get the job done, given the hegemony of the state structure of world order and its supportive nationalist ideology when it comes to the adoption of global policy norms. Overcoming statist resistance will only be brought about if religious pressures are backed up by a transnational mobilization of people, a popular movement that alters the political climate within which leaders of states act. We need to remember that even the most inspirational of religious leaders does not have access to the policy mechanisms at the disposal of sovereign governments that alone have the ability to solve problems through institutionalizing cooperative action. Only with a surge of bottom-up politics can there be mounted a sufficient challenge to status quo forces resistant to change.

 

Note should be taken of the relevance of the US-China Agreement (Novemeber 2014) to place certain modest limits on carbon emissions, less for the substance of what was agreed upon by these two governments that account for about 50% of the buildup of greenhouse gasses, then to illustrate that if a populist movement calls for change and is then reinforced by the top-down initiatives of the dominant geopolitical actors, it becomes much more likely that a prudent globally oriented policy on climate change will finally emerge. Most optimistically viewed, the US/China agreement could be a breakthrough if it heralds a recognition by these dominant political actors to combine their pursuit of national interests with assuming geopolitical leadership in defining and promoting the global interest, thereby merging 21st century humanism with geopolitics.

 

Of course, what makes Pope Francis’ presence on the global stage so welcome extends beyond climate change. It involves the entire gamut of global justice issues. It represents a dramatic move toward what might be described as ‘moral globalization.’ It challenges the statist character of world order, the nationalist hold on the political imagination, and the predatory manipulation by neoliberalism of our wants and desires. In the end, what is being offered is a spiritual and cosmopolitan alternative to human fulfillment and the meaning of life. Such a worldview is not presented through an exclusivist prism of Catholicism, but rather through a renewed nurturing of the deep roots of the human condition. These roots include a coevoultionary reenchantment of nature as the indispensable bio-political partner of humanity in the work of safeguarding this planet against the rising dangers of ecological implosion. Such a realignment of fundamental attitudes also involves subordinating the technocratic and calculative sides of modernity to more holistic cosmopolitanism. This will involve reestablishing contact with the deeper emotional and spiritual sides of our being mainly lost in the modern quest for a scientifically validated technocratic salvation.

 

At a time when there are many strident voices insisting that religion is irrelevant or worse, the example and messages of Pope Francis offer cosmopolitan hope. It has never been more important to counter the widely disseminated view that religion is inherently responsible for political extremism, and more destructively, to blame Islam as a religion for sociopathic violence when the culprits are Muslim. True, religious doctrine can be twisted to serve any values, however demonic, as can secularist thinking.

Shifts in the Climate Change Debate: Hope and Suspicion

2 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The text below is a revision of the previous post that enlarges upon the earlier arguments so that it seems justified to publish it here as a revised text, that is, something more than editorial modifications]

 

Ignoring the Scientific Consensus 

 

Governments disappointed the world in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 by failing to produce a global agreement that would mandate reductions of carbon emissions in accord with recommendations of climate scientists. Ever since there has been a mood of despair about addressing the challenges posed by global warming. The intense lobbying efforts by climate deniers, reinforced in the United States by a right wing anti-government tsunami that has paralyzed Congress, succeeded in blocking even modest market-based steps to induce energy efficiency. This bleak picture raises daunting biopolitical questions about whether the human species possesses a sufficient will to survive given its persisting inability to respond to the climate change challenge despite well-evidenced warnings about the consequences of a failure to do so. Less apocalyptically, this pattern of inaction makes us wonder whether a state-centric structure of world order can surmount the limits of national interests to undertake policies that promote the human interest in relation to global warming.

 

International experience shows that where the interests of important states converge, especially if complemented by the interests of business and finance, collective initiatives upholding human interests can be implemented. The international regulation of ozone depletion, the public order of the oceans, the avoidance of international conflict in Antarctica, and the protection of some endangered marine species, such as whales, are illustrative of what is possible when a favorable lawmaking and compliance atmosphere exists. This record of regulation on behalf of the global common good are examples of success stories that make international law seem more worthwhile than media cynics and influential political realists acknowledge. Yet in relation to the climate change agenda, despite the strong, even stridently avowed, consensus among climate scientists (at about the 97% level), the dynamics of forging the sort of agreement that will keep global warming within prudent and manageable limits has not materialized.

Such a world order failure is imposing serious costs. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the longer the buildup of greenhouse gasses is allowed to continue, the worse will be the harmful effects on human wellbeing and the greater the costs of preventing still worse future impacts. Anticipated harm will take the form of rising sea levels, drought and floods, damaging fires, extreme weather, melting polar ice caps and glaciers, and crop failures. At some point thresholds of irreversibility will be crossed, and the fate of the human species, along with that of most of nature, becomes negatively determined beyond easy alteration.

American Leadership: For What?

There are many factors that have contributed to this policy stalemate. Among the most serious is the decline of responsible American leadership. Ever since the Copenhagen fiasco American leverage has been used irresponsibly, mainly to oppose climate change ambition in international negotiations and block efforts to impose obligations on governments that relate to the emission of greenhouse gasses. In an atmosphere where adverse national interests and perceptions were difficult enough to overcome, the United States in effect has been insisting that constraining their pursuit for the sake of serving a widely shared understanding of the common good was neither politically feasible nor desirable. The policy of the U.S. Government was in large part a reflection of the political climate in Washington that had become hostile to international commitments of almost any kind. This Washington mood especially opposed any undertaking related to environmental protection, which were automatically regarded as anti-market. In such a policy context in which the United States as global leader and leading per capita emitter refuses to take a responsible position, it is certainly not in a position to encourage others to act responsibly. It is evident that without geopolitical leadership with respect to climate change policy, selfishly conceived national interests with short time horizons, will carry the day, and the world will continue to drift disastrously toward a hotter future.

After being reelected in 2012 Barack Obama has been making the urgency of national and global action on climate change a rallying cry of his second term. In June of this year he gave a commencement address at the Irvine campus of the University of California in which he urged the graduating students to demand more responsible action on climate change by their government, especially by Congress, as crucial to obtaining a hopeful future for themselves. The students and their families present at the graduation ceremony received such a message with enthusiastic applause, but there is little reason to be hopeful that Obama on his own will be able to turn the tide in Washington sufficiently to restore confidence in American leadership with respect to climate change either at home or abroad.

The issue is particularly timely as the world is gearing up for a 2015 global meeting of governments in Paris that may represent the last real opportunity for collective action on a global scale to slow down the march toward species decline, if not oblivion, in an overheating planet, perhaps a moment of truth as to whether the coordinated behavior of governments is capable finally of serving the planetary public good in relation to climate change. According to ‘Giddens Law’ by the time the public will awaken to the seriousness of the global emergency it will be too late to reverse, or even manage, the trend. Obama at Irvine put this same issue more conditionally: “The question is whether we have the will to act before it is too late.” Such a question is itself enveloped in clouds of unknowing as there is no way to be sure in advance when it becomes ‘too late.’

 

The Market Awakens?

Despite this recital of discouraging aspects of the national and global response to climate change, I believe for the first time in this century that there may be reasons to be guardedly hopeful, maybe not in relation to what kind of global compact will emerge in Paris, but with respect to a tectonic shift in how the climate change challenge is being understood by the public and by hegemonic elites, especially in the globalizing domains of high finance and transnational corporate operations. Publication of a report in June 2014 playfully named Risky Business might at some future date be acknowledged as prefiguring a basic change in the political atmospherics relating to climate change. The visual iconographic adopted to introduce the report is indicative of its message to the society: a disabled theme park roller coaster inundated by rising coastal waters. Such an image expresses the idea that commercial property is at risk due to a disregard of longer term impacts attributable to global warming, suggestive of the sort of devastation experienced by the American northeast coastline in 2012 due to superstorm Sandy.

Risky Business explains and analyzes impending economic burdens on American business interests associated with continuing insufficient action on climate change. It is a think tank offering based on empirical research and risk analysis methodology that comes with the imprimatur of a self-anointed group of high profile economistic figures with impeccable private sector credentials. The chairs of this blue ribbon American effort were Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury under Bush during the deep recession, Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City and environmentally oriented billionaire, and Thomas Steger, a prominent former hedge fund manager, identified as a major donor of the Democratic Party. Among these ten business world notables, an establishment mix of conservative and mainstream heavyweights, whose role seems to be to lend legitimacy and visibility to the report and its assessments. Thres of the ten are former secretaries of the treasury (Paulson + George Shultz, Robert Rubin), several business leaders connected with big corporations, including Gregory Page the ex-CEO of Cargill, the worldwide agribusiness giant, three political figures who have held important government posts in the past, and Alfred Sommer, the former dean of the School of Public health at Johns Hopkins. In keeping with the national focus of the undertaking, the global dimensions of climate change are completely ignored, and all ten endorsers are American. This self-consciously nationalist assessment of what is in its essence a global challenge is somewhat puzzling, and nowhere explained.

In his Irvine commencement address Obama quotes approvingly Woodrow Wilson’s remark: “Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American.” Obama adds his own emphatic affirmation by way of echo: “That’s who we are.” In contrast, the tone and rationale of Risky Business is not idealist, but rather ‘sensible’ and ‘prudent.’ It is not dedicated so much to doing what is right for the country as it is to doing what is deemed beneficial for the future of the American economy, and helping to realize the central goal of business–maximizing benefits from the efficient use of capital. The report is realistic in style as well as substance–doing its best to avoid being ‘political.’

 

In this spirit Risky Business deliberately refrains from offering policy recommendations, presumably to avoid seeming partisan or pushing ideologically sensitive buttons. There is a claim made by the authors that their analysis is meta-political (quite a political novelty these days), and that its recommended approach should appeal to everyone concerned with the health of the American economy regardless of their political persuasion. As indicated, the report somewhat artificially looks at climate change exclusively through a national lens. It offers no direct commentary on the global aspects of the climate change challenge and even fails to offer any insight as what should be done internationally to lessen the adverse national economic impacts for the United States that can be attributed to the global mismanagement of climate change. The modestly framed objective of this report is to stimulate active participation by business representatives in debates about how to mitigate harmful climate trends.

Co-chair Paulson (of bailout notoriety) published a widely influential article publicized to coincide with the release of Risky Business, capturing attention with an unusally alarmist headline, “The Coming Climate Crash,” (NY Times, June 21, 2014) The piece summarizes the outlook of Risky Business, proposing a new attitude toward climate advocacy that could exert a major influence on the investment community, as well as among Washington’s think tanks and lobbyists, and hence, eventually, may even get a hearing in Congress. The main messages delivered in the report are that human-generated global warming is real and dangerous for the economy (and incidentally for human health), and that inaction and delay in attending to these risks will make the situation worse than it already is and much more expensive to control. The bottom line is that business and finance stakeholders should immediately enter the national policy debate as a matter of self-interest. If sufficiently heeded, such involvement is likely to change the balance of forces on Wall Street and in Washington, the two venues that count most in this country when it comes to the shaping of the government role in the economy.

 

Risky Business, in keeping with its outlook and patrons, adopts a risk management approach to climate change. It seeks to demonstrate the specific anticipated effects of unattended risks from warming trends on the economic wellbeing of eight distinct geographic regions that together make up the whole of the United States. Some regions in certain sectors will actually gain from climate change, while others lose, with the conclusion that the losses will far outweigh the gains. For instance, agriculture in northern states of the mid-West will benefit from longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures, while the mid-West and South will suffer from the increased heat and greater frequency of extreme weather events.

The report summarizes its outlook as follows: “The signature effects of human-induced climate change..all have specific, measureable impacts on our nation’s current assets and ongoing economic activity.” (p.2). In effect, these projected impacts are not treated as mere speculation, but are set forth as the reliable results of risk analysis that should be taken into account in business planning. The essential lesson to be learned is that “..if we act aggressively to both adapt to the dangers and to mitigate future impacts by reducing carbon emissions—we can significantly reduce our exposure to the worst risks from climate change and also demonstrate global leadership on climate.” (p.3) This sole reference to the ‘global’ sensibly presupposes that if the United States gets its national house in order it will likely regain its reputation and leverage as a responsible leader in global policy settings. The positive prospect of climate change adjustment is set off against a criticism of present complacency: “Our key findings underscore the reality that if we stay on our current emissions path, our climate risks will multiply and accumulate at the decades tick by.” (p.8) All of this induces the following conclusion: “With this report, we call on the American business community to rise to the challenge and lead the way in helping to reduce climate risks.” (p.9)

The auspices of Risky Business immediately gave the report a media salience and respectful reception that earlier more authoritative scientific studies along the same lines did not receive, including the exhaustively researched comprehensive reports of the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the Wall Street Journal, a media hub for climate change cynics, took respectful note of Risky Business without recourse to its usual snide anti-environmental commentary. The report is arousing great interest by offering what amounts to a business friendly certification for counter-branding climate change. It offers a vivid alternative to the climate denial prescriptions being peddled by Koch Brothers/Tea Party/fossil fuel industry anti-environmentalism. By arguing that the failure to act now on climate change will in the future exact bigger and bigger costs on business as well as be harmful to society, the report overrides the contentions that regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is unnecessary and if undertaken will put American manufacturing operations at a competitive disadvantage internationally. Risky Business supports the opposite position on the facts and their implications for government. Rather than leaving the private sector alone to sort out its own course of action, the report declares that it is in the interest of business to have the government set “a consistent policy and a regulatory framework” that will keep carbon emissions below dangerous thresholds.

If this recommended action is not taken, Risky Business anticipates annual costs to the country of several billion dollars arising from increasing heat, storm surges, and hurricane intensity, as well as projecting 10% reduced crop yields over and a 3-5% livestock production decline over the course of the next 25 years. The approach adopted is congenial to the hedge fund and shareholder mentality by stressing risk management as the prescribed pattern of response rather than advocating a carbon tax or market constraints.

In this spirit, attention is given to such an undertaking as the Ceres’ Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), which reports that already as many as 53 of the Fortune 100 companies have on their own adopted policies responsive to climate with an aggregate saving $1.1 billion annually, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 58.3 million metric tons (an amount equal to closing 15 coal-fired plants). In effect, smart business practices are already taking advantage of carbon-lite methods of production, although the scale is far too small and without overall direction provided by the government. This decentralized approach to the use of energy represents as indirect way of addressing carbon emissions that is seen as the essential feature of this self-management climate risk paradigm, and suggests that big business despite the clamor in Congress is being quietly and effectively enlisted in the battle against global warming. Whether this turn will be on a large enough scale without being reinforced by innovative government policies is an important issue to resolve, and Risky Business leaves little doubt as to its view that a more self-conscious approach needs to be centrally implemented as a matter of urgency. At this time, the benefits of this risk management approach seem quite marginal to the kind of public mobilization that will be needed, and this is precisely where Risky Business seeks to make its views felt among the constituencies that count.

Beyond Risky Business

 The substantive challenge for the economy is clear: Given seemingly inevitable economic costs, how can such burdens be best addressed to lessen their harmful effects on business and finance. The central message of hope issued by Risky Business is that jobs can be generated (not lost) and GNP increased (not diminished) while at the same time doing what is needed to reduce carbon emissions by a sufficient amount to contain global warming within safe and prudent limits. Further, that all this can be done without requiring a carbon tax provided appropriate action is taken on a large enough scale in the very near future. This risk management approach is not just wishing global warming away while carrying on without any big adjustments. The report while avoiding policy recommendations does offer some prescriptive ideas about how to beat global warming without directly regulating carbon emissions. Among the ideas endorsed are taking such steps as investing heavily in the development of clean public transport systems, enhanced energy efficiency in industry, and increased energy conservation in building design and operation. These kinds of initiatives are all within the scope of what has come to be called ‘smart development,’ which is becoming the new fashion for demonstrations about how to make economic growth compatible with environmental sustainability, and doing so in ways that do not scare off the neoliberal elites that run the economies of the world primarily for the sake of private sector profitability.

 

The main arguments of Risky Business are complemented by a recent World Bank study with the relevant title, “Climate-Smart Development: Adding Up the Benefits of Actions that Help Build Prosperity, End Poverty, and Combat Climate Change.” The study puts forward the new enlightenment oriented claim that the intelligent application of reason enables society to have it all without disturbing the ideological status quo—nurture growth, eliminate poverty, deal with climate change. If the world begins to act prudently in the design of climate policy, there is nothing to worry about. Best of all, this kind of new thinking does not require any major ideological modifications in the capitalist worldview. It does call for an abandonment of what is referred to as “the tyranny of short-termism,” presupposing shareholder acceptance of longer-term planning that may have some negative impacts on near-term quarterly earning statements that have so far stymied most efforts to deal prudently with climate change risks. This kind of shift can be fully rationalized within the risk management paradigm, optimally adjusting business for profit to the new realities of global warming by adopting a new concept of ‘corporate time’ by which to maximize profit-making activity.

There are some further elements in this more hopeful approach to the climate change challenge. The development of huge natural gas deposits supposedly reduces by as much as 50% the release of greenhouse gasses. More importantly, a policy focus on cutting the emissions of what are called ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ (‘black carbon’- diesel fumes, cooking fires, methane, ozone, some hydrofluoride carbons) if implemented ambitiously is capable of lengthening the time available to make the more fundamental adjustments in the management of energy sources associated with the long lasting buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, including the expansion of reliance on low-carbon production technology and the expansion of renewable energy (solar, wind).

It does seem that Risky Business represents a kind of breakthrough in the national debate on climate change. When business speaks, America listens. The report aligns business with science and reason without an accompanying future scenario of economic decline or any questioning of capitalist dependence on environmentally damaging consumerism. It advocates sub-national understandings of the risks and responses based on the characteristics of eight specific geographic regions in the United States, which fits the remedy to the challenge in a more convincing manner than grosser templates. Indirectly, it posits an alternative both to the business funding of climate denial and to those who insist that the structures of national sovereignty and capitalism are incapable of dealing with the global challenges being posed by climate change. This more optimistic approach rests on the assumption that the risks are accurately measureable, and can be offset without incurring significant economic burdens if action is quickly undertaken both by the private sector acting on its own and by government acting to protect the national public good.

 

A Concluding Skepticism

There are several reasons to be doubtful about whether Risky Business is providing the country with a reliable roadmap. First of all, the failure to relate national policy to the global setting is a significant shortcoming with respect to assessing risks and costs. The level of global warming in national space is dependent on what others do as well as to what happens in the United States. If emissions are reduced globally in accord with scientific understanding, the anticipated national costs and risks will be far lower than if this understanding continues to be ignored. Also, it seems doubtful that rational argument alone can sway the fossil fuel establishment to stop muddying the waters of democratic deliberation by continuing to fund the climate denial lobby.

Risky Business completely ignores the potential roles of civil society in mobilizing a prudent and equitable response, and contains no consideration of how to distribute whatever burdens are present in a manner that accords with ‘climate justice.’ In the end, it is questionable nationally and internationally, whether a business-friendly win/win scenario for meeting the challenges of climate change can on its own save the planet from impending disaster. Nevertheless, Risky Business might be helpful in forging a national consensus, also being urged by President Obama, that rests on an acceptance of the understanding among climate scientists of the realities of human-induced global warming. We do know that in a capitalist society when business raises its voice the message gets delivered, but we also should realize that this voice should not to be trusted without the most careful scrutiny. A politics of suspicion is appropriate.

With this move from the top echelons of the business world, it is time for civil society to come forth with a response that does emphasize the global setting of national policy responses on climate change and seeks to inject the perspectives of the climate justice transnational movement into the policy debate. Part of this response also needs to consider such structural issues as the persisting dominance of sovereign states in the making of global policy relating to climate change, and the questionable capacity of neoliberal globalization to serve the human interest, including that of safeguarding the future.

 

What seems most hopeful is the growing public recognition of climate change as mounting a challenge to society, government, and the peoples of the world that cannot be evaded without producing severe future damage. Also encouraging, is the emergence of thinking about indirect and innovative steps that can be taken to improve prospects of reducing carbon emissions—encouraging public transport, systemic moves to increase energy efficiency in building and maintenance, and reductions in air pollution from short-lived pollutants (differing from carbon dioxide with its greenhouse effect lasting for thousands of years). Behind the edifice of analysis and prescription it remains obscure who will foot the bill, and without such awareness, the real political implications of what Risky Business is proposing are uncertain.

 

Shifts in the Climate Change Debate: Hopeful Horizons?

28 Jun

 

 

Ever since governments disappointed the world in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 by not producing a global agreement that would mandate reductions of carbon emissions, there has been a mood of despair about addressing the challenges posed by global warming. The intense lobbying efforts by climate deniers reinforced in the United States by a right wing anti-government tsunami that has paralyzed Congress even in relation to modest market-based steps to induce energy efficiency is part of the bleak picture. It raises daunting biopolitical questions about whether the human species has a sufficient will to survive given the nature of the climate change challenge. Less apocalyptically, it makes us wonder whether a state-centric structure of world order can surmount the limits of national interests to undertake policies that promote the human interest.

 

International experience shows that where the interests of important states converge, especially if complemented by the interests of business and finance, collective initiatives upholding human interests can be implemented. The international regulation of ozone depletion, the public order of the oceans, the avoidance of international conflict in Antarctica, and the protection of some endangered marine species, such as whales, are illustrative of what is possible when the lawmaking and compliance atmosphere is supportive. This record of regulation on behalf of the global common good are examples of success stories that make international law seem more worthwhile than media cynics and influential political realists acknowledge. Yet in relation to the climate change agenda, despite a strong consensus among climate scientists (at about the 97% level), the dynamics of forging the sort of agreement that will keep global warming within prudent and manageable limits has not materialized. Such a world order failure imposes serious costs. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the longer the buildup of greenhouse gasses is allowed to persist, the worse will be the harmful effects on human wellbeing and the greater the costs of preventing still worse future impacts taking the form of rising sea levels, drought and floods, extreme weather, melting polar regions, and crop failures. At some point thresholds of irreversibility are crossed, and the fate of the human species, along with that of most of nature, becomes sealed.

 

There are many factors that have contributed to this policy stalemate. Among the most serious is the decline of responsible American leadership. Ever since the Copenhagen fiasco American leverage has been used irresponsibly, to discourage climate change ambition in the negotiations and to oppose any new effort to impose obligations on governments. In an atmosphere where adverse national interests and perceptions were difficult enough to overcome, the United States in effect insisted that constraining their pursuit was not politically feasible or desirable. Stymied by a political atmosphere in Washington that is hostile to international commitments of any kind, but especially to those that concern environmental protection and impose constraints on market activities. In this kind of situation, if rich and powerful America refuses to take a responsible position, it cannot effectively encourage others to do so, and without geopolitical leadership, selfishly conceived national interests with short time horizons, carry the day.

 

President Barack Obama has been making the urgency of action on climate change a rallying cry of his second term. In June of this year he gave a commencement address at the Irvine campus of the University of California in which he urged the graduating students to demand more responsible action on climate change from the government, especially Congress, as crucial in seeking a hopeful future for themselves. The assembled students and their families received such a message with enthusiastic applause, but there is little reason to be hopeful that Obama is able to turn the tide in Washington sufficiently to restore confidence in American leadership with respect to climate change. The issue is crucial as the world is gearing up for a 2015 global meeting of governments in Paris that may represent the last real opportunity for collective action on a global scale to slow down the march toward species oblivion in an overheating planet, perhaps a moment of truth as to whether the coordinated behavior of governments is capable of serving the planetary public good in relation to climate change. According to ‘Giddens Law’ by the time the public awakens to the seriousness of the emergency it will be too late to reverse, or even manage, the warming trend. Obama at Irvine put this same issue more conditionally: “The question is whether we have the will to act before it is too late.” The issue is further clouded as there is no way of knowing in advance what is ‘too late.’

 

Despite this recital of discouraging aspects of the national and global response to climate change, I believe for the first time in this century that there may be reasons to be guardedly hopeful, maybe not in relation to what will emerge in Paris, but with respect to a tectonic shift in how the climate change challenge is being understood by the public and by hegemonic elites, especially in the globalizing domains of high finance and transnational corporate operations. Publication of the report in June 2014, Risky Business, is certainly a weathervane of change in the political atmospherics relating to climate change. The visual iconographic adopted by the report is a damaged roller coaster inundated by rising coastal waters, that is, the destruction of commercial property by disregard of the longer term impacts attributable to global warming.

 

This report explains and analyzes impending economic burdens on American business interests associated with sustained inaction on climate change. It is a think tank offering based on empirical research and risk analysis methodology that comes with the imprimatur of a self-anointed group of high-level economistic figures with impeccable private sector credentials. The chairs of this blue ribbon American effort were Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury under Bush during the deep recession, Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City and environmentally oriented billionaire, and Thomas Steger, a prominent former hedge fund manager, identified as a major donor of the Democratic Party. Among the ten notables, an establishment mix of conservative and mainstream heavyweights, whose role seems to be to lend legitimacy and visibility to the report and its assessments. Two of the ten are former secretaries of the treasury (George Shultz, Robert Rubin), several business leaders connected with big corporations, including Gregory Page the CEO of Cargill, the worldwide agribusiness giant, three have held prominent political posts in the past, and there is even one lonely academic. In keeping with the national focus of the undertaking, the global dimensions of climate change are completely ignored, and all of the endorsers are American.

In his Irvine commencement address Obama quotes approvingly Woodrow Wilson’s remark: “Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American.” Obama adds his own emphatic endorsement: “That’s who we are.” In contrast, the tone and rationale of Risky Business is not idealist, but what one might call ‘sensible’ and ‘prudent.’ Not so much doing what is right for the country as doing what is beneficial for the the future of the American economy, and helping to realize the central goal of business–maximize benefits from the efficient use of capital. The report is also realistic in the sense of doing its best to avoid being ‘political’ or stepping on ideologically sensitive toes.

 

In this spirit Risky Business self-consciously refrains from offering policy recommendations, presumably to avoid seeming partisan or pushing ideologically sensitive buttons. There is a claim made by the authors that the analysis is meta-political (quite a political novelty these days) because its recommended approach should appeal to anyone concerned with the future of the American economy. As indicated, the report somewhat artificially looks at climate change exclusively through a national lens. It refrains from any direct commentary on the global aspects of the climate change challenge and even fails to offer any insight as what should be done internationally to lessen adverse national economic impacts associated with the global mismanagement of climate change. The modestly framed objective of this report is to stimulate active participation by business representatives in debates about how to mitigate harmful climate trends. Paulson (of bailout notoriety) wrote a widely influential article publicized with an unexpectedly alarmist headline, “The Coming Climate Crash,” (NY Times, June 21, 2014) that effectively publicized the outlook of Risky Business, proposing a new attitude toward climate advocacy likely to exert a major influence in both the investment community, Washington’s think tanks and lobbyists, and hence, eventually, even Congress. The main messages being delivered are that human-generated global warming is real and dangerous for the economy (and incidentally for human health), and that inaction and delay in attending the risks will make the situation worse than it already is and much more expensive to control. The bottom line is that business and finance stakeholders should immediately enter the national policy debate as a matter of self-interest. If sufficiently heeded, such involvement is likely to change the balance of forces on Wall Street and Washington, the two venues that count most in this country when it comes to the shaping of the government role in the economy.

 

Risky Business, in keeping with its orientation, adopts a risk management approach to climate change. It seeks to show the specific anticipated effects of unattended risks on the economic wellbeing of eight distinct geographic regions that together make up the whole of the United States. Some regions in certain sectors will actually gain from climate change, while others lose, with the conclusion that the losses will far outweigh the gains. The report summarizes its outlook as follows: “The signature effects of human-induced climate change..all have specific, measureable impacts on our nation’s current assets and ongoing economic activity.” (p.2). In effect, these impacts are not mere speculation, but are the reliable results of risk analysis that should be taken into account in business planning. The essential lesson to be learned is that “..if we act aggressively to both adapt to the dangers and to mitigate future impacts by reducing carbon emissions—we can significantly reduce our exposure to the worst risks from climate change and also demonstrate global leadership on climate.” (p.3) This sole reference to the ‘global’ sensibly presupposes that if the United States gets its national house in order it will regain its authority to exercise leadership in global settings. The positive prospect of climate change adjustment is set off against a criticism of present complacency: “Our key findings underscore the reality that if we stay on our current emissions path, our climate risks will multiply and accumulate at the decades tick by.” (p.8) All of this induces the following conclusion: “With this report, we call on the American business community to rise to the challenge and lead the way in helping to reduce climate risks.” (p.9)

 

The auspices of Risky Business immediately gave the report a media salience and respectful reception that earlier more authoritative scientific studies along the same lines did not receive, including the well-grounded comprehensive reports of the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the Wall Street Journal, the media headquarters for climate change cynics, took note of Risky Business without recourse to its usual snide anti-environmental commentary. The report is arousing great interest by offering what amounts to a Wall Street certification for a counter-branding of climate change. It is a vivid alternative to the climate denial prescriptions being peddled by Koch Brothers/Tea Party/fossil fuel industry anti-environmentalism. By arguing that the failure to act now on climate change will in the future exact bigger and bigger costs on business as well as be harmful to society, the report overrides the contentions that regulating greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is unnecessary and if undertaken will put its manufacturing operations at a competitive disadvantage internationally. Risky Business asserts an opposite position on the facts and their implications for government. Rather than leaving the private sector alone to sort out its own course of action, the report declares that it is in the interest of business to have the government set “a consistent policy and a regulatory framework” that will allow for orderly planning.

 

Risky Business anticipates annual costs to the country of several billions arising from increasing heat, storm surges, and hurricane intensity, as well as projecting 10% reduced crop yields over and a 3-5% livestock production decline over the course of the next 25 years. The approach adopted is congenial to the hedge fund and shareholder mentality by stressing risk management as the prescribed pattern of response rather than urging taxes or market constriants. In this spirit, attention is given to such an undertaking as the Ceres’ Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), and indications that already as many as 53 of the Fortune 100 companies have on their own adopted policies responsive to climate with an aggregate saving $1.1 billion annually, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 58.3 million metric tons (an amount equal to closing 15 coal-fired plants). In effect, smart business practices are already taking advantage of carbon-lite methods of production, although the scale is far too small and without overall direction provided by the government. This decentralized approach to the use of energy represents as indirect way of addressing carbon emissions that is seen as the essential feature of this self-management climate risk paradigm, and suggests that big business despite the clamor in Congress is being quietly and effectively enlisted in the battle against global warming. Whether this turn will be on a large enough scale without more centralized regulation is certainly an important issue to resolve, and Risky Business leaves little doubt as to its view that a more self-conscious approach needs to be centrally implemented. As matters currently stand, the benefits of this risk management approach seem quite marginal to the kind of public mobilization that will be needed, and this is precisely where Risky Business seeks to make its views felt among the constituencies that count.

 

The substantive challenge for the economy is clear: Given seemingly inevitable economic costs, how can such burdens be best addressed to lessen their harmful effects on business and finance. The central message of hope issued by Risky Business is that jobs can be generated (not lost) and GNP increased (not diminished) while at the same time doing what is needed to reduce carbon emissions by a sufficient amount to contain global warming within safe and prudent limits. Further, that all this can be done without requiring a carbon tax provided appropriate action is taken on a large enough scale in the very near future. This risk management approach is not just wishing global warming away while carrying on without any big adjustments. The report while avoiding policy recommendations does offer some prescriptive ideas about how to beat global warming without directly regulating carbon emissions. Among the ideas endorsed are taking such steps as investing heavily in clean public transport systems, enhanced energy efficiency in industry, and increased energy efficiency in building design and operation. These kinds of initiatives are all within the scope of what has come to be called ‘smart development,’ which is becoming the new fashion for demonstrations about how to make economic growth compatible with environmental sustainability, and doing so in ways that do not scare off the neoliberal elites that run the economies of the world.

 

The main arguments of Risky Business are complemented by a recent World Bank study with the relevant title, “Climate-Smart Development: Adding Up the Benefits of Actions that Help Build Prosperity, End Poverty, and Combat Climate Change.” The study puts forward the new enlightenment oriented claim that the intelligent application of reason enables society to have it all without disturbing the ideological status quo—nurture growth, eliminate poverty, deal with climate change. If the world acts intelligently, there is nothing to worry about. Best of all, this kind of new thinking does not require any major ideological modifications in the capitalist worldview. It does call for an abandonment of what is referred to as “the tyranny of short-termism,” presupposing shareholder acceptance of longer-term planning that may have some negative impacts on quarterly earning statements that have so far stymied most efforts to deal prudently with climate change risks. This kind of shift can be fully rationalized within the risk management paradigm, optimally adjusting business for profit to the new realities of global warming by adopting a new concept of ‘corporate time’ by which to maximize profit-making activity.

 

There are some further elements in this more hopeful approach to the climate change challenge. The development of huge natural gas deposits supposedly reduces by as much as 50% the release of greenhouse gasses. More importantly, a policy focus on cutting the emissions of what are called ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ (‘black carbon’- diesel fumes, cooking fires, methane, ozone, some hydrofluoride carbons) if implemented effectively is capable of lengthening the time available to make the more fundamental adjustments in the management of energy sources associated with the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, including the expansion of reliance on low-carbon production technology and the expansion of renewable energy (solar, wind).

 

It does seem that Risky Business represents a kind of breakthrough in the national debate on climate change. It aligns business with science and reason without projecting a future scenario of economic decline. It advocates sub-national understandings of the risks and responses based on geographic region, which fits the remedy to the challenge in a more convincing manner. Indirectly, it posits an alternative both to the business funding of climate denial and to those who insist that the structures of national sovereignty and capitalism are incapable of dealing with the global challenges being posed by climate change. This more optimistic approach rests on the assumption that the risks are accurately measureable, and can be offset without incurring great costs if action is quickly undertaken both by the private sector acting on its own and by government acting to protect the national public good.

 

There are several reasons to be doubtful about whether Risky Business is providing the country with a reliable roadmap. First of all, the failure to relate national policy to the global setting is a significant shortcoming with respect to assessing risks and costs. The level of global warming is dependent on what others do as well as to what happens in the United States. If emissions are reduced globally in accord with scientific understanding, the anticipated national costs and risks will be far lower than if this understanding continues to be ignored, and the problems of adjustment less difficult. Also, it seems doubtful that rational argument alone can sway the fossil fuel establishment to stop muddying the waters of democratic deliberation by continuing to fund the climate denial lobby. Risky Business completely ignores the potential roles of civil society in mobilizing a prudent and equitable response, and contains no consideration of how to distribute whatever burdens are present in a manner that accords with ‘climate justice.’ In the end, it is questionable nationally and internationally, whether a business-friendly win/win scenario for meeting the challenges of climate change can on its own save the planet from impending disaster. Nevertheless, Risky Business is helpful in forging a national consensus, also being urged by President Obama, that rests on an acceptance of the understanding by 97% of climate scientists of the realities of human-induced global warming. What we do know in a capitalist society is that when business raises its voice the public is made to listen, but we also should know that this voice is not to be trusted withoutthe most careful scrutiny.

 

With this move from the top echelons of the business world, it is time for civil society to come forth with a response that does emphasize the global setting of national policy responses on climate change and seeks to inject the perspectives of the climate justice transnational movement into the policy debate. Part of this response also needs to consider such structural issues as the persisting dominance of sovereign states in the making of global policy relating to climate change, and the questionable capacity of neoliberal globalization to serve the human interest, including that of safeguarding the future.

 

What seems hopeful is the growing public recognition of climate change as mounting a challenge to society and government that cannot be evaded without experiencing mounting harm. Also encouraging, is the emerging of thinking about indirect and innovative steps that can be taken to improve prospects of reducing carbon emissions—encouraging public transport, systemic moves to increase energy efficiency in building and maintenance, and reductions in air pollution from short-lived pollutants (differing from carbon dioxide with its greenhouse effect lasting for thousands of years).

Apollo’s Curse and Climate Change

29 Sep

 

            The fertile mythic mind of ancient Greece gave us a tragically relevant tale, told in different versions, of how the Greek god Apollo laid a curse of the beautiful and humanly captivating Cassandra. According to the myth Apollo was so moved by Cassandra’s beauty and presence that he conferred the gift of prophesy enabling her to apprehend accurately the future. Yet the gift came with a rather large macho string attached: he expected in return that Cassandra would agree to become his love partner, but she by tradition was sufficiently attached to her virginity and pride as to refuse Apollo’s crude entreaty. Angered by such defiance, Apollo laid upon this innocent young woman a lethal curse: she would continue to foretell the future but she would never be believed. Such a twin destiny drove Cassandra insane, surely a punishment of virtue that was perversely exacted. Or are we as mortals expected always to cast aside our morals and virtue whenever the gods so demand?

 

            The sad story of Cassandra is suggestive of the dilemma confronting the climate change scientific community. In modern civilization, interpreting scientific evidence and projecting trends, is as close to trustworthy prophesy as this civilization is likely to get. Modernity has proceeded on this basis, applying knowledge to bring greater material benefits to humanity, including longer and healthier lives. The culture is supposed to place its highest trust in the scientific community as the voice of reason,  and modernity is largely understood as allowing scientific truth and instrumental reason to supersede superstition and religious revelation. Galileo’s capitulation to the authority of the Catholic Church is the insignia of the pre-modern worldview that made religion the incontestable source of truth.

 

            The world scientific community has spoken with as much authority as it can muster in relation to climate change. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing on the work of thousands of climate specialists around the world, has concluded that the continuation of greenhouse gas emissions at current rates, as a result of human activities, is almost certain to cause a disastrous level of global warming, that is, above 2 degrees centigrade, that will produce, and is already producing, a series of disastrous effects on planet earth that cannot be adequately explained by natural weather cycles: extreme weather; polar melting; droughts and flooding; ocean warming  and acidification; desertification; destruction of coral reefs and fisheries . Among the societal effects, already felt in various places, would be food insecurity, ethnic conflict, environmental migrants and refugees, and coercive to patterns of governance. Depending on how much global warming takes place over what period of time, there are more dire predictions being made by reputable observers (James Hanson, Bill McKibben, James Lovelock) civilizational collapse and even threats to species survival.

 

            Why is the strong consensus of the scientific community so ineffectual on this issue? Why are its dire warnings substantially ignored? The full story is complicate and controversial. There are several underlying explanations: states primarily look after national interests, and are reluctant to cooperate when expected burdens on economic prosperity are likely to be heavy; this is particularly true when the complexities of an issue make it almost impossible to agree upon an allocation of economic responsibility for the buildup of greenhouse gasses over the course of several centuries; ordinary people are reluctant to give up present gains to offset future risks, especially when the sky that they daily see looks no different and massive poverty exists; politicians are far less moved to action by risks that will not materialize for some decades, given their short cycles of present accountability almost totally based on present performance; the worst current effects of global warming are taking place in countries, sub-Saharan Africa, which makes only minimal contributions to emissions, and so there is a mismatch between the sites of emission and sites of current harm; those with entrenched interests in refusing to curtail present uses of fossil fuels, have the incentive and resources to fund a counter-narrative that denies the asserted threat of global warming; as the threat is primarily in the future, despite some conjectured present harm, there is always an element of uncertainty as to the reliability of predicted effects, and there are likely to be some scientists who sincerely dissent from the prevailing views, especially if their research is funded by those with an interest in promoting climate skepticism. There is also a corporate mentality, generally sincere, that is convinced that a technological fix will emerge in time to address what truths are embedded in predictions of harm from global warming, and some geo-engineering ‘fixes’ are already at the blueprint stage.

 

            What then is the relevance of the curse of Apollo? By making the political process in a world of sovereign states primarily responsive to the siren call of money, the guidance of science is marginalized. More explicitly, when money in large quantities does not want something to happen, and there is absent countervailing monetary resources to offset the pressures being exerted, knowledge will be subordinated. We have become, maybe long have been, a materialistic civilization more than a scientific civilization.

 

            This overall picture is complicated by the fact that the scientific consensus is endorsed by most governments at the level of rhetoric, but without the political will, to change the relevant pattern of behavior.  If we look at the declarations being endorsed by governments at the annual UN climate change gatherings, we might be surprised by the degree to which political leaders are willing to affirm their sense of the urgency in relation to the climate change challenge, while at the same time in their diplomatic role using the geopolitical leverage at their disposal to make sure that no obligations are imposed that require an agreed level of reductions in emissions at levels that are responsive to the recommendations of the scientists.

 

            The case of the United States is exemplary. It remains the largest per capita emitting country, although surpassed for the last couple of years by China in relation to aggregate total emissions. It remains the world leader in relation to the formation of global policy on problems of planetary dimension. It has been led in the past decade by one president who was distinctly anti-environmental and another who once talked the talk of environmentalism, and yet the approach has been basically the same—avoid

all commitments that might encroach upon present or future economic growth. In effect, it has been the United States, more than any country, even during the Obama presidency, that has poured ice cold water on international climate change negotiations. There are some explanations for this disappointing de facto accommodation to the position of the climate skeptics, thereby wasting valuable adjustment time: an economic crisis at home and abroad that makes it politically difficult to weaken in any way economic prospects by invoking environmental concerns, a reactionary Congress that would block appropriations and national commitments associated with climate change protection, a presidential leadership that tends to shun controversial issues, and a public that cares about its immediate material wellbeing beyond asserted worries about the future.

 

            The long struggle to discourage smoking due to its health risks illustrates both the frustrations of the scientific community, the ambivalence of politicians, and the powerful obfuscating tactics of the tobacco industry. But smoking was easier: the health impacts could be addressed by individual action in response to what the scientific community was advising; there were no societal effects produced by a refusal to heed the warnings; time was not a factor except on a personal level; and adverse results were often concrete and afflicted the rich almost as much as the poor. In this sense, unlike climate change, there was a correlation between the harmful activity and the adverse effects on health, and less need for governmental action.

 

            Apollo’s curse, then, can be understood either in terms of the undue and destructive influence of money or as the cool aid of unconditional economic growth under present conditions of global warming and some additional issues of ecological sustainability. The warnings of the scientific community, while not quite voices in the wilderness, do increasingly seem shrill shouts of frustration that are only likely to intensify in the years to come as the evidence mounts and the heedlessness persists. Whether this induces madness remains to be seen? Perhaps, it is more likely, that most scientists will begin to feel as if members of a classic Greek theater chorus that bemoans the onset of a tragedy while recognizing their helplessness to prevent its unfolding before their eyes. Perhaps, it is easier to remain sane if part of a chorus than fated to make the life journey alone, an experience that undoubtedly added to the inevitability of Cassandra’s sad demise.    

 

SOMALIA TRAGEDY, ISLAMIST EXTREMISTS AND CLIMATE CHANGE SKEPTICS

27 Aug Map of Somalia-1

[This post is written jointly with Hilal Elver. It reflects our experience as members of the Intellectual Forum that held meetings in Istanbul during May 2011 parallel to the UN inter-governmental conference on the problems and future of the LDCs, and our continuing role in the Academic Council that was established by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide an intellectual input to the policy forming process, both by way of critique and prescription.]

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by Hilal Elver and Richard Falk

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         The unfolding tragedy in East Africa is a dramatic indicator of what humanity as a whole can expect in the near future ‘if business as usual’ continues to be the phrase that most accurately expresses global climate change policy. The unwillingness of the developed countries to provide adequate humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable peoples in the world also helps explain this worsening regional tragedy has reached such dire extremes.

East Africa is currently suffering from its most severe drought in 60 years. According to UN estimates 12.4 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. 25% of Somalia’s 7.5 million people are currently displaced. Famine has spread to all parts of the Horn of Africa. As we write, 4.8 million Ethiopians, 3.7 million Somalis, and 3.7 million Kenyans are being catastrophically victimized.

Somalia has been hit worst of all countries in the region. An aggravating cause of the Somali crisis arises from the fact that much of the countryside is controlled by the Islamist Shabab movement that forbids most international aid agencies from entering territory controlled by its forces. More than 100,000 people have arrived in Mogadishu in the last two months in desperate search for food and subsistence, some by walking as much as 100 kilometers.

It is generally accepted that the larger continental expanse of sub-Saharan Africa is now the region of the world most negatively affected by global climate change, particularly by global warming. Such a generalization needs to be qualified as not all African countries are suffering from climate change to the same extent, the degree of impact from country to country reflecting varying conditions on the ground. Farms in moist or dry savannah are more sensitive to higher temperature and reduced rainfall than are farms in humid and forest areas. These latter areas may actually experience higher agricultural yields despite adverse climate change trends.

Drought is not a stranger to the peoples of East Africa. According to Klaus Toepfer, the former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program: “It is a natural climatic phenomenon. What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times. This is because so much of nature’s water and rain supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared. These facts are especially poignant when you factor in the impact of climate change which is triggering more extreme weather events like droughts.”  These remarks support our belief based on the evidence that climate change is a significant element of African humanitarian crises. Toepfer’s words also show us why human induced environmental damage further aggravates preexisting adverse environmental and economic conditions.

It is not possible to determine conclusively that the famine in Somalia is attributable to climate change alone or even predominantly, or is a result of the wider environmental context, as well as a belated consequence of colonial and post-colonial exploitations of Somali resources. A post-colonial example of this Western role in aggravating Somali misery involved the destruction of Somali coastal fisheries due to the activities of high technology distant fishing fleets that virtually rendered traditional Somali fishing obsolete.

Also contributing to Somalia’s downward spiral was illicit toxic dumping by global corporate interests. With no patrols along its shoreline after the collapse of government in 1991, Somalia coastal waters became a dumping area for the developed world’s toxic wastes resulting in severe damage to the fish stocks upon which the Somali fishing industry and population had so heavily depended. Westerner economic actors were desperate to discover places to escape from strict and expensive environmental regulations in their own countries that regulated the discharge of their industrial wastes. As a result, the lives and livelihoods of Somali fishermen along Somalia 3333-km coast were being seriously jeopardized.

 

It is tragic to realize that piracy has replaced fishing as the dominant coastal means of livelihood for these traditional Somali communities. This piracy has been criminalized, but without   account being taken of Western responsibility for depriving Somalia of a leading source of its food and in the process destroying employment opportunities in a previously vibrant commercial activity.

Taking advantage of this difficulty of connecting the dots of causation, the climate deniers are making the most of a highly selective use of meteorological statistics to insist that there is no occasion for special worry or measures in response to Somalia’s crisis. These problems should be interpreted as nothing more threatening than a routine phase of the African weather cycle that the region has been living with for centuries.

Climate change skeptics are not alone in their contentions, but have some unexpected allies. Somalia’s extremist Islamist group, allegedly linked to Al Qaida, Al Shabab, contends that the “drought is caused by Allah and people should pray for rain.” This evasion of problem-solving by reliance on a pre-modern religious mentality has become politically fashionable even in Western countries. Not long ago the governor of Oklahoma urged residents to pray for rain to end a state-wide drought and the Republican Party presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, preceded the recent announcement of his candidacy by holding a public prayer meeting. Another American presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann, sounds remarkably similar to Al-Shabab militants when she warns that advocates of action to reduce greenhouse gasses are displacing the work of God.

In addition to its presumed distrust of foreign intrusions, Al-Shabab has a material reason for its belief that the Somali drought and famine were not a result of human behavior. A UN investigator, Matt Bryden, recently concluded that “Al-Shabab has evolved from a small, clandestine network into an formidable organization that generates tens of millions of dollars a year by organizing charcoal export to Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.” Bryden suggests that the deforestation that has taken place in areas under the control of al-Shabab have probably contributed to the famine by their indiscriminate plunder of forest areas. It is well established that unregulated deforestation is responsible for reduced rainfall.

To be sure, Al-Shabab has its reasons for denying that the famine in Somalia is due to environmental damage, including the detrimental impacts of global warming. Perhaps, if its membership were more sophisticated about the nature of climate change, Al-Shabab would shift their argument, and blame the West, which can be presented as overwhelmingly responsible for the harmful impacts currently being felt in Africa due to almost two hundred years of industrialization with its accompaniment of unregulated greenhouse gas emissions. There is little serious dissent from the view that it is the engines of modernity that have led the climate change challenge to reach its present crisis proportions.

It seems likely that the leaders of Al-Shabab do not have the scientific background needed to appreciate the seriousness and nature of climate change as it bears on the future of Somalia. Their leaders do seem to operate themselves according to the major premise of capitalism, to wit, that selfish economic interests come before the wellbeing of people, even those starving to death. From such a perspective, the leadership of Al-Shabab rejects what must seem to them to be an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of their country by the international community, plausibly fearing that their own political existence might be jeopardized under the pretext of carrying out ‘humanitarian’ operations under Western auspices. Recalling the disastrous effort of the Clinton presidency to impose a centralized governmental structure on Somalia in 1993, this suspicion about Western intentions seems reasonable, although tragically costly for the people on the ground daily suffering from inadequate supplies of affordable food.

In such a situation it is not surprising that many Somalis are blaming Al-Shabab for the severity and prolongation of the food shortage, which has weakened the movement’s political credibility with the populace. Islamists in Somalia themselves now seem deeply divided. Earlier Al-Shabab enjoyed considerable popular support during a period when chaotic conditions prevailed due to the absence of a competent  government. Prior to the onset of the current emergency in 2006, the majority of the Somali people longed most for an end to the lawlessness and rampant corruption that has paralyzed the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, and saw Al-Shabab as offering this prospect.

For all these reasons, combined with the abject poverty of the country, Somalia has become the international poster child for failed states, environmental disaster, and human misery. This has also made Somalia seem to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world, both because of these extreme internal conditions and due to its appropriation as a base for international terrorism. Despite these perceptions, the Turkish Foreign Minister observed in relation to the Turkish Government’s state visit to the country in August of 2011 that “there is no reason that Somalia could not recover from its problems.”

Despite the crisis, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took the highly unusual step of visiting Somalia in the company of several ministers in his cabinet, their families, and a group of Turkish business leaders. This was truly a dramatic initiative that contrasts with the approach taken toward Somalia in recent years by other governments. It a fact that despite its woes Somalia is one of the few countries in the world that no Western leader has dared to enter over the course of the last 20 years, presumably fearful of the chaos and unrest, as well as concerned by security threats posed by religious extremists, warlords, criminal gangs, and worried about the health risks associated with the uncontrolled presence of several lethal infectious diseases.

Against such a background, it is only natural to wonder ‘why’ Turkey has decided to take such an initiative at this time. Several important symbolic and functional reasons have been given by Turkish officials to explain the timing and purpose of this high profile diplomatic event situated outside of Turkey’s geographic orbit of normal diplomatic activity. “The purpose of the visit was first symbolic,” Erdogan declared. He went on to say “[t]here was a perception that nobody can go to Mogadishu; we try to destroy the perception. We came, many others can come.”

There is a second kind of explanation not far in the background. A few months ago Turkey hosted in Istanbul the Fourth United Nations Least Developed Countries (UN-LDC) Summit. Somalia may well be the most afflicted of the 48 LDCs, and so Turkey singling the country out in this way to call attention to its broader concern with world poverty. After all, the LDC summit was held under Turkish auspices because Ankara had expressed a willingness to take on the responsibility for shaping UN policy towards these ‘poorest of the poor’ during the next 10 years. In view of this initiative it would have been difficult for the Turkish government to close its eyes to the desperate situation in Somalia. Such a show of indifference would also have seemed incompatible with its professed desire to do everything possible to help address the challenges faced by the LDCs.

Thirdly, as a devout Muslim, Prime Minister Erdogan was undoubtedly moved by the ordeal confronting the Muslim community in Somalia during the holy month of Ramadan. As all Muslims are deeply aware, this is a time when religious devotion encourages generosity to others less fortunate. The Somalia case presents a compelling opportunity for Erdogan and associates to fulfill their religious duties during Ramadan.

It is also relevant to observe that shortly before the Somalia visit, Turkey hosted a major meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at which $500 million was set as a goal pledged by the assembled government to assist drought and famine stricken Somalis. The Turkish government is additionally sponsoring a national campaign for Somali emergency relief that is seeking to raise an additional $250 million in funds from private Turkish donors.

In the course of an impassioned speech to Muslim leaders during the OIC meeting, Erdogan provocatively called negative attention to the luxurious life styles of the leaders of oil rich countries. Some commentators interpreted these remarks as an attack on capitalism, but it is more reasonably understood as a warning and diatribe against the excesses of some capitalists! And the importance of acting responsibly toward those who are less fortunate.

We need remind ourselves that Turkey has done very well in the Erdogan period of leadership by adhering to economic policies based on free market principles. Erdogan and the AKP are far from the orientation of such avowedly anti-capitalist leaders as Hector Chavez or the Castro brothers. Yet his ideological affinities with capitalism does not mean that Erdogan is not responsive to the social principles of Islam, or that he is being inconsistent when he calls for what used to be promoted by Western leaders under the banner of ‘compassionate capitalism.’  In some speeches to Turkish audiences Erdogan does not hesitate to use language that incorporates Islamic thought, which probably comes very naturally to him when he speaks, as he often does, spontaneously, and without a prepared text. This Muslim influence or style of advocacy was not common in Turkey during the Kemalist years when strictly secular politicians were running the country, and it remains somewhat unfamiliar to those Turks whose identity is derived from European models.

Erdogan also does not hesitate to criticize the West. While in Somalia, he said: “The tragedy in Somalia is testing modern values. What we want to emphasize is that the contemporary world should successfully pass this test to prove that Western values are not hollow rhetoric.” Such a direct challenge seems warranted when the leading Western countries have turned increasingly away from the humanitarian emergency conditions affecting not only Somalia, but all the LDCs. Also neglected by the affluent societies are the large enclaves of extreme poverty in a variety of countries that have relatively high average per capita incomes, but skewed income distribution patterns favoring the ultra-rich and containing deep pockets of extreme poverty.

We can affirm the Turkish initiative associated with the recent visit to Somalia as an imaginative and brave step to mobilize public concern throughout the world. The real test of its worth comes during the years ahead when Turkey and AKP will be under self-imposed pressures to take the lead in tangibly exhibiting empathy for the most deprived segments of humanity along with displaying an increased sensitivity to the seriousness of the climate change dimensions of these economic conditions.  Of course, this Turkish role should not be interpreted as offering a free ride to other countries, including those in Europe, North America, and Asia. The governments of these countries have the resources and responsibilities to act as world citizens in an era of ever increasing globalization both in relation to pursuing economic policies that could dramatically reduce world poverty and taking on climate change for which their past and present activities are primarily responsible.

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