Tag Archives: climate justice

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.

 

Advertisements

‘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.

 

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).