Monday, 17 December 2018

Where is the fairness in the climate talks?

Carbon Emissions talks are very fraught.

They often end in fudges and disappointment, as has happened again recently at the latest round of COP talks. Some important issues have been postponed to future talks, all while humanity continues to pollute at record levels.


It is in everyone's interests to have fewer carbon emissions, but rarely in anyone's interest to reduce their own emissions. Everyone wants everyone else to do something about climate change.

Further, the benefits of reducing CO2 arise in the future, and those who have to alter their lifestyles (or pay more) are in the present. We are a myopic species, though unlike other animals we can think our way out of our myopia.

Climate talks are particularly fraught because there are so many dimensions at play. There is the inter-generational dimension - we can do more, less or nothing for the benefit of our successors. Different states care more or less about these future generations. Governments also want more for their own citizens at the expense of the citizens of other states. This leads to greater intransigence, particularly where countries extract or use a lot of fossil fuels or have a very populist nation-first attitude. Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the latest stumbling blocks is Brazil, which has recently voted in Jair Bolsonaro as President.

You can see carbon talks as a power game where all states try to get the best deal for their own states with the prospect of undermining the whole process if unsuccessful. That is not only dangerous because it risks a complete breakdown. It also means that the overall package is going to be much less ambitious than it might be otherwise.

It is this kind of attitude--everyone out for themselves and damn the consequences--that has got us into our current environmental mess.

We need ethical principles - of fair distributions - as a baseline in order to proceed in a sensible manner.

That isn't to say that philosophers (and others, such as economists) agree on the fair distribution of benefits and burdens. Matters are complicated even more because there are so many empirical inputs into economic climate modelling. Changing those inputs slightly will have a huge effect on the equation.

Those who wish to challenge economists and policymakers on questions of climate change therefore need to understand the different theoretical approaches by which to do so.

My Summer School course on Environmental Justice sets out some of the ways of thinking about how we should think about the environment and fairness to future generations. Whether you can attend the course or not, I recommend the book Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (edited by Gardner et. al.) as a good starting point.

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