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Averting the Climate Crisis, Ethically

This article was written by Alex Steffen in August 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

climate%20rights.jpg "We must all hang together," Ben Franklin is alleged to have said after signing the Declaration of Independence, "or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." A similar predicament faces us in regards to climate change. The effects of catastrophic climate change may fall more heavily on some than others, but they will not be light or pleasant for any of us. The only way we can avoid them is for nations to cooperate.

But while we all have an interest in averting climate catastrophe, we do not all bear the same moral burden for creating it (as I argued Tuesday in my post about offshoring emissions and historic carbon). Those of us in the developed world, especially North America, have pumped out a heck of a lot more greenhouse gasses than people anywhere in the developing world, and for far longer. However, the growth in emissions is very much concentrated in the developing world -- especially fast-industrializing nations like China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Mexico. Any plan which does not curtail the growth in developing world emissions will fail.

Leaders of those nations quite rightly point out both that they did not create this mess, and that per capita, their peoples still emit far less carbon pollution than the average citizen of an industrialized nation. They argue that they have a right to develop, and if changes must be made, they must be made first by those of us who bear the largest responsibility.

So finding the balance between our practical need to slash emissions and our ethical obligation to distribute repsonsibility fairly is a pretty central task in any global climate plan we may create as a successor to Kyoto.

That's why the latest global issue paper from the Heinrich Boll foundation, bearing the unfortunate titleA Brief, Adequacy and Equity-Based Evaluation of Some Prominent Climate Policy Frameworks and Proposals (PDF), is actually quite provocative.

The paper examines several approaches, including my current favorite, Contraction and Convergence, then argues for the concept of Greenhouse Development Rights (or GDRs). These proposed rights stem from the idea that to get everyone in the world to sign on to a comprehensive global framework for fighting climate change, we must require nations to pay based on their historic emissions and relative wealth (their responsibility and capacity, as the authors put it). Poorer emerging nations would then receive a certain exemption from participation, in exchange for a commitment to fair and sustainable development. The paper sums the idea up in four points:

1. The specification of an explicit temperature target, and of the global mitigation requirement that must be met if we’re to have a high probability of meeting that target;

2. The calculation of a responsibility and capacity indicator (RCI) that determines, for each country, its share of the global mitigation and adaptation burdens. The RCI, crucially, is calculated in a manner that takes the distribution of income and emissions within countries into account;

3. The specification of a mitigation exemption that relieves poor countries of their obligation to pay for mitigation, that they may instead pursue their proper human development priorities; and

4. The definition of a development obligation for rich people in poor countries, an obligation that is directly proportional to their mitigation exemption.

The authors make it clear on their own website, Ecoequity, that they don't see GDRs as a direct practical proposal: they don't expect to see GDRs become international law. What they hope, instead, is that GDRs will reframe the debate about global equity and climaate change. As they put it in their paper:

What is clear is that any true emergency pathway requires that emissions drop soon and steeply in both developed and developing countries, and it’s the political and ethical consequences of this inescapable fact that are most at issue. GDRs is designed so that the key precondition of any emergency pathway – that wealthy countries pay for the necessary mitigation in developing countries – is faced square on, as the nub of the problem. Its goal is to outline a framework that can, at least in principle, support an emergency program consistent with the emergency pathway.

It's an interesting attempt to spotlight our global living room's twin elephants: we're destroying the planet (with undeniably serious consequences already unfolding) and the global system we've created is monumentally unjust.

But it leaves out a key dimension of the debate: that how we respond -- in order to lower our emissions and adapt to the climatic changes we've already unleashed -- is not a single set of actions but a spectrum of approaches, and approaches on different ends of that spectrum have wildly different implications for the prospect of fair and sustainable development in the poorer parts of the world.

Put simply, there are paths to sustainable development that involve both alleviating poverty and stabilizing climate (for instance, the sorts of projects supported -- at least in theory -- by the Clean Development Mechanism). We might well stipulate that developed world funding go exlusively to projects that are equitable within nations (not just between them), that help to raise long-term standards of living, that preserve ecosystem services for those most dependent on them, and help to reduce the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Here's an example.

There are those who would argue that China's relative poverty and its lack of historic carbon burden should mean that the rest of the world has little right to comment on its massive and increasing use of coal to generate energy -- China may be becoming the largest source of greenhouse gasses, but they're still playing catch-up.

Let's accept that China has a right to develop -- that geographical accident of birth is not a fair basis on which to limit a person's prosperity -- but that we need to reduce or mitigate for the emissions China creates in the process in some way.

One path would be: let China burn its coal, and fund inexpensive development projects elsewhere that offset the smoke rising from China's chimneys.

But there's another path: leapfrog China; in fact, leapfrog the Chinese people. Technology transfer is possible, but it has tended to be somewhat slow, expensive and result in further concentrations of power. I believe that smart people can figure out how to make the transfer of leapfrogging green technologies fast, cheap and equitable. That ought to be the explicit goal of our participation in climate regimes.

China needs power? Subsidize the widespread adoption of distributed renewable energy, ala Fabio Rosa's solar electrification work in Brazil, or distribute widespread knowledge about occupant-built green building techniques and energy efficient designs. China has hundreds of millions of poor farmers. So, help them farm better, and promote effective greenbelts to trap carbon and hold back China's advancing deserts. China has explosive urban growth? Help make eco-cities like Dongtan the norm, rather than the innovation. Industrialization in China is creating huge disparities in wealth? Help the Chinese people bring greater transparency into the realm of development.

All this is not secondary to securing the well-bring of people in the developing world -- it is the means of securing their well-being. After all, the link between truly sustainable development and social well-being is quite clear. We shouldn't let carbon blindness make us lose sight of the possibility that worldchanging approaches in poor places can leave everyone with a future both brighter and greener. To demand conventional growth is not a moral stand, but a failure of vision.

Photo: Phillip J. Redman/USGS

Greenhouse Development Rights: Climate-Clean and Fair? is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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