Wednesday, December 14, 2011

UN Climate Summit: Part 3

The High Stakes Negotiations of Climate Change

K. Edward Renner, PhD

The goal of the UN Climate Summits is to reach an agreement on a standard for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. The previous summits have failed because the US and China, as the two major players, have each made proposals that were largely self-serving, but which would severely impact the other.

The failure is not being unable to define a "fair" standard. The environmental sciences have already given us all of the information we need.

The Developed Nations, such as the US, must reduce consumption to significantly smaller amount. The Developing Nations, such as China, cannot continue their rapid economic industrial growth at the cost of destroying the bio-capacity of the planet. As essential partners, the Least Developed Nations -- the lungs of the earth – need to be compensated for the restoration of the damage already done to their bio-capacity.

Toward this end, the UN has established a Green Climate Fund to enable the Least Developed Nations to participate in the global economy as essential partners by restore their bio-capacity. The high emission countries, however, have not yet provided any of the required funding.

Clearly, fairness alone is not sufficient. Any solution must also be politically acceptable. This is the difficult problem.

National governments hold political power by protecting their sovereign national interests against the claims of other nations. For this reason, both the United States and China have made largely self-serving proposals.

For the United States, setting a fair emission standard would require reducing its consumption and transferring those resources to, for example, the United Nations Green Climate Fund. Consumer goods -- such as gasoline -- would become much more expensive. People with low levels of income would require higher pay and better social services in order to survive. This, in turn, would require a significant redistribution of wealth and income.

For China, this would require compromising their drive to become the primary economic power in the world, and ending rural poverty, by transferring these resources to the United Nations Green Climate Fund.

Neither the United States nor China has the political will or capacity to make these choices, even though the failure to make them will result in even more severe outcomes. There is an “ideal” and an “extreme” solution.

The “ideal” solution is for greater public awareness so that, in the United States, elected officials would lose their political power if they did not make such an agreement, rather than lose power for dong so. The exact opposite is our current reality. Given the current worldwide economic crisis political arguments are being made to delay or rescind environmental regulations because they imped our economic recovery. The paradox is that to not do so might cost us our lives, or at best leave our children with a much lower quality of life than we currently have.

The “extreme” solution is to view the collapse of the planet as equivalent to the Armageddon of atomic warfare. All that needs to be agreed upon at Durban is the simple standard “that the quality of life is a production cost.” In practical terms this means there can be no deferred environmental costs to either consumption or growth.

The implementation would be for the United States to start to unilaterally impose import duties on consumer goods equal to their deferred environmental costs if China itself did not redirect an equivalent proportion of its GDP to the UN Green Climate Fund.

The reciprocal implementation would be for China to unilaterally impose a proportional cut off of financial support for our cumulative debt if the United States did not itself reduce its large footprint by redirecting an equivalent proportion of its national excess to the UN Green Development Fund.

The two major polluters can force each other to do what neither would be able to do on their own. This is an economic version of the Cold War as a necessary prelude to avoiding environmental collapse as the new unthinkable.

The extreme solution is not a pretty picture, but it may be what is required in order to create a wake-up call to achieve the public awareness necessary to support the ideal solution. Simply put, we must pay for what we have when we get it -- which is what a green economy is all about.

Clearly, solving the “acceptable,” not the “fair” part of the solution is the difficult, perhaps impossible, task. However the first step is to talk about the issues in plain truthful language. These are the issues we face, either as rational problem-solving now or as a harsh reality later.

If democracy is to work, straight talk is required by responsible people, including above all else elected government officials. Surely, we can risk the public trust if we believe in our own civic process; we have nothing more to lose, and everything to gain.

Professor Renner teaches in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. This maerial is based on his podcast at:

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