US environmental groups and analysts in the movement for a stronger climate policy have focused on energy technologies, carbon pricing, and other technical issues without, for the most part, coming to grips with the elements of the climate change international policy problem that involve socioeconomic justice and distributional equity. But it is such issues that are perhaps most likely to hang up future climate negotiations until they are dealt with.
The US has been unwilling to acknowledege the implications of the great global economic inequalities. There has been an emphasis on current emissions levels and trends, i.e., China is now the leading single carbon emitter, and it is currently on a very rapid growth path. But China’s population is more than four times that of the US, and it ranks 90th in per capita income. India’s population is nearly four times that of the US, and it ranks 129th in per capita income. Their per capita emissions are far lower than those of the Americans.
But the real issue is not just current emissions – it’s the cumulative emissions over time and their contribution to the atmospheric concentration of long-lived greenhouse gases. Historically, the US’s cumulative contribution to the problem of global climatic disruption is far greater than that of China and India, and will remain so for decades at least – and longer if we look at it on a per capita basis.
Similarly, addressing the goal of keeping the overall increase in global temperature below the level that will constitute ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ with the climate system, if that is even any longer possible – an increase that is commonly identified as 2 degrees C above the preindustrial level – implies that the countries of the world must constrain their global aggregate cumulative future emissions within a total carbon budget, while expediting a phase-out of the carbon-based energy system.
This concept of a cumulative future carbon budget that must somehow be allocated is developed as a central theme for US policy in the major study published by the National Academy of Sciences’ called America’s Climate Choices. Should the US really be allowed, without being held accountable, to demand, as a condition of its participation in any future binding climate agreement, that developing countries limit their emissions in such a way as to lock in the current radical economic inequality? Don’t developing countries have the right to bring their populations up to at least a moderately decent standard of living, in which every individual has adequate shelter, access to food and water, health care, educational opportunities, transportation, and security in old age? Is the US willing to pass the buck to developing countries, holding onto its wealth while leaving billions of people at a poverty level?
An equitable allocation of a global carbon budget sufficient to hold the temperature increase to 2 degrees C above the preindustrial level would allocate the great majority of future emissions to the currently developing countries. What is an equitable solution to the problem that doesn’t condemn developing nations to widespread poverty as a condition of getting the US to agree to make really serious commitments to major emissions reductions?
US political leadership does not appear to be up to the task of speaking truthfully to the American people about where we stand vis-à-vis what climate science says about the implications of the trajectory we are on now – which is toward something more like a 4 degrees C global temperature increase, or higher, even if all current voluntary pledges by various countries are lived up to in the implementation. Nor does it appear up to the task of speaking truthfully to the American people about the global distributional equity problems that confront any effort at a ‘we’re all in this together’ solution.
Politically this would be a heavy lift, given the power of the right wing in US politics and its commitment to global warming denialism; the power of the corporate energy interests and the unwillingness of either party to challenge those interests in any fundamental way; the momentum of the US continuing to develop energy resources and infrastructure in a way that suggests that the US has no real intention, or at least no plan, to phase out fossil fuels in the foreseeable future; and the softness of public opinion and public support for meaningful action.
The US negotiating position does not want to countenance a look-back perspective on how anthropogenic climate change has developed, only to look forward to future emissions. This might be seen as, in a way, analogous to Obama’s beginning of his presidency with his ‘we only want to look forward, not backward’ response to demands that Bush Administration officials be investigated for their above-the-law behavior. Thus Obama became complicit with how the the power elite shields itself from accountability -- because accountability, whether for criminal activity or for the climate change problem -- requires a willingness to look backward and deal with history, not sweep it under the rug. US climate negotiators reject any formaultion that suggests that the US owes anyone anything based on historic contributions to climate change. The attitude is that we must only look forward, and keep up the pressure on the developing countries to come to the table and agree to limit their own development.
In order to change this configuration of rather dismal forces in the US at this time, it would help to have strong, articulate, consistent, progressive leadership to put the climate change problem before the public, acknowledge and articulate a science-based risk assessment of the path we are on now, and begin to bring the public along to develop greater understanding and build public support for strong domestic action on mitigation and adaptive preparedness and responsibility on the international scene. Obama can hardly be said to have even seriously begun to do this, with even so much as a single climate change address to the American people. Who will lay out for the public the US international responsibility based on historic patterns of development and the US contribution to setting the climate change problem into motion?
Can climate change be addressed effectively as a global policy problem if the US public is not operating at a higher level of understanding? Can it be addressed effectively if the ‘1%’ who control so much of US and global wealth and political influence are allowed to maintain their current business as usual activity without being held to account?
All of the most important issues remain on the table. They appear to be beyond what can be negotiated at the level of the environmental and foreign ministry representatives who conduct the climate treaty negotiations. Somehow, to bring about real change, the highest level government leaders will have to feel more pressure from their own people – from within the ‘99%’ -- to engage directly with each other in policymaking that shows an appropriate sense of urgency.
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – Durban climate conference home page (has links to decision documents, including Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action)
For in-depth discussion of the relationship between the climate change problem and the equitable global sustainable development problem, see the material associated with the Eco-Equity and Greenhouse Development Rights websites. For example, see the post
"Linked Fates: 'Occupy' and the climate negotiations".