“25% is not reality, it is wishful thinking.”
Arthur Runge-Metzger’s comments, made on behalf of the EU at the Bangkok intercessional of the UNFCC on Friday, trace a line of argument that’s increasingly familiar to anyone who’s followed the ‘progress’ of the UNFCCC over the past year. They mirror comments made by Todd Stern, US Climate Envoy, a month ago as part of a speech on the future of international climate policy in which he dismissed the two-degree warming target, arguing:
“It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.”
In one sense these arguments amount to nothing more than a straight-up denial of responsibility. A rhetorical two-fingers to the scientific consensus and to every commitment the US and EU have made to support the pursuit of universal human dignity or sustainable development.
But in another sense, perhaps they should be welcomed as a dose of honesty – a long-overdue statement of defeat from governments no longer capable of solving the big problems. Targets imposed and upheld by international agreements have failed to halt the rise of carbon emissions. In fact, they have failed to even slow their growth. Perhaps then it is time for something different. This is the idea briefly explored here. Its important because first it’s as convenient as it is compelling and risks becoming the consensus idea amongst industrialised nations, and second because its bullshit. I’ve focused on Stern’s argument here because to my knowledge he’s the only negotiator who’s bothered to make one publicly.
First, it is true that the evidence from eighteen years of climate change negotiations under the UNFCCC suggest that target setting has not helped to solve climate change. Of course this does not mean that the targets are the problem, the failure to meet them is a symptom of the problem. But the fact the targets are not directly or even partially to blame is not necessarily an argument for keeping them. If the targets stand for a perfect solution that is not possible then they may be distracting us from imperfect solutions that could get us moving in the right direction. This is a side to Stern’s argument that must be taken seriously; perfect justice must never be allowed to stand in the way of solutions capable of overcoming major injustices. But what are these alternative solutions and how would removing a two-degree target make them more likely?
The most fully formed solution proposed by Stern is one that has been proposed by the Americans with mixed success for many years – a system of unilateral pledge and review; countries setting their own targets and holding themselves to account. It is important to be clear that far from being an imperfect solution to specific injustices and an alternative to the current failings of the UNFCCC, this is a problem repackaged as a solution. Stern’s argument is not based on a nuanced account of the working of international politics and justice theory, as it claims to be. Instead it is hiding behind a confused account of both.
The claim that abolishing the two degree target would remove a barrier to countries pursuing greater emissions reductions would hold true only if we believed that all things being equal (i.e. in a world with no regulatory intervention), countries would be achieving greater levels of emissions reductions than they are currently. This belief stands counter to every significant academic analysis of the politics of climate change. The barriers to effective action on climate change are not the result of the barriers inherent to international political forums, such as the UNFCCC (e.g. the difficulty of reaching consensus), but those that are inherent to national politics. I am referring specifically to the inability of national governments to represent the interests of future generations or those living beyond national borders.
Democratic governments are, for the most part, incapable of doing what is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. This is because even good governments serve the best interests of the present generation living within their borders. To assume otherwise is to go against evidence and logic. By evidence, I’m referring to the failure of any country for which climate change does not pose a short-term existential threat (e.g. the Maldives) to take action in line with a 2-degree target. By logic, I’m referring to the absence of any evidence that climate change has proved a deciding (or even important) issue at a national-level general election. There is no evidence and no logic behind the idea that governments, left alone, would work harder to solve climate change.
Now this is the point where, were this a conversation between Tod (in my hypothetical we are on first name terms) and I, I’d expect him to begin listing examples of governments and businesses taking action alone and going far beyond regulatory requirement: Britain’s Climate Change Act, Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), South Korea’s support for renewable energy R&D, China’s investment in wind power, Unilever’s leading sustainability pledges etc. The point about these examples is that whilst it is possible that they point to governments and businesses taking positive action for reasons other than international agreements, they are all examples of far too little happening far too slowly.
Tod would probably treat this as an excess of pessimism and switch the argument over to the sun-lit uplands of ‘the green economy’ and the companies that are already helping to build it. It’s difficult to imagine anyone disputing the point that a truly green economy is as attractive and economically viable as it is essential to the survival of millions. But this has absolutely nothing to do with anything of issue here. Until we’re on a path to a green economy it remains nothing more than a distracting vision of perfection with no bearing on solving climate change whatsoever. The green economy is not the solution to climate change, it’s what the world look like after all the solutions have been successfully fought for and implemented.
Economies do not change because of the promise of something better; they change because they have to. The total transformation of developed economies that is required to keep us below two degrees will only come when those economies are forced to begin that transition. This will happen in one of two ways: we either wait for climate change to cause such damage that it forces the hand of businesses and regulators or we build a system of incentives and disinvites strong enough to transform our economies. The argument for removing the two-degree target or for going slow on EU emissions reductions is an argument for the former. It is a call to forget the lessons of the past decade and to tie the fate of our home and of justice to the good sense of those with an interest in having none.
Rant over. Here’s how European Youth have responded to Arthur Runge-Metzger comments: http://pusheurope.eu/media/pressrelease-31082012/