Tuesday, 7 August 2012

USA Willingness to Abandon 2°C Target in Climate Talks Opens for Negative Spirals and Moral Criticism

Just the other day, the US government went public with an official willingness to abandon the henceforth solidly agreed 2°C target in global climate policy talks. It did so rather slippery, through a public address by the Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, at Dartmouth College. Not a public declaration by the President, or at least a minister. But nevertheless a clear signal, since it is since some time posted at the US Dept. of State's webpage

The declaration of "flexibility" with regard to the 2°C target has been met with criticism. But I wonder why the critics all act so surprised. This, I would claim, is an expected outcome of the way that the COP climate policy summits have been going over the last few years. However, I also think that the "flexibility" is far more deadly than what is implied by the criticism and for this, I have support from some of my own latest research!

Some of you may have noted my yearly comments on the global climate policy talks, the so-called COP, from no. 15, 16 and 17. Since last time in Durban, it was agreed that the COP summit will not meet again until 2015, and since that agreement was a result of the continued refusal of a few powerful players (the US and China in particular) to yield on their position to have others pay for the inescapable burdens of managing the climate change that is already unavoidable and preventing or, at least, limiting further such change by halting the continuing rise of the global mean temperature to one of 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. In my last comment, I elaborated on why the 2°C target is such an important cornerstone of the COP talks:

...the 2° target, it must be understood, is not in any way magical or set in stone. In fact, some claims it to be a much too allowing goal. Moreover, the target is rather a range than an exact temperature, since the climate models necessarily embody rather drastic uncertainties. But the 2°C is of importance for two reasons. First, it is one of the very few substantial things about climate policy that the global community has been able to agree on. Second, it approximates the limit of our empirical knowledge from the past and, thus, our basis for prediction, preparation and adaption in face of the various changes that increases of the global mean temperature bring. A bit simplified, beyond 2°C, what we have is basically mathematics and fantasy – something that is amply illustrated by the predictive models in climate change research. Our ability to prepare for whatever will be coming – and thus to be capable of reversing the process without considerable higher cost to human life and well-being – becomes drastically weakened.
Already in Durban, there was a clear tendency that some parties wanted, nevertheless, to abandon the 2°C target, and I warned that the yielding of, especially European countries to the pressures from USA, China and a few other parties with high short-term stakes, to postpone further yearly talks (where this focus on short-term self-interests of these countries were being painfully exposed), lest they would abandon the talks altogether, would further such an end result, since:

...we may expect no, repeat no, preparation on the political home-fronts of these countries for a climate deal in 2015 which implies making actual concessions and taking on actual commitments. This, I claim, is the main result of the strategy of the EU and the rest of the world in Durban.
 Why is this so? Because in the game of Chicken played by the US, China and their unholy group of allies (for the analysis showing that this is what they are doing, see my first COP post)...

...Europe and the rest of the Kyoto-protocol signing countries are allowing themselves to become what game theorists know as money pumps – someone who is applying a strategy that makes one systematically vulnerable to making deals that sum up to a loosing position, while one's counterpart is systematically winning, although each singular deal may look like a winner. Giving in to blackmail (which is, effectively, what Europe is doing in the climate policy negotiation game) is a prime example.
If not clear before, the declared "flexibility" on the 2°C target makes this as evident as one may wish. For the 2°C target is, as a matter of fact even more important than what has been set out above. For what the agreement on the 2°C target stands for is the idea that a climate policy agreement is supposed to limit further rises of the global temperature and, hence, limit the extent and costs (in monetary as well as human and environmental terms) of climate change, by limiting CO2 and other green house gas emissions. It is the global acceptance of that ultimate goal which has then created the necessity of negotiating of how to distribute the, no doubt, substantial costs of reaching it. It is, thus, within this frame that the above mentioned game of Chicken has been played, with the outcome that none of the institutional frameworks created at the COP meetings and mentioned by Todd Stern will have any substantial impact on climate change. Therefore, what Stern argues in his Dartmouth address is that the difficulties of reaching an agreement in such a context means that keeping to the 2°C target will mean that one forfeits one's chance of substantial global political agreement:

For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. 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.
However, while I agree with Stern that the situation that has ensued in global climate policy negotiations is grave, the cure he proposes to my mind threatens to make the patient much more ill than if, simply, Europe and other states pressing for substantial concessions stood up a little bit better. And, as an aside, perhaps this is what Stern senses too, thus continuing the Chicken-playing by saying the things he does, hoping that the other side will thereby look at a hard line for insisting on such concessions as a hopeless strategy.But, nevertheless, if Stern would have his way, what would that imply? Would we then see a chance

In my recent book on the ethical basis of the precautionary principle, The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk (Springer, 2011), I discuss the implications of the theory of the ethics of risk that I develop and defend on the example of climate change policy (chapter 6, section 6.2.1). A primary result of that analysis that is no way dependent on my own particular theory is that there is an intimate interplay between ethically analysing the issues of:

(1) how much of risk and damage due to climate change that may be accepted in view of the costs of preventing or reducing them and available options, and

(2) how the costs of reducing or preventing risk and damage due to climate change should be distributed between concerned parties.

This since, first, the answer to (1) will partly depend on what latitude of acceptable options that is available with regard to (2). The more constrained we are with regard to how the costs of action (and inaction) may be distributed, the less the room for arguing in favor of a lower acceptance level for climate change related risk and damage. This since there will be less practical ways of pulling an actual implementation of such a lower level off without having to distribute costs in unacceptable ways. Second, how (1) is set will dictate, under most minimally reasonable ideas of how (unavoidable) costs and harm should be distributed between parties, what solutions of (2) that become available. When more is at stake, issues about distribution becom more pressing and increasingly minor details (especially regarding already burdened, especially unfavored or otherwise especially vulnerable parties) will become more relevant.

This mutual dependence is mirrored by what seems like a very plausible social scientific assumption with regard to how events may in fact be expected to unfold: The lower the actual acceptance level for climate change related risk and damage is set, the more difficult it will be to reach actual consensus on how to distribute the costs of implementing such a level, and the farther away from consensus with regard to (2) that concerned parties perceive themselves to be, the less likely that they will agree on a lower level with regard to (1). The first is what has already been demonstrated by the COP failures. The second dependence, however, although I predicted it in my book, has so far not been demonstrated. That is, up to Todd Stern's announcement of the new "flexible" US view of the 2°C target. For this is what Stern's (and the USA's) new stand boils down to: allowing more of risk and damage due to climate change in order to have a less difficult situation agreeing to a distribution of the costs of the steps taken to limit the risks and damage of climate change. In straight terms: those that will be harmed by climate change will be harmed more and some that would not have been harmed otherwise will be now be harmed, since the US decides to accept that rather than open its massive purse just a tiny bit more.

In my book, I argue that reasoning in patterns like Stern here does is both morally and rationally indefensible (quite apart from its role in extending the blackmail operation of the Chicken playing henceforth forming the US main strategy), since it tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy situation. If the US says that the formerly agreed upper limit on green house gas emissions (in terms of a limit to the rise of the mean global temperature) is open for revision upwards, parties will be less prepared to accept that limit (since they can see the opportunity of having to carry less costs for limiting emissions thereby created), and thus the case for the Stern stance is strengthened, since the 2°C target does not (due to his having made the initial statement) enjoy such a strong support after all. We can now see how this process may continue according to a so far unknown logic of development, where eventually the difficulties of agreeing on the distribution of costs will be so easy to overcome so that no significasnt party see any need for pressing for a further upward adjustment of the global emission or mean temperature limit. Will that be 4, a 5, a 6 or perhaps a 7°C limit? We don't know. All we know is that people will reap the harvest in the next few hundred years in terms of much more climate change related damage and and exponentially worse risks.

All of this is exactly why responsible politicians once upon a time made the 2°C agreement – so that something could be kept out of the negotiations, knowing what would otherwise ensue, thus creating a basis for a result that would actually save people from harm to a significant extent. But to do that, global politics needs to finally confront the distribution issue seriously, rather than dancing around it in a ritual of looking the other way that has been the rule of the COP summits. This is what the Stern address teaches us. It needs to disprove Stern's claim that doing that within the framework of a morally responsible resolve to limit the damage of climate change is not within "the art of the possible". In my book, I sketch one contribution to such an endeavor in the form of a way of solving the distribution issue (answering question (2) above) without invoking any of those traditional disagreements over what is just and fair that are currently poisoning and paralyzing global climate policy talks with useless ideology. It is possible, I argue, to infer a solution to the question of how to distribute the costs just by having each party work out what would be the most morally responsible decision for them to make in terms of the risks and chances, harms and benefits and available options. The total result of those solutions of each party will provide a distribution where no one will have a good reason to complain, while at the same time the resulting agreement may actually do some substantial good in terms of prevention and reduction of climate change related damage and risk.