Monday, November 30, 2009

Moravian College at UNFCC

I’m honored that Professor Binford asked me to post the first entry in the Moravian College United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) blog. Before making any substantive comments I want to thank Professors Binford and Husic for their efforts to gain the College observer status at Copenhagen. As usual, they have their eyes on important issues.

Climate change is one of (if not the) defining issue of our times. What the world does, or fails to do, about climate change will impact virtually everyone on earth. In a very real sense attending the UNFCCC is an opportunity to watch history being made. It’s also an opportunity for the Moravian contingent to sharpen their skills as activists.

One reason climate change is a particularly thorny problem is because it is a situation in which the market mechanism leads to sub-optimal results. In the case of burning fossil fuels, each individual nation determines that it is better off with benefits exceeding costs from increasing its carbon emissions. However, from a global perspective the decisions of each nation add up to disaster. That’s why climate change is one of those issues for which markets simply do not work. Here the span of the “invisible hand” is just too narrow. This kind of market failure can be corrected through collective action. But as we all know there is no global government able to force nations to emit carbon levels that are optimal from a global perspective. Enter the United Nations. However, the UN, without the authority of a central government, can only provide at best a framework within which central governments must negotiate cooperative agreements leading to a slowing of carbon emissions growth.

These negotiations are made more difficult by the lack of inexpensive technologies to substitute for carbon based energy sources. Hence, nations fear that limiting carbon emissions also means slower economic growth and lower standards of living for their populations. Thus at the center of the negotiations is the issue of equity: both intra-generational equity (which is why we see the rich nations and the poorer nations on different sides of the table) and inter-generational equity (which is why this is so important to young people). Once it’s clear that we are dealing with issues that center on equity concerns, it is also clear that they can only be addressed in the political arena. Welcome to Copenhagen!

It seems to me that in the future more and more of the world’s most difficult problems will require collective action, or will center around issues of equity, and so it will be in arenas like this in which they will be resolved, if they are resolved at all. In a very real sense observing what happens (or doesn’t happen) at Copenhagen is preparation for more conferences to come. Members of the Moravian College delegation have a front-row seat from which to observe a political process that will hopefully be repeated many times over in the future.

Successful democracies demand educated, informed, active citizens. Preparing those citizens is what a Moravian education is about. Each of you who are part of the Moravian College contingent will return a more knowledgeable, more effective citizen. Whether you are a Moravian student, faculty member, alumni/a, or friend you are part of our community, and will help lead the college as it strives to make the world a better place. Your experience in Copenhagen will give you a head-start in understanding how to become the kind of citizen this world will need more of in the future; the kind of citizen that Moravian College calls their own.

Gordon Weil

Professor of Economics

Dean of the Faculty

V.P. for Academic Affairs