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


  1. I am overjoyed to hear that Moravian College will be invovled in this endeavor. This is a fantastic experience for all involved and extremely important for the future of our world. My concern is that an important factor in carbon emissions and green house gases will be ignored at this conference: the effects of the meat industry on the planet. The meat industry is currently producing 18% of the world's green house carbon emissions, which is worse than all forms of transportation combined. Also, sections of the Amazon rainforest are being cleared for livestock or to grow the grain to feed them. I would love to know if any of these issues are brought up at the conference when you attend. If you would like facts, figures or more information on these topics, I will gladly pass on the sources.

  2. The impact of agriculture, especially livestock, on the topic of greenhouse gas emissions is huge. A student in my senior seminar course did her semester project on this and we discuss the issue in our Climate Crises course on campus. William Ruddiman (author of Plows, Plagues and Petroleum) provides a hypothesis that the anthropogenic impact on the atmosphere in terms of GHGs and climate change actually began with the beginnings of agriculture. We are always interested in obtaining good sources of data on these topics so if you have sources to share -- please do. This is actually one area that I hope to follow closely in Copenhagen.

  3. Sorry I got back to you so late.

    Here is the first article put out by the UN that really started to shake things up in regards to questioning the effects of the meat industry:

    A more liberal, left leaning organization, World Watch, did more research and found the number to be higher, 51% of all green house gases are coming from the meat industry:

    Their justification is that the damage done to the rainforests in order to grow soybeans for cattle should also be tallied into the effects of the meat industry's toll on the environment.
    Personally, I agree, but understand they are not as credible a source in the field of environmental science.