Thursday, November 14, 2013

Will Moral Arguments Suffice?

Not likely.

I sit in these meetings in Poland and listen to civil society cry out moral arguments – strong justifications for developing a multilateral agreement aimed both at reducing the risks of climate change and providing assistance for those either suffering the impacts of a destabilized climate or needing help to build resilience and adapt to the changes that are coming (or are already occurring).

Based on the lack of headway we see in negotiations which, incidentally, have been going on since the early 1990s, to civil society it seems as if policymakers focus not on moral arguments, but rather politics, economic considerations, and historic international tensions. Yet as I talked with some negotiators today who were incredibly bright and extremely informed about the issues, I found them to be passionate about finding a “way out of the stalled process” and more than a little frustrated about the lack of progress being made. I asked them why they keep at it, and they consistently indicated that they still believe in the importance of this process. Their reasons vary. Most believe that real transformation will actually come – and is happening -- at the local and regional levels, but they feel that these changes wouldn’t happen without the on-going international focus on the urgency and severity of the problem.

I saw examples of extremely complicated modelling today. These analyses are used to determine the percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are needed by 2030 from different country blocks in order to keep global surface temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. In addition, they try to factor in equity – a nebulous concept, but one that incorporates historical responsibility for emissions, capacity to change (financially, technologically, etc.) and sustainable development needs. Explaining all that would take a separate post. These models indicate that developed nations like the U.S. and western European countries (the OECD block), need to have a reduction of 40% of 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Impossible, I thought.

I heard examples of how some in Africa are trying to model the costs of adaptation depending on whether global temperatures increase by 1, or 2, or 3 degrees Celsius (the latter would put us into conditions previously not experienced by our species). Such information might be used to counter the arguments that we cannot afford to put regulations in place (loss of jobs, economic impact that will slow growth, etc.). The information could be used for a risk-benefit or cost-benefit analysis, if you will. In these models, the benefits lie in avoiding costs associated with extreme weather damage and destruction. Information on the costs of such events can be plugged into simulations since we have data on the economic impact of recent major storms, and IPCC reports and weather data can be used to estimate how many extreme events might occur in any given year. An interesting effort, but it falls short of truly understanding the cost of inaction.

The impacts of climate change will be much more complex and have greater costs than the estimated loss and damages associated with severe storms like the recent typhoon that hit the Philippines. They will affect water availability, food security, public health, etc. in ways we cannot precisely predict. Add to that all the unknown ways in which ecosystems will respond to climate change and, in turn, impact not only wildlife and habitat, but also ecosystem services that humans rely on every day, but rarely think about. Externalities, by definition, are not factored into economic equations. But for some of these climate change impacts, it is impossible to add a projected price tag, and thus, we cannot accurately determine the cost of business as usual. I am beginning to think that we do need to start putting dollar figures on nature – species, ecosystem services, and human lives. And we certainly need a lot more monitoring to learn how our ecosystems and agricultural systems are responding to climate change. But neither of those tasks will be easy.

And meanwhile, elsewhere in the COP, there are on-going discussions of market mechanisms (to offset carbon emissions by developed nations), distributive and procedural justice concerns about proposed initiatives in adaptation, land grabs, and enthusiasm about new financial opportunities opening up as the Arctic ice sheets melt and reveal potential new wells of resources – further exploitation of the poor and the planet.

Throughout the past two days, I have been doing some work related to our campus LINC (general education) curriculum as I sit in the climate meetings. We recently changed our requirements (lessening them) to allow more flexibility for students to take other, non-prescribed electives. The categories most impacted were what we refer to at Moravian College as U1 and U2 – the social impact of science and reflections on a moral life, the U referring to upper level. Students used to have to take one of each, but now can get by with only one. Yet as I ponder what is needed to solve complex global issues like climate change, I question this curricular change. Students with a solid grounding in ethical decision making and science (our U1 and U2 categories) are what we need more of.  And they need a good dose of global understanding, of world views that aren’t the same as ours.

Science and moral arguments are not sufficient, but without them, we don’t stand a chance.

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