The road to Paris: climate barbarism or ethical action?

As the painful United Nations climate negotiations inch along the road to Paris 2015, we are faced with two options: ethical action or a descent into self-interest, writes Peter D Burdon.

I doubt I will ever forget the emotional footage that I observed from the 2013 global Climate Change Conference (COP) in Warsaw, Poland. The Warsaw COP was a critical step in the road map for implementing the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expired in 2012, and obtaining financial commitments from industrialised countries for the ‘loss and damage’ that global warming has already caused to poor nations (also known as ‘climate debt’ or ‘climate reparations’).

The gathering took place just days after Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing approximately 10,000 people and displacing more than 600,000. Dr Jeff Masters, director of the Weather Underground, was one of the few meteorologists to link Typhoon Haiyan with climate change:

Since hurricanes are heat engines that take heat energy from the oceans and convert it to the energy of their winds, rising ocean temperatures due to global warming should make the strongest storms stronger … Hurricane scientists expect to see a 2 per cent to 11 per cent increase in the intensity of hurricanes and typhoons (aka tropical cyclones) by 2100.

Against this backdrop, Naderev “Yeb” Saño, leader of the Philippines Climate Change Commission, rose to give his opening statement. What followed was a cry, not only from the Philippines, but also on behalf of all developing countries that have been the hardest hit by climate change. Unable to hold back tears, Saño pleaded:

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here in Warsaw, where? What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness. Right here in Warsaw.

In that speech, Saño announced something quite extraordinary. He announced to COP delegates that he would fast until talks yield progress. For the next two weeks, Saño did not break his fast. He was also joined by over 200 people and received substantial support from international NGO’s and civil society.

My initial reaction to Saño’s act was deep admiration. This was the first time that a lead country representative had the integrity and ethical courage to take a stand inside the COP itself. Saño showed that delegates are more than cogs inside a machine. They are individuals with agency and the freedom to make ethical decisions.

In an age where instrumental rationality or ‘means-to-end’ thinking dominates, Saño’s action highlights an alternative way of being and helps us to rethink our own agency within complex systems. Understanding both how power operates in multilateral negotiations and our own ability to make ethical judgements is of critical importance as we approach the 2015 Paris climate negotiations.

The Paris COP represents the most important climate conference since the failed Copenhagen COP in 2009. Indeed, environmental lawyer Vernon Rive argues that Paris represents the “defining moment for the future of climate negotiations and therefore the planet”. If the international community fails again, we throw ourselves to the vagaries of the Security Council or to the higher arbiter, Mother Nature herself.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has expressed strong confidence that a binding international treaty will be signed in 2015. To push negotiations along, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon will convene a one-day ‘Climate Summit’ in New York on September 23, 2014. Ban has urged world leaders to “announce bold actions and bold commitments” at the summit.

Alongside the uncertainty about whether 194 countries can sign an agreement to mitigate global warming, there are other pressing questions. Will such an agreement be ethical? Will it concentrate existing power or spread it horizontally? Whose voices will be heard in the multilateral negotiations? Who will benefit and who will suffer?

Perhaps the most contentious issue on the road to Paris is whether or not rich countries should pay reparations for climate damage to poor countries. Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change and lead climate negotiator, has been unequivocal in his rejection of climate debt:

I actually completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations or anything of the like. Let’s just be mindful of the fact for most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions cause the greenhouse effect…We absolutely recognise our historical role in putting emissions in the atmosphere that are there now. But the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I categorically reject that.

On one interpretation of Stern’s statement, the window for making repayment claims can only be dated to 1990 when the link between carbon emissions and climate change was verified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s first assessment. However, it was clear from the Warsaw COP that the US opposes efforts to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

I fear that as pressure mounts for multilateral climate negotiations to yield progress, power will concentrate in fewer hands and the interests of poorer countries will continue to be sidelined. The poor will continue to buffer the rich, and negotiations will descend into the “barbarism” described by the brilliant 18th Century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico.

Vico argued that barbarism occurs when individuals each think only of their own interests and without concern for the society or community in which they live. Vico describes this barbarism as follows: “Such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure.”

Vico’s description of this barbaric mindset is uncannily reminiscent of climate negotiations to date. To extract ourselves from the cultural pathology of alienation we need to summon the courage for ethical thought and action. We must be willing to take risks and, if need be, to “put our bodies on the line”.

Finally, like the Filipino negotiator Yeb Saño, we need to understand that we have choices, even within complex systems or bureaucracies. We all have the capacity for ethical courage and our judgements can influence not only the course of human history, but also whether we can look back on our lives and say that we have lived with integrity.

This article was first published at ABC Environment and The Drum.

Dr Peter Burdon is a Senior Lecturer at the Adelaide Law School and in Semester 1 2014 was a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley. 

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