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The real deal

Solidarity and realism: two crucial virtues, and both of them, it seems, will be as fundamental to the 21st century as they were to the 20th. But though the meaning of solidarity – with the poor, the vulnerable, the downtrodden – is essentially unchanged, and as precious as ever, realism in the face of climate change is far more problematic.

For one thing, realism has a well-earned negative reputation. Its founders meant their focus on ‘national interests’ in anything but a small-minded way, but their intentions, like so much else, were thrown overboard during the long grind of the Cold War. Realism became little more than ideology, and the ‘national interest’ a cover for the short-term interests of the élites, whatever they happened to be. If you’re anything like me, you came to hate the word.

That, however, was then. This is now and this, in particular, is a world in which the usual miseries – chronic poverty, undemocratic globalization, affluenza and economic disaster all come to mind – are being augmented by ecological decay and a global climate crisis that threatens everything. In this context, rediscovering the original aims of realism – to put aside idealism and see the world as it really was, not that we may accept it but that we might make better judgments, that we might avoid catastrophe – is now a priority.

Truly inconvenient

The curious thing is that, even as Al Gore, quoting Winston Churchill, tells us that this is a ‘time of consequences’, little is settled. Both sides of the great divide within the climate movement – the ‘building momentum’ camp and the ‘inconvenient truth’ camp – claim to be realists and to embody the strategy that best improves our frankly not-very-brilliant odds.

Both sides of the great divide within the climate movement claim to be realists and to embody the strategy that best improves our frankly not-very-brilliant odds

The momentum-builders counsel against using the inconvenient phrase ‘climate emergency’. They say that ‘we cannot organize on the basis of fear’, and that trying to do so only causes people to ‘shut down’. That we must speak instead of the jobs to be had, and profits to be made in the clean energy transition, about investments and especially about ‘opportunities’. Or, rather, that we must talk exclusively about such things, as we inch our way forward. Cap and trade systems? Sure, and if we have to give away most of the permits to the big emitters in order to get such systems, so be it; we’ll fix the problems later.

Likewise in the global climate negotiations, we must be ‘realistic’. No talk, please, about a fair global accord, one that might actually break the international political impasse. It’s just not on the table. There is not the political will. It’s a distraction, or, worse, a dangerous distraction. Ask for too much and you may not get anything at all.

Good arguments, all of them, but all ultimately unconvincing. They are too timid, too partial, too incrementalist. They are realism-as-usual, and this is not the realism we need. They seek too much to build momentum, and do not trouble us enough with the truth.

What truth? That climate change is an emergency, with a logic all the more terrible for being inseparable from the development crisis. It is the crisis of a divided society in which billions of people face, in their daily poverty, emergencies more urgent, if not more important, than climate change. What's truly inconvenient is that the North/South impasse that so bedevils the UN climate negotiations is a consequence of an even more fundamental problem. Which is this: The majority of the emission reductions required to prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ must be in the developing world, where most emissions now occur and where emissions are growing most rapidly. At the same time, the development crisis, and behind it the aspirations of the developing world, demands a vast expansion of energy services in order to finally eliminate ‘energy poverty’, a goal that, in turn, seems inexorably to imply increased carbon emissions.

This is the core of the impasse, and the reason why the developing countries insist that, as important as climate stabilization may be, it cannot come at the expense of their development. This is the problem that must be solved before any global climate mobilization can begin in earnest. And this is the problem against which greenhouse age realism must be judged.

Rights in the global greenhouse

Which brings me to Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs), an ‘effort-sharing framework’ designed to distribute the costs of the global climate transition – emission reductions and adaptation to the impacts that cannot be avoided – to those who are responsible for and capable of paying for them. It’s a critical problem, because the effort is going to be large. Think in terms of costs, or if you prefer, investments, on the order of trillions of US dollars per year. The GDRs framework (which I helped to author) is designed to illustrate what would actually be fair, when it comes to apportioning these costs between nations.

Not that fairness is the key to realism, but it sure is a crucial foundation stone. And it’s one to which we will have to attend if we wish to engage all nations in a global emergency mobilization

Not that fairness is the key to realism, but it sure is a crucial foundation stone. And it’s one to which we will have to attend if we wish to engage all nations in a global emergency mobilization. To that end, the GDRs framework, though strongly rooted in principles of justice, is extremely pragmatic. Its assertion that people have a ‘right to sustainable development’ is fundamentally an appeal to realism. Unless the climate treaty explicitly preserves such a right, developing country negotiators may quite justifiably insist that they have more to lose than to gain from any earnest engagement with a global agreement that, after all, will significantly curtail access to the energy sources and technologies that historically enabled growth in the industrialized world. There’s much more than this to justice, of course, and more to politics as well, but the core of the GDRs approach is the simple proposition that the poor must, at a minimum, be excused from the burdens of the climate transition, and that, in this way at least, fairness will be decisive.

The trick, in sorting this all out, is that ‘the poor’ and ‘the South’ are not at all the same. Making this distinction in a disciplined manner is key to the GDRs approach. It is based on putting into practice the principles, agreed through the UN climate talks, of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities’. GDRs thus takes both ‘historical responsibility’ and national ‘capacity to pay’ into explicit account.

Figure 1: Capacity to pay These curves show income distributions within India, China, and the US. The green areas represent incomes above a $20 per person per day ‘development threshold.’ Income below that threshold is excluded when we calculate national capacity to pay for climate action.

For example, Figure 1 which illustrates the ‘capacity to pay’ of three key countries.

National capacity to pay must of course be calculated in a reasonable way. Prevailing calculations that ignore income disparities within countries in favour of average per-capita incomes tend to allow the rich to ‘hide behind the poor’. A far better approximation of social reality emerges when you define a ‘development threshold’ (our research indicates that, in general, $20 a day, in purchasing power parity terms, is needed to support basic human development) and use it to exclude the ‘subsistence income’ of the poor from estimates of national capacity to act. So as Figure 1 shows, based on these calculations, while China and the US have similar levels of total emissions, the US can far better afford to bear the costs of reducing them.

Figure 2: Responsibility. Cumulative CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion between 1990-2010. The green portion shows emissions that correspond to consumption above the development threshold, which we take as a good proxy for historical responsibility.

We’ve done the same sort of calculation with respect to historical responsibility. Excluding emissions from consumption that is below the development threshold yields very different measures of responsibility than the prevailing approach of treating ‘subsistence’ and ‘luxury’ emissions as being ethically and politically equivalent. This is clear in the comparison of Japan and India in Figure 2. Their post-1990 cumulative emissions are quite similar, but compare just the green areas (our definition of responsibility) and the picture snaps into a very different focus.

Rich to the fore

The details of all this are outside the scope of this article, but the point is not. It is the world’s relatively wealthy minority, and not ‘the North’, that will have to step to the fore. It is we, after all, that have the responsibility for the climate crisis and the capacity to solve it. Whether we live in the industrialized or the developing world, we’re the ones who must bear the costs of the transition, not only by curbing the emissions associated with our own consumption, but also by ensuring that, as people in the ‘underdeveloped world’ rise into the global middle class, they are able to do so along sustainable, low-emission paths.

Within the international climate regime, this implies a strict, legally binding, two-fold obligation. First, we in the North must commit to deep reductions in our own domestic emissions. Second, we must support (through financial and technological transfers) an extremely rapid clean energy transition in the developing world, and, of course, the adaptation necessary to minimize greenhouse-related damages and suffering. Such obligations, inconvenient though they may be, follow from our outsized historical responsibility and wealth – and, to generalize just a bit, everybody knows it.

Which brings us back to where we began – the suggestion, that the new realism we need, the realism of the greenhouse age, is closely linked with the ancient virtue of human solidarity. Indeed, that the one will not stand without the other. A great deal will depend on the willingness of the world’s rich to recognize that fulfilling their international obligations is in their own self-interest – though, somehow, we may doubt that they will rise to the occasion under the goad of self-interest alone. The background, here as throughout the multi-sided crisis that is now overtaking us, is solidarity, international as well as domestic, and our willingness to see that we’re all facing the future together.

See www.ecoequity.org/GDRs for much more information.

Tom Athanasiou is a longtime left-green critic, Director of EcoEquity and co-developer of the Greenhouse Development Rights framework with the Stockholm Environment Institute. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and reports.

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