Climate change is one of the most difficult challenges that humanity has faced. In order to have any chance to contain this problem, even with potentially civilization- and geography-changing prospects, we need to alter our consumption patterns and possibly our way of life.
But the pleasure from today’s choices and the painful consequences of those choices are separated by a 30-year lag.
People are asked to forgo the convenience of driving gas-guzzling cars and of taking exotic vacations at faraway places in anticipation of violent weather, warmer temperatures and rising seas happening in several decades. The fact that roughly one-third of adults around the world still smoke, despite dire warnings about severe health consequences, is a good indication about people’s ability to discount today’s pleasures in anticipation of future costs. In the case of smoking, both pleasure and pain are by and large personal.
In the case of global warming, however, forgone pleasure is personal, but the costs are universal and disrupt life for future generations. We are asked to forgo personal pleasure for the goal of preventing pain for people we likely will never meet. Sacrifice is required of all nations, and the temptation to cheat will be fierce.
On top of all this, the costs of changing habits are significant. We managed the pull off a similar collective action problem, ozone depletion, mainly because the necessary technological changes did not involve dramatic costs. In the case of fossil fuels, hydrocarbons are much more ubiquitous than chlorofluorocarbons, and the current costs of hydrocarbons are significantly less than their actual costs to environment. Therefore, a low carbon future is a much bigger challenge.
Now that the Cancun Climate Summit is around the corner, researchers and politicians will bombard the global public with claims and counterclaims about reductions from various base years – 1990, 2005 or 2010 – dizzying carbon-intensity pledges, and business-as-usual scenarios incommensurate with the eventual consequences. The language of energy production, land use and deforestation will be impenetrable. It would be a miracle if most people do not tune out.
Meanwhile, the fundamentals are disturbing: The globe already emits more greenhouse gases than are sustainable. If we do not find a way to curb global emissions, we may start a chain reaction where the Siberian permafrost releases methane and we lose ability to contain climate change at tolerable levels. Whether random or desperate, our leaders decided that capping temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius is the appropriate point between what’s ideal and what’s feasible. The global scientific community informs us that we already emit more than 40 gigatons of greenhouse gases, and if leaders are serious about the 2-degree Celsius target, those emissions must come down to 20 gigatons in 40 years. How to divide that limited capacity of 20 gigatons among a growing population that demands more comforts is the tricky issue.
Can there be a simple, universally acceptable rule of thumb that can guide such burden-sharing?
Doing unto others as we would want them do onto us has been the most resilient benchmark of decent conduct in human history. One can find similar tenets in Kant, the Bible’s old and new testaments, Africa’s ubuntu, Hinduism’s vasudheva kutumbakam and other philosophical and religious traditions.
Philosopher John Rawls gave us the most recent and creative methodology to apply this maxim. Rawls proposes that we agree upon the organizing principles for a society, hypothetically, in an initial position of equality, behind a “veil of ignorance,” which would keep any individuals or nations from knowing their position in society or their fortune in the distribution of assets and abilities. The point of this thought experiment is to ensure that organizing principles agreed to behind the veil of ignorance could not be designed to favor any particular condition. These principles would be the result of fair deliberation and agreement.
If nations were to apply the Rawlsian formula, a logical agreement arranged behind the veil of ignorance would be to distribute the safe level of greenhouse gases equally among all residents of our planet. This would require radical changes, and there could be a grace period of 10 years. Those wanting to emit more than their fair share after the grace period could do so only after establishing a sustainable, verifiable and measurable sequestering scheme or after receiving emission credits from others. Advanced societies could acquire emission credits through the provision of clean production, mitigation and adoption technologies to others, but the basic rule could not be negotiated.
This may seem farfetched in some powerful and intransigent corners of the worlds. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated clearly that every individual in the world is entitled to emit the same volume of carbon dioxide, and solution to climate change must be based on that fundamental maxim. She used the German presidency of G-8, as well as several United Nations meetings since 2007, to restate this bold idea. Taking cues from Merkel, then-President Horst Köhler argued that every human being on earth has, as a matter of principle, a right to an equal and restricted volume of CO2 emissions and that the process of climate change demonstrates how nations of the world depend on one another. In the 2010 report, “2 Degree Max Climate Strategy,” Merkel’s chief climate scientist, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, reiterates that an allocation principle of “one human-one emissions right” is the fair burden-sharing rule of thumb
Merkel is alone among leaders of advanced economies in stating the obvious. To appreciate Merkel’s audacity, one only needs to recall how we were told some years ago that the American way of life was not open to negotiation, regardless of what happens to others. Continued reluctance to face up to historical and current responsibilities lingers in other powerful capitals.
In effect, Merkel has told the rest of the affluent world that the emperor has no clothes – that our current way of life is unsustainable without lower and equalizing per capita emissions. This fact is impossible to unlearn or ignore for long. We may or may not achieve the equal per capita emissions maxim in the next few years, but this is the only maxim that has enough moral and popular gravitas to harness necessary global consensus. There are plenty of selfish, arbitrary, even barbaric reasons to oppose this maxim. But there is no globally legitimate and accepted reason. Anyone who opposes this maxim risks being branded as pariah for centuries.
Bringing our per capita emissions down to 2 tons per person by 2050 is a colossal task and will require multiple technological breakthroughs. To get the impressive forces of the markets and human ingenuity, we need a predictable framework of prices and market incentives. German political leaders and scientists have the most compelling proposals on how to deal with this Gordian knot. We need to listen to them and allow the urgent business of developing the technological advances to commence.
In 2009, the Nobel Committee apparently concluded that someone powerful speaking the truth after years of hubris and deceit by his predecessors was reason enough to be granted the Nobel Peace Prize. If this benchmark applies, Merkel has stated even more desperately the needed obvious fact that other powerful folks would rather not hear. She deserves our attention, respect, and the Nobel Peace Prize for her courage and determination to speak this vital truth to power.