The Climate Change Summit in Paris is a Negotiation Not a Trial

Great issues of our time have been resolved through high profile trials - desegregation in the United States by Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka, crimes against humanity by the Nuremberg trials, and the “Scopes monkey trial” on the teaching of creationism.

Climate change is not one of those issues. The scientific jury has come back: 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.

The issue in Paris, where politicians and officials from some 187 countries are meeting, is what action they can agree to take to stop the emission of harmful CO2 and other gases that will lead to global warming.

That is not the arena to debate the arguments over whether mankind is causing climate change: we can leave that to the ludicrous debates for the nomination of US Republican presidential candidate.

The point of Paris is to somehow find an agreement between countries that have different views on what should be done and who should do it - even if they agree on the science.

Rich countries in America and Europe have agreed to cut emissions: the European Union by 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, and the US by 26%-28% by 2025 compared with 2005.

Unlike previous climate summits, Paris is supposed to induce emission cuts in all countries including the 130 developing countries that include China. Many of those have focused on reducing their carbon intensity - the average emission rate of a given pollutant from a given source relative to the intensity of a specific activity.

Some developing countries, notably India, believe that developing countries need to enjoy the sort of industrial growth that the West enjoyed without focusing in cutting pollution.

Narendra Modi, the India prime minister, has put it in terms of “climate justice”. As he wrote in the FT: “Justice demands that, with what little carbon we can still safely burn, developing countries are allowed to grow. Advanced countries powered their way to prosperity on fossil fuels when humanity was unaware of its impact.”

Caught in the middle are small nations, and particularly island states, which do not contribute much to pollution but may well literally disappear if global temperatures rise by 4 deg C rather than the target of 1.5-2.0 deg C and sea levels rise rapidly.

WE CAN LEAVE ARGUMENTS OVER CLIMATE SCIENCE TO THE US REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE DEBATES

Somehow countries with very different views need to find a resolution to this complex ethical problem. As this is a United Nations conference agreement has to be unanimous.

Someone who has looked at this is Professor Shahzad Ansari at the Judge Business School at Cambridge University, who is interested in how what he calls ethical truces emerge in “equivocal situations”.

The key to finding these agreements is to give all sides an opportunity to present their cases and then to discus the positions they hold relative to the general context of the debate - the need to reduce carbon emissions in this case.

As they listen to other people’s positions they understand the differences in the viewpoints and work towards finding a way to reach a compromise. They do not abandon their moral positions but refine their interpretation of the ethical issues and eventually find agreement.

But the danger is that countries stick to the moral positions which allows no room for an argument. In that case eventually there may not be much of a planet to hold a debate. A great pocket cartoon in the FT looked ahead to the 20195 summit at Paris-sur-Mer.

With just a few days to go the outlook is positive as the position of the main emitting countries, the US and China, had come closer together to each others’ positions in the months leading up to Paris.

That was what went wrong in Copenhagen. By the end of the 12-day conference it was clear that by the time the leaders arrived on the last day the parties were as far apart as ever. They stuck to the moral positions with no time left to negotiate towards a compromise - however weak.

The conference became a trial - but one of strength between the US and China in which the environment was the only loser.

By this Friday time we will find out whether negotiators have learned from their mistakes.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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