So, now that the dust is starting to settle….What has Paris accomplished? (Part one)

The Paris Agreement has now been in place for close to two weeks.  After an initial flurry of headlines and blogs, the issue receded from most media headlines by the end of last week.    Commentaries ranged from characterizing Paris as a “magnificent failure” (Eric Reguly of The Globe and Mail, December 18, 2015) to the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres referring to it as “….a decisive turning point inscribed into history….”.  One thing that cannot be denied was the masterful and courteous service provided by the French hosts : from President Hollande’s orchestration of the leaders’ summit at the beginning of CoP 21, to Foreign Affairs’ Minister Fabius impeccable diplomatic skills in corralling 170 plus countries (with the interesting exception of Nicaragua) around an agreement to the efficient, effective and impeccably friendly service provided by security and all other support personnel at the Bourget CoP site.

Nor can there be any doubt that the agreement in Paris represents a ‘game changer’ in at least one respect – virtually ALL countries have now agreed to take national actions to reduce GHG emissions.  For those of us who have followed these negotiations for more than two decades, it is difficult to exaggerate the enormity of this development.  In fact, the very terms “Annex 1” and “non-Annex 1 Parties” are not mentioned once in the agreement.  Yes, there is still the expectation that developed countries will continue to “take the lead”, especially in financing, but the fact that all the globes’  economies have committed to take actions that will, in one form on another, work to put a price on carbon is an enormous step forward (even a strictly regulatory approach has the impact of putting a cost on GHG emissions).

What was most remarkable about this ‘tectonic shift’ in the negotiations’ architecture is its voluntary, ‘bottom up’ character: over 170 countries willingly submitted plans prior to Paris (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) exceeding all expectations.   Despite the continued rhetoric of ‘differentiation’ throughout the two weeks, it was clear that the concept was only sacrosanct to a hard core few (led by Malaysia and Venezuela in the Like Minded Developing Country negotiating group).  So, we can now safely say that the narrative coming out of Paris is that all major economies are now in the ‘mitigation’ train and the train has left the station.

Which, of course, begs the question: where is it headed? The ultimate destination is clear : holding the increase in the global average temperature to “well below 2 °C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels”.  What is not clear, is how countries are expected to get there. In a most informative blog by PWC’s Jonathan Grant, we are looking at decreasing the globe’s current carbon intensity rate of 1.3% per annum (2000 – 2014) to 6.3% every year until 2100 – five times our current rate – if we are to not exceed the 2° C.  And while the science on the impacts of 1.5 °C is particularly ominous for small island states and coastal cities, the prospects of not exceeding that mark is extremely slim: as the IPCC has confirmed with a current annual output of 50 Gigatonnes of GHG emissions per year, and with 500 Gt representing the total amount of GHG emissions that can be emitted before 1.5 is breached (thanks to Axel Michaelowa for reprising IPCC’s work on this), there simply is no room for reaching the lower global temperature mark, particularly given that major developing countries only intend to peak their emissions by 2030, at the earliest.

The only way in which the world’s economies are able to ‘turn on a dime’ to meet such ambitious global temperature targets is via the market place and private financing.  Was the signal provided at Paris strong enough to significantly change mainstream investment decisions?  It is one thing for the Sustainable Development unit in each of the investment houses to mouth the appropriate ‘green’ signals; for investment to truly turn the corner, it must provide venture funds in new technologies and practices the likes of which have never been seen before.

Mission Innovation, the industry-major economies initiative to promote and support breakthrough energy technologies is one such important step.  But infinitely more critical will be the behaviour and financing decisions that take place in domestic banks in each country: the mobilization of private domestic resources will be THE indicator in signalling a sea change in financing development.  With respect to extractive industries, this will not mean closing down operations tomorrow: however, what it should mean are sufficiently robust carbon prices that will work to finance low GHG emissions solutions, including of course, carbon capture and storage.  And it should also mean a strategic examination of how and which resources and technologies will be required to supply the net carbon zero future.

The other important consideration is the extent to which the comprehensive Paris agreement works to allay competitiveness concerns, commonly referred to as ‘carbon leakage’ where investments will naturally flow to those jurisdictions without regulatory/GHG pricing policies in place.  While all major economies have submitted INDCs, it is also evident that the relative aspiration of country’s mitigation plans vary considerably – China is committing to peak its emissions not before 2030, while India has not indicated any plans to peak their emissions at this point.  Is the Paris Agreement an effective ‘first step’ in equaling the playing field or a mere ruse by continuing to provide some economies with decided competitiveness advantages?

Finally, there are at least 3 areas of the global economy that remain curiously overlooked in the climate change negotiations: international airline travel, international shipping and agriculture.  Regarding the first two areas, very tentative progress is being made in their multilateral homes – IMO and ICAO – and one would expect that the issue of whether sufficient progress is being made would be a topic for discussion in future UNFCCC sessions.

Agriculture is an entirely different matter – the issue of overlooking agriculture’s contribution in addressing climate change has gone on far too long in the climate negotiations.  With over 100 INDCs including agriculture and their relevant GHG emissions as part of their mitigation plans, the multilateral climate community can no longer ignore developing appropriate guidelines and methodologies for this critical sector.

At the end of the day, while Paris represents a significant success in fundamentally changing the architecture of the negotiations, one can only be humbled by the challenge that faces us all.  Certainly, there would have been virtually no prospect of success without the kind of agreement that was reached December 12.  However, there is every right to wonder whether it will be enough: despite this having taken over 20 years, we have only passed the easy part.  I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that represents a ‘magnificent failure’ or a ‘brave beginning’.

An ensuing piece will follow, examining some of the critical articles that make up the Paris Agreement.

A New Direction for Canada at Paris and Beyond

The election of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal team has brought a sense of excitement and anticipation across the nation, even reaching beyond Canada’s borders, with many observers and national governments expecting Canada to play a more proactive role on a host of international issues – not the least of which is the upcoming climate change conference in Paris.  The challenge for the government is not only to show a new ‘face’ at Paris, which I am sure they will be able to accomplish without too much trouble.  After all, thanks to the entirely cynical, defensive and non-transparent approach of the previous government, they have a very low bar to hurdle.

Nor should it be exclusively focused on whether, and by how much, Canada should increase its current ambition of reducing its GHG emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  There is an oddly schizophrenic discussion taking place on Canada’s INDC: on the one hand, it is being roundly criticized as being one of the least ambitious targets of any developed country, while on the other, all serious economic modeling has shown that the costs in reaching such a target, particularly if this target is to be met through domestic actions alone, would be amongst the highest of any other nation’s INDC.  My view is that the government should first focus on a feasible plan for how Canada can reach its current commitments (including the purchase of international credits), implement it and be relatively assured that it is on course to meet that goal, before we consider adopting more ambitious reductions.   I am not saying that Canada should stay there, but that the first priority is to establish credibility.  To agree to even more stringent targets at Paris when we have no clear idea how to meet our current ones will do the opposite.

In any case, simply addressing Canada’s INDC will not be enough in ‘righting’ Canada’s place in the UNFCCC negotiations.  It needs to be appreciated that Canada had already been criticized for its performance in these negotiations well before the Harper regime took the helm – too often Canadian delegations focused on finding ways to ‘play’ the international climate regime to meet its Kyoto target rather than actually putting in place effective climate legislation in place back at home (to be fair, this state of affairs was more the case during Jean Chretien’s term as Prime Minister than it was under Paul Martin).  So it’s not only a matter of assuring the world that the Liberals are back, but that a very different sort of Liberal regime has taken the helm: one that will demonstrate serious intent at home and be a constructive contributor internationally.

It is on the last consideration that I wish to focus: what, beyond targets and financing, can Canada do to play a long lasting formative role in the UNFCCC negotiations AFTER Paris?  As I have noted in my previous blogs (see drexhage.ca website) Canada, along with Australia and Norway, is unique amongst OECD countries for its reliance on natural resource development for its economic prosperity.  While Canada may be a relative minority amongst OECD countries in that respect, it is very much the opposite dynamic with non-OECD, or developing, countries.   Virtually all the major economic players in the developing world rely, and will continue to do so over the foreseeable future, on the extraction and refinement of their resources to meet economic goals.

What about Canada recognizing and embracing this state of affairs and use it as a bridge building tool with developing countries?  Norway has already embarked down the path of recognizing the global debt it owes as a result of the wealth it has accumulated from the development of its gas and oil fields by embarking on, and implementing, aggressive domestic GHG reduction targets, while providing significant financial resources to help developing countries address climate change, for example in developing the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and (Land) Degradation (REDD) program.  Canada could do some of the same by, for example, helping developing countries (particularly Least Developed Countries) pursue opportunities in the agricultural sector to build soil resilience/productivity while also mitigating related GHG emissions.

But even more of a  game changer would be Canada taking charge in leading a global discussion on how resource based economies, covering developed and developing countries, can play a more effective role in significantly reducing global emissions through the contributions of natural resource development.  In other words, how can we develop our resources in such a way that they help to provide the tools required to reduce global emissions?  We have tried to address this issue from a lens that simply cannot square the circle of growing resource based economic development while simultaneously expecting absolute GHG reductions from those same activities.

For instance, the sustainable production and application of fertilizers will be a much more effective tool in reducing global GHG emissions by stemming pressure for deforestation than in a narrow approach that would look to simply mitigate GHG emissions by halting fertilizer production processes.

Another illustration: most analysts recognize that a net zero carbon future will require the ‘decarbonization’ of the power and transportation sectors.  But that does not occur without the increased extraction and development of a wide range of resources: from copper to platinum to, yes, even metallurgical coal (the latter is a core element in the production of all wind turbines).

Of course, effectively addressing climate change by these countries cannot only be met by redirecting resource development to serve ‘net zero carbon’ goals.  Delinking GHG emissions from economic growth will be required and resource based economies will be strongly challenged to effectively manage these new directions.

At this point, the fact remains that the most rapidly growing economies in developing countries are fundamentally reliant on resource development for their prosperity, their development planners have no intent on limiting such opportunities but that it precisely these countries (including their counterparts in the OECD) that will be the most responsible for future global GHG emissions growth.   And for those who would claim that the submission of 150 INDCs is evidence that countries are ready to make the fundamental changes required, keep in mind that, according to World Energy Outlook, that significant, long term investments in low carbon technologies, such as large hydro, carbon capture and storage, or alternative vehicle fuels acceleration (advanced biofuels, electric vehicles etc.) are rarely mentioned.

The world would be well served by a Canada that dares enter into and facilitate these sensitive issues – the first step being initiating an informal dialogue amongst the many major economies that comprise the resource based economies club.    The fact that the vast majority of these nations have already submitted INDCs indicates their intent to want to play a constructive role.  Initiating such a dialogue with an overtly positive intent to address climate change while being realistic about current economic and development realities and prospects for ‘net zero’ directions would demonstrate to the world that we indeed are on a truly transitional path forward.

Has Climate Change Become a Policy Bully?

Earlier this month, the New Yorker magazine posted a provocative article by Jonathan Franzen, entitled “Carbon Capture: Has Climate Change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” (link to http://nyr.kr/1EGzNYs for full article) in which he makes a strong argument for how the issue of climate change policy has marginalized other environmental issues – in this case, conservation, particularly related to birds.  I have noted in my previous blogs that the issue of climate change has potentially done much more than that – not only other environmental issues appear to have been brushed aside, but the much broader remit of sustainable development appears to have been affected.

One indication of that is the relatively massive amount of attention being paid to the climate change negotiations leading up to Paris later this year when compared to the negotiations for launching a comprehensive global sustainable development agenda.  The latter is due to be launched in New York in September, when all the world’s leaders will be assembling to sign off on this potentially transformative initiative.  Not only is there all too scant attention being paid to the Post-2015 Time for Action: For People and Planet, the two processes appear to be barely aware of one another, or at least, there is little, if any, recognition of the relevance of the post 2015’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the climate negotiating process.  To give but one example: in the mandate for all countries to develop Indicative National Development Contributions (INDCs) – which is ‘climate speak’ for countries being expected to list actions and targets they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – there is NO reference made to how the development of nationally driven INDCs will take into account the Sustainable Development Goals being developed under the post 2015 process.

Yes, climate change is listed as one of the SDGs, but it has a limited focus around adaptation and makes it clear that whatever is developed is to be superseded by the results of the climate negotiations.   Should it not be the other way around?  Namely, that commitments on climate change need to be developed and implemented in the broader context of what should be complementary obligations in the post 2015 SD negotiations, where the full remit of human development, including good governance, sustainable prosperity and social equity is addressed?

As I, with Deborah Murphy, noted in a background paper prepared for the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability in 2010 (Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012) the problem with the concept of sustainable development has, and in many cases, continues to be, its amorphous nature, at times so ill defined it is used to justify an entire litany of actions and policies that could hardly be described as sustainable.  As someone who has been steeped in the issue of climate change over 20 years – from national and regional policy development to climate risk in developing countries and the international negotiations themselves – climate change was compelling because it was so much more concrete in its remit than the work of, for example, the Commission for Sustainable Development.  In fact, I viewed climate change as the ‘concrete manifestation of sustainable development’: that actions taken to address climate change were the same sort of policies and measures that would successfully lead the transition to a more sustainable future for all.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that simply addressing climate change – in isolation from the broader story of human development – is dangerously naive.  Franzen’s article is a compelling testament to some of its (unintended no doubt) impacts on conservation.  The same could be said of its potential impact on resource development and economic growth, unless it is managed in a much more sophisticated manner than has been heretofore the case.  And if it is not, then we will see the same dynamic to the planet’s and the people’s detriment.  Simply put, there is a huge gap between multilateral processes and national actions, because the former seldom effectively integrates domestic political and economic realities.  Can that gap be closed through the development of INDCs?  It can help, but not without being much more effectively embedded in the framework of the SDGs developed under the Post 2015 development agenda.

The real contribution of the Post-2015 process is that it is seeking a transitional agenda across the full spectrum of sustainable development with concrete goals, targets and indicators.  It is a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals, but with two critical differences:  it is focused on reframing these goals in the wider remit of sustainable development and it has universal application : ALL countries will be expected to implement these goals.

The current mode of human development is causing a host of urgent issues that need to be addressed – from species loss to fresh water access to growing issues around gender, social and economic inequity and meaningful employment.  Climate change often plays a role as a critical stress agent to these other growing risks, but only focusing on climate in addressing those issues is far from any kind of comprehensive solution.  To save birds, actions must be focused on conservation, defending aboriginal rights means addressing issues related to good governance.  Yes women and the poor are more victimized by climate change, but successfully addressing climate change is hardly the core of the solution to gender inequity or poverty eradication.  And yet, all too often climate change has become the de facto proxy for sustainable development, the politically attractive home for a host of other agendas —this was evident in Copenhagen and seems to be very much the case in the path leading to Paris.   The climate change negotiations is not the forum for effectively addressing these issues: the post 2015 agenda is.

The climate change regime has made an invaluable contribution in setting the standard for elevating one aspect of sustainable development to the political fore.  There is much to be learned from that experience that can be utilized in designing and implementing the broader remit of sustainable development.   But now is the time for it to take its rightful place.  The climate change negotiations can only benefit from a broadened discussion that is informed by the integrative thinking of sustainable development. For example, mitigation could be addressed within a broader discussion of energy, land use and economic growth. Adaptation could benefit from a broader understanding of “resilient  (and not just climate resilient) development”; and measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) talks could be addressed in the context of a broader appreciation of issues related to “transparency and accountability.”  This should also help to ‘chip’ at the seemingly impenetrable wall of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities by seeking ways beyond the entirely fruitless ‘development vs environment’ paradigm.

What would all this mean?  At the international level, once an agreement has (hopefully) been hammered out in Paris, it should be formally adopted under the post 2015 SDGs and made accountable primarily in that framework.  Future work of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) should address explicit linkage issues between climate change and other SDGs, for example, relating to energy access and water access and quality, to mention but two.  At the national level, there should be an direct link developed between the further development of INDCs and their impact on the implementation of other SDGs.

In 2007, in its Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC  (Sathaye et al., 2007, p. 699) states that “It is no longer a question of whether climate change policy should be understood in the context of sustainable development goals; it is a question of how.”  This blog is simply reminding us of that remit and a few hopefully helpful suggestions on how to begin making that real.  It is not intended to compromise the climate change agenda and the last thing it is intended to do is to cast aspersions on the science of climate change – far from it, it is only by addressing this issue “in the full context of sustainable development” does it have any chance of long lasting success.

 

Connecting the dots: the Climate Summit and Sustainable Development Goals

Last week in New York City was quite an experience for those of us fortunate enough to be there:  300,000 plus marching for taking effective action to address climate change; national and sub-national governments and over 1,000 companies signing on to a well orchestrated effort by the World Bank to push for pricing carbon; announcements by investors to divest themselves of financing fossil fuel related activities; and, strong commitments by some countries to augment developing countries’  capacity to adapt to climate change impacts, to name a few.

Most media reports and blogs are declaring the Summit a success, with Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, stating that it represented a “ground shifting moment” in addressing climate change.

Lost in all the attention paid to global warming was the opening of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, whose major order of business over the next year will be defining the post 2015 agenda for sustainable development.  IN ALL THE MANY COMMENTARIES PROVIDED ON THE CLIMATE SUMMIT, I HAVE YET TO FIND ONE THAT EXPLICITLY EXAMINED THE IMPLICATIONS OF CLIMATE COMMITMENTS ON THE WIDER SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AGENDA.

It is as if the two processes are happy to progress in splendid isolation.   Yes, there is a cursory inclusion of climate change as one of 16 goals in the draft text on Sustainable Development Goals, essentially deferring to the UNFCCC as the relevant multilateral decision making body on global warming.  But scant attention has been paid to the ‘uncomfortable truth ‘that a number of other key SDGs related to economic growth and tackling poverty will be challenging (to put it mildly) to achieve with the radical greenhouse gas reductions required to avoid the earth warming beyond 2 °C.  SD goals.

I am not predetermining what the results of a real conversation about the links between SDGs and climate might look like.  Simply noting that, under existing development models and practices, economic growth, poverty eradication and expanding energy access will complicate the global climate picture would be a constructive start.  In that respect, I would commend the work of the Frederik S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer Range Future that examines the implications of each of the Sustainable Development Goals for actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Money is another issue: are we seriously contemplating a scenario next year when there will be decisions on providing global financing for climate change and sustainable development separately?

Part of the problem is institutional: climate change negotiations emanate out of Bonn, SDGs, New York.  Theoretically, the two should merge in the UN’s General Secretary’s office, but it has yet to effectively occur.  2015 is going to be a critical year for sustainable development: climate change needs to be an integral part of that and not continue to exist as a separate solitude.

Karl Popper and Climate Change: Chapter 3

Following off my two previous blogs on Popper’s approach to public policy, what would be the implications of his approach for tackling climate change at the global level?   Climate change has been accurately branded as one of the most complex and challenging environmental and economic issues facing the international community today, and the typical approach has been to try and find solutions through a mega-deal involving all nations, addressing a vast array of issues.  The United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has become the sacrosanct home for reaching such a ‘mega-deal’, usually with limited results.  In fact, since the Kyoto Protocol, this multilateral approach has been unsuccessful in finding a viable way forward.

Is such a course the only way forward?  What if Paris collapses under the weight of unrealistic expectations?  Looking through the lens of Popper, I would submit that continuing to rely on the expectation of some sort of politically contrived  ‘mega-deal’ is a way forward fraught with risks and follies.  Even if such a global, comprehensive agreement were to be reached, it would soon unravel at the implementation stage, with too little consideration having been given to the unintended consequences from trying to engineer such a complex pact.

Nor should we forget the accumulation of negotiating ‘hubris’ in these negotiations over the last twenty years, in no small part, fueled by the founding principles of the UNFCCC.  Under most circumstances, principles are helpful ‘markers’ that can work to provide a useful framework for developing effective agreements.  The principles established in the UNFCCC, for the most part, have done the very opposite.

The three related principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, recognizing the ‘special circumstances’ of developing countries and the right to sustainable development in reality has resulted in paralysis in the negotiations:  developed countries state they cannot take on deep, unilateral mitigation targets for competitiveness reasons, while developing countries (led by China and OPEC in particular) hide under the ‘cover’ of the G-77 and China negotiating bloc to absolve themselves of any international obligation to reduce their emissions.  Even the fifth principle, expressing support for the international economic and trading regimes, is mostly invoked to deter any discussions on best practices for fear it may used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for protectionism on the part of developed countries. Sadly, the one principle left standing and which is actually a constructive contribution to the process – the precautionary approach, which states that the lack of certainty should not be used a rationalization for waiting to take actions to address climate change, is the principle least raised in the negotiations.

Let me be clear – for the purposes of this discussion, I am completely agnostic as to the normativity of these principles. My lens is effectiveness, and from that perspective no objective analysis could conclude that the principles have been a useful starting point for addressing climate change. And I left out the one overriding tenet that while not formally part of the UNFCCC founding principles is a core precept of the negotiations: namely, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, meaning that even where progress has been made – for example in the terms of reference for Reduced Emissions for Land Degradation and Deforestation (REDD) – it cannot come into effect without a ‘mega-deal’ covering dozens of contentious issues that have avoided any solutions for the last twenty years.

So what then might be the way forward?  In a word, simplify: simplify the actors, the issues and the mandate of the UNFCCC.  First of all, on the issue of actors, while the issue is undoubtedly global, the responsibility (in terms of emissions) can be easily identified.  There can be no prospect of an effective global treaty without first having China and the U.S., the two largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters, showing leadership in the process.  So in effect, we should cease to continue multilateral discussions on defining mitigation targets (and the terms for how such target can be determined) until such time that we first have a G-2 agreement on their respective contributions.  At Copenhagen, we saw a tentative agreement between the U.S. and major developing economies, led by China, setting national voluntary targets as the outcome of those talks. For Paris, we should look to the U.S. and China to first come in with national targets and a platform for co-operation on an outcome that then opens the door for other major economies and emitters to submit their contributions.

On issues, the process should treat topics as discretely and concretely as possible, allowing for agreements to be reached on areas where progress can be made with mandates for implementation prior to the conclusion of any ‘mega-deal’.  The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (one of the two major bodies established under the UNFCCC) should actually reflect its name and follow the example of the Montreal Protocol in providing a platform for providing expert advice around those issues.  Obvious candidates for immediate implementation include, inter alia, REDD, black carbon, methane mitigation, adaptation, technology co-operation and reporting modalities.

Finally on the UNFCCC itself, a significant ‘re-boot’ is in order.  In terms of institution building, it has undoubtedly been one of the most successful UN bodies over the last 20 years.  One might almost conclude that the lack of substantive progress in the negotiations has been absolved, in the minds of Parties, by establishing a myriad of ‘sub-secretariats’.   The UNFCCC needs to rediscover its roots and exclusively focus on being the home for negotiations and reporting on Parties’ progress in meeting their commitments.  Areas of implementation, such as market based mechanisms, climate financing, technology cooperation, adaptation and REDD, should find homes outside of the UNFCCC and the proclivities of politicized negotiators.

In the next blog, I will examine the implications of Popper’s lens of ‘limited engineering’ on public policy for nationally based actions to address climate change.  Until then, please feel free to express your views!

Here’s to a future climate regime that is actually effective.

Karl Popper and Climate Change: Chapter 2

Apologies for not having posted a blog for over two months: as I am sure many readers are very aware, life keeps on interrupting one’s best intentions.  In the previous blog, I introduced Karl Popper and how his thoughts on public policy (mostly found in his piece entitled, The Poverty of Historicism) provides some useful lessons for those who have been keenly working on developing effective climate policies, alas, with relatively paltry results.

Popper notes that developing policy is too often dominated by what he terms as “holistic” approaches.  As someone whose academic background and interest is in the ‘synthetic’ philosophical tradition of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, et. al., I was first taken aback by his sharp criticisms of the holistic approach.  In fact, one of the reasons that I found climate change as a public policy issue so fascinating was the fact that an appropriate response to its anthropogenic causes called for a multi dimensional, integrated response, involving virtually all human economic and industrial activities.

I was fond of saying how climate change, if properly addressed, represented the concrete manifestation of sustainable development.  The latter term has always bothered me: while originally compelling, as laid out in the Brundtland Commissions Report of 1987 (Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), it has since degenerated into an almost meaningless phrase used to justify virtually every form of development. Climate change, or so I thought, helped to bring clarity and substance to the SD concept.

The danger of taking such a grandiose approach to developing an appropriate policy response to climate change is two fold: it does not allow for social learning and it can too easily turn the effort into a closed ideology.  By insisting that addressing climate change calls for a fundamental change in human development and behaviour it enters the ‘slippery slope’ of developing all consuming approaches that are doomed to failure.  Why? Because, the holistic or utopian approach can simply not account for the myriad of unintended consequences that are the inevitable outcome.

In contrast, Popper promotes a piecemeal or technological framework that is not unlike the approach natural scientists use in verifying physical laws/theories.   That is not to say that there will not be unintended consequences from the latter approach: of course there will, but now the social scientist will focus on anticipating them and the more manageable the policy initiative, in terms of its scope, the greater the likelihood the consequences can be addressed.  Secondly, the sorts of policies and measures intended to address fundamental patterns of human development require a strong iterative approach with civil society, one that is open to change, even in its fundamental tenets of what constitutes effective change.

Popper puts it this way: “The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he (or she of course) knows.  He knows that we can only learn from our mistakes.  Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unavoidable, unwanted consequences of any reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which make it impossible for him to disentangle causes and effects….” (Poverty of Historicism, Chapter 21: Piecemeal vs Utopian Engineering).

The implications for climate policy in today’s political environment is telling: in the current reality of 24 hour zero sum media coverage, developing any public policy, let alone policy on such a contentious and complex issue, is more than challenging.  Both sides of the debate stake their positions at ever-higher points of brinkmanship eroding the credibility of the entire debate.  There is a way out, but it does call for some humility on the side of all those seeking effective solutions.

The ‘piecemeal’ approach is decidedly not an apology for the status quo: it looks to effect change where it can be most effective and where it can lead to further developments in the fight against the threat of human induced climate change.  It is the utopian approach that leads to paralysis, since any such grand upheaval will inevitably to strong resistance and (as already noted) a myriad of consequences which any social engineer will be unprepared.

My next blog will look more in-depth at what those solutions might look like, at both international and national levels.  For now I would offer the following points for the readers’ reflection.  On the multilateral front, I believe it calls for a fundamental re-think on how we are framing the issue.  We need to develop avenues that will allow for progress in specific areas where it is possible, and not hold them hostage to the tired adage, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.  At national levels, it requires an engagement with civil society that speaks to their priorities and insecurities around their current and future (and their children’s) well-being.  Too often, national policies have been developed (or not) between government and industrial elites without the acknowledgement that it is the consumer/civil society  that will be ultimately implicated in any future course.  This is where the learning, on the part of the policy developer, must start.

 

Thoughts Karl Popper May Have Had About Climate Change

In August, 2007, I attended one of the innumerable international climate change negotiations that have taken place over the last 20 plus years.  This one was being held in Vienna, Austria and these particular sessions were held in preparation for the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, specifically focusing on additional commitments by Annex 1 Parties under the Kyoto Protocol and a dialogue on long term cooperative action to address climate change.

Sounds rather drab, doesn’t it?  Well, in fact, it was very much the opposite.   The talks took on an almost ‘Alice in Wonderland’ quality with the rhetoric completely out of synch with reality.  This was epitomized by an impassioned intervention by a government delegate for Sudan (this was at the height of the Darfur crisis) calling for equity, democracy, decency and justice for all.  The reaction?   Most members of the NGO community leapt to their feet and provided a standing ovation for a few minutes.   I remember thinking, “has rationality completely left this process “?

I then noticed above the entryway that the conference room was named in commemoration of Karl Popper, a brilliant Austrian philosopher from last century who played a critical role in reviving the legitimacy of scientific and logical inquiry in the aftermath of two calamitous world wars.  In simpler words, he was a most eloquent apologist for common sense and managed to apply it in so many ways, including public policy.  So it struck me – what would Herr Popper have to say about climate change and developing appropriate policy responses to it (besides rolling over in his grave if he were privy to  much of the climate change negotiations)?

It turns out, he has quite a lot to say.  In a piece to follow, I will speak to the relevance of his approach on scientific inquiry to the ongoing debate around the physical veracity of climate change.   In this blog, I will begin speaking to his thoughts on public policy and its relevance for the climate and broader sustainable development debate.

In my first blog I talked about the challenges of sustainable development, particularly when attempting to implement it through public policies and measures.  Popper’s response to this would be that too often public policy designers typically believe in the predictive qualities of social science. In fact, the empirical evidence shows public policy initiatives are far from failsafe in providing the expected results – we only have to witness the roll out of so called ‘Obama Care’ last year in the US.  This is not to say that there is no role for public policies in areas of common welfare.  Of course there is, but the lessons of climate policy and public pricing signals reiterate the need to appreciate the complexities involved in implementing effective policies.

Popper states that the first objective of social science is to “trace the unintended social repercussions of intentional human actions” [1] (which of course very much includes public policy).  For those of us involved in climate policy development, it is hardly controversial to say that the overwhelming modus operandi was an assumption in the overwhelming predictive and positive effects of well intended climate policies. This naiveté has worked to set back effective actions to address this real threat for decades – and has given the naysayers more than enough ammunition to further deter meaningful progress.

Future policy development must be wiser about its limitations and the need to enter the process through a model of what I call ‘participatory trial and error’.   It must also start with some simple postulations that would help define the parameters of what is – and is not – possible in effectively addressing climate change and other impacts of human activities on Gaia.

My next blog will further explore some of these issues.  The time spent over the last 30 years has seen few results and results that are far from sufficient in effectively addressing so called ‘planetary boundaries’.  It is time we all took a step back and learned from our mistakes.  Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity:  trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.


[1] See Prediction and Prophecy in the Social Sciences, a lecture delivered at the 10th International Congress of Philosophy. Amsterdam, 1948.

Is there a sustainable way forward?

Sustainable development – a phrase that has gained resonance in the corridors of governments, multilateral institutions and corporate boardrooms and has become the dominant slogan of virtually all non-government organizations, particularly those focused on environmental issues.   It is a concept that has been the focus of many discussions and negotiations for over forty years.

Accomplishments have been made – witness the phenomenal growth in SD reporting by all major private and public institutions globally over the last few decades.  It will be the predominant issue for the UN over the next few years as it develops global Sustainable Development Goals for the post 2015 generation.

And yet, the major signposts of what SD is supposed to stand for – enhanced environmental protection, economic growth that enhances resources for future generations and addresses equity gaps, fair and transparent governance regimes – is all too often falling far behind in too many countries.

Even when progress is made, it is often done so for reasons purely rooted in market forces with little, if any, reference to SD goals.  One of the more interesting examples being the rapid reduction in absolute greenhouse gas emissions in the United States over the last few years – mostly due to the growing competitiveness of natural gas resources there, replacing coal fired utilities, which carries its own potential issues.

All too often we have seen the unintended impacts of well meaning policies that work to exacerbate problems – witness various biofuel subsidy programs that threaten food security while doing little to actually reduce overall emissions.

And then there is the ‘elephant’ in the room – consumer behavior.   The model for development, particularly for the middle class globally, is cars, suburbs and perishable goods.   Is this model sustainable over the long term?   What is the balance between technology, planning and behavior in reaching an appropriate future?  If it is too late to change the model for developed countries, is it fair to expect expect people in developing countries to compromise their wishes?

There are lessons to be learned here.  Linkages between policy making and actual results is much more complex than most envisioned.  Indicators of progress remain staunchly entrenched: GDP growth remains the be all and end all, despite the use of SD indicators in stock exchanges like the NYSE.   Global carbon price signals remain dangerously weak, despite rising concerns by investment firms of the long term implications of potential ‘stranded assets’ on the part of fossil fuel industries.

While many, including yours truly, believe that SD offers a new paradigm of integration between the forces of economics, social progress and environmental protection there is no question that it carries impacts that, at least over the short term, concretely affect livelihoods.  It is not a simple panacea and to cast it as such does everyone a disservice.  But to not face those challenges and find ways forward is equally delusional.

In future blogs, I will be taking an eclectic approach to these fascinating issues, with one theme – there are no ‘magic bullets’ to be found, but that does not mean profound progress cannot be made.  I look forward to your feedback.  And here’s hoping for a truly sustainable future.