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Multilateralism in the case of climate change

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This post is part of the Multilateralism and its critics debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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24 June 2011 14:14


This post is part of the Multilateralism and its critics debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

In an earlier post on multilateralism I argued that narrow framings lead to policy deadlock. This can help us understand the lack of progress in developing an international response to climate change.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as a policy issue only in terms of human activity having a 'dangerous' influence on climate. Thus it assumes that, not only is the distinction between human and naturally caused climate change knowable on the basis of science, but also that the question of what constitutes 'dangerous climate change' can be resolved scientifically.

As a consequence, the climate change debate has become extremely narrow in its scope, limited to unresolvable disagreement over one set of potential causes and outcomes, and one set of policy options in response to those highly uncertain outcomes and causes.

However, there are policy initiatives that not only would contribute to mitigating climate change but can also be justified independently of climate change science, thereby opening up much greater space for political negotiation and policy agreement. The climate change debate's unyielding focus on 'man-made' climate change has excluded such alternatives, or reduced them to a low order of priority.

Reframing climate change mitigation to focus on phasing out fossil fuel use rather than reducing carbon emissions, for example, would make uncertainty over human influence on the climate largely redundant in policy terms, since eliminating industrial carbon output would, in addition to reducing carbon levels, also help address a number of other uncontroversial, broadly recognised policy challenges ranging from energy security and competition to the health and environmental impacts of air pollution.

Adaptation measures such as more energy-efficient buildings and infrastructure, implemented alongside more careful urban planning, offer numerous benefits that would apply regardless of whether carbon emissions will cause higher sea levels to or more destructive weather events. And because the benefits of such measures are not dependent on the accuracy of climate science and its predictions, adopting such a change would also reduce the impact of climate science uncertainties on policy action, in addition to providing us with some insurance against being wrong in our assessments of human impact on climate.

These measures reframe the issue as an energy problem, and focus on the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy as the solution. Indeed, the possibility that GHG emissions are the major cause of global warming should stand as only one of several other equally compelling reasons for pursuing an accelerated shift away from fossil fuel reliance.

Aside from the obvious environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel use, oil in particular poses major challenges. In addition to the economic burden imposed by escalating oil prices, some examples of the risks and problems posed by its future scarcity include higher levels of exposure among developing economies to energy price rises, increasing energy competition between states, and financial and political support for dictatorial/authoritarian regimes in oil-rich states (eg. China's 'aid for energy deals' in Burma, Sudan, and elsewhere).

Focusing only on emissions reductions has been demonstrably unproductive, as the ongoing increase in global GHG emissions shows. This approach has also delayed the emergence of a clear policy response by limiting multilateral policy negotiations to a set of responses no government seems willing to pursue — climate change negotiations in their current form are essentially about governments attempting to talk each other into commitments that they themselves are reluctant to adopt.

'Developing clean energy' is a much more attractive and useful proposition than simply 'cutting emissions', even though both lead to basically the same outcome in relation to climate change mitigation. The problem is that no-one seems to see it that way!

Photo by Flickr user Chuck Coker.

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