Jan 1, 2010

Failure can be a beginning

We need a new approach to deal with climate change so that the world trundles along on a business-as-usual basis

By Pradeep S Mehta

With the end of Copenhagen talks and the delegates returning home nearly empty-handed, one can safely say that this much touted summit was, alas, a failure. It is not very difficult to diagnose the causes for this utter fiasco. Without going into the numbers game which was played at the summit, let us understand clearly that countries the world over, both rich and poor, still define their aspirations in terms of economic growth.

Proactive measures to mitigate climate change impacts based on reduction in emissions, however, requires tempering of growth aspirations which no country is yet willing to undertake. To resolve this conundrum, we need a new approach so that the world trundles along on a business-as-usual basis.

While it is natural for the developing world to promote economic growth, the reasons for rich countries pursuing the same are more subtle. While all rich countries enjoy a very high level of per capita income, by definition, incomes are still unevenly distributed and unemployment is rampant. Thus, even with the present high levels of average income, the level of satisfaction of wants is still low.

If people concentrated in the lower half of the income distribution are to pursue their economic dreams, these countries would have to continue growing as drastic redistribution is politically infeasible. This tendency is reinforced by multinationals and other business players continuing to measure success in terms of financial turnovers. In other words, economic growth still remains a top domestic priority for even rich countries and cut backs like the ones required for mitigation of climate change impacts do not constitute an attractive electoral agenda.

To add to this, the immediate effects of climate change are being felt almost entirely by poor tropical and island economies. In fact, in the near future, it is expected that life in the more prosperous temperate zone will become more productive as well as pleasant, though temporarily so.

In other words, the present circumstances are not ideal for rich countries offering to make sacrifices at the world stage for the sake of global welfare. Hence the tensions, as we saw at Copenhagen. For emerging and developing economies, even the levels of per capita income do not correspond to a satisfactory quality of life. This makes non acceptance of the burden of mitigation measures justifiable both from a moral and practical point of view.

From the above discussion, it is quite clear that governments, whose fortunes are tied to the aspirations of local constituencies, cannot afford to cooperate with each other in pursuing domestic agenda that collectively contributes to global good while seemingly sacrificing narrow national interest. The same equation also applies to the stalled Doha talks of the WTO.

The Copenhagen talks were based on the assumption that a top-down mechanism of signaling works. Thus, it was envisaged that a consortium of global representatives could persuade individual countries to get producers operating within their boundaries to reduce their emissions. However, this plan underestimated the lobbying power that big businesses as well as the electorates have with individual national governments. Thus, Copenhagen outcomes turned out to be more a reflection of what powerful domestic stakeholders wanted rather than unencumbered opinions of national representatives open to influence at the world stage.

Given that the top-down signaling mechanism has failed at Copenhagen and promises to do so again and again in the near future, what are the options? The obvious one pertains to the use of bottom-up processes for influencing consumer and in turn business preferences. The nerve centre of this mechanism should be located in a coalition of civil society organisations; the only combine which has shown considerable promise of not catering to either narrow economic or restricted national interests. These should not be restricted to the sidelines of global negotiations, but ushered into the centre stage.

Many representatives of reputed CSOs work in countries other than their own and empathise with the interests of the poor and vulnerable, regardless of their national identity. It is, therefore, natural for the civil society to be the flag bearer of the processes of mitigation/adaptation to climate change. The proximity of the civil society to the grassroots and, therefore, its ability to update the world on the impact of climate change on ground realities is another compelling reason for it to lead this movement.

How then should the civil society go about this task so as to exploit its characterised privileged position? The process should start with a broad-based demystification of the causes and impacts of climate change. Such demystification should aim to stimulate both the selfish and altruistic motives of global citizenry.

The goal should be to convince the international community that climate change is a likely outcome of the unscrupulous growth initiatives that are being witnessed all over the world and show no signs of abating; that the outcomes of climate change are bound to be catastrophic and would almost immediately affect two-thirds of humanity and all of the rest within the next fifty years; that even if this likely outcome does not happen, the agenda for mitigating climate change is a worthwhile one given that it would economise on scarce non-renewable resources and lead to breakthroughs in using more abundant renewable ones.

Such an advocacy agenda, when pursued by a global coalition of civil society organisations, is likely to generate a response from individual consumers in terms of higher demand for green goods and services. In other words, consumers would be willing to pay a higher price for these than their non-green counterparts. Businesses would then be compelled to produce more of these not on the basis of altruism but purely to sustain their businesses.

In this way, stimuli applied at the grass roots will generate a whole cycle of responses leading to a cleaner and more harmonious global environment without a total negation of the economic aspirations of individual economic actors, whether on the consumption or the production side.

The first half of the last century belonged to governments. The next half belonged to markets and the actors these staged. Both phases led to euphoria which was short-lived. Hopefully, the civil society can lead to a better deal in this century.

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