- Ruby Murray
- The Age, Opinion, October 22, 2008
IN A pub in Melbourne a few weeks ago I asked a couple of friends what worried them most. They shook their heads and said: the environment. We'll all be gone in a 100 years or so, they told me, brows bobbing sagely. Last weekend, in the same pub, I asked the exact same question, and my friends shook their heads in exactly the same way and said something completely different.
The global financial market, they said. The stockmarket crash.
Almost overnight, the stockmarket crash has replaced climate change as the primary focus of our concern. At a time when we desperately need to be debating and engaging with environmental issues and thinking in the long term, our sights have been pulled into the overnight and the immediate. This will cost us dearly in the long run.
Even before the credit crunch, the way in which we were talking about climate change was drastically impoverished.
No better example exists of the narrow terms in which we were negotiating our relationship with the environment than the rash of statements from all corners of Australian society on what will constitute the "right" reaction on climate change from Australia at next year's Copenhagen Summit.
Almost without exception, the ethical implications of climate change — for the developing world, for the larger biotic community, for future generations — are being overlooked. Increasingly, public debate is being collapsed into one question: How do we integrate the environment into the economy?
The way we have chosen to talk about climate change and the international tools used to address it — the Kyoto Protocol and current definitions of emissions trading — represent merely one way of conceptualising burden-sharing and responsibility.
Australia and the US originally refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol because they claimed that the protocol's per capita basis for calculating emissions was unfair, and that national aggregate emissions should be taken into account. While the self-serving nature of these complaints is clear, it is true that there are real faults in the Kyoto method of carbon accounting. But there are other methods to consider — even if we don't get to hear about them in political debate.
One such proposal is the Greenhouse Development Rights framework advocated by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute. This uses a Responsibility and Capacity Indicator to emphasise a right to sustainable development, and as such is capable of taking into account individual incomes and disparities in responsibility for emissions, both between individual communities within nation states as well as between nations.
Ethical assumptions lie behind every statistic employed in climate change negotiations. Accounting methods such as the Greenhouse Development Rights ask fundamental questions about whether or not we have a "right" to pollute. How do we understand that right? What about a right to development? To subsistence? Are calculation methods that use national borders as their boundaries fair given the huge disparities in emissions between communities inside nations and not just between them, sometimes referred to as the "Germany in India" phenomenon? Given the "global" in global warming, how do we understand our responsibilities to other human communities? To the larger biotic community?
It is often argued that we have to come up with a practical solution to climate change, and that this involves leaving the wider issues of environmental justice until a later date. Even Ross Garnaut has implied, with his double recommendations of the emissions cuts Australia needs to make and the emissions cuts that it probably should make once political considerations are taken into account, that the practical should take precedence over the ethical. The politicking of an approach to climate change that ignores ethical and justice issues is dangerously naive. Rather than facilitate negotiations, foot-dragging on justice-based considerations will serve to stall them even further.
Industrialised countries contributed to roughly 75% of the total accumulated emissions of carbon dioxide from 1860 to 1990 despite possessing only about 20% of the world's population in 1990, meaning that their per capita contribution to aggregate emissions was roughly 20 times that of the less developed world.
And, of particular concern to Australians, the CSIRO reports that over the past 25 years, the average growth rate of this country's emissions was about twice the growth rate for the world as a whole, twice the growth rate for the US and Japan, and five times the growth rate for Europe. While percentages and the economic aspects of climate change are important, so are the methods by which we reach the percentages, and the way in which we incorporate the economic into the natural world. We should never forget that the natural world is the ultimate reality, and that the existence not only of the economy, but of all human activities, relies on its health.
In the boom of the stockmarket crash, we are in danger of forgetting about the silent changes taking place in our world every second because of climate change. We are at peril of falling ever more comfortably into a narrowly economic, utilitarian discussion of the environment.
All economic decisions are ethical decisions. Discussing the environment purely in economic terms is a mistake. An over-reliance on carbon trading as the sole method of discussing the ethical dilemmas posed by climate change is a mistake. The environment is not simply another commodity: it will be here thousands of years after the stockmarket crash is simply another footnote to human history.
Ruby Murray is co-founder of the-democracy-project.org, a research and monitoring website.