Tag Archives: language

Which Way Does Your Moral Compass Point? (Part I)

We know that climate change is a problem and we have a decent understanding of how the changes will affect us. What you may not know is that the World Bank lists 137 nations (65% of all countries in the world) as “developing countries.” Furthermore, according to the United Nations, 1.4 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity. One of the major goals of the UNFCCC is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, as they are one of the main drivers of climate change. However, bringing cheap and affordable electricity to those without may require heavy use of fossil fuels and, in general, higher GDP (economic growth) results in increased greenhouse gas emissions. What this means is that we have a great conundrum: Developing nations need to develop and climate change is exacerbated by development.

With these statements in mind, I pose a few questions: How do we weigh the costs and benefits of solving each of these problems? Can we solve these problems simultaneously, and if so, how? Do we have to choose which problem is more important?

As with any conflict, this great conundrum comes with several different solutions (extremes and compromises) born from opposing arguments and viewpoints. In no way can I explain all of these in one post, but I can provide a brief overview of the major themes and explain what the UNFCCC is doing to address these challenges.

Common arguments for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (and inherently fossil fuels) include: resource depletion, pollution, climate change, and preservation for future generations. These arguments all have a long-term view that focus both on human and environmental well-being. We currently know that fossil fuels can provide affordable and reliable energy, but at a major cost in the long term because fossil fuels are a major instigator of human-induced climate change.

As you would expect, there are moral arguments for inducing economic development and providing electricity to developing countries without concern for environmental impacts. These arguments are centralized around the short-term human condition. For example: Many argue that the use of fossil fuels provides reliable energy, which actually protects us from climate.

But what about the small island nations that will be under water in the near future because of the sea level rise? What about the rapid spread of diseases, like malaria, due to the warming climate? Fossil fuels can help resolve many issues but climate change issues are not among those. It is not human nature to live without some impact on the earth, however, these impacts must be minimized so that we don’t have to sacrifice long term benefits for the short term.

So, how does the UNFCCC address the role of developing nations in the midst of climate change? Simple: Sustainable Development. Except, it isn’t that simple. ‘Sustainable development’, in the broadest sense means, “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As you can see, this language is not conducive to any real application in a climate change agreement.

For the sake of brevity, I will pause here and let you meditate on where your moral compass points in this conundrum. Next week, I will continue to expand this idea of sustainable development and what it means for developing nations and future COPs in “Which Way Does Your Moral Compass Point? (Part II)”.


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‘Moral Compass’ Image Source: http://www.premcenter.org/sustainability



Clear as Mud: Ambiguity in the Midst of Climate Change

Climate change is becoming one of the biggest challenges of our generation: average global temperature is rising, ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising, and currently, there is no real solution in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to make a difference. But, what is climate change, really? And what results are we actually after with an international climate agreement? In order to answer these questions, we need to return to the basics and examine the definition of climate change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines climate change as, “any significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time.” The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as, “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” Notice a difference in the language?

Now, imagine a world where three adjacent cities are trying to reduce vehicle accidents and all three cities use the same stop sign design at intersections. However, each city associates a different rule with the stop sign. In City A, the stop sign means that cars should immediately stop. In City B, the stop sign means that cars should slow down at the intersection. In City C, the stop sign means that cars only need to stop when the drivers have the time to wait. To further complicate the issue, City A decides that the enforcement and policing of its intersections is becoming too expensive, and is revising its stop sign rule.

Can you imagine what kind of chaos would ensue if this scenario was real? It would almost be impossible to drive through all three cities without being extremely confused about what a stop sign actually means and what you, as a driver, are supposed to do. This scenario also poses unnecessary and otherwise avoidable dangers to the drivers. The different stop sign regulations across cities hinder any sort of joint agreement or goal to decrease accidents at intersections. Even though the individualized rules are favored by each city, the resulting barriers to cross-city cooperation and effective policy creation are so great that a universal rule for stop signs would be a much better strategy to reduce accidents.

The same is true when trying to find solutions to the complex issue of climate change. The UNFCCC discusses many facets of climate change that are constantly changed and debated (and even undefined) among member states. Just to name a few: ‘Adaptation’, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, ‘developing nations’, and ‘climate justice’. The ambiguity relating to climate change poses major challenges when trying to develop an international agreement. For one, it is difficult to come to a consensus on a solution to a problem that isn’t clearly defined. Secondly, the language currently used in the UNFCCC is vulnerable to manipulation for the benefit of some countries over others. This means that the language is subject to corruption when used out of context, which creates loopholes in the agreements. Thirdly, the more time spent on solidifying and changing the language in the UNFCCC is less time spent on forging an actual agreement with real solutions to climate change.

I come from an economics background, so in general, I am a number-oriented person. But when I began to write this post, the first thing that came to mind was language and how it affects decision-making. My hope is that we realize how important language is in the creation of a successful international climate agreement. Numbers and targets carry little weight if the associated language is so ambiguous that it can be manipulated and tailored to specific parties and interests. This year, in Lima, we need to make hard decisions, reinforce language, and solidify definitions to be temporally, geographically, and politically robust so that we can develop a successful agreement in Paris, 2015.