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We're Headed for the Greatest Resource-Sharing Problem of All Time

For all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

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Since the summit didn’t succeed, the inevitable question becomes, “Why not?”

One possible answer is that, as the street protesters had it, we need “system change not climate change”: Our governments, in thrall to corporate interests, are incapable of organizing a decisive response to the climate crisis. Another explanation is that the United States was willing to undermine a multilateral agreement with the cynical goal of avoiding real emissions commitments while, if possible, looking good. A third possibility is that the Obama administration, desperate to break Senate Republicans’ hold on climate policy, was willing to take any deal, no matter how weak, as a way to “unlock” the Congressional stalemate. Jamie Henn of 350.org captured this point of view when he quipped to me, “This isn’t a negotiation; it’s a hostage crisis.”

Alternatively, Copenhagen’s failure may have been China’s fault. This explanation, alas, has become quite popular. It demands discussion, beginning with a widely read, and rather fantastically misleading article titled “How Do I Know China Wrecked the Copenhagen Deal? I Was in the Room,” by Mark Lynas, a reporter-activist who was part of the Maldives’ negotiating team. Here’s Lynas’ key paragraph:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

It’s easy to see why Lynas’s fly-on-the-wall account is so compelling, particularly to Westerners primed to see China as an implacable mercantilist threat to their preferred style of capitalism. Certainly Lynas’s conclusions are much in line with the North’s strategy of hiding behind the emerging economies. But caution is in order here. It’s important to go to the core of China’s inflexibility, which, as Lynas subsequently put it, is that “Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity.” How so? Because, although “ NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least,” in fact, “there is no room for expansion by anyone.”

The emissions emergency is, above all things, a crisis of justice.

This, alas, is almost true. The central fact of our carbon-constrained future is that China – along with India and South Africa, Brazil and Mexico, and indeed the entire “emerging” world – stands at the edge of an impossible future. These countries are expected to constrain their carbon emissions while at the same time (here’s the punch line) pulling hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty. Yet the only model of modern prosperity that they have to work with is one based on huge per-capita emissions. No wonder they balk at demands from the North.

In order to halt catastrophic climate change, the major emitters must act decisively. All of them, at once. But this will only be fair, and indeed it can only happen, if the wealthiest among us pay for most of the action. That, however, is politically impossible (see: US Senate). And it’s impossible, in part, because the debate about “fair burden sharing” that has raged among climate negotiators during the last few years has not reached the public consciousness. We do not know our duties. The Northern climate movement has quite failed to explain the structure of the global problem to its home constituencies. The term “climate justice” might be well understood by green NGO-istas and, say, Bolivian president Evo Morales, but that doesn’t mean that most people get it.

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