Reality Bites

By Keith Kloor | October 20, 2011 11:49 am

A scholar surveys “the sorry history of international climate policy” and wonders when enough will be enough:

The road from Rio to Kyoto to Bali to Copenhagen to Cancun is littered with procrastination, obfuscation, and empty promises. For example, all major countries including the United States agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took effect in 1994, and so committed themselves to “protect the climate system for present and future generations.” However, global emissions are now up more than 40 percent since 1990, and more than 17 percent in the United States. Similarly, in 2009 in Copenhagen, the global community publicly committed itself to limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. However, it left the hard question of who should do what to a subsequent national pledge system that does not get close to that target, and few have any confidence such a system will actually be implemented.

Stephen Gardiner’s provocative and compelling piece appears in Yale Environment 360. On the lack of climate action, he concludes:

We seem at best paralyzed, and at worst indifferent. Put starkly, there seems little place within our grand institutions and busy lives for what may turn out to be the defining issue of our generation.

Why? In my view, at the heart of the matter is the fact that humanity is in the grip of a profound ethical challenge that our current institutions and theories are ill-equipped to meet.

This is a dimension of the debate that should be taken up in full by the climate concerned, instead of incessantly shouting climate doom from the rooftops and getting suckered into an endless partisan war with climate skeptics.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change
MORE ABOUT: climate change, ethics
  • Tom Fuller

    Lack of flexibility. No plan B. It’s almost as if convinced and committed people decided on a course of action and then tried to figure out a way to make it happen without bothering to consult with any other stakeholders… including the public. Nah. That couldn’t happen. Could it?

  • Chuck Kaplan

    Why are “liberal” values the only possibles ones to use? Who gets to say what “moderate” gains are only selfish and not worth the costs to future generations?

    And why is the answer always world government?

  • Michael Larkin

    But Keith, where’s the ethical problem if CAGW is bollocks?

  • Jarmo

    Kyoto was just a bad deal what no real chances of success. Basically an open cheque to developing countries with no responsibility to cut emissions, in addition to bribing of the Russians. As far as global emissions were concerned, a disaster.

    We will probably get a working deal when China accounts for 30% of global emissions and India 15-20%. By then China will be out of coal anayway….

  • hunter

    As Dr. Jones said to Indy, “let it go, son.”.
    It was always an illusion.
    The moral superiority was always bs.
    Yes, we need to clean up our energy supplies.
    Yes, we need to clean the environment. Doing that will in fact reduce CO2 emissions, among other things. but the obsession, and the AGW community that formed around the obsession, has never done one thing to help the environment, the climate or actually reduce CO2.
    The CO2 obsession and the moral pose entangeld in it were, are and will be an illusion.
    Let it go.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Talk to folks at State or the EPA, or Cali for that matter.  There is plenty going on; you just don’t hear about on the front page. Kind of like the difference between Governor Brown and his predecessor…

    Thanks for the link Keith.  I wholeheartedly agree with you that the discussion should move on to ethical considerations and risk trade-offs (e.g. nuclear meltdown vs ocean acidification+boiling biosphere). However, I think what’s missing from the piece is any discussion of hour our collective ethics influence our institutions and how these institutions ultimately act to address the issue.  IOW, we need to talk about the politics of successful climate policy (as Dave Roberts has pointed out) not just about why rich powerful people in the developed world should feel guilty about inaction.  

    Speaking of which, is it just rich people in the developed world that should feel guilty?  How about the middle class? or rich people in developing countries? Urbanites and rural people, or just surbanites? The permutations of assigning blame are endless….

  • EdG

    The ultimate failing of the AGW Team is that they are proposing extremely high costs to solve a “problem” that fewer and fewer people accept as a problem – because of too much hysterical AGW Team wolf crying with no wolf, too little evidence that their wolf is a wolf and too much evidence that it is just a naturally variable Sun dog.

    Trying to throw ethical questions into this simply shows, again, that the Team has no evidence and must appeal to emotion. Not even a veneer of science left. It is all PR and politics. 

  • EdG

    6. Marlowe. Guilt. They learned that trick from the Church. Indeed, the parallels between the RC Church and the IPCC Church are boundless.

    I particularly like the parallel between the indulgences paid to the RC Church to absolve sins and the carbon offsets paid to the IPCC Church to absolve CO2 sins.

    And the talk of ‘floods, pestilence, famine’ and all that have a Biblical ring.

    Of course, the priests of the IPCC Church fly all over the world guilt-free because, to quote the Blues Brothers, they are on a ‘mission.’

  • EdG

    Speaking of reality… I think there’s an elephant in the room:

  • Howard


    You had me at boiling biosphere 😉

    Compared with the rest of the world, nearly everyone in developed countries are rich.  The reliable delivery of medical care, indoor plumbing, electricity, roads, transport, communications, entertainment and abundant food defines the rich of the world.  The poor of the undeveloped world lack these elements.

    The permutations are only endless if you can’t see the forest.  Also, guilt is an devolutionary concept eschewed by uber mensch of all political stripes.  The right sells fear and the left sells guilt?

    The scholarly survey looking for a new climate marketing plan is pathetic and tiresome.

  • Tom Scharf

    FTA: “…Here, the problem is not that we are unaware that trouble is coming. After all, the basic science is both well known…”

    I wonder if it is ethical to overstate certainty?

  • Jack Hughes

    Gotta love these philosophy cats.
    He slams the pols for “procrastination, obfuscation, and empty promises” in a long-winded piece that doesn’t live up to the promise in its title. And he wrote it instead of taking action himself.
    Procrastination, obfuscation, and empty promises in fact. Slam dunk.

  • Eric Adler

    There is no way to avoid getting suckered into partisan warfare with climate skeptics. Their reaction to Gardiner’s article shows this. Such people have control of the US Congress. There is no way to avoid dealing with their arguments, if anything is going to get done.

  • hunter

    It would be interesting to understand your definition of ‘the climate concerned’, and consider why, when you state this:
    “This is a dimension of the debate that should be taken up in full by the climate concerned, instead of incessantly shouting climate doom from the rooftops and getting suckered into an endless partisan war with climate skeptics.”
    You are implying that skeptics are not concerned, and suggesting that at best we should be ignored, and most ominously, ‘dealt with’.
    Why are you not listening? AGW is a social mania, but you are pretty bright. Why is it so few committed believers in AGW are able to step outside and consider that:
    1- we care about the climate, the environment, our kids and grandkids as much as you
    and 2- we are not immorally or ignorantly approaching the issue. We look at the historical record and see that nothing much has changed. Your self declared concern has you looking at the same data and seeing a great doom. Ask yourself why you see something that may not actually be there?

  • jeffn

    “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”
    France, Germany, Sweden, Japan, and the United States showed that a UN “framework” is unnecessary to the construction of nuclear power plants. The US even built them without carbon taxes/emissions caps/or the complete dissolution of “consumerism.” France is evidence that even a left-wing government can be competent enough to build them regardless of what the imperial hegemons of the US Congress are doing. 

  • Gary Bowden


    Gardiner’s insightful observation runs together two distinct issues.

    First, there is the institutional matter. Climate change is a global problem and our effective political institutions function at the national level. We don’t really have an effective international governance structure. The UN is a joke. The only successful international institution (in the sense of getting national governments to cede enforcement power to the international institution) is the WTO, but it has largely fallen apart as the less developed countries realized the agreements weren’t addressing their concerns (e.g., agricultural subsidies in the developed world).

    Second, his take on the ethical matter lacks history. There was, at the time of the Brundland commission report (Our Common Future) an ethical consensus. That consensus, embodied in the concept of sustainable development that the report popularized and later in the identification of a subset of the world economies (those listed in Annex I of the Kyoto Accord), was the notion that those countries that had benefited most from development should act first to mitigate the environmental problems that flowed from that development. Significantly,  that late 1980s – early 90s ethical consensus existed at a time when there was substantial scientific uncertainty about the nature of the climate problem and the necessity to act. As scientific uncertainty diminished, ethical differences emerged. In other words, the current ‘ethical challenge’ is more an outcome of politics than it is a way to resolve existing political divisions on the issue.


  • Marlowe Johnson

    It is indeed a tragedy that the concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ was so quickly and effectively rendered toxic in u.s. political discourse on climate change.

    One wonders how policy might have evolved differently if this concept had been defended more vigorously by mitigation advocates rather than focusing on economic and co-benefit arguments (e.g. energy security, local health impacts, green jobs, etc.)

  • harrywr2

    We seem at best paralyzed, and at worst indifferent.
    There isn’t a single major country that isn’t investing substantial amounts of money into figuring out how to deliver low cost/low carbon energy.
    The ‘light switch’ generation forgets that it took 400 years from the time Leonardo DaVinci designed the ‘helicopter’ to get to the point that someone could actually build it.

  • Sashka

    “global community publicly committed itself to limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.”

    That alone makes the conversation potentially meaningless. How does one count that? Beginning from the start of the industrial era would seem to be a reasonable choice except the planet was in the process of coming out from LIA and has been warming naturally, perhaps until now. Second, ending where? On any given year? Or a decadal average maybe? Last, what does “committed” mean in this context? Sounds pretty empty to me.

    “the heart of the matter is the fact that humanity is in the grip of a profound ethical challenge that our current institutions and theories are ill-equipped to meet.”

    In my view, the heart of the matter is the fact that humanity is facing a bunch of problems that are far more serious than global change. In the collision of hard reality and soft theory the reality ought to win.

  • jeffn

    #17 Marlow – I don’t the concept was “rendered toxic” so much as recognized for what it was in a climate context- utterly irrelevant.
    You cannot simultaneously argue that emissions must be cut significantly and quickly while also choosing to ignore places where emissions are significant and growing. If you believe the burning of coal will destroy Earth and we must prevent it, it is neither consistent nor “ethical” to decide to let the Chinese finish the planet off.
    The idea that “action” by the west would inspire the rest of the globe doesn’t wash if the contemplated “action” is to make energy scare and expensive. China, in case you haven’t noticed, has already experienced that situation and has opted to make energy abundant and less expensive. If you wish to be globally “ethical” your search is for ways to make energy abundant and cheap as well as clean.

  • hunter

    If mitigation madness had taken root in the US as it has in the UK or Australia, then lefties would have been able to impose even more stupid, wasteful and ineffective policies on the cliamte than they would have otherwise.
    You are unable to show where mitigation has worked to either decrease CO2 or the frequency of extreme weather because there are no examples of it.
    “Mitigation”, like the “fossil fuel industry” are AGW code words not based in reality.

  • huxley

    So another superior being from the planet Ivy League lectures us on our ethical responsibilities to accept his pronouncements and act upon them. KK is willing to forego the doom-crying, but still wants to skip past the debate and get right to the ethical dilemma which will presumably guilt-trip us into action.

    Much of the problem, I would submit, that many of us no longer trust our liberal technocratic betters to get it right. For decades now we have heard of the big dooms around the corner, the big ethical dilemmas demanding our immediate action and tons of our cash, and the big assurances that their fantastic brain power will keep things on track.

    The results have been checkered to say the least. I won’t belabor  the Vietnam War. The Great Society did not conquer poverty. Its liberal reforms destroyed the black family structure and created a permanent underclass. The seventies environmental reforms were modestly successful; however, the eco-catastrophes failed to materialize. In 2008 the global economic system had a near-death experience based on all sorts of fancy financial instruments that our super smart people devised and assured us were AAA.

    Afterward we elected the most quintessentially Ivy League president since Woodrow Wilson because our liberal betters assured us that Obama was so fine and calibrated with an IQ off the charts — never mind that he had no real world experience whatsoever — and he would set everything to right that George W. Bush had bollixed up since Bush was a dumb Republican from Texas and talked funny so his Ivy League degrees didn’t count.

    How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya? You get the picture.

    No, I’m afraid you are going to have to convince us of our ethical responsibilities before you demand that we act upon them. You are going to have to talk to us, not dictate to us.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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