Monday, January 5, 2009

On the FCCC's (and by extension, the IPCC's) Focus on State Decision Making

So I almost feel bad about this, but it's not really my fault. The IPCC put out a report in 1995 called Climate Change 1995: Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change; it was the contribution of the third working group to the Second Assessment Report. Normally, a used hard bound copy of the book will run you over $50; more if you want it in good condition. But because apparently some people don't understand what their goods are worth, I was able to utterly swindle some poor online merchant for a nearly immaculate copy for $20. INCLUDING SHIPPING! I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love imperfect information!

I've just started reading it, and let me tell you: these guys are good. They basically have everything they say so qualified that it's nearly impossible to disagree with it, no matter where you're coming from. But one thing has made me a little uncomfortable in these early goings (and it may just be because I'm overly sensitive to this kind of thing).

In its chapter on "Decision-Making Frameworks for Addressing Climate Change," the IPCC authors basically frame the issue of climate change as entirely something that is to be addressed through international political decision-making, embodied by the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The IPCC authors note that "First and foremost, the FCCC is a framework for collective decision making by sovereign states." They then acknowledge that for different states, different kinds of impacts will be politically important:
For example, European countries may focus most on the possible costs of abatement, whereas developing countries in Africa and South America may be most concerned with the burden of adaptation and vulnerability. Island states may be most threatened by a major loss of coastal land mass. Oil exporters may be most concerned about their potential loss of revenue from abatement strategies that reduce international fossil fuel consumption. An understanding of such differences in national perceptions, capabilities, and objectives must inform the decision process, particularly where those decisions must be reached collectively.

It seems to me that this focus on intergovernmental politics leaves out an important consideration, which is that large-scale collective action is only one tool with which societies can solve social problems. The IPCC neglects to discuss the importance of other tools, like community action and private activism. It seems to me that this way of looking at things sets up a dichotomy between "Fixing it!" and "Doing nothing" which cannot help but result in vast government intervention. I would expect a more balanced approach to the issue of climate change to be built on the foundation of recognizing that giant world governments can't always effectively solve problems, and that a part of the solution will need to come through other avenues.

I also worry that by framing the problem as a matter of political negotiation, the IPCC might be encouraging a paradigm which gives State decision-makers the power to treat their citizens as bargaining chips, rather than focusing on protecting them from mistreatment by the citizens of other countries and by other individuals within their own countries. As Paul Baer writes in his essay, "Adaptation: Who Pays Whom?":
...ethics and justice address the rights and responsibilities of individuals; obligations between countries are derivative, based on the aggregate characteristics of their populations, and pragmatic, given the existing state system.

Since climate change ultimately will be addressed within a social order which depends in large part on States to affect social change and to coordinate policy, I acknowledge that political bargaining will play a central role in any response to climate change. But to therefore think of the issue at hand as one of mere bargaining seems cynically realist and completely out of line with any coherent normative position. We all know what happens when issues are reduced to matters of mere bargaining: concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.

The thing is, though: much of the rest of the report does focus on the ethical considerations which should go into the decision-making process. So the realist "national interest"-based discussion in the early goings here seem like they might simply be at odds with what will be discussed later. I'll try to remember to post a followup to this post if the report starts to move away from this way of talking about things. But I figured it was worth pointing out while it's on my mind.

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