Your Government at Work

Phil cafaroBy Philip Cafaro 

Phil writes on environmental ethics, consumption 
and population policy, and biodiversity 
preservation. He is the author of Thoreau’s Living
Ethics, and recently co-edited Life on the Brink:
Environmentalists Confront Population Growth.

Published November 13, 2013

With gridlock in Congress and the recent failed rollout of the health insurance website, it is nice to see evidence that our federal government can act forcefully and successfully to achieve important goals. An example is the work of Todd Stern, chief U.S. climate negotiator.

With negotiations set to begin in Warsaw this week on a successor to the Kyoto Accord, Stern is working hard to prevent creation of a new climate change treaty with binding emissions reduction targets, or with penalties for nations that refuse to limit their emissions. Instead he advocates a voluntary approach, where individual nations decide how much they will reduce emissions, based on their own sense of how important the issue is and the trade-offs necessary to reduce emissions.

Stern suggested that discussions about who bears moral responsibility for climate change were counterproductive, a convenient position for . . .  the nation with the most responsibility for the problem.

In the lead up to the Warsaw talks, Stern and other U.S. officials have been working hard to dampen expectations for the meeting. In a speech in London on October 22, he laid out the main U.S. goals for a new agreement. Prominent among them was the need to “preserve flexibility” among governments in setting emissions targets, and a focus on “leveraging private capital” to fund mitigation and adaptation efforts. Stern also suggested that discussions about who bears moral responsibility for climate change were counterproductive—a convenient position for the lead negotiator from the nation that bears the most responsibility for the problem.

Stern’s efforts have indeed led to a ratcheting back of expectations for the Warsaw meetings. As Reuters News Service recently reported, in an article titledHopes for strong 2015 climate deal fade, as risks grow”: “World governments are likely to recoil from plans for an ambitious 2015 climate change deal at talks next week, concern over economic growth at least partially eclipsing scientists’ warnings of rising temperatures and water levels.” As things stand: “The 2015 deal is unlikely to include deep enough emissions cuts to achieve a U.N. goal set in 2010 of limiting temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius.”

For over twenty years, successive American administrations have worked to undermine strong international action to rein in global climate change. Whether Democratic or Republican, every administration since climate change emerged as a legitimate issue has pursued economic and energy policies that have made the problem worse. The Obama administration is simply the latest sorry example.

On the following pages is the text of Todd Stern’s October 22, 2013 speech, taken from the State Department’s website, with my additional comments in italics and in red.

1 thought on “Your Government at Work

  1. We ethicists should help citizens around the world understand that although we might disagree about what emissions reductions targets are precisely required by different theories of distributive justice, we all agree that positions of nations on their gig emissions reduction commitments that are based upon economic self interest and ignore global obligations are ethically bankrupt. The US position being pushed by Stern (no change in the US short-term commitment identified in Copenhagen) obviously flunks any reasonable interpretation of what equity requires at this moment in history given the US historical share of emissions and our huge per capita shares. If the United States fights to keep morality off the table, they should not be able to get away with explaining to the world how the US commitment equals the US fair shore of safe global emissions. We need to press the Untied States on this issue. We need to get the US press to cover the equity issues. They are now central in the negotiations but are not being covered by the US media.

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