Reflections on chapter one of the Pope’s encyclical letter, Laudato Si’

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 June 26, 2015

There is a lot to chew on in the Pope’s encyclical released today, LAUDATO SI’, ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME. Having just finished the first chapter (of six), I’d like to call your attention to several particularly intriguing paragraphs below. Continue reading

BLOG – Rosia Montana: Are We Drawing to a Close?

Ethics for a Green Futureby Ileana Dascalu

On the 9th of December, a referendum was organized in 35 small Romanian localities within the mining region where the Roşia Montană project is supposed to take place. The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the legislative elections was obviously neither coincidental, nor just a sensible cost-savings measure. Rather,the not-so-secret hope was that merging two deliberative issues for the same ballot would secure a good turnout and push the controversial project beneath the door and then up the decision makers’ table. After all, there are other examples from the recent past that consolidated this mechanism. But it so happened that the referendum had to be invalidated due to an insufficient turnout.

In the event that the referendum expressed the will of the local people to restart mining in the area, the corporation, project advocates, and politicians who have over the last years been reciting the mantra of job creation would have hailed its outcome as a clear triumph of democracy over demagogy and misinformation. But would it have really been so?

If, in 2002, when the Local Council voted that Roşia Montană should be transformed from a residential area into an industrial area, thus making it virtually impossible for any alternative economic activity to develop there, a referendum had been organized and the ‘will of people’ had spoken in one voice, it would have been more difficult to criticize now this proof of sham democracy.  But the major questions still remain, and, moreover, no significant effort is being made to answer them. Why should this project be simply a matter of securing jobs and temporary welfare for a community who is indeed very poor? After all, there should be more talk about non-renewable resources, environmental and legal protection mechanisms, and fair distribution of stakeholder responsibilities. Such issues are not strictly of local interest, but if the referendum had been held at national level, it is very plausible to say that not only  it would have been valid, but the project itself would had been rejected. It is still unclear to me whether a referendum, be it national, would be the best alternative to decide on such an issue. From one angle, it would just serve to cover decision makers in the voice and authority of the ‘people’, while preserving the same hazy distribution of responsibilities at policy level.

If, at the beginning of my posts on Roşia Montană, I saw this research topic riddled with questions, the answers to which would really make a difference, I rather tend to believe now that this project poses deep structural problems which must be addressed at their core, and not on a case-to-case basis.  Even if for the moment there is no definite answer on what is going to happen in that area, the fact that the referendum was invalidated should not be seen as a good sign by opponents of the projects. After all, it is a precedent procedurally approved, and it may be just a matter of time until it becomes successful.

BLOG – Qatar: the Ethical and Justice Issues are Unavoidable


By Donald A. Brown

The recently concluded Qatar climate negotiations clearly demonstrated that issues of ethics and justice may no longer be ignored in the search for a global climate change solution.   Each year in international negotiations, pleas of vulnerable developing nations have become louder calling for developed nations to respond to climate change in ways that are consistent with their ethical obligations. Yet, up until recently,  nations could ignore their ethical responsibilities provided they made any commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  However the longer nations wait to respond adequately to climate change, the more difficult it becomes to ignore what ethics and justice requires of them because climate science is telling the international community that it must now implement a global solution that is sufficiently ambitious to avoid catastrophic climate change and the new constraints on response options entailed by limits on total global emissions make it impossible to avoid issues of basic fairness, justice, and equity.

An adequate global solution will need to limit total global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will prevent dangerous atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from accumulating and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore each nation must agree to limit is emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.

Up until now, nations could pretend that baby steps toward a global solution were acceptable progress.  The urgency of finding a global climate change solution now makes it clear that such pretense is foolish self-deception.

Even if there is no agreed to climate change solution in the form of a new treaty, from now on each nation’s response to climate change will be examined by the world as a fairness issue because a problem like climate change requires nations to limit their emissions to a just share of total safe global emissions.

For instance, in Copenhagen in 2009, the US committed to reduce its emissions by 17 % below 2005 emissions levels. This promise could plausibly be evaluated as a positive, if weak, promise to reduce the threat of climate change. Yet, just a few years later, the US commitment is much more clearly seen as an abdication of its global responsibilities to prevent catastrophic warming. 

It is now clear that even if the previous voluntary commitments made by nations are fully complied with, the world will likely experience catastrophic warming above 3 o C.   Given that the US commitment is among the weakest among all developed countries, the US commitment is widely seen by the international community as an unacceptable abdication of its ethical obligations. This is so because no ethical theory would justify the relatively small US commitment as constituting the US fair-share of total safe global emissions.  And so, the US commitment on emissions reductions was seen by many in Qatar as a rejection of its global obligations.

Given that there is now a strong scientific consensus that the entire global community must limit its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25 to 40 % by 2020 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change, any national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must now be reviewed through the lens of distributive fairness and environmental ambition. This was not the case just a few years ago.

Although the negotiating agenda was modest in Qatar because the Durban COP last year created a four-year negotiating process to create a new global climate change treaty, even the modest Qatar agenda frequently ran into contentious disputes about basic fairness and equity.

The Qatar negotiations were focused mostly on agenda setting for the next three years of negotiations that will seek to come up with a new comprehensive treaty on climate change.  Yet even on the mostly procedural issues under discussion in Qatar, ethical issues, that is matters of basic fairness, were at the center of disputes about the most contentious issues.

There were several main hopes for Qatar. Nations hoped to make progress on: (a) the structure of a new comprehensive treaty on climate change that would be concluded in 2015 and come into force in 2020, (b) financing clean technology in developing countries, (c) finalizing a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, and (d) damage and loss issues.

A.   Progress On a New Comprehensive Treaty

Most nations had hoped that Qatar would make progress on the new comprehensive climate change international agreement that is scheduled to be completed in 2015 although very few believed that any of the most consequential issues entailed by the new treaty would be resolved in Qatar.

The most contentious issues that arose about the new treaty in Doha were about framing issues including whether developed and developing countries would be treated differently under the principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities.” This is, of course, a fairness issue at its core.

Progress on other new treaty issues about which there was a reasonable expectation of agreement in Qatar was blocked due to the need to first resolve some of the other issues about financing low carbon technologies in developing nations and the extension of the  Kyoto Protocol that were in contention in Qatar and lingered to the close of the conference. For a while, negotiations on the new treaty issues were suspended in Qatar.

Nevertheless, there was hope coming into Qatar that at least some nations would increase the ambitiousness of their voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions originally made in Copenhagen in 2009 and confirmed in Durban last year.  This hope was motivated by the fact that it has become increasingly clear that the voluntary commitments affirmed in Durban are not enough to limit warming to 20C, a temperature increase that threatens to trigger rapid, non-linear temperature change and associated harms.  It is now abundantly clear that the voluntary commitments made by some governments are obviously inadequate as a matter of justice not only because they collectively provide no hope of avoiding dangerous climate change but because some of the commitments cannot be justified on any reasonable theory of distributive fairness. And so, most of the existing emissions reduction commitments by developed countries were seen as both inadequate and unfair in Qatar.

The voluntary pledges made by the largest developed countries are as follows where highs and lows indicate that some countries have made multiple commitments.

Nation Low High Baseline














New Zealand








United States














(WRI 2012)

Evaluating the fairness of these commitments is beyond the scope of this article, a matter that will be the subject of an upcoming entry on  It can be said that strict comparisons of the percentage reductions promised in the above chart is an insufficient basis for fully evaluating the fairness of these commitments because there are differences between nations in baseline years which greatly affect the quantification of the commitments as well as differences among nations in per capita and historical emissions, and economic capability to make reductions, matters which arguably should be considered in evaluating fairness. (For a comparison of emissions reduction commitments looking at historical and per capita issues see the World Resources Institute Report:  Comparability of Annex I Emission Reduction Pledges)

Although a more sophisticated analysis of the above commitments is necessary to evaluate them as a matter of justice, given that the most recent science is saying that the entire world needs to reduce emissions by 25% to 40% to have hope of preventing dangerous warming, with the exception of Japan and Norway, an initial strong case can be made that most developed nations have utterly failed to make pledges consistent with their ethical obligations to not harm others because their reductions commitments are lower than what the entire world needs to prevent dangerous climate change and developed nations will be compelled by any reasonable theory of justice to make reductions greater than those required of the entire global community including poor countries that have not contributed much to the existing problem. And so it is easy to identify the injustice of the existing commitments even though it may be more difficult to say what perfect justice requires.

No nations offered to increase their ambition on emissions reductions in Doha.  A submission from Bolivia, China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of other countries during the first week of the Doha meeting called for developed parties to “reduce their aggregate emissions by 40 to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.” Of course, there is little to no chance that developed countries will soon agree to this demand.  Yet it is quite clear that controversies about fairness of emissions reduction commitments will plague upcoming negotiations in the years ahead.

Although no major developed country increased its emissions reduction commitments in Qatar, a few countries made new commitments or modified prior pledges. They included Monaco, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Ukraine, and the Dominican Republic.  (See: Climate Action Tracker)

Developing countries in Qatar frequently expressed great disappointment about the failure of developed countries to demonstrate more ambition in regard to their emissions reduction commitments.  For this reason, it is very unlikely that a global deal will emerge in 2015 unless developed countries increase their emissions reductions commitments to levels arguably minimally consistent with what fairness requires of them.  Thus it will not be possible to duck questions of fairness about emission reduction commitments in the years ahead.

B. Finance of Developing Country Clean Technology.

Developed nations had agreed in Durban climate negotiations in 2011 to provide for $30 billion dollars in start-up money by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020 to finance low emitting technologies in developing countries.  Developing countries had hoped that Qatar would identify concrete funding mechanisms to fulfill these general funding goals as well as identify a second start-up period after 2012 for which specific new funding pledges would be made. For the most part this did not happen.

The most contentious issues on these matters in the Qatar negotiations were about whether developed nations would identify specific financing mechanisms that would generate funding revenues that matched the agreed upon goals.   Developed nations have implicitly agreed that making financing available is their responsibility as this funding is necessary to prevent dangerous climate change and the promised funding will enable developing nations to pursue economic development that would not make the threat of climate change worse.

Given that the world now must work together to keep total global greenhouse gas emissions below levels that will keep atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases below levels that will trigger catastrophic climate change and that developing nations have legitimate needs to pursue economic development that will enable their poorest people to escape desperate poverty, the financing issues in contention in Qatar are also matters of justice. This is so because what is at stake is whether those nations most responsible for the threat of climate change will accept responsibility for preventing dangerous climate change by helping the poorest nations get access to low carbon technologies while allowing these poorer nations to pursue economic development that the developed nations relied upon to generate their existing wealth.

For the most part, the expectations of developing countries on finances were not met in Qatar. Although a few new pledges were made by members of the EU, other countries did not come forward with concrete numbers.

C.   A Second Commitment Period Under The Kyoto Protocol

 The first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol that was originally negotiated in 1997 came to end by its own terms at the end of 2012. Many developing countries and some developed countries believed that  developed countries should commit to a second  commit period under the Kyoto framework and as a result the Qatar negotiations were expected to finalize the second commitment rules under the Kyoto approach.

The Qatar negotiations successfully met some but not all major expectations on defining a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol for those developed countries that choose to sign-on. (The United States, New Zealand, Canada, Russia, and Japan will not participate in the  new Kyoto obligations nor will any developing countries that never had emissions reductions obligations previously.) The new commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol includes enforceable emission reductions from 2013 to 2020 by Australia, Belarus, the EU and its member states, Kazakhstan, Monaco, Norway, Switzerland and Ukraine.

Those developed nations that have refused to be bound under the second Kyoto Protocol framework have frequently justified non-participation on the basis that they need not commit to reduce their emissions as long as other nations such as China and India have no binding commitments.  Given that the new treaty to be negotiated by 2015 will include all nations, some developed nations not participating in the renewed Kyoto Protocol including the United States have justified their non-participation  on their right to wait to make binding pledges until all nations have emissions reductions responsibilities. Yet this position is based upon a very dubious assumption, namely that nations have no duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of global emissions until other nations do the same.

As has explained in some detail before, all nations have a duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, without regard to what other nations do. (See Brown, Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions) And so, the unwillingness of some developed countries to participate in a second Kyoto round was criticized by some in Qatar on ethical grounds as a failure of these nations to agree to commit to reduce their emissions to levels required of them by reasonable theories of distributive justice. These nations argue that since nations are only being asked to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, they may not refuse to commit to reduce their emissions on the basis that other nations have refused to do so.

Despite the fact that some nations have agreed to be bound under the Kyoto Protocol in a second commitment period to certain emissions reductions targets, several ethical problems with these commitments can be made about these commitments can be made. They include:

  •  The number of countries with emission reduction commitments in the second Kyoto commitment is too small to achieve the reductions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.
  • As is the case of the individual voluntary commitments originally made in Copenhagen discussed above, the reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol are less ambitious than needed to prevent dangerous climate change.

The most contested issue in Qatar on Kyoto issues was whether Russian and Poland could carry over surplus credits that they did not need from the first Kyoto commitment into the second commitment period and thus be able to sell credits to those countries that had agreed to reduce their emissions, a result that would further reduce the potential environmental benefit of the emissions reduction commitments under the Kyoto deal. Vulnerable developing countries viewed this possibility as unjustly reducing the obligations of developed countries.  In response to this issue, a number of countries – Australia, the EU, Japan, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway and Switzerland– have signed a declaration in Qatar that they will not purchase these units.

D.  Damages and Loss from Climate Change

The Qatar negotiations struggled with how to address loss and damages associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. This issue was identified in the Bali COP in 2007 but not resolved in subsequent COPs. At the Cancun climate change conference in 2010, nations established a work program on loss and damage and requested that the convention’s Subsidiary Body on Implementation make recommendations in Qatar on how to address loss and damage.

The issue of who should pay for climate change damages in developing countries is a hugely contentious matter because of the enormous amount of money that will be required to compensate those who are harmed by climate change, the difficulty in attributing damages in some cases to human-induced climate change, the need to allocate damage compensation responsibility among those nations who are mostly responsible for climate change, and the strong opposition to any provision that could be construed as acknowledging damage compensation liability by most developed nations.

If nations become liable for climate change damages, the costs to them could be devastating. For instance, the U.S. Congress is now considering a $60.4 billion request to cover damages from just one superstorm, Sandy, that caused damages in just a few US States, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  There are dozens of storms every year that could create huge financial losses comparable to Sandy. And so damage and loss responsibility is the unacknowledged angry guerrilla in the next room among climate negotiators.

Yet, the responsibility for compensation is at its core a moral and ethical issue particularly if nations that cause climate change have been apprised of the potential harms to others and have done nothing to reduce the threat of climate change because of costs to them alone.  And so, who is responsible for climate change damages is both a very difficult, explosive, and thorny issue, but an issue not likely to go away in future negotiations. Since all nations have agreed that the polluter should pay for environmental damages under the Rio Declaration in 1992 and that nations have a responsibility to prevent harms to others outside their jurisdiction under the “no harm principle” agreed to in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it will be difficult for high-emitting nations to completely ignore loss and damage issues despite how strongly they wish for it to go away.

In Qatar, the parties agreed to discuss the establishment of an international mechanism to address loss and damage that will be taken up for approval at the 2013 Warsaw climate meeting. And so, issues of loss and damages are likely to plague negotiations in the years ahead


As we have explained many times,  climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue.  Furthermore this fact has profound significance for policy formation, a matter that has largely been ignored in press coverage of climate change issues at least in the United States.  In fact, most of the public debate about climate change policies has completely ignored the obvious ethical issues raised by climate change.  For instance, the US press rarely discusses the ethical issues raised by US responses to climate change and how policy formation must be responsive to these ethical questions.  Yet the recently concluded Qatar negotiations has made it very clear that the ethical issues raised by climate change will become more prominent in any discussions about any global solution to climate change the longer nations wait to adequately respond to climate changeIn addition, US press accounts of the Qatar negotiations have completely ignored the justice and ethical issues that were so central to what happened in Doha.

It is also highly unlikely that nations like the United States will respond adequately to climate change unless citizens see a need to respond to their ethical obligations to do so.   For instance, US citizens are not likely to support policies that will achieve the ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to meet US ethical obligations unless they understand issues of fairness that require the United States to greatly increase its ambition on emissions reduction goals   For this reason, it is in US citizens interest to turn up the volume on the ethical issues entailed by climate change as well as a matter of basic  morality.

For these reasons, organized an event in Qatar that reviewed questions that governments should be asked about ethics and equity to move the equity and agenda forward and to help all people understand the ethical issues raised by their governments positions on these issues. (See, Qatar: Questions That Governments Should Be Asked About Their Positions on Equity and Justice.)

Because of the importance of recognizing the ethical issues in  moving the world to a climate change solution. those seeking to reduce the threat of climate change should work to find ways to give ethical considerations more traction in policy formation.  A new book by this author, Climate Ethics, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, explores how to achieve more traction for ethical principles in developing policy responses to climate change.


BLOG – Climate Change: Progress Depends on Fast Action


SOURCE: AP/Osama Faisal

By Andrew Light, Rebecca Lefton, Adam James, Gwynne Taraska, and Katie Valentine | December 11, 2012

Endnotes and citations are available in the PDF version of this issue brief.  Download the report: PDF

This year’s U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change conference, held in Doha, Qatar, ended late on Saturday night, with expected results. After a 48-hour marathon negotiating session—which unfortunately has become typical in these yearly meetings—three distinct negotiating streams produced three overlapping but independent agreements.

The negotiators ultimately decided to do the following:

  • The Kyoto Protocol was reauthorized for another eight years, though fewer countries signed on so it now only covers some 12 percent of global emissions.
  • The countries ended the negotiating track created in 2007 on “Long-term Cooperative Action,” which previously produced the Copenhagen Accords and the Cancun Agreements that drew up voluntary pollution-reduction commitments covering 80 percent of global emissions.
  • The new negotiating track on the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”—which was designed last year to produce by 2015 a new treaty that is applicable to all parties and covers 100 percent of global emissions—took its first steps toward achieving those goals.

Response to the meeting’s outcome has thus far been varied, but as with most of these climate summits, many consider it far from adequate to address the growing climate crisis. EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard called it a “modest step toward a global climate deal.”

These criticisms seem overwrought. It’s not that critics of the meeting are wrong to want faster international action on climate change—that is something we all should strive to achieve. But it’s pointless to imagine this body working any faster than it is designed to, especially now that it is beginning the long process of negotiating a wholly new climate change treaty.

The 195 parties to the U.N. climate convention unanimously decided in 2011 to set themselves on a path that would most likely not produce a major breakthrough in the negotiations for another three years. The Durban conference decided that the treaty would not be set until 2015. It should come as no surprise, then, that the outcome of this meeting was relatively modest. As we have said before, the intrinsic difficulties in the U.N. climate negotiation process—including the demand for consensus on decision making and the expectation that developed and developing countries should operate under different sets of rules—require that we continue to look for other opportunities for faster climate action in the near term. Doing so can quicken our climate change response even while we slowly build up the institutions created in the past four years in these annual climate meetings.

This issue brief summarizes the main resolutions that came out of the Doha conference and explains the implications of each.

Kyoto Protocol enters stage two

The Kyoto Protocol—the world’s only legally binding agreement on emissions reductions finalized in 1997—was set to expire at the end of December, which could have terminated the global carbon market mechanisms that have been established to support it. A majority of countries agreed on Saturday, though, to extend the protocol into a second term. This second commitment period will begin on January 1, 2013, and will conclude on December 31, 2020. It will thus bridge the gap between the end of the first Kyoto commitment period and the beginning of the next legally binding climate agreement, which ideally will be finished in the Durban Platform track in 2015, though the new treaty isn’t set to take effect until 2020 at the earliest.

Unlike the Durban track treaty, which will be universally binding for all nations in the U.N. climate convention, the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol establishes obligatory emissions cuts only for those industrialized countries who have ratified it—at this point, only the European Union and a handful of other parties, including Australia, Norway, and Switzerland. Others that participated in the first period of the protocol, such as Japan, Russia, Canada, and New Zealand, have opted out of the second period for a variety of reasons, one of which being an aversion to signing a treaty that did not include the world’s biggest emitters. The second period does not cover the United States, which signed but never attempted to ratify the original protocol in the Senate, and it does not bind developing countries, such as China and India, to emissions reductions. The United States and China are the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Agreement on the transition to the new commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol was not without controversy. Strong differences of opinion, specifically from the Russian Federation, cropped up as the negotiations were concluding. Although the Russian Federation opted out of the second period, its area of concern throughout the negotiations was the carryover of surplus “assigned amount units,” or permits for allowable emissions that were not redeemed during the first period of the protocol, into the second period.

Russia insisted that unused permits—also known as “hot air”—be transferred to the second period, despite significant opposition from other nations. Surplus assigned amount units are held predominantly by eastern European countries, whose economies collapsed after the fall of Communism. They received credits for the carbon emissions that they never produced but would have been allowed to, given an assessment of their economies before the protocol went into effect.

Contrary to the Russian objections, however, the new agreement does allow transfer of surplus assigned amount units to the second commitment period, over the objection of many blocs of countries such as the Least Developed Countries and the Alliance of Small Island States. Nonetheless, the treaty does try to limit their environmental damage. The second term of the protocol mandates that a country “may acquire units from other Parties’ previous period surplus reserve accounts into its previous period surplus reserve account up to 2 percent of its assigned amount for the first commitment period.” This would limit the amount of “hot air” that can be carried over into the second commitment period of the treaty.

Moreover, in a heartening display of principle, parties such as Australia, the European Union, Japan, Lichtenstein, Monaco, Norway, and Switzerland all pledged during the final negotiations not to purchase excess units. Mark Dreyfus of the Australian delegation said:

While it is important that countries receive recognition for overachieving on their targets, the volume of surplus [assigned amount units] carried over to the second commitment period could be as high as 7 billion tons. The unrestricted use of these surplus first commitment period [assigned amount units] risks meaningful climate change efforts to 2020. We will help ensure the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol and countries’ emission reduction objectives by restricting demand for first commitment period [assigned amount units] through nationally appropriate arrangements. Australia will not purchase [assigned amount units] carried over from the first commitment period.

Unfortunately, the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will have a negligible effect on global emissions because the countries that are now bound by it to reduce their emissions produce less than 15 percent of total global emissions. But it is not useless: As we have argued previously, the extension of Kyoto will also serve as a basis for a globally binding treaty and a working carbon market in 2020 by keeping intact market-based mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows for limited trading of emission reductions across boarders. The complicated procedures and mechanisms governing these trades, which pay billions of dollars for clean energy projects in developing countries every year, can be used to later serve as a basis for a treaty that aspires to cover all emissions around the world. In her final press briefing, Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N. climate convention, confirmed this point, saying that moving the Kyoto treaty forward will ensure “that there is going to be environmental integrity and very robust accounting systems that will be able to be used by all countries in the new agreement.”

Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action closes

The planned conclusion of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action was a critical lynchpin for a successful outcome in Doha. The Long-term Cooperative Action track, a subsidiary body of the U.N. climate convention, was the principal outcome of the 2007 Bali Action Plan. In last year’s negotiations in Durban, parties agreed to close this track of the negotiations in 2012 as it was originally created to last only two years.

Yet talks in Doha were strained on the terms of the final items in this track. Negotiators struggled on a number of issues, particularly on whether and to what extent to include in it new provisions to compensate developing countries for “loss and damage” from climate-related events, and whether to stipulate new targets for developed countries to provide financial assistance for mitigation and adaptation to climate change in keeping with the previously agreed-upon goal at the 2009 Copenhagen meeting of mobilizing $100 billion annually for these purposes.

In its five-year lifespan, the Long-term Cooperative Action track did help achieve the convention’s goal of limiting greenhouse gases by advancing key work plans, including:

  • Enhancing mitigation efforts to reduce greenhouse gases
  • Creating new work plans on adaptation to changes
  • Development of policies for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation
  • Promotion of clean energy technology development and transfer
  • Raising funds for more action on all of these activities in developing countries

A main task of the negotiators was to transfer workstreams under the Long-term Cooperative Action track into other bodies of the convention (such as the Durban Platform) and to put the final touches on the new institutions created over the past four years by this track—such as the Green Climate Fund, the new international financial body that will be responsible for raising the bulk of the promised $100 billion in annual climate finance from 2020 onward, and the Climate Technology Center and Network, which will make available expert advice and other resources to help poorer countries develop in a more sustainable way.

Concluding the Long-term Cooperative Action track, however, was ridden with contention about who should bear responsibility for action on climate change and the degree to which actions should be taken. Throughout the week, the inability for negotiators to agree on how to finish the work plan of this track derailed progress in the other parts of the negotiations. Talks in the Durban Platform track were even suspended, as negotiators struggled to keep pace with controversies that had erupted in the Long-term Cooperative Action negotiations.

Climate finance

Enhancing action on climate finance was a major sticking point. From 2009 to 2012 developed countries delivered $30 billion in “fast-start” finance for adaptation and mitigation measures. The success of this program was acknowledged in the final version of the Long-term Cooperative Action text.  But going into Doha, there was no agreed-upon plan for continuing this funding into the decade, let alone a path for getting from this delivery of $10 billion a year to the promised $100 billion annual commitment set to begin in 2020.

Accordingly, there were three major components of the finance text that were unsettled going into the final round of negotiations:

  • The question of whether to stipulate a target amount for a second period of fast-start financing from 2013 to 2015—ideally larger than the first period
  • Whether to continue the work program to facilitate long-term financing, which could secure sources of financing that could eventually deliver $100 billion annually
  • Initiating discussions about how the main repository of these funds—the Green Climate Fund—would become operational

The final outcome document does not include a specific target amount for a second round of fast-start financing but urges more developed countries than have already committed to announce climate funding pledges when financial circumstances allow. It also asks them to, at a minimum, provide resources equal to the “average annual level of the fast-start finance period,” or approximately whatever they were able to raise between 2009 and 2012. This was important so as to ensure that the next phase of climate financing is at least equal to the previous fast-start period.

The outcome document also extends the work program on long-term finance for another year to try to inform developed countries how to identify pathways to scale up their efforts to meet the $100 billion goal by 2020. These countries are asked to submit their plans for increasing funding from public, private, bilateral, and multilateral sources to reach the goal of $100 billion annually by 2020. While the work program can be a resource for those nations who need ideas about how to best raise more funding for climate finance, it will also provide developing countries with some insight into plans for funding the Green Climate Fund, among other climate-oriented financial programs. A high-level ministerial dialogue will follow up on all of these efforts as part of the next U.N. climate summit in Warsaw in 2013.

Since 2010 CAP has supported a “ramp up” period from the fast-start finance ending in 2012 until 2020 to ensure that the jump from $10 billion a year in climate-related assistance to $100 billion is not too abrupt. Our 2010 report with the Alliance for Climate Protection and Climate Advisers made the compelling case that it would be nearly impossible to jump from the fast-start period to the 2020 period without a ramp-up of funding through the rest of this decade. We also argued that the amount needed for the ramp-up period was fairly modest, in the range of $60 billion from all sources by 2015. We determined that this amount would be sufficient to close the ambition gap between what parties pledged to do under the Long-term Cooperative Action track through the Copenhagen Accord and the emission reductions needed by 2020 to maintain the possibility of stabilizing temperatures at 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

It would undoubtedly be very difficult to draft acceptable language on increasing climate finance ambition right now, especially in the current economic climate. But given that the United States has already indicated that it will attempt to maintain its current levels of climate finance ($7.5 billion total over the fast-start period), and given that several other parties with less cumbersome processes for setting budgets have already announced their intention to increase funding over the next few years, the parties should at least have been able to come up with some kind of aspirational language for a ramp-up period. We have likely not seen the last of this issue.

Loss and damage from climate change

In 2007 the Bali Action Plan mandated that parties explore “means to address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” The anticipated effects included damage from extreme weather events and slow-onset events such as ocean acidification and sea-level rise. At the Cancun climate change conference in 2010, nations established a work program on loss and damage as part of the Cancun Adaptation Framework and requested that the convention’s Subsidiary Body on Implementation—one of the two technical bodies, along with the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, that provides advice to the convention and implements decisions—make recommendations to the full convention this year on how to address loss and damage. Unfortunately, whether and to what extent the parties could agree on these recommendations came close to ruining any progress in this track of the negotiations in Doha.

The work program of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation explored the effects of loss and damage in three areas.  It assessed the risk of loss and damage associated with climate change, developed a range of approaches to address loss and damage, and worked with the full convention to enhance implementation of the approaches after taking submissions from parties and civil society.

In Doha this momentum turned into a call for more concrete steps forward. At the end of the conference, parties agreed to discuss the establishment of an international mechanism to address loss and damage that will be taken up for approval at the 2013 climate summit in Warsaw. The run up to this discussion will include an expert meeting to consider possible approaches to addressing slow-onset events of climate change, preparation of a technical paper on noneconomic losses to climate change, and preparation of a technical paper on gaps in institutional arrangements to address loss and damage both within and outside the U.N. process. Just as importantly, the parties agreed that “promotion of livelihood and economic diversification to build resilience” was vital in planning, priority setting, and implementation of adaptation actions.

The problem, of course, is that significantly delivering on some kind of global loss-and-damage program will be extremely costly. The U.S. Congress is now considering a $60.4 billion request from the administration to cover damage from superstorm Sandy in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Paying for and responding to dozens of global climate-related disasters a year would be even more daunting. In addition, the logistics are hard to fathom at this point.

There were, however, alternatives—or at least complementary programs—suggested in the Subsidiary Body’s findings. The parties agreed to “promotion of livelihood and economic diversification to build resilience” in planning, priority setting, and implementation of adaptation plans in developing countries. Given how difficult and expensive it would be to build something akin to a global Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to climate events, we should consider the relative costs of instead investing in increasing the resilience of developing countries so that they will be better prepared for such events.

Securing accomplishments of the Long-term Cooperative Action track

The successful closing of the track on Long-term Cooperative Action ensures that its accomplishments will live on and continue as a basis for international collaboration on climate change. For instance, the Long-term Cooperative Action track advanced a workstream to develop practices for avoiding emissions from deforestation—these practices will be built upon in a new work program that will coordinate with and be supported by the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, as well as the Subsidiary Body for Implementation.

Most importantly, though, the negotiating track on Long-term Cooperative Action gave birth to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and the 2010 Cancun Agreements, which together marshaled the largest collection of voluntary climate mitigation commitments the world has ever seen and created an elaborate system for tracking them. The mobilization of these commitments is a groundbreaking achievement of the Long-term Cooperative Action track.

Whereas the Kyoto Protocol mandates binding emissions reductions from developed countries only—representing an ever-shrinking percentage of global emissions—under these two agreements, governments from both developed and developing countries representing more than 80 percent of global emissions announced measures for reductions by 2020. The resulting creation of a system for measuring, reporting, and verifying those commitments will be absolutely essential to getting where we need to be on global mitigation efforts, as it puts more pressure on these countries to reduce their emissions in order to actually deliver on these promises. Like the Clean Development Mechanism from the Kyoto Protocol, the institutions created in the Long-term Cooperative Action track can be used to service the future treaty that is in progress in the Durban Platform.

The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action expands

The new track on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action focused on both the timing and substance of the new negotiation track. The notable conclusion with regard to timing is simply that the parties agreed to “immediately proceed with substantive discussions.” This means that the Durban Platform will be at the heart of the climate negotiations next year in Poland. Two workstreams were created—one to design the new treaty by 2015 and the second to address the so-called ambition gap.

The first workstream is relatively more straightforward, at least in terms of taking the first steps toward 2015. The parties agreed to create in 2013 a series of roundtables and workshops on the priorities and structure of the new treaty. They will also gather submission from all parties on the usual range of topics, including mitigation, adaptation, finance, and low-carbon technology development, as well as options for the legal form of the treaty—for example, whether it should be structured more like the Kyoto Protocol or one of the agreements from the track on Long-term Cooperative Action.

The second workstream addresses the gap between what has been pledged under the current set of climate agreements discussed so far in this brief, and where we need to be at the end of the decade to maintain the possibility of eventually stabilizing global temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels later in the century. This gap is currently approximately one-half to one-third of the reductions needed to keep the 2-degree-Celsius pathway open.

The situation has become critical. The world has already warmed approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius since humans began pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the 19th century, which has resulted in already-perceptible climate-related impacts. We may soon be facing the inevitability of a world at least 4 degrees Celsius warmer—which could be disastrous—unless we act fast.

The second workstream was devoted to developing a work plan with this ambition gap to 2020 in mind. The text of the Durban Platform that was agreed upon by the end of the Doha meeting encourages parties to present initiatives, proposals, and actions for implementation to reduce greenhouse gases by the 2013 meeting. These submissions should be geared toward assessing mitigation and adaptation, benefits to action, barriers to implementation, and, perhaps most importantly, finance and technology. The platform also requested a technical paper from the secretariat on the mitigation benefits of the different proposals that are expected to be submitted by these parties.

One aspect of the Durban Platform to watch will be item 13c of the final text, or the provision around the “scope, structure, and design of the 2015 agreement.”  The U.S. position, as advocated by Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, has been to consider a flexible agreement that draws on the Australian “schedule approach,” which would more resemble the structure of the Cancun Agreements in allowing countries to first articulate what they are willing to do in a certain timeframe and then finding ways to increase their collective ambition.  Other negotiators, most notably from many member states of the European Union, will certainly disagree with this approach, seeking a more stringent, binding agreement, and ensuring a clash of views.

Conclusion: Closing the ambition gap

Even with the success of the Long-term Cooperative Action text in drawing the major carbon emitters in to articulate what they are willing to do in the near term, global pledges to reduce emissions are still inadequate. In his opening press conference in Doha two weeks ago, U.S. Deputy Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing, quoting President Barack Obama, did not deny this, and instead stated flatly, “We haven’t done as much as we need to do.”

Unfortunately, though, no parties have stepped up to the plate and offered to increase their ambition in this decade. Rather, some of them seem willing only to demand that other parties increase their emission reductions before they will make further commitments. A submission from Bolivia, China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of other countries during the first week of the Doha meeting called for developed parties to “reduce their aggregate emissions by 40 to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.” This would be twice the highest commitment of any party to these talks to date and is highly unrealistic.

Not responding to such requests in the affirmative, however, does not indicate a weakness of will. Such calls for action are not laudatory, they are not heroic, and they are not productive. It’s easy to address the current ambition gap by simply stipulating that other parties take it on entirely. It is harder to find a cooperative solution that is actually achievable and that appropriately divides burdens among the world’s largest carbon polluters.

We see two top priorities for moving forward in international climate action that are both more cooperative and more realistic than the aforementioned submission. We must increase the incentives to bring more private finance into the overall package of climate finance, as well as increase action on greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide in the near term.

How to increase climate finance

The focus in Doha on climate finance is certainly appropriate. One way we can cut the 2020 ambition gap is by financing the clean energy projects that developing countries have already put on the table in submissions under the Copenhagen Accord. But the process of ramping up climate finance will move faster once the world realizes that the best way to move forward is by increasing the amount committed to mobilizing private finance. A push in this direction is in the interest of the United States and is within our reach, given levels of investment we already make in energy projects abroad.

There are several clear benefits that commitments to climate finance provide for the United States. For starters, investments in climate aid are cost effective. By investing in mitigation, the United States hedges against the future costs associated with climate change—with a return of about $7 to every $1 invested. If structured appropriately, these investments can leverage private financing and bring more capital into projects.

Climate change also presents severe destabilization threats to insecure regions through resource constraints and migration challenges. Investments in developing countries can reduce their dependence on unstable foreign oil and increase U.S. influence overseas. Climate finance also creates economic growth and jobs here at home by tapping into the $2.2 trillion yearly clean energy market. With the entire international affairs expenditures at less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget, climate finance provides an excellent return on investment in tough economic times.

It’s also useful to put America’s portion of this commitment to increasing climate finance in context. Mobilizing a global total of $60 billion in climate finance over the next three years, as we have proposed, is just $20 billion each year. Assuming even a very high target for the United States to provide one-third of that amount, it’s less than $7 billion per year that we would need to mobilize.

This is well within reach. Last year the United States financed just less than $9 billion in energy projects through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank. Most of this money went to fossil-fuel sectors, which has been the traditional focus for energy investing for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank. Simply prioritizing clean energy over fossil fuels could meet ambitious climate finance commitments with zero new budget authority.

Short-lived pollutants

Given the difficulties of forging a new climate agreement that is both applicable to all and sufficiently ambitious to reach acceptable levels of mitigation, we should turn now to reductions in other climate pollutants that are shorter lived and more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of their ability to warm the planet, such as methane (from landfills and agriculture, for example), hydrofluorocarbons (otherwise known as HFCs; mostly used as a refrigerant), and black carbon (more commonly known as “soot,” primarily from burning diesel fuels but also from cooking with biomass). These greenhouse gases do not drive the entire global economy and so should be easier to phase down and eventually eliminate. Fortunately, there are efforts underway.

The United States has submitted a proposal every year since 2009 with Canada and Mexico to phase out HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. This action is the single-largest achievable measure the world can undertake to close the current ambition gap. The level of HFCs is projected to double by 2020, in large part because they are being used as substitutes for the ozone-depleting substances that are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol.

At the last meeting of the Montreal Protocol in Switzerland this past November, the parties agreed to set up a discussion group on this proposal and asked their scientific advisory board to prepare a report on technical options for phasing out HFCs. But India, China, and Brazil continue to block this measure, either to protect industries that still use this dangerous pollutant or to enable themselves to benefit from a loophole in the Clean Development Mechanism that pays these firms to destroy the HFCs that they produce. If the United States is going to get these countries to agree to phase out this powerful greenhouse gas, it must elevate making a deal in the Montreal Protocol to the highest levels of diplomacy with these countries in the next administration. This means that the secretary of state and even President Obama must engage these countries on this issue at the leader level.

Additionally, in February 2012 the United States and five other countries created the Climate and Clean Air Coalition on Short-Lived Climate Pollutants to focus on the reduction of a range of short-lived climate pollutants that collectively could reduce global warming by 0.5 degrees Celsius and maintain those savings if followed by aggressive carbon reduction measures. Twenty parties and a variety of nongovernmental organizations are now part of this coalition. We estimate that together, such measures could cut the current ambition gap in half.

While one of these measures is more top-down—determining new parameters for an existing global target, the Montreal Protocol, and implementing it—and the other is more bottom-up—collecting a group of countries under the Climate and Clean Air Coalition willing to take up this problem together and creating opportunities to assist each other in raising their collective ambition—the most important feature of them is that they can all be pursued outside of the U.N. climate negotiations. Without taking opportunities such as these, the long and slow process of forming a new U.N. climate treaty may ultimately result in a wasted effort.

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow, Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst, Adam James is a Special Assistant, Gwynne Taraska is a Visiting Research Associate, and Katie Valentine is an intern at the Center for American Progress. All work on international climate policy. Light and Taraska are also members of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.  We are grateful to Richard Caperton for his assistance with this column.

COMMENTARY – “How we live” by David Orton

“As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is
closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.”  (John Muir) 

Green house buried in snow in the winterIntroduction
We live on a 130-acre old hill farm in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, which has gone back to forest and a habitat for wildlife. A close friend of mine, with whom I have worked on environmental issues ever since moving to our place about 27 years ago, has repeatedly told me that how I live is reflected in my writing – that is, how I analyse the world and respond to environmental and green issues. He felt my day to day living would also be of interest to those who follow my thinking, and that I should write something about this to share with others. This is what this post is about.

 I remember being invited to give a talk to the federal Green Party convention in 2006 in Ottawa. My topic was whether Left Biocentrism was relevant to Green Parties. There was a big laugh from the audience, quite unexpected on my part, when I said how we had bought our place in Pictou County in 1984, but that I did not believe in private property. One of the contradictions facing the deep ecology supporter is of accepting a basic position that humans cannot ‘own’ the Earth, yet having to use private property ‘laws’ to buy one’s own place or sometimes to acquire land in a capitalist society for conservation and wildlife preservation purposes. Using such laws can help Nature in the short term, but it can also, unless the basic deep ecology view that humans cannot own the Earth is part of the conservation discussion, foster and reinforce the legitimacy of the capitalist view, that humans can ‘own’ other species and the land itself.

As readers of my writings know, Arne Naess, John Livingston, and Rudolf Bahro – key influences for the theoretical tendency of left biocentrism within deep ecology – all emphasized this fundamental point. Livingston expressed it this way: “A man should no more be allowed to own the living soil than he now owns the air he breathes.” (Canada: A Natural History, p. 223) An industrial capitalist society, that does not recognize ecological limits but only perpetual economic expansion and has the profit motive as driver, will eventually consume and destroy itself. But we will all be taken down with it. ‘Private property’ or the idea that humans can ‘own’ other creatures and the land itself, is the ultimate human conceit, which supporters of deep ecology need to undermine, if we are to move in our societal consciousness to sharing this planet with other species on a basis of equality, not dominance. This is a primary goal for the supporter of deep ecology and necessary for real long term social sustainability.

Another theoretical issue is the importance – or lack of it – of individual or personal change as contrasted with major societal change. Do overall ecological and social beliefs held by a person have any necessary relationship to how one personally lives? I think the Left has primarily focused on institutional change and often mocked the green emphasis on being the change you want to see in others and the world. Both individual and societal change must go hand in hand. I have always felt that, to have any integrity in the eyes of others, how one lives personally, has, to some extent, to be a reflection of one’s eco-politics. How one lives should be a kind of laboratory for trying out and applying green philosophy and trying to sort out various contradictions. I believe this is implicit within the philosophy of deep ecology. But it can be hard to write about it without seeming to be a personal tub thumper, which has no attraction for me. Perhaps this is a reason I have avoided, until now, my friend’s advice. Below I will describe my personal living situation, and the routine life I share with my wife Helga. I hope others will find it of interest. 

We have lived on our place for the last 27 years. It used to be a farm, but most has now gone back to forest. Our land is intersected by a dirt road. On the side where our house is located there are 100 acres, the remaining about 30 acres are on the other side. The soil here is thin and rocky. If you walk around the place, you come across large piles of rocks, which the original settlers must have gathered by hand to clear the fields. The largest trees (biggest diameter and tallest) are on the boundary lines, and this is why they have remained uncut. Such trees give some sense of the original grandeur of the Acadian forest before the colonialists arrived.

 Picture of David Orton sitting in a chairThe house is over 100 years old. It is small, but has two levels. On the main floor is the living area, and upstairs are the bedrooms, which have a gabled roof. There is also a half-dug basement, where we keep the winter firewood and which functions as a cold cellar. We heat only by a wood stove. When we moved in, we took out an oil stove – a source then of supplementary heating. When the wood stove is on, there are always three kettles of water on it. There is no indoor toilet, but we have an outhouse a short distance from the house. In winter, the temperature does not usually go below minus 20 degrees centigrade, except for a few winter nights. The house is “snug” and well insulated. Unless there is a winter storm with high winds and low temperatures, the house remains warm until one goes to bed. Making the fire in the wood stove in the morning is the first task.

Our house is set back about 200 yards from the dirt road. Once the winter snow comes, the car stays at the bottom of the unpaved narrow driveway for several months. We move the groceries, laundry, etc. up and down the driveway by sled.

About 15 years ago we had three ponds dug at our place. While my general sentiment is as little disturbance of the natural world as possible, having ponds dug does seem to encourage wildlife. All of the ponds have streams flowing into them. Beavers have periodically moved into the largest pond and we had to adjust to their activities. The beavers cut down all the fruit trees around the perimeter of this pond. They took over what was planned to also be a swimming pond for humans and filled it with alder branches for winter food storage. The beavers raised the water level of the swamp behind our house, and thus eliminated a spring we used as an alternative water source in summer, when our dug well often goes dry. At one time, we needed to unplug a culvert funnelling swamp water under the dirt road on a daily basis, as a result of beaver activity. If we did not do this, the “authorities” would have trapped the culvert-plugging beavers, as they could potentially cause a road washout. The beavers have now moved on from the pond, but muskrats, mink, herons, bitterns and ducks still make their appearance, along with frogs and dragonflies. We now make use of the second smaller pond, located a bit closer to the house, for summer swimming and washing. We also carry water to the house to wash dishes, when the well goes dry. This more or less yearly summer water shortage helps me focus on the importance of water in our life and not to take this for granted. Our third pond is way back in the woods and was really dug just for wildlife use. However, there is a large boulder by the pond which we call “thinker’s rock.” We often walk to this rock.

The woods surround us. Since moving here all the formerly cleared fields have been reclaimed by the forest. It is quite amazing to see how fast the forest cover regenerates itself in the damp Maritimes climate. Some fields have grown back in softwoods – balsam fir, spruce and larch. There are also some older woods, both hardwoods – birch, maple, beech – and some mixed woods. For many years, I have cut trails through the woods, using a bow saw and wood shears. I have never wanted to use a chain saw. With a bow saw, one smells the tree one is cutting and can hear the sounds of the forest animals in the vicinity. Keeping these trails open after wind storms has been a constant activity. Softwoods in particular are shallow rooted and often come down with heavy winds. Where the woods have been clearcut by industrial forestry operations around our place, the wind velocity increases and the trees on our side of the boundary lines often blow over. We have these walking and observation trails so we can get around, particularly in heavy snow, and yet leave most of the woods unmolested for wildlife. Plus, it enables us to keep an eye on any logging activity around our place. We have found almost an industry predisposition to cut over boundary lines, if the forestry operator feels he can get away with it.

We have seen bobcat, deer, mink, snowshoe hare, porcupines, coyotes, fox, black bear and moose at our place. There are of course many summer bird migrants who come for the insects and to nest. In the fall, bears come around to the now wild apple trees which are close to the house. Sometimes they break branches to reach the fruit, and there are many piles of bear feces around the trees. At night, we often hear a pack (or two) of coyotes howling fairly close to the house. Yet one rarely sees these animals. We believe coyotes have eaten two of our cats, plus a goat tethered quite close to the house. In the past we also had geese, ducks and rabbits, but presently all we have are a border collie and one cat.

We have a small barn, where we keep the garden tools, bikes, cross country skis, snowshoes, and the two ocean kayaks which we have used in past summers. We carry the kayaks on top of the car, as the nearest ocean is about half an hour drive away.

This life seems a world away from industrial Portsmouth in England, where I was born and worked in the dockyard. Notwithstanding the ravages of industrial forestry which surround us, I feel I live in a simple living paradise. Our daughter is now 28. She was one year old when we moved to our place and spent all her school years living here, before going away to attend university and make her own path in life.

Since 1998, we have kept what we call “Nature Notes” – a piece of paper pinned on the wall, where we record various seasonal indicators of life and which show quite a remarkable yearly regularity. For example, we gather pussy willows sometime during the first two weeks of March; the migrating grackles usually appear around March 24th. We look for the first advance robins in the beginning of April. In early April we hear the peepers (frogs) serenading us from the swamps and ponds. I start the early salad garden about mid-April, using a bed alongside the house where the soil defrosts first and warms up. Also around this time, the marsh hawks (northern harriers), who nest in the swamp behind our house, come back to start their reproductive cycle. We have never tried to find their nest, but that spot stays the same year after year, as we see from their aerial descent. The first wild flower we see is the pink “spring beauty”, around mid-April.  The first black flies make an appearance in early May. After the flies come the warblers. Towards the end of May humming birds make their appearance. And we have flies: blackflies, no-seeums, mosquitoes and horse flies. Until the no-seeums disappear, we cannot have open the windows even on sweltering nights, because they can pass through the fly screen. Each fly species has a dominance period in the summer, and their intensity, from a human impact perspective, is quite correlated with particular types of weather. Summer garden work sometimes requires wearing a fly exclusion jacket, with a hood that encloses one’s face. The horse flies are the last to disappear towards the end of summer. Even when cycling on the roads in our area, horse flies can still successfully seek their human blood fix. 

The soil here is very thin and rocky, so to grow anything, we found it necessary to build up soil in raised beds. I do not use power tools. The wood ashes from the stove go into the garden. Every spring, when the soil can be worked, I bury the winter’s compost under the soil. I then plant vegetables which need a lot of nutrients and are high producing, like zucchini and English marrow, on top of the buried compost. Eventually, over the course of the summer, it becomes beautiful black soil. I also bring mud from a stream which meanders through an alder swamp, about 100 yards from the house. When the stream dries up sufficiently, usually towards the end of the summer, it exposes rich alluvial mud side bars. For bringing this mud to the garden, I drag it in a hand-pulled garden wagon.

David Orton holding a large cauliflower in his gardenI have always gardened organically, using no biocides or chemical fertilizers or even so-called biological pesticides. I rotate the crops and move the potatoes, carrot and beets to different beds each year. Sometimes, despite doing this, one can lose a vegetable. This has happened with carrots, which by mid-summer can be quite wormy. The potato beetle I pick off the plants by hand. We have lots of slugs, but we co-exist. The only thinning I do is with the beet seedlings, which have to be spaced to grow to any size. When planting seeds, I usually water them with water from our pond, to give them a start. One has to keep up with the ‘weeding’ (a definition I have always liked is that weeds are merely plants out of place), otherwise the garden becomes overwhelmed. Strawberry beds seem to require continual attention in this regard. Sometimes “organic” methods do not work out. For example, when I buried seaweed gathered from the seashore to supposedly enrich the garden, it did not breakdown. However, the garter snakes seemed to appreciate the seaweed to deposit their eggs. I ended up removing the seaweed from the garden soil because it did not biodegrade fast enough.

By about May 25, if all has gone well, we have the great pleasure of eating the first salad from our garden – lettuce, spinach, radishes, and spring onions. These salad vegetables can tolerate frosts. Other “cold weather” crops like carrots, beets, potatoes, peas and broccoli, are planted when the winter frost goes out of the soil and it has warmed enough for the earthworms to appear. Depending on the frost situation (the last “spring” frost can sometimes hit as late as June 20th and the first “winter” frost can hit around early September), we eat from the garden until late September or mid-October. All the usual vegetables which we have found suitable for our location and which we like to eat, are grown. We have various berry bushes (gooseberries, black and red currents) and lots of wild blueberries; a big rhubarb bed looks after itself, and we like to have a couple of beds of strawberries each year. Some years I make jams.

I plant a lot of dill and parsley and freeze them to use with various fish dishes throughout the year. I have moved from “starting” plants indoors in various flats, to trying to plant as much as possible directly into the garden. This is much less work. Usually I start cucumbers, English marrow and zucchini in flats in our sunny porch as back-up plants, if these “warm weather” seeds planted directly in the garden do not germinate. I now buy a few tomato plants from the local nursery, although in the past I grew these from seeds in flats in the house. The major vegetable we grow is green beans, which are blanched before being frozen. They last us for most of the year. The further our garden beds are away from the house, the more losses there are to wildlife, especially rabbits. Sometimes, bears have had a stroll through the garden, as we could see by their large paw prints. Having a cat (sometimes we have had two), it becomes necessary to initially cover seeded areas with chicken wire, for seeds to germinate successfully without being dug over by the cats. When the plants are up sufficiently and start growing through the chicken wire, we remove it.

Some things did not work out. For example, the soil was too shallow for the fruit and nut trees; and corn, cantaloupes and peppers never grew to a good size because they needed more heat. We always had a nice crop of tomatoes, but it was usually a challenge to get some ripe ones before the frost. Mostly, we collected them green and ripened them inside.

Paying attention to firewood and fire is an important aspect of our life. It becomes crucial in winter, along with having a swept chimney to avoid a flue fire. Wood has to be seasoned for a year, that is, kept in the open in piles raised off the ground so that the water can evaporate from it. Dry wood has to be loaded into the basement in late summer, before the fall rains come. (Burning wet wood can create a build up of creosote in the chimney, plus there is less heat given out to warm the house.) We try to clean the flue every year. 

Building a fire

We get about seven cords of hardwood every two years. One of our neighbours delivers this wood for us which, although cut into stove length, I still have to split into smaller pieces in the basement. As the  wood seasons and dries, the bark comes off and we use it for starting the fire. Another source of kindling for the fire are alder branches. Periodically, we have to cut the alders down along our driveway to keep it open. Likewise, we cut alders from some of the trails and drag them with a rope back to the house.

As one becomes older (I am now 77) and subject, as in my own situation, to quite severe hip arthritis, I am reduced to hobbling, rather than walking. For example, I now often dig the garden on my knees, rather than standing upright. I cannot put the sock on my left foot, so I adjust to going without socks in the house. What one can do physically, as the John Muir quote which introduces this essay points out, becomes restricted. But life itself remains a source of wonder. Because of where we live, Nature’s joys remain.

My capacity to walk in the woods has become curtailed. I no longer ski, snowshoe, cycle or sea kayak. Walking down the path for the mail in the winter in deep snow can become an event. Also, getting to the outhouse, if the path is icy or there is a storm, has to be factored into time considerations. My wife and partner Helga, who shares a similar basic world view, but who is twelve years younger and with many of her own interests, has come forward to take up a lot of the physical tasks which were formerly my main domain. 

Helga with a shotgun in her handShe now looks after bringing the winter wood indoors in the summer, cutting the trails and most of the snow shovelling. I still do the cooking, the dishes, the garden, wood splitting, and look after maintaining the fire in the winter. Helga, who has just retired as a nurse, does the laundry in town and nearly all of the grocery shopping. I can often see several weeks go by without going into town.

I have tried to minimize interventions with Canada’s basically excellent public health care system. Up to now, I have not taken any medications. I have a belief that one’s physical pain can help with empathy towards others who are suffering from pain. Also, I believe that as one ages, physical pain is a part of living, and that one needs to accept this. Each of us has to take responsibility, to a large extent, for our own health. This means eating properly (as well as one can afford), and being physically active. However, recently I had to access the health care system. On March 3rd, after feeling nauseous for about ten days, losing weight, and with some other symptoms, including yellowing skin colour, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I may now have to make use of our health system for palliative care.

Sitting at the computerPHILOSOPHY AND CONCLUSION
For quite a number of years now I have understood, through deep ecology, that coming into a profoundly different relationship with the natural world is primary for humans, if we are to overthrow the ecological and social destructiveness of industrial capitalist society. This shift in consciousness is in part spiritual. It would mean moving totally away from our society’s assumption of human dominance over other species, as well as greatly scaling down human demands on the natural world and living much more simply and self sufficiently. (Social justice for all humans, along with population reductions, and ending industrial capitalism, are a necessary part of the larger picture.)

I don’t want to elevate my individual experience above others. Many older people have similar relationships to the land, but we all have to move more in this direction.  I have tried to show what a low consumption lifestyle, and living surrounded by the wonders of the natural world, has meant for me personally and for my family. I also wanted to show how we handled some of the inevitable contradictions which we faced in trying to live in a different way. Although not discussed here, I have drawn from this practical experience in struggling publicly on wildlife and forest/biocide issues in Nova Scotia. The most recent example of this being the article “Wildlife Hysteria: Nova Scotia’s War on Coyotes”.

For the Earth, David