One of the most difficult moments I re-live each teaching term emerges in the context of discussions about the politics of climate change. Once students are made aware of the blatant disproportionalities in attribution of historic emissions of greenhouse gases, combined with the equally stark and yet ironically, almost precisely mirrored disproportionalities in exposure to the impacts (thanks to the many great contributions to critical scholarship offered by many RC24 members--a number of papers by Timmons Roberts come immediately to mind!), students see before them a clear case of ethical responsibility. Doing the “right thing” would surely involve concerted efforts to remedy the problem among those who contributed the most to the problem, and simultaneously face the least exposure to its impacts (relatively speaking), right? Even a kindergartener could agree, this would be the fair response.
And then, in the next class session, students reflect on the myriad of positions taken by negotiators in previous Conferences of the Parties, few of which bear any resemblance to kindergarten fairness, perhaps with the notable exception of those representatives of climate changes’ most vivid victims--residents of the low-lying island states. We hear instead of the “rights” of developed countries to protect their high-income-driven lifestyles (which are in fact only enjoyed by a minority in these countries); the “rights” of rapidly-industrializing nations to follow that same path of fossil-fueled economic growth, and the “rights” of the haves to keep their hard-earned capital and expertise to themselves, rather than fritter it away on building adaptive capacity in faraway places.
Students also learn about the relative ineffectiveness of the shaming of individual negotiators often attempted by the social movement organizations involved (such as the annual Fossil of the Year, newly-named Colossal Fossil Award, of which my own country has been a repeated recipient), although such campaigns do make for good media exposure. In short, we as know, the positions taken by negotiators, and the political decisions made subsequently in international arenas have little to do with the moral aptitude of the individual negotiators themselves, and everything to do with political structure: the sovereign status of nations in international arenas, and the formal and informal avenues along which political power is distributed in the home countries of negotiators.
The broader implications for sociology, and society, are clear. As articulated by Gardiner, climate change represents a “perfect moral storm” (A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Challenge of Climate Change. Oxford, 2011). The ethical transgressions that the emitters of greenhouses gases commit, intentionally or not, and how those transgressions are manifest in harmful ways, are clear as rain. Emissions from a very small number of advanced industrial nations have contributed to the increase in global average surface temperature of 0.9C, leading to a rise in sea levels, decline in agricultural productivity, and acidification of marine ecosystems, to name just a few consequences already being observed.
Thankfully, the discussion has moved beyond the impact of individual Western consumers—who, granted, do consume far more on average than others—and toward the institutions that enable such production and consumption machinery to persist, as well as the concerted organized efforts of a small minority of beneficiaries to perpetuate climate skepticism. Here again, environmental sociologists have played a central role in highlighting these processes.
There remains, nonetheless, an elephant in the room, much less often discussed by scholars or in policy circles, and yet readily identified by undergraduate students, and no doubt many kindergarteners as well. In an era in which universal acknowledgement of the need to protect the human rights of everyone has been expressed repeatedly, How can our leaders assume negotiating positions that are such blatant violations of ethical standards?
Answering this question would certainly be a worthy exercise, albeit one inevitably laden in speculation. The more important question for environmental social scientists is this: How do we go about re-constructing a political process in which ethics are indeed paramount, rather than sidelined, in international negotiations?
I asked my political theorist friend and colleague David Kahane (Department of Political Science, University of Alberta) this question (and by the way, if you don’t already have a political theorist in your friendship network, I highly recommend you find one!) David Kahane’s latest project, called Alberta Climate Dialogue, is worth checking out by anyone who has an interest in democratic deliberations and climate change.
His answer is at one and the same time ironic and compelling, provided here in full:
The work of leaders and parties with direct influence over decisions and agreements at the international level clearly is value-laden and shaped by diverse value commitments. But I suspect that it is rare for processes of meeting, negotiation, and collaboration to dig deeply into values, to seek alignment around values, to iteratively explore the fit of decisions with value commitments, etc. Part of reconstructing a political process in which ethics are paramount would involve changing the cultures and processes of meeting, negotiating, collaborating.
Of course it’d be naive to think that the overt negotiations and agreements, and the views of the individuals involved, are the only force in play, or even the most important ones. Structural and systemic forces relating to capitalism, industrialization, development, colonization, money in politics, etc. play crucial roles, constraining the behaviour and also imagination/discourse of leaders. So shifts in power relations and complex systems of power and action are needed if we’re to reconstruct a political process in which ethics are paramount.
Both of these come back to democratic and grassroots organizing and change. Leaders’ values are importantly constrained by the will of the populations and constituencies they represent. Their ability, and propensity, to articulate values and act on values in their political work on climate change would be much enhanced by processes within their communities that themselves supported the articulation of diverse values — around climate and more broadly the kinds of society people want — and helped to find convergences or alignments within these that point the way toward climate policies. In other words, a deepening of democratic participation — for which there are many interesting recipes and experiments.
Shifting the power relations and systemic forces that dictate or constrain so much of climate politics — in ways at odds with any coherent or compelling ethical vision — also needs to involve grassroots and community-based organizing, resistance, experimentation, and change. Again a story of deepening democracy.