A Moral Tempest: 2014 United Nations Climate Change Summit


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On September 23rd, the United Nations kick started the long anticipated Climate Change Summit in New York City. Expectations are high and an atmosphere of optimism and solidarity pervades discussions. This conference marks the first time in five years where world leaders have met to forge a global vision for low-carbon economic growth and climate action. The conference is meant to galvanize political momentum for a universal climate agreement next year in Paris.

Despite the enthusiasm, the specter of the failed 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit still looms large. Not only was the conference wrangled by negotiation deadlocks, but it also ended with dropping the earlier 2050 goal of reducing global Green House Gas (GHG) emissions by eighty percent.

This year’s UN Climate Change Summit not only faces political obstacles but also major moral conundrums. There is fierce debate over how future emissions should be divided according to the carbon budget based on the safety threshold for GHG emissions. In particular, it is unclear how far major developing countries should have to share emission cuts. These considerations encompass issues such as per capita emissions, economic circumstances, historic and future responsibilities for emissions,

Many argue that new climate change agendas should be gravitated towards benefiting the LEDCs. Rising global temperatures increases inequality between nations, as Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs) are more vulnerable to climate change due to geographical location and the lack of resources to preempt natural disasters. However, due to the rise of the upper and middle class, a majority of the population of LEDCs can now afford to consume as much as their counterparts in More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs). With the rise of these new consumers, the amount of energy and materials used in developing nations parallels, if not sometimes exceeds, MEDCs.

Another point of consideration lies in magnitude of the effect climate change will have on future generations. It is difficult to fix responsibility for GHG emissions as the future generation, not the current one, will have to face the brunt of climate change. Thus, climate change raises several intergenerational equity challenges. Present governments must consider the impact current GHG emissions will have on future generations. The emissions created by the current generation are not only done for its own economic benefit, but the victims of the harm done, the future generations, will never be compensated. Future generations do not have the agency to prevent harm or to protect themselves. The export of negative externalities to the future is merely stalling the inevitable.

Will this year’s conference be a deciding moment for environmental policy to come more to terms with ethical demands? The jury is out.