As the climate change summit meeting moves forward in Copenhagen, it is increasingly clear that more than just the environment is at stake. The global environmental crisis is at the heart of practically all the problems now confronting us, including the need to create a global economic model grounded in the public good.
It is directly linked to security issues and to increasingly dangerous ethnic and international conflicts; to mass migrations and displacements of people, which are already destabilizing politics and economics; to growing poverty and social inequality; to the water crisis and energy and food shortages.
Excuses and pretexts for not taking action on the environment, and assertions that there are more important problems, are simply no longer credible. If we fail on this problem, we’ll fail on all the others.
Saving our planet should be a task shared by governments, the business and scientific
communities, and civil society. Each stakeholder in this noble cause has a role to play. The main burden of responsibility, however, lies with governments and their institutions.
Governments can set firm standards and norms that are indispensable to fighting climate change.
Only the state is capable of mobilizing the resources and incentives to implement cutting-edge technologies. Only the state can help those who are the most vulnerable to climate change.
Representatives of governments are meeting in Copenhagen to open a new stage in international cooperation on climate change. Whether it will be a strong and convincing start or a weak, disappointing one is up to them.
The latest scientific research on climate change is extremely disturbing. We have a real emergency. Yet the gap between science and policy keeps widening, as does the gap between the negotiations and the urgency of the issue.
Science indicates that the global temperature increase should be limited to 1 or 2 degrees Celsius.
World leaders endorsed this view at the G-8 meeting in Italy in July. Even with that limit, major destruction, including the disappearance of most of the world’s coral reefs, is likely.
Yet policy compromises agreed to by negotiators involved in the Copenhagen talks virtually guarantee a temperature increase of around 4 degrees Celsius — well into the catastrophic risk range.
Why is this happening? For several reasons, including the inertia of the existing economic model, one based on hyperprofits and excessive consumption; political and business leaders’ failure to think long term; and concern that reducing carbon emissions will undercut economic growth.
Those who don’t want any change are exploiting that concern.
As the global financial crisis has made abundantly clear, efforts to make the world sustainable for present and future generations do not undermine the economy. The culprit is something quite different: reckless pursuit of profit at any price, blind faith in the “invisible hand of the market,” and government inaction.
What’s needed is a search for new engines of growth and incentives to economic development.
Transitioning to a low-carbon, low-waste economy will create qualitatively new, green industries, technologies and jobs. A low-carbon economy is just part of a new economic model, one the world needs as badly as the air we breathe.
Overnight changes to the economic model that has prevailed for a half century are not realistic. The transition to a new model requires a shift in values.
The global economy must be reoriented toward the public good. It must emphasize issues like a sustainable environment, healthcare, education, culture, equal opportunities and social cohesion — including reducing the glaring gaps between wealth and poverty.
Society needs this, and not just as a moral imperative. The economic efficiency of emphasizing the public good is enormous, even though economists have not yet learned how to measure it. We need an intellectual breakthrough if we are to build a new economic model.
We also need a moral realignment of the business community. Companies and their C.E.O.s tend to define their positions on environmental issues according to the short-term or at best medium term bottom line. Socially and environmentally responsible business is still the exception rather than the rule. Change is needed in the entire system of taxes, subsidies and incentives.
Civil society must also play a larger role. It must become not just a stakeholder but a full
participant in making decisions that will shape the environment and the economy for decades to come.
In Copenhagen, we will closely watch the political leaders. More than 60 heads of state will take a personal leadership test there. We have seen how easy it would be to fail. The weeks and months ahead offer them a chance to show that they can truly lead.