Light on Progress

December 17, 2009

It’s hard to sift through the cacophony of voices chiming in on the Copenhagen process, but fortunately, we have Andrew Light, heavy-hitter in the environmental philosophy community and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, to offer some clarity. I’ve known Andrew for many years now, and I have always felt that his grasp of and his breadth in the scholarly literature in philosophy was top-notch, but watching him navigate the confusion and noise in Copenhagen is really a sight to behold. Do yourselves a favor and spend the next six minutes watching this video.

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  1. Toward the end of the interview, Andrew Light muses about what could be accomplished if the United States and China cooperated on developing and deploying technologies for capturing and sequestering carbon. That gave me a start, because it seems like a no-brainer — something we could probably get done fairly easily. Instead, we have the continued spectacle of Copenhagen, a conference at which diplomats are scrambling to gain agreement on targets that everyone accepts are not up to the task that everyone came there to accomplish.

    So here is reality: Kyoto failed to do anything meaningful to prevent climate change. Then COP15 quickly devolved into a circus, with tiny Tuvalu holding everything up in pursuit of a politically impossible goal — a CO2 target of 350 ppm, Today we have a final day of frantic negotiations over proposals that the U.N. admits will not prevent dangerous climate change. (For more on that, see “Copenhagen won’t prevent dangerous climate change? Abracadabra!”). And President Obama is actually pledging initial emissions cuts significantly below those inadequate targets, perhaps because he knows he can’t wave his wand and make anything more significant happen.

    So I’m wondering why the United States, China and other leading emitters haven’t focused more on non-magical approaches that could easily be implemented right now, such as Light’s proposal to cooperate on developing carbon capture and storage. Why do we insist on putting all of our eggs in the Kyoto-Copenhagen-Mexico City basket?

  2. Woops! I inserted a link that will take you to the middle of the post I referenced. Here’s the correct link: “Copenhagen won’t prevent dangerous climate change? Abracadabra!”

  3. There’s also this, from Bill McKibben:


    Don’t know, it’s a difficult conundrum. The doing of something meaningful can be understood politically or instrumentally. Whatever comes out of Copenhagen is likely not to do the job that it’s necessary to do. At the same time, it will do something, not nothing. The debate gets muddled by this “kabuki theater” talk, since it’s not simply kabuki theater. If there is a decision of some sort, it will likely, at minimum, shift political will. That’s significant.

    So if you’re arguing along McKibben’s lines that effectively the agreement is a sham and not doing enough, then I think he wouldn’t deny that Copenhagen does something. But if you’re arguing along S&N’s line, that Copenhagen is kabuki theater, then, it seems to me, you’re arguing that nothing is really happening in Copenhagen, and it doesn’t matter one way or the other what comes out of Copenhagen. That is a much, much different line of argument.

    We obviously need non-magical solutions; and we need to take action in a way that will move the state of the world. To say that an agreement in Copenhagen won’t do that is false; to say that it may move us to an unsatisfactory state, it seems to me, is the likely outcome. Even if that’s true, there are clear and prevailing questions about whether it’s movement in the right direction. It’s there, I think, that the discussion should be happening.

    I think the only reason we’re putting our eggs in the Copenhagen basket is because that’s the basket at our doorstep right now. Copenhagen doesn’t even enter the discussion when you talk to people who are developing CCS technologies. They’re doing it for other reasons.

  4. Ben is right that CCS is a little beside the point for COP 15, but it also hasn’t been demonstrated to be technically feasible or cost-effective on a meaningfully large scale.

    Tuvalu (with a little help from most of the G77) did the right thing by holding up the proceedings in order to highlight 350. It’s important that nobody leave Copenhagen with the impression that even the nominal goal is sufficient.

    Speaking of 350, isn’t it rather amazing how quickly it’s spread around since Jim Hansen got the ball rolling, what, maybe 18 months ago? I’m sure I recall that “realist” RP Jr. made fun of him at the time.

  5. Folks who point out the difficulties that emission limits have had in succeeding tend to ignore the difficulties in using geo-engineering or other more technology-focused strategies.

    As said above CCS, is not something available any time soon, even in the best of cases. We’re close to having 100% electric cars than we are to CCS. And even the best CCS only decreases the emissions from coal plants. Geo-engineering on the scale needed is much less feasible than that for now.

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