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How to care for the children when we’re at odds with the planet?

by Stephen Hesse

Perhaps this column should begin with a disclaimer like those found on CDs and DVDs that are intended to help protect kids from obscenity — Parental Advisory: Explicit Content.

I wonder about this because it might not be healthy for our children to know how little their society cares about them — let alone the faceless millions of others in nations around the globe.

If our kids knew that we are not doing what we should be, wouldn’t they find our negligence obscene?

This is not a question about protecting communities in America, Australia, Britain or anywhere else from the mind-numbing horror of child-killers wielding automatic weapons. Nor is this about the slaughter of Syrian children in a murderous civil war or the shooting of young women in Pakistan by religious fanatics.

Rather, this column is about protecting our children from ourselves: from the good and wise parents, teachers, business people and politicians who manage societies worldwide — and yet choose to ignore the roles they all play in contributing to climate change, at their children’s peril.

It is about the profound conflict that exists between our cavalier consumption of fossil fuels today and the increasingly insidious impacts greenhouse gases are having on our planet and our children’s future.

For those who noticed, this has been a banner year for bad news. One reader, a father living in Tokyo, recently wrote to share his concern and to ask if I knew where he might volunteer to do something, anything, to make a difference.

“The news this summer and fall about global warming is really frightening. I have always been concerned, but it feels as if the news this year is repeatedly saying that the problem is progressing faster than most scientists ever predicted,” he confessed. “I have two young boys and thinking about their future, and their children’s future, is really scary,” he said.

And yet, as the world warms, limited-term politicians and CEOs continue to embrace the foolhardy notion that once the world economy really gets going, then we’ll have the money to deal with the impacts of global climate change.

How nice to have an easy excuse for chasing today’s profits on tomorrow’s expense account.

But climate change and its accompanying continent-wide droughts and famines, spreading tropical diseases, deadly flooding, typhoons and hurricanes, cannot be cleaned up as we would a river or a mountainside.

Climate change is systemic; it is global, and it is happening as fast or faster than predicted. And we, good citizens, are the culprits.

This month in Doha, capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, another round of international negotiations aimed at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet came to an end without making any significant progress.

According to an editorial in The Japan Times on Dec. 17, even Christina Figueres, who heads the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, “doubts that diplomats will ever deliver change at the needed speed” [my emphasis].

I agree. International law is about the slowest and most unwieldy form of problem solving there is, which is a state of affairs I’ll take a look at a bit further on.

Climate talks have been lurching along for two decades under the auspices of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the only real success has been the delegates’ willingness to admit that the situation is rapidly going from bad to much worse.

Unfortunately, most of us continue to hope that our governments will agree to cooperate before the situation becomes truly dire.

After all, some decades ago we took action to protect the planet’s ozone layer and stopped using ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in our fridges, didn’t we? But moving to counter ozone depletion was a breeze compared to climate change.

Once we identified the human-made chemicals, such as CFCs, that were breaking down atmospheric ozone, international and national laws were adopted to phase out the chemicals.

So why not make laws to phase out the major human sources of carbon-dioxide emissions? Can’t we legislate this problem away, too?

David Leonard Downie, writing in Global Environment: Institutions, Law and Policy (CQ Press, 2005), outlined some of the obstacles nations face when trying to agree on international environmental policies and laws.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle is that states are free to do as they please within their own territory. “The fundamental principle of international law is sovereignty. States have, to a significant extent, unique and unfettered legal control over activities within their borders,” Downie points out.

In your town, you can call the police when the smoke from your neighbor’s barbecue is billowing into your house, but in the world community there are no global police. Nations simply try to get along as best they can, most of the time.

On top of this, the planet follows one set of rules and humans follow another. Perhaps sooner than later we will realize that the laws of nature are not going to change, so perhaps we should change our own. For now, though, we are at odds with the natural world.

Another obstacle is time lags. As the decades of UNFCCC negotiations illustrate, “It is neither an easy nor a quick process to create and implement global policy. Negotiations must be convened, policies agreed to, and treaties formally ratified by governments — and by enough governments so that the treaty can enter into force and be effective,” Downie explains.

And, of course, “during this process, the issue at hand does not wait. While the policy process drags on, greenhouse gases continue to build up,” he adds.

International environmental issues have other characteristics that further obstruct cooperation, such as scientific complexity and uncertain impacts, both of which are true for climate change.

Another key challenge is that economics, politics and environmental problems are tightly woven together in the fabric of each nation.

Japanese voters have just swept hundreds of Diet members out of office, many to protest the state of the economy. In China, if the economy goes belly up, the ruling Communist Party will have a political revolution on its hands.

Unequal adjustment costs are another characteristic of international environmental challenges, which means that “solving a common problem does not mean there will be common costs for each country,” as Downie puts it so clearly. For example, the costs of adapting to climate change, and the ability to pay, are likely to be far more manageable for Canada than for Bangladesh.

Perhaps the most unfortunate characteristic of some environmental problems, and particularly in the case of climate change, is that the most serious impacts do not present themselves for decades.

“This extended time horizon can make it difficult for societies and policy-makers to bear short-term costs to fix such a [distant] problem,” Downie notes.

“The elected officials and the government bureaucrats who are responsible for making decisions on when and how to address environmental problems often operate in a much shorter time frame” than global environmental problems, Downie observes.

Indeed, budgets are annual, politicians are generally in and out within two to four years, and even CEOs come and go without ever having to answer for their failure to deal with the impacts of the problems they corporately abet.

And so our children will pay the price, and in our shortsightedness we are willing accomplices to their future suffering.

But it’s holiday season and optimism is in order, so I will leave you with a quote from a new book by the U.S. journalist Osha Gray Davidson, titled “Clean Break: The story of Germany’s energy transformation and what Americans can learn from it.”

Energiewende. The word translates simply as, ‘energy change.’ But there’s nothing simple about Energiewende. It calls for an end to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power and it embraces clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. The [German] government has set a target of 80 percent renewable power by 2050, but many Germans I spoke with in three weeks traveling across this country, believed that 100 percent renewable power was achievable by then,” Davidson reports.

“Such a massive power shift may sound impossible to those of us from the United States, where giant oil and coal corporations control the energy industry and the very idea of human-caused climate change is still hotly contested.

“Here in Germany, that debate is long over. A dozen years of growing public support has driven all major political parties to endorse Energiewende. If a member of parliament called climate change a hoax or said that its cause is unknown, he or she would be laughed out of office,” writes Davidson.

So there is hope for change and innovation from within, at the local and national levels.

Of course Germany’s path is risky and there are critics. As The Economist pointed out in its July 28 edition: “To many, Energiewende is a lunatic gamble with the country’s manufacturing prowess. But if it pays off, Germany will have created yet another world-beating industry.”

In fact, if Germany is successful, it will create a paradigm to save the planet, and for all of us to do what is right for our children and grandchildren. But the planet isn’t going to wait until 2050 and neither should we. For our children’s sake.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and the Associate Director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at: stevehesse@hotmail.com.