The Paris Climate Summit: A useful failure

On the surface, the outcome of the Paris climate summit falls far short of what is needed to save the planet from global warming. Then again, maybe practical success isn’t the measure by which it should be judged.

On the surface, the outcome of the Paris climate summit falls far short of what is needed to save the planet from global warming. Then again, maybe practical success isn’t the measure by which it should be judged.

Many people are thrilled by what happened in Paris. Nations large and small volunteered to make cuts in their carbon emissions, and also to participate in a program of regular assessment and adjustment every five years starting in 2020. It's possible that further cuts will come, and that, aided by new technologies, humanity will eventually find a solution to climate change.

Still, the participants offered little action to back up their words. The meeting didn't establish a framework for a global carbon tax, or take any concrete steps commensurate to the task of keeping the planetary climate within safe bounds. The voluntary commitments may be enough to hold planetary warming to 3 degrees Celsius -- already beyond the 2-degree limit that scientists have warned not to exceed. That's an abject failure, given 50 years of warnings and streams of evidence showing temperatures rising, glaciers melting and oceans growing more acidic.

So why the widespread enthusiasm? As an exercise in imaginative optimism, here's one thought: Maybe the Paris framework has a least started the crucial process of establishing our different values concerning the global environment and what we want from the future.

In an important new book, “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene,” Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy explores the history of American thinking about the environment and humans' relationship to it. As he notes, the word “environment” has meant different things in the U.S.: first, space for free expansion by settlers, then a trove of resources, and later something to be preserved for its spiritual wealth and beauty. These conceptions -- and the legal frameworks supporting them -- emerged from difficult confrontations among groups including farmers, ranchers, naturalists and tourists. Values were forged through pitched battles between competing visions.

Purdy's larger point is that this is true for all the most important human problems. They cannot be resolved through simple cost-benefit analysis. They always involve disagreements over how to see the world and what to care most about. This matters now because we're entering an entirely new phase of history -- the Anthropocene -- in which human activity dominates Earth processes and the biosphere. Many people don't even know it's happening, and they lack any shared vision of how it should proceed.

The only way to create or perhaps discover such a vision is through messy global interaction and disagreement. Hence, Purdy suggests, we should be a little more tolerant of practical failures at international summits. “We should ask of efforts to address climate change,” he suggests, “not just whether they are likely to 'succeed' at solving the problem, but whether they are promising experiments -- workable approaches to valuing a world that we have everywhere changed.”

In this context, if you're an optimist, the framework agreed in Paris offers much to like. Regular interaction among nations, especially in a global, public arena, could help to forge new shared understanding or even create institutions able to coordinate movement toward a common future. We might get a clearer picture of where we agree and where we strongly differ. How should we value a stable climate, healthy oceans or ecosystems rich in species? Do these things matter only as resources for production? Or do they -- as many people believe -- have inherent worth quite separate from any use? What do we want from our societies -- just more of an endless variety of consumer goods? Is all economic activity good? Or do we need to separate the useful from the destructive?

Purdy argues that framing the approach to climate change in the language of economics may be hindering progress, not helping it. We're facing an unprecedented challenge to decide what we want from the future in a situation unlike any we've faced before. The supposedly “value neutral” approach of cost-benefit analysis fosters the illusion that we don't have to figure out what really matters, that there is some objective, technical answer that any rational person must recognize. Economics, as Purdy puts it, tends to degrade “the quality of decisions by diminishing the capacity to reflect on and argue over basic values and disagreements.”

The practical failure in Paris has exposed fundamental differences in values. Perhaps despair isn't the right response. If the goal is to recognize and then reconcile conflicting visions of the future, it might be a step in the right direction.

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