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An encounter

AMERICAN HEAT . By Donald A Brown . First edition . Published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc. . Maryland . USA . 2002

By Pratap Pandey
Published: Saturday 30 November 2002


Two friends - for security reasons, we call them F1 and F2 - met at Vigyan Bhavan, where the eighth round of talks on combating climate change was on. As their leather bags passed through the X-ray machine installed at the entrance, they noticed each other, and hugged. The bags were innocent. They contained no explosives, pistols, ammo; nothing that exploded or could kill. The two retrieved their bags and began to walk towards the conference halls. They began to talk animatedly, as happens between friends.

F1: Just read this book. It slams US tactics in climate change talks.

F2: Wow, about time.

F1: I know. I just don't understand it. Since World War II, the US has advocated peace and democracy. Yet, when it comes to global negotiations on environmental matters...

F2: The way they behave! Bizarre. Always obstructing, always narrow-minded. Do you remember how, during negotiations for the 1992 Rio Summit text on Agenda 21, they objected to the phrase 'right to life', a phrase developing countries wanted included in the text?

F1: Of course I do. Come on! The US has a plan. It screws up the biodiversity convention, just because it needs teak and medicinal plants from Southern forests. Now they're busy derailing the CoP process, because it doesn't suit them!

F2: bloody rogue government! But tell me, what does the book say?

F1: Oh, it has a brilliant chapter on how US has short-circuited climate change negotiations. Minute historical detail. The US questioned climate change science, which was uncertain in the early 1990s. Then it began to argue that developing countries, especially India and China, had to agree on emission cuts; if they didn't, the US wouldn't. You know it: the US actively buried the question of historical emissions...

F2: yeah, basically the question of who industrialised, and so polluted the global atmosphere, first...

F1: Exactly. The book examines US objections to taking climate negotiations seriously. It undercuts these objections, from an ethical perspective.

F2: what's that?

F1: An ethical perspective.

F2: O god! It must have been written by an American!

F1: Yes, it is. What's wrong with that?

F2: Well, you know, whenever these concerned Americans approach the climate change question, they always use a morality lens...

F1: So?

F2: So I don't agree! We have to think hard-core economics. To combat climate change, developed nations have to change the way they use oil, or coal, or gas! You have to start slowing down on carbon dioxide emissions. That means: re-think energy-use strategy. Change!

F1: Hang on. The crazy thing about greenhouse gases is that they are locally emitted, but have global effects. We are talking about a global commons here, the atmosphere. If I emit more gases, if I contribute more to greenhouse gas concentrations, then I am using up somebody else's right to use the atmosphere. That's unfair of me! That's an ethical question!

You say: change! I agree. That's what the book says. It asks its readers to understand exactly how the US must change. The US is trying to fob off its responsibility to every other nation on earth. This book says: it can't. It better look into its own backyard, before pontificating, or posturing...

F2: Or throwing climate change negotiations out of gear.

F1: Right. And...

F2: Still, this ethics thing troubles me. Somehow, I cannot countenance it.

F1: Look at it this way. You have political power. This power is legitimate only if you also have moral authority. In short, ethics is related to the real world. In climate change talks, the US has consistently used its superpower status. Equally consistently, it has lost moral authority. The US wants economic efficiency, that's to say profit, in everything. In environmental issues, you can't take such a line. Climate change is ultimately an ethical issue. Everything else follows.

F2: The book says that, does it? Interesting. Global environmental negotiations have changed the way in which we think through international relations. Is the US unable to deal with it precisely because it is the most powerful nation on earth?

F1: The need to sit around and talk is certainly an irritant for the US. In fact, in climate change talks, its back is against the wall. The book implies this, and offers a solution: its better to tackle climate change than to avoid it. Any such attempt must be based on equal rights to the atmosphere.

F2: Wow. That's quite a strong line to take. Do you think the US delegation to CoP-8 has read this book?

F1: I am sure not. Even if they have, you think they'll accept its ideas?

F2: No way! Umm...you have a copy of this book?

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