Nov 28, 2009

Cap'n Trade, Human Rights and Alternative Approaches to Climate Change

Update Dec. 1, 2009: Here's a video from Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff) on Cap and Trade. It says just about everything I mentioned below, only better and with animations. Enjoy.

With the Copenhagen conference quickly approaching, Climate Change is the next big agenda in US politics. The solution that's being offered - the only politically viable solution, I've been told - is Cap'n Trade. As most of you probably know, this is a system where carbon emissions would be capped and taxed beyond a certain point, but polluters could purchase offsets that would allow them to avoid the caps. In my opinion, the plan is flawed for a number of reasons:
1) It only affects the largest emitters. The current plan's cap is so high that most emitters wouldn't have to do anything to avoid the cap. Certainly, the cap will be reduced over time, but it would probably only have a minor impact for the next 10 years or more.
2) Most of the credits are slated to be given away, gratis, by the US government. This is meant to make the plan acceptable to power companies, but essentially it allows them to continue doing what they've been doing while appearing to comply with carbon reduction - subsidized by the government.
3) Companies can buy offsets which would, theoretically, neutralize the effect of their carbon emissions. This amounts to a sleight of hand, which allows industrialized nations and high emitters to continue their normal practices while giving the impression that something is being done to reduce carbon emissions. The fact is that without substantial reduction in carbon emissions as opposed to sequestration, we will not be able to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to the recommended 350 ppm level that is necessary for avoiding the worst case scenarios of Climate Change.
4) The carbon offset plan is essentially another mechanism for wealthy nations to push the environmental and social consequences of our lifestyle onto poorer nations. Many of these projects displace indigenous populations or involve other human rights abuses.

Cap'n Trade is a solution which is tailor made for industry - not a genuine attempt to limit carbon emissions. In their efforts to make the regulations politically viable (meaning that they will encounter less resistance from the energy industry), our legislators have made them more or less worthless.

Further complicating the Climate Change issue is the recent leak of a mass of emails between some of the world's preeminent climate scientists. This has laid bare the deeply political processes involved in climate science, and left many concerned about the public's perception of the issue. Jerome Whitington over at Accounting for Atmosphere points out that "...what we’re left with is a silly, irresponsible debate between elite Northern science and the elite Northern conservative populists who don’t want the UN eroding their right to play frontiersmen on the grand stage of American exceptionalism."

In a recent report to the World Bank, Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom "A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change" proposes an alternative to the typical Western approaches based on Markets and Science. She emphasizes multiple solutions at multiple scales which would take into account the on-the-ground experiences and local knowledge of the people who are most affected by Climate Change. The result would be a system that would be more resilient, more open to innovative approaches, and less prone to total failure.
Climate change is, without a doubt, a huge issue. We need to find real solutions rather than giving the energy industry an easy way out. We also need to think of Climate Change as an Environmental Justice issue, and make sure that the interests of those who are most affected (usually those who are least involved in the modern industrial project) are accounted for.


  1. I also just ran across this post on Culture Matters on "The Commons and the Culture of Climate Change." There's a nice short film about the commons at the end. Enjoy!

  2. I basically agree with what you've written. I would add that states have to take binding engagements at an international level - like a treaty - to reduce their emissions, an agreement that will also have a force of constraint on all and every states. I would not be optimistic if any state can play the free-rider at will.

    The IPCC has calculated projections of temperature for the end of the 21th century, according to different scenarios of different economic, social and technological changes.
    The lowest estimate of the most optimistic scenario gives 1° Celsius of warming (relative to the temperatures at the end of the 20th century).
    The highest estimate of the most pessimistic scenario (which is quite simply the scenario of the business-as-usual fossil intensive energy use and growth), gives 6.5 ° Celsius of warming.

    [source : ]

    It is quite hard to get a picture of what that means. I don't have much better to propose right now than the following very short videos: 1°C 2°C 3°C 4°C 5°C 6°C

  3. An uptade to the IPCC 2007 report is available here:

    According to this site , this is what can be found in there :

    " Among the points summarized in the report are that:

    The ice sheets are both losing mass (and hence contributing to sea level rise). This was not certain at the time of the IPCC report.

    Arctic sea ice has declined faster than projected by IPCC.

    Greenhouse gas concentrations have continued to track the upper bounds of IPCC projections.

    Observed global temperature changes remain entirely in accord with IPCC projections, i.e. an anthropogenic warming trend of about 0.2 ºC per decade with superimposed short-term natural variability.

    Sea level has risen more than 5 centimeters over the past 15 years, about 80% higher than IPCC projections from 2001.

    Perhaps most importantly, the report articulates a much clearer picture of what has to happen if the world wants to keep future warming within the reasonable threshold (2°C) that the European Union and the G8 nations have already agreed to in principle. "


    About the hack and what followed, personally speaking, one thing that disturbs me quite a lot is a kind of hypocrisy on the part of the so-called "skeptics".
    I mean so-called skeptics, and hypocrisy, because a skeptic is, IMHO, someone who ask questions to himself, who go try and assess diverse arguments, and do it critically, not simply one who says "those scientists are a bunch of liers", and then shows none of this "skepticism" and critical prudence when it comes to claiming that climate change does not exist, or that human activity has nothing to do with it.

  4. Thanks a lot for the video in the update.
    Besides, I have found this, which seems useful in this time of heightened denial :

    it explains that scientists have been toning down their message in an attempt to avoid public despair and inaction, not the contrary

  5. Been thinking about this. I finished about half of Ostrom's article, but I think what's good about the focus on multiple levels is that not *everyone* has to be convinced for some to make those improvements happen.

    The people I know who don't *believe* in climate change, mostly relatives, aren't planning on changing their minds anytime soon, especially with this newest tirade from the news media. One argues that people are full of themselves if they believe they have such massive control over what's going to happen (ties in with religious beliefs). I should add that they do make smaller improvements at a household level, and are completely ok with ideas like recycling, energy efficiency, minimizing pollution, etc.

    I also came across this article the other day:

    "Carbon must be sucked from air, says IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri," Times Online


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