The Changing Conversation on Climate

Many Americans have long waited for the President to clarify and deepen his position on how the United States should move forward on climate change. In the years since the George W. Bush administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, American engagement on the issue has been uneven, and voters have been only episodically motivated by concerns about Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina or about wildfires and droughts. President Obama's last-minute intervention in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in 2009 was but an isolated incident, and did not indicate any kind of broader pattern of American leadership on the issue. Throughout 2012, pundits on the left noted the total absence of climate change on the presidential campaign trail. The bigger picture--that locally concentrated effects like storms or droughts are part of a systemic, global problem--has not been adequately captured by the popular imagination nor by a political discourse driven primarily by electoral concerns. 

Americans concerned about climate change have hoped for a high-profile speech like the one the President delivered today. The speech, however, seems to indicate that the rhetoric of climate change has changed in significant ways. When the UNFCCC began in 1992, its primary purpose was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This goal has been at the center of any and all serious policy conversations about climate change. But now, despite the fact that the first plank of President Obama's plan is to "cut carbon pollution in America," the new watchword is "prepare." The other two planks of the plan the President laid out were to "prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change" and to "lead international efforts to combat climate change and to prepare for its impacts." Get ready, the Administration's new strategy indicates, because climate change is already here. 

This is certainly prudent governance. The cost, severity, and likelihood of climate-related harms demand that we prepare for them. And although I celebrate the President's use of his office to reinsert climate change into a complacent national discourse, there are important ethical questions lurking behind this intensified emphasis on preparation. Will the acceptance that climate change is already here make us too ready to acknowledge it as an inevitability? Will the effort to prepare for the impacts of climate change divert our resources and attention away from our ability or willingness to deal with its causes? How can we strike a proper balance between preparing ourselves and protecting future generations from worser harms? 

These are difficult questions that will be treated differently in different political and physical environments. Resiliency measures are quite pressing in heavily glaciated regions, in semi-arid agricultural regions, and in large coastal cities. Perhaps the rationale behind preparation, that of self-interest, can more effectively motivate political action on climate change than can the concern for future generations. Even so, it seems likely that a climate policy shaped by self-interest and the need to prepare ourselves for near-certain eventualities succeeds only by according a lower moral priority to those who will inherit the effects of our emissions today. 

Views: 140

Tags: States, United, change, climate, environment


You need to be a member of Global Ethics Network to add comments!

Join Global Ethics Network

Carnegie Council

In Solidarity

The killing of George Floyd is another tragic moment in the long and painful history of racism in America. We feel the anger that arises from this assault on human decency. We hear the cries for action. The Council stands in solidarity with the millions of citizens who are raising their voices demanding change. Carnegie Council's motto is Ethics matter. We believe Black Lives Matter.

Vox Populi: What Americans Think About Foreign Policy, with Dina Smeltz & Mark Hannah

What do Americans think about the role the United States should be playing in the world? How do they conceive of the different trade-offs between domestic and international affairs, among competing options and sets of interests and values? The Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Dina Smeltz and Eurasia Group Foundation's Mark Hannah share the results of surveys from their organizations in this conversation with Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev.

China's Changing Role in the Pandemic-Driven World, with Amitai Etzioni & Nikolas Gvosdev

How has the pandemic changed U.S-China relations? How has it altered China's relationship with other nations and its geopolitical positioning? George Washington University's Amitai Etzioni and Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev discuss these questions and more as they break down "great power competition" in the era of COVID-19.





© 2020   Created by Carnegie Council.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service

The views and opinions expressed in the media, comments, or publications on this website are those of the speakers or authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Carnegie Council.