The title of an upcoming Festival of Thinkers panel, “Future Resources: Envisioning Sustainable Development,” only begins to hint at the broad range of interconnected subjects that go into any discussion of sustainability — ranging from ecological concerns and population control to economic disparity and social disruption.  

Panelists include Rajendra Pachauri — chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, shared with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore — and Mike Moore, whose tenure of almost 25 years in the parliament of New Zealand included two months as prime minister. He also served as director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) from 1999 to 2002, and has authored several books. His most recent one is titled, Saving Globalization: Why Globalization and Democracy Offer the Best Hope for Progress, Peace, and Development.

“Humans have now organized a highly complex system, increasingly globalized in nature,” the Festival of Thinkers panel description reads in part. “Components of this system range from economic [to] ecological to social — each component being interdependent on the other. But how sustainable is this system? For how long will the fundamentals needed for the continuation of humanity exist? Threats to the planet and the current systemization are many [and include] the high rate of use of non-renewable energy sources, the number and size of violent conflicts, poverty traps, the changing climate of our planet, population growth and the degradation of our land and sea resources.”

Pachauri discussed a similar nexus of issues on October 3 when he joined a panel at Columbia University titled, “Copenhagen, India and the U.S: From Conflict To Cooperation.”The event focused on “issues arising from conflicting positions of India and the U.S. on the approaches to the proposed Copenhagen Treaty” and was the first organized under the auspices of the newly constituted Independent India-U.S. Task Force on Design of the Climate Change Treaty (Kyoto II or Copenhagen I). The task force was founded by Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor of economics and law at Columbia, who served as both participant and panel moderator at the Columbia event. 

The panel title refers to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP15 — the 15th Conference of the Parties under the United Nations’ Climate Change Convention) which will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, from December 7 to 18, 2009. Delegations from some 192 countries will be in attendance, along with a variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), observer organizations and United Nations agencies. 

The goal of COP15 is “…to stabilize the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous man-made climate changes … in such a way as to give the ecosystems the opportunity to adapt naturally. This means that food safety must not be compromised, and that the potential to create sustainable social and economic development must not be endangered.”

‘Stocks’ and ‘Flows’

Observers hope that COP15 will yield a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, but some of the same issues that hampered that proposal have already threatened to derail any agreement that might be made in Copenhagen. The Columbia panel’s focus on the conflict between the U.S. and India encapsulates the core issue that has stymied progress on climate issues for more than a dozen years. 

Adopted in Japan in December 1997 and brought into force in February 2005, the Kyoto Protocol committed its signatories — 37 industrialized countries and the European community — to a series of binding greenhouse gas emission reductions between 2008 and 2012.

India and China ratified the protocol, which did not bind them to emission reduction obligations. The American delegation signed the protocol but the U.S. Senate never ratified it — a rejection based in part on conservative skepticism about the scientific validity of global warming, and in part on concerns that the protocol would put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage if the country were compelled to transition to alternative energy sources. 

At the Columbia panel, Bhagwati set the framework for the discussion by characterizing the climate change policy quandary as an issue of “stocks” and “flows.” Over the past century and more, he noted, the U.S. and Europe have industrialized and grown wealthy at the cost of emitting a large percentage of the “stock” of greenhouse gases currently changing our climate. At the moment, however, rising industrial and economic powers — with China and India at the top of the list — are drastically increasing their “flows” of greenhouse gas emissions (although starting from a much lower per capita base). China, for example, recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. 

Pachauri noted that, as in the U.S., serious political obstacles exist to India’s controlling greenhouse gas emissions. In the world’s most populous democracy, he pointed out, some 400 million people lack access to something as basic as electricity for lighting. He also stressed that India was unlikely to change course or to enter into serious commitments until it was clear that the countries responsible for the current “stock” of greenhouse gases were taking serious and sustained action to mitigate their own emissions.

He was optimistic, however, that COP15 would be a positive step toward putting both the developed and developing countries on track to make the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas production. He also expressed confidence that India’s apparent recalcitrance on the issue of accepting binding emission targets would soon soften. 

The evidence supporting this contention — both in the preceding months and in the weeks that followed — is mixed. This July, during a visit to India by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh reiterated what has been Indian policy for almost two decades — that India would not accept legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. “Even with 8% to 9% GDP growth every year for the next decade or two, our per capita emissions will be well below developed country averages,” Ramesh said. “There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions. And as if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours.” More recently, the government has argued that it could only limit emissions with financial and technological support from the developed nations. 

A few weeks after the Columbia panel, the Indian government reversed course. In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reported in the Times of India, Ramesh wrote: “The position we take on international mitigation commitments only if supported by finance and technology needs to be nuanced simply because we need to mitigate [emissions] in self-interest.” Scant days after the public leaking of Ramesh’s letter, there was a backlash in India. Senior members of the country’s climate negotiating team threatened to resign and the Prime Minister rejected the concessions Ramesh appeared prepared to make.

The Economic Times quoted Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, one of the key negotiators, as saying that “It is now clear that the document in question is only a note for discussion, not official policy. It has also been clarified that there will be no shift except on the basis of consensus and with the sanction of Parliament. This is most appropriate since our climate change policy has always been based on a national consensus.”

How much of this conflict represented genuine differences over policy and how much had to do with negotiating leverage for the coming conference is an open question. The Times article hinted in the direction of the latter explanation, noting near its conclusion that, “Damage appears to have been done in terms of the elbow room that negotiators will have.”

The Columbia panel was rounded out by Thomas Schelling, who shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics with Robert Aumann for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” Schelling did crucial work, between 1948 and 1953, in implementing the U.S. Marshall Plan in post-War Europe. 

His approach to the problem of the impact of climate change on developing nations — which he sees as under far greater threat than the advanced industrialized countries — mirrors the strategy he helped develop for the Marshall Plan: He proposes that the richer nations create a pool of money to help the poorer countries both adapt to change and also develop and implement cleaner energy and industrial technologies. However, he goes on to suggest that the sharing of that money between the dozen or so most important developing nations should be a decision made by those nations themselves, with the aid of a mediator, rather than having those decisions imposed from the outside.

The impact of climate change on poorer nations, Schelling argued, will be particularly dire in the area of food production. He pointed to changes already visible in the Himalayan glaciers which feed most of Asia’s rivers, on which the irrigation systems — and thus the food supply — for a third or more of the world’s population rely. 

Globalization: Both the Problem and the Solution

Moore has long been an advocate for the argument that globalization and free trade are the most efficient mechanisms for lifting the greatest number of people out of poverty at the greatest speed. Two months before he became WTO director-general — during a fierce battle for the post, against Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand, who ended up succeeding him — Moore made a speech in Wellington, which amounted to a statement of principles. “If people, especially young people, say unemployment is too high, they are right. If environmentalists say that growth must be sustainable and not destroy the planet’s essential equilibrium, they are right. When developing countries say they are not getting fair access and justice, they are right.”

For a number of years now, Moore has been speaking and writing about the link between poverty, food and energy production. He has referred to biofuels programs in the developed countries — which reduce the supply and increase the cost of corn used for food or animal feed — as “a populist green response to global warming that does the opposite of what was intended.” He also considers the actions of richer countries that buy up farmland in poorer countries to be a form of neocolonialism.

Moore has sought to make sure that free markets don’t overwhelm sovereign governments. Pachauri has sought to find a sustainable middle ground between the urgent need of almost a third of the world’s inhabitants to escape grinding poverty and the imperative that we first stop and then reverse the grave damage that unbridled industrial development has wrought. “Our planet … is bursting at the seams in human terms, in economic terms, and in ecological terms,” notes the introduction to the Festival of Thinkers panel, quoting economist Jeffrey Sachs. “Our generation’s unique challenge is learning to live peacefully and sustainably in an extraordinarily crowded world.”