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Expired · 20th January 2010
Ray Grigg
The world is getting more complicated – socially, politically, economically, environmentally and now ethically. This is one of the clear conclusions to be drawn from the international discussions in Copenhagen as 192 nations attempted to reach a consensus on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to lessen the destructive impact of global warming on poor countries.

The ethics are simple when rich countries that are causing climate change suffer the consequences of their own behaviour. But the ethics are complicated when poor countries are the innocent victims.

The dividing line between victims and perpetrators is already being drawn. And the resulting tension is one of the primary reasons why an international consensus was not achieved at Copenhagen. What responsibility do rich countries have to compensate and ameliorate the environmental trauma they cause in poor countries?

"Acrimonious" and "heated" were the terms often used to describe the tone of sessions as delegates frequently negotiated late into the night. The Sudanese, in response to a joint proposal by rich and developing nations, said such an inadequate plan would be like the Holocaust, committing Africa to deadly floods, droughts, mudslides, sandstorms and rising seas. A Swedish negotiator replied that the Holocaust comparison was inappropriate and "absolutely despicable". Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, known for his poetic hyperbole, emphasized ethics by noting, "When these capitalist gods of carbon... belch their dangerous emissions, it's we, the lesser mortals of the developing sphere, who gasp... and eventually die."

The ethical currents underlying the Copenhagen discussions also brought political ideology to the surface, an inevitability that elevated tensions, complicated issues and made consensus less attainable. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela declared that, "A ghost is stalking the streets of Copenhagen.... It's capitalism, capitalism is that ghost.... If the climate was a bank, they would have already saved it." This observation, like Mugabe's, carries enough truth, blame and bitterness to be disquieting. Indeed, if trillions of dollars were spent to shore up a collapsing global financial system, is the planet's environment worth any less?

For island nations such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, the ethical issue is very real and immediate. They are slowly being submerged by rising seas, without being offered the time for failed consensus, protracted negotiations or delayed action. Indeed, the same critical time frame applies to coastal Bangladesh, to the Nile Delta and to dozens of other places with poor populations hugging lowland shores. Even Copenhagen's goal of containing global temperature increases to below 2°C still subjects billions of people to extremely adverse effects – United Nations' scientists believe present emission targets will not keep the temperature increase below 3°C. When the poorest 100 countries account for less than 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and largest economies account for more than 85 percent, those responsible for climate abnormalities are very obvious. And the ethical obligations of rich countries to poor ones are not so easily evaded.

Rich countries are reluctantly and hesitantly confronting this obligation. They agreed at Copenhagen to raise $30 billion from 2010 to 2012 to help poor and developing countries adapt to climate change and to limit carbon emissions. An additional $100 billion per year will come after 2020 from an unspecified "wide variety of sources". Of course, these are same sort of promises made in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Nothing substantial was done following those pledges. And since that time, environmental conditions have worsened.

Copenhagen was supposed to be a new start. As the meetings progressed, "Hopenhagen" became "Copinghagen" and then "Brokenhagen". Humanity, however, has made some progress in the last decade. Global abject poverty is down from 34 percent (2 billion) of the world's population to 25 percent (1.7 billion). Literacy rose from 78 percent to 84 percent. Electronic communication is saturating even the poorest of the world's slums. And, as of 2008, for the first time ever, the majority of humanity now lives in cities, the best place for them to minimize ecological impacts.

But "Brokenhagen" couldn't agree how it would fix the most crucial problem. The decade saw a three-fold increase in the number of large natural disasters, directly affecting one-third of humanity. Greater numbers of people than ever before in human history are now moving around the planet. Some are the victims of political and economic distress. Others are uprooted by the corporatization and industrialization of rural land. The majority, however, are displaced by floods, droughts and other climate events. Most of the world's displaced people are now environmental refugees.

This is how ethics get entangled with pragmatics. In the globally interconnected world in which we live, the two become inseparable. The culture, economy and security of even wealthy nations are now threatened by these shifting tides of humanity. A destabilizing crisis that occurs in one place can have huge impacts everywhere. Global environmental ethics must now consider self-interest. "Hungry people," says Josette Shearan of the UN's World Food Program, do one of three things, "They riot, they migrate or they die."

Death raises an inescapable ethical issue. But rioting and migration create their own problems – problems from which not even wealthy countries can escape.