A few weeks from now representatives of the all of the world's major governments will meet in the capital of Denmark to attempt to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Treaty, which regulated greenhouse gas emissions. The conference promises to be immensely complex, and many experts are pessimistic about its prospects.
But underlying every vexing political and economic consideration is a problem so obvious it's easy to overlook. Humans don't like being treated unfairly and react injudiciously to being cheated — traits destined to be severely tested by the crucible of climate change.
Since the industrial revolution, profits from the exploitation of fossil energy — coal, oil and natural gas — have not been equally distributed. America, Europe and Japan got rich off of oil and coal; now China, India and much of the rest of the developing world are attempting to do the same thing. If they succeed, climate scientists say, it will mean environmental catastrophe.
This progression has created a situation in which any solution to climate change is, to a greater or lesser extent, going to be unfair — a fact many negotiators openly acknowledge. The Danish environmental minister hosting the Copenhagen conference, Connie Hedegaard, has reportedly been "extraordinarily blunt" in insisting that China, India and the rest of the developing world shoulder a large share of the climate load.
Hedegaard recently toldThe New York Times, "I get it. If I were a developing country I would say, 'Why should I do this?' They are feeling the consequences of climate change first and foremost. And they didn't create the situation."
But, she said, "it's just an arithmetic fact that if China and India continue at the current rate they'll use up the whole global carbon space in a very short time." China and other emerging nations, Hedegaard concluded, "must accept [responsibility] even if it isn't fair."
How likely is such acceptance? In 2003, researchers working for the primatologist Frans de Waal at Emory University conducted an experiment to see how monkeys reacted to unfair treatment. First, they taught a group of capuchin monkeys to trade pebbles for slices of cucumber. Then, one day they gave one of the monkeys a grape in exchange for his pebble. The other monkeys were incensed, and an uproar ensued.
"They would literally take the cucumber from me and then drop it on the ground or throw it on the ground, or when I offered it to them they would simply turn around and refuse to accept it," Sarah Brosnan, one of the researchers, toldLiveScience.
Humans are no different than monkeys in their aversion to inequity, real or perceived. "Fairness is extremely to important people," said Alan Fiske, a professor of anthropology at UCLA. "They'll make huge sacrifices, pay high costs, go to a lot of trouble to make sure they're treated fairly. Fair is an ambiguous word, but there's no question that people have very strong emotions about the distribution of positive and negative things. It's enormously important. People will sacrifice their lives for fairness."
Fiske's last point is haunting. Experts agree that the developing world is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures. China, for example, has a long history of devastating agricultural droughts. It's no surprise that, as John Kerry said during a recent Senate hearing on climate change, "The Chinese are petrified by what is happening in the context of global climate change."
Will China, India and other developing nations be willing to accept unfair treatment, knowing that if they don't — if they refuse to act on climate change out of a sense injustice — they will face serious consequences? Can they overcome what cognitive psychologists call our "inequity aversion"?
The answer once again appears unpromising. In 1982, German sociologists developed an experiment that has since become the textbook example of the human sensitivity to fairness. Seeking to understand the psychological underpinnings of negotiation, they constructed a game in which a two people must split a sum of money. One of them — the "proposer" is given $10, some portion of which he must give to the "responder." If the responder accepts the proposer's offer they both get to keep the money; if he rejects they both get nothing.
The researchers found that the responders in the study regularly acted against their own self-interest. If the proposer offered any sum less than $4, they refused and both subjects were left empty handed. "Fairness" was more important to the responder than free cash.
The Ultimatum Game, as the experiment came to be called, has since been conducted around the world, with similar results everywhere. It suggests, among other things, that people are deeply averse to accepting unfair treatment, or what they perceive to be unfair treatment, even if it's in their own self-interest to do so. This phenomenon is often highly visible when countries conduct multilateral negotiations.
"Time after time we find that international environmental agreements don't get formed and become effective unless there's some general sense among the participants that the arrangement is equitable," said Oran Young, a professor of international governance and environmental institutions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"So you've got to come up with an agreement that, at least in a very general sense, people think of as a fair deal," he continued. "Otherwise, you're not likely to get an agreement, and if you do, it's not likely to get implemented in an effective way."
At the moment, prospects for a deal widely perceived as "fair" hinge, in large part, on the willingness of the U.S. Congress to acknowledge, in climate negotiations, that it holds a larger share of the world's carbon debt than do economic competitors like China.
There is precedent for such an recognition: In 1992, when the original Kyoto Protocol was signed, then-President George H.W. Bush acknowledged America and Europe's special responsibility to combat climate change, noting that they "must go further" than other nations and offer detailed "programs and measures they will undertake to limit greenhouse gas emissions."
And yet as The New York Times reported recently, the likelihood that Congress will follow the elder Bush's lead appears unlikely. The Times framed the discussion thusly: "Poor countries say industrial powers, which have spent a century or more benefiting from fossil fuels while adding billions of tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, owe them financial assistance in dealing with rising seas or shifting rains and a stable climate, which they say can be achieved only if rich countries commit to deep prompt cuts in their emissions.
"On the other side," the Times continued, "established industrialized powers are finding it hard to build substantial public support for programs that would send tens of billions of dollars a year abroad. In the United States, the Senate - where preserving American jobs and reviving the economy are paramount — presents a particularly strong obstacle."
Sensitivity to fairness can sound abstract and ambiguous — not to mention soft-edged — in the context of immensely complex multilateral negotiations about re-tooling the global carbon economy. And yet, as basic primate psychology shows, its centrality to the global climate crisis can't be overlooked. "These questions about equity and fairness are very close to the heart of the issue," said Young. "They have to be taken seriously."
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