Climate change as a catalyst for change or as a threat to environmental governance?
Submitted on 03/04/2012 by Laurent Lambert, Oxford University Centre for the Environment,
Europaeum Research Director for 2012 Prague Workshop and for 2010 Paris Workshop
Getting close to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, we can observe that many debates approach the environment through the specific perspective of climate change. The European University Institute is by the way organizing soon a workshop with a title that says a lot about this situation: ‘The dominance of climate change in environmental law: taking stock for Rio+20’.
This dominance could have unanticipated negative consequences because of the relative neglect of equally important environmental issues such as biodiversity and endangered species protection, the fight against deforestation and desertification, developing sustainable agriculture practices, etc. All these problems are inter-connected and consequently require an integrative and coherent environmental global governance to be solved.
More importantly, focusing too narrowly on climate change objectives may lead us to develop efficient climate solutions to the detriment of other major environmental issues. Deciding to geoengineer the climate with ash clouds or giant mirrors in space might be a case in point.
On a Green blog I invite you to visit, Justin Gillis wrote very well about the complexity of and incertitude surrounding geoengineering to cool the climate down. He evocates the eye-opening example of the Asian Monsoon that he modestly presents as ”the primary source of water for crops that feed billions of people” across Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Africa.
Gillis explains that cooling down the global atmosphere might jeopardize the good functioning of the monsoon because this vital climatic system is drivenprecisely”by heating over land from strong sunshine in the summertime”. So the well-intentioned geoengineering could turn into a plague of an unprecedented magnitude? Well, things aren’t so simple. Asia’s biodiversity would certainly suffer, as some species would not resist to a fast-pace evolution, but agriculture could also benefit from this artificial climatic change, since it would limit the extreme heat periods while enabling plants to benefit from higher CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
Things are complex indeed, but what is certain is that geoengineering the global climate would always imply significant and complex tradeoffs. And when there are significant tradeoffs, there is a need for arbitrage. This would be needed to chose between competing priorities. We may wonder then what would happen if an issue – say, the protection of the Arctic– is not prioritized? Or even simply abandoned? (We all know that there are plenty of energy lobbies with an interest in geoengineering being developed, but no interest at all for fragile environments to be sanctuarized)
Because of these reasons, primarily the unknown consequences but also the risk of arbitrages against biodiversity, the UN’s Convention on Bioligical Diversity (CBD) maintains a prohibitive position with regards to geoengineering.
I would personally agree with Jens van de Weele’s opinion that it is worth keeping the scientific, ethical and political debates alive about geoengineering, provided that we think about it with a broad and integrative approach, and that a global environmental governance system able to protect the common good from particular interests is being designed and enforced before any collective decision can be taken on this matter.p now to receive the monthly Europaeum Bulletin directly to your email!!