World Leaders Must Promote New Meaning of Progress

Author: Henri Landes, currently works on environmental and housing policy at the French Socialist Party. He also teaches environmental studies at Sciences Po Paris, where he graduated with a Master in Environment, Sustainable Development and Risks. French-American, born in New York City and raised in San Francisco, Henri studied history and German at the University of California, Davis, where he earned Phi Beta Kappa. He then played two years of professional tennis on the futures circuit before pursuing graduate studies.

On Tuesday the 25th of June, President Barack Obama delivered a convincing speech on the urgency to act against climate change. His skillful rhetoric and inspiring optimism hopefully persuaded any Americans that still questioned the need to address the issue – politicians of the opposition especially.

After many years of reluctance, the United States should finally “officially” launch itself into the climate change fight, and should do so with an international perspective. Obama’s speech was undoubtedly a strong statement, notably taking into account a complicated international context of economic crisis, and a domestic one of divided politics. However, I would have liked to hear some newer ideas on how to mitigate climate change, as well as a connection drawn between climate change and a global socio-economic crisis.  

With regards to international solutions, Obama primarily stressed ending public financing for coal factories – unless carbon capture is included – trade of clean technologies and both bilateral and international cooperation to increase renewable energy development. As much as these are necessary, these solutions are all relatively consensual and old news in the world of climate activists. Few argue that we need to continue using the dirtiest energy source, and market based solutions for renewable energy upscale already have several success as well as failure stories (the second due in most cases to ineffective regulation and poor investment strategies, i.e. solar energy in France).

Market based solutions to climate change have been the United States’ trademark in international negotiations, to the dismay of developing countries who have looked to the US and other historical polluters for leadership in setting binding greenhouse gas reduction targets and in proposing regulatory measures. These market-based solutions are in my view largely insufficient to tackle climate change, and must be completed with others. The recent curve of global greenhouse gas emissions and climate trends of the past few years are ample proof (storms and flooding in South-East Asia, drought in Africa and in the US, etc.). We are currently on a path of roughly 4 degrees of global warming by 2060, and the next IPCC report in the fall will reveal much more troubling information.

Climate change is a problem of unprecedented nature, and it brings us to a turning point. It has been caused by certain aspects of our economic model of production and consumption, at both national and international levels. The inability of the world economy to effectively internalize the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation and natural resource depletion is undisputed.  The negative social and humanitarian effects of certain economic activity on local communities abroad are also visible, particularly in poor countries where climate change will be most devastating. (The latest World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat, shows severe repercussions of a 4-degree world on poor countries).

In a time of global crisis, marked by low or negative growth rates, high unemployment, enormous deficits, and stark inequality, it is favorable, from all perspectives, to adapt the model of our economic activity and cooperation to XXIst century challenges – challenges that are all intertwined. Fighting climate change, the greatest challenge of our time, is the opportunity to make these positive adjustments. To do so, it requires doing more than just eliminating one energy source and then applying the same model of activity to cleaner ones. Climate change requires some rethinking of how we go about our business worldwide. 

Sure Obama was not going to put everything into one speech. Yes, the speech was designed to convince those who were not convinced, to get things moving and to hammer in the most urgent solutions.

Yet, one or two sentences about how the world economy should no longer (or at least less!) degrade the environment and impact human health would have been fitting. Maybe this would prevent American corporations like Schuepbach Energy from trying to do hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in France, where this is currently illegal due to its environmental and health impacts. For those concerned about regulation thwarting economic growth: the mention of a minimum amount of regulation would not have had uncontrollable consequences on western lifestyle and free market capitalism.

It is accepted within the economic community that not taking into account climate change, environmental degradation or human health is a considerable limitation in an economic actor’s medium and long-term business strategy. It is time to value new indicators of economic performance and support measures of sustainability, as many of the world’s foremost economists have suggested in the past decade (Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen did so with the Stiglitz Commission in 2009; Jeffrey Sachs did so in the World Happiness Report in 2012; the OECD has advocated new indicators of development in several reports).

Mainstreaming sustainability into our world and local economies entails fighting climate change. More importantly, it means addressing all of the issues necessary to promote the well being of a population and its community, no matter how large or small. The well being of a population is definitely compatible with progress and prosperity. Obama explicitly promoting “sustainability” – with its four pillars, economic, social, environment and culture – would have been a bit more bold and visionary.

Climate justice and social justice, at all levels, must go hand in hand. It is not an easy task to design the necessary policies, but the solutions are out there already, particularly at a local level. We just need world leaders to speak up about them and implement national plans that support them. Speaking about the link between local and global is also paramount today.  

At Georgetown, Obama presented climate change as an opportunity for the United States to save and lead the world in a new challenge. While it is slightly inconsistent with the United States’ historic role in contributing to climate change, so be it. In that case, some consideration for what climate change is a by product of is not only respectful of the international community, but it is also strategic economically and politically. We cannot use old recipes for the climate change fight, and some constraints and new ways of thinking are necessary for everyone. 

by Henri Landes 

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