A global ethic for global problem

Yet another meeting of world leaders at Copenhagen showed the difficulty of uniting the international community in decisive action against a common threat. Not even the charisma, intellect and influence of the American President could provide a genuine blow against carbon emissions.

China, emphasising the culpability of economically developed countries for enormous historical carbon emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution, reinforced their national goal of rapid economic growth to increase material wealth and eliminate poverty. Western leaders responded with the much-repeated line that no climate treaty will have the necessary impact unless it includes China, India and Brazil. Pacific nation leaders identified the effect rising sea levels were already having on their coastal communities and the imminent need for relocation of many of their citizens.

The Chinese position might be reasonable in a national context; however Tim Costello hit the mark when he observed the principle of ‘national interest’ was outdated and ineffective when trying to solve global problems.

The human caused component of climate change is the defining example of a problem that can only be fixed by that which appears impossible – widespread international agreement and co-operation. The key to unlocking this conundrum is to recognise national interest is outranked by global interest. No country will flourish in a world ravaged by hostile climate.

The essential ethical question is not ‘what can I get for myself’ but ‘what can I contribute to the well-being of the global community’? This is not just an altruistic position, it’s supported by logic. If we undermine global well-being by destabilising humankind’s ecological life support system, every person on Earth will suffer.

The goal for each country is to act to maximise the chance of implementation of a global solution. In Australia’s case this means immediate large cuts in carbon emissions, building infrastructure for the new low carbon economy powered by renewable energy (wind, geothermal, solar, wave), and sharing this technology with developing countries to avoid replication of our carbon intensive lifestyles.

New economies can be built on the principles of sustainability; renewable energy, zero emission transport and zero waste production systems. We have this technology and it can be used to reduce both poverty and global carbon emissions. Some of the better carbon credit schemes offer investors the opportunity to finance the construction of wind farms in Bangladesh, or solar power plants in India. But this costs money. $30 trillion should finance the construction of stage one of the global sustainable economy. That’s about 10 times the cost of the Iraq war.

However climate change is only one of many threats to our existence which require an internationally co-ordinated response. How should we respond to the threat of nuclear annihilation, toxic pollution, loss of agricultural land, over population, terrorism, pandemics, diminishing supplies of food, clean water and fresh air? Individual nations prioritising self interest cannot solve problems as pervasive and complex as these.

In Copenhagen we failed to find a new ethic to energise global co-operation. It appears we are not yet ready to make the substantial changes required to live within Earth’s ecological limits. Until we develop a global ethic where the well-being of the global community outranks national interest we will continue on the path to global disaster.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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