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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Fair Is Hard to Find
distributed 7/11/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Karen Wiebe & Anna Dennis, of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

The news from Kyoto was discouraging this week, so I watched an old comedy to get some helpful perspective.

Kyoto was the site of this year's G8 meeting, an occasion where the economic powerhouses of the world discuss big issues. In an indicator of the seriousness of the global heating crisis, several other important nations were allowed to join the talks about climate change strategies. The Associated Press managed to sum up the situation in a single sentence. "China, India and other energy-guzzling developing nations ... rejected key elements of an anti-global-warming strategy embraced by President Bush and leaders of wealthy nations."

The rich nations couldn't come to an agreement with some other countries on a fair way to allocate global carbon reductions. That's what let me to the movies.

The film that came to mind is the 1963 extravaganza of slapstick comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The whole basis for the film is the inability of a batch of strangers to agree on a fair way to divide some money.

Here's the gist of the plot. An outlaw, fleeing the cops, drives off the edge of a mountain road. Four carloads of people witness the crash. The outlaw, on the verge of death, tells them where to find $350,000 in buried loot, then kicks the bucket -- literally. Within a few minutes, the motley mix of strangers figure out that they should cooperate in finding the money, and then divide it fairly. But "fair" is hard to find.

To dramatically simplify the problem, there were eight people, from five families, in four vehicles. Should the loot be split four, five or eight ways? The roadside negotiations get ever more complex. Each proposal seems perfectly reasonable to the ones who will get the most from it, and crazy to the others. The three people from one family like the per-person plan, for example, and the guy driving alone prefers the per-vehicle option. Finally, the negotiations collapse, and they all set off on a madcap "every man for himself" race.

The film's premise is a delightful illustration of a real-world truth. Our notions of what is just and fair are strongly colored by our own perspectives and interests. In a complex situation, there is no perfect way to allocate costs and benefits that is objectively fair to all concerned. What is equal by some criteria is biased in other ways. In the film and at Kyoto, there is no tidy way to divide things that will seem fair to everybody.

The movie also drives home another point that we need to take very seriously in negotiating policies to minimize climate change. If any party to the negotiations insists on getting the best possible deal for their own nation, then it will be impossible to find a workable deal for all. Resorting to "every man for himself" made for a funny movie, but it is a terrible approach to international relations and global warming strategies.

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It is clear to almost everybody that dramatic reductions are needed in the world's emissions of greenhouse gasses. The G8 leaders looked at a target of a 50% reduction by 2050. Others -- including many scientists and politicians -- say that a cut of 80 or 90% is needed by 2050. Even the modest G8 goal is going to be hard to reach. The responsibility for action needs to be shared, fairly, among all nations. But what is a fair way to do that?

Well, every country could reduce its emissions by half. That is the gist of what the rich G8 nations proposed, and that the developing nations rejected. Another (long!) AP sentence describes the conflict. "The five main developing nations -- China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, who together represent 42 percent of the world's population -- said they rejected the notion that all should share in the 50-percent target, since it is wealthier countries that have created most of the environmental damage up to now."

A very different option -- which apparently never made it to the negotiating table -- is to take the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would be allowed at the target level, divide it by the global population, and instruct each country to meet the same per-person goal. Everybody would share equally in the allowed carbon wealth. That would allow some of the poorest countries to increase their emissions, and the richest would have to take much greater cuts than under the G8 plan. That might sound fair to the poor, but it is a non-starter for the rich countries.

The nations of the world agree that dramatic action must be taken to minimize global warming. They can't agree on a fair way to take that action. As in the movie, when negotiations collapse, we fall into a chaotic "every nation for itself" mode that precludes a workable arrangement for us all.

A failure to agree is not acceptable. The most polluting nations must acknowledge that the proposals which look most "fair" from their perspective are never going to be acceptable to the countries which contribute less to the problem. The poorer countries already know, I'm sure, that the G8 will never agree to the most radical level of cuts.

These two options -- everybody makes cuts of an equal percentage, or everybody gets an equal allocation of emissions -- are both "fair" by some standards, but not acceptable by others. The world is rushing toward disaster while negotiators fail in their jobs of brokering a deal. To break this stalemate, let me propose a model for an unequal, but somewhat fair and politically workable, sharing of the responsibilities.

In the US, and many other countries, income taxes are "progressive". The poorest don't pay taxes at all, and the wealthy are taxed at a higher rate than the middle class. There is political controversy in the US about how progressive that tax gradient should be, but there is a general agreement that differing tax rates represent a fair policy which serves the common good.

Rather than trying to impose a "flat rate" of equal carbon reduction on all countries, it seems reasonable to draw on the wisdom of decades of progressive taxation around the world. The poor and those who have caused the least damage would not have to cut emissions at all. The wealthy and most polluting nations have to do more than some other nations, but they are not impoverished. It is not perfectly fair to anybody, but it does provide a workable approach for the whole global community.

The frameworks of international climate negotiations are confusing to many of us. Perhaps the familiar language of taxation can provide a moral perspective that helps us to discuss fairness and responsibility in a way that will allow agreements to be reached.

See if a model of progressive taxation helps clarify your own thinking about how to deal fairly with actions on climate change. Try in out with your friends, and in your church community. And let's demand that our nation's climate negotiators abandon a deal-killing expectation that our notion of "fair" be adopted by everybody. Let's work, instead, for a "progressive" approach which places the greatest responsibility on those with the greatest resources.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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