If the global community is going to get serious about tackling the threat of climate change, the United States needs to get on board, according to associate law professor Paolo Galizzi, Ph.D.
But for that to happen, the political alignment needs to change radically, Galizzi said on Oct. 13 in a lecture on the Lincoln Center campus.
Galizzi, the director of the Sustainable Development Legal Initiative (SDLI) at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law, appeared as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs.
In his talk, “The International Legal Framework on Climate Change: Principles and Obligations,” Galizzi detailed the origins of the international community’s response to climate change—from the first framework treaty in 1992, which the United States signed, to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which it did not.
“The objective of the convention is not to stop climate change, because that is just not feasible. Climate change is going to happen. But what you can do is reduce its impact so that changes occur in a way that is manageable,” he said.
“If you stabilize greenhouse gasses at a certain level, that stabilization will allow the planet to cope much better with the changes that are inevitable.”
Three principles are at the core of the international philosophy to deal with climate change, he said:
• common but differentiated responsibilities;
• precaution; and
• sustainable development.
The first principle indicates that all countries have an obligation to change, but that not every nation bears the same amount of responsibility for the problem or has the same capability to respond.
“If you are Burundi, a very poor, land-locked country in Eastern Africa, where the GDP is less than a dollar a day for most people, how can you ask them to do anything to help solve this problem?” he said.
“In theory, this principle is about fairness, and who pays for problems that are global problems, but as you’ve probably seen these days, the idea of what is fair and who pays for what is not always easy to define.”
The second principle, precaution, draws the most opposition in the United States because the premise is that even if you are only 90 percent certain that human behavior is causing global climate change, you should act on it, because if you don’t, it may be too late to do anything by the time you are 100 percent certain.
“We know that it’s a problem, but nobody can tell you with certainty that the sea level will rise by one meter in New York City on Dec. 1, 2025,” Galizzi said. “What people can tell you is that it is very likely going to happen at a certain stage.”
The third principle, which focuses on sustainable development, is divisive between poor countries and rich ones because the former insist that they should not be forced to slow their attempts at creating better lives for their citizens.
“It’s a very difficult argument to counter,” Galizzi said. “How can you tell people who live on less than a dollar a day who don’t have energy, access to water or transportation, that they do not have the right to aspire to what we take for granted?”
Complicating matters further are countries such as China, India and Brazil, which might have been considered developing countries in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was passed, but are not anymore. Their emergence was a factor when the U.S. Senate balked at signing the protocol, which would have bound the United States to reductions in greenhouse gases.
“The Senate said, ‘What is the point of the United States reducing its emissions by 7 percent by 2012 when China is going to increase its emissions by 20 percent during that time?’
“What’s the point? It’s global problem, so it makes sense for us to work together,” Galizzi explained in answer to his own question.
Sorting out differences between countries is integral to solving the problem because—unlike issues such as gay marriage—global warming will affect everyone on the planet. Galizzi noted that hurricanes, typhoons floods and other forms of severe weather that are expected to increase in the coming years will not differentiate between those nations that cut back on carbon emissions and those that did not.
But before that can happen, everyone in the United States needs to agree that global warming is, indeed, happening. Although virtually no serious scientist will deny that the Earth’s climate is changing, Galizzi said that the number of skeptics is increasing even though the science is actually stronger than it was 10 years ago.
“Climate science is not easy to understand. For most people, it goes over their heads. But they understand the very easy message that their energy bill goes up because of it, and their taxes go up,” he said.
“If you go to 100 doctors and 98 say that you have a disease, and two tell you that this particular disease doesn’t exist, who are you going to trust? The 98, or the two?”
The divide is mostly partisan, as demonstrated by the group of leading Republican contenders for president. Only one believes climate change is a problem.
“That’s Jon Huntsman, who has about as much of a chance of being elected as me, Galizzi said jokingly.
“Right now we’re stuck until there’s a policy change in the United States,” Galizzi said. “The rest of the world is pushing forward, but the truth is that unless you have some of the major players, it’s going to be really hard to do something serious. These days, the U.S. is very much the elephant in the room that is not moving.”