Prospects for Global Coordination in an Age of Pandemics & Emerging Climate Technologies, with Cynthia Scharf
May 1, 2020
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good afternoon and welcome back to Carnegie Council's Lunchtime Webinar Series. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council.
Like many of you watching, we're working remotely these days. However, we're using this time to reach out to our Senior Fellows, friends, and constituents, to talk about the important issues in ethics in public life that are the heart of the Council's work. So thank you all for joining us.
Today we'll be discussing some of the work of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, or C2G for short. Since its launch in 2017 C2G has focused on encouraging the creation of effective and inclusive governance for emerging technologies that would seek to deliberately alter the climate. C2G is impartial regarding the research, testing, or potential use of any proposed technologies or interventions; instead, they are focused on expanding the conversation from the scientific and research community to the global policymaking arena.
Today's conversation is with Cynthia Scharf, C2G's senior strategy director. Cynthia previously served as the head of strategic communications and chief speechwriter on climate change for the United Nations secretary-general from 2009–2016. She has also worked on global humanitarian and public health emergencies at the United Nations and with international non-governmental organizations in the Balkans, Africa, the United Kingdom, and Russia.
Combating climate change requires cooperation on a global scale, much like the efforts to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cynthia's experience with C2G and the United Nations has given her valuable insight into the mechanisms of global cooperation, and the history of international climate negotiations shows just how difficult that cooperation can be.
It's our pleasure to welcome Cynthia to this webinar, which we've titled "Prospects for Global Coordination in an Age of Pandemics and Emerging Climate Technologies."
Before turning to Cynthia, just a word about our format. Cynthia will begin with a brief presentation—five, ten, fifteen minutes, whatever you like, Cynthia—and we'll follow that with a brief conversation with me. We encourage all our attendees to submit questions through the Chat function as the last part of the program will be interactive.
With that introduction, I'm going to turn things over to Cynthia, who is coming to us live from her home outside New York City. Over to you, Cynthia.
CYNTHIA SCHARF: Thank you very much, Joel, and welcome to all of you who are tuning in today.
As Joel said, I am the strategy director for C2G. Let me just explain a bit more about what it is that we do and why this conversation is relevant today in the context of the pandemic.
This initiative is funded by philanthropic donors. The goal is to take a conversation that began in the research and scientific community globally and shift it—broaden it—into the policymaking world. By policymakers I mean at the multilateral level the United Nations and other organizations, to the national government level, and then to society writ large. We strongly believe that the issue we work on is not just for experts, it would involve every country in the world if some of these technologies were used and, hence, every society, every community, including those who are most vulnerable from climate change.
As Joel mentioned, before I started work at C2G I was at the United Nations. Over that period of time and over the lifespan of C2G we have really seen the issue of climate change come into the international agenda in ways that it previously had not.
The irony for us is that, I think, just in January we were starting to see some of the seeds that C2G has planted in terms of conversations about these technologies really start to sprout, that there was growing interest that was tangible in the kind of work that we are doing. That was very heartening because our work is around a difficult topic: it's about what additional tools might humanity consider as the planet continues to warm, as climate impacts continue to increase.
If there are any lessons to be learned from the pandemic that are transferable to the world that I currently work on, it's that we ignore science at our own peril and we also ignore risk management at our own peril; that controversial, difficult topics are necessary to be discussed in the public arena; and that we as a society potentially will inflict even greater harm on ourselves by not having these difficult conversations up-front.
For example, in terms of climate technologies that deliberately would alter the one climate we share, that's a touchy topic, and I completely understand why that is so, because we're talking about something that is deliberate.
Of course we all know that the climate is changing; scientists have told us that for the last 30 years. What makes these technologies different is that it is an endeavor that is deliberately trying to manipulate the climate system to reduce climate risks, to reduce suffering. That's a very, very big gamble.
I'm not a scientist and C2G is not a scientific initiative. It is about public policy—How do we make these decisions on how to deliberately manipulate a climate that affects all of us, the entire world, how do we make those governance decisions, who decides, who has the authority to decide, who has the legitimacy to decide, who's in the room and who's not? These are all major challenges for multilateral governance.
One other key point about the pandemic that is related to our work is the issue of multilateralism: How does humanity cope with crises that are inherently global in nature? The pandemic is one of those examples that is very clearly a global challenge. So is something to deliberately alter the one climate that we have.
How do we look at that issue? Is multilateralism the way that we need to go because the threats don't carry passports, they traverse across borders, or do we retreat into a more isolationist mode—draw up the drawbridge, shut the borders—and take things on at a national level where we potentially might feel we are in more control but there is also the risk that these inherently global challenges will not respond to that kind of "go it alone" attitude?
That has been shown to be the case in the pandemic. It is also very, very true for climate change itself as a policy issue and also for the governance of these technologies that would deliberately seek to shape the climate.
So again: first, the science-based approach to looking at these issues—we can't ignore the science; second, a risk-management approach; and third, multilateralism.
What do we need to do to enhance the effectiveness of responses to global threats? I would just like to start with that preface.
Let me also say that the pandemic of course has been the first priority of every government. That is the way it should be. It is a direct threat to the lives and the wellbeing of millions of people.
However, going forward we cannot let the urgent response to the pandemic undermine what is essential. As anyone who has worked in the climate field knows, we have no time to lose to address the global challenge that is climate change. So we cannot let the urgent response to the pandemic, which has to be there, undermine efforts to also work on climate change and to explore some of these very difficult issues about how the world would address and govern technologies that would affect every person on the planet.
With that introduction, I hand it back over to Joel.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Cynthia, that's a terrific introduction. Thank you.
Let me begin by coming back to ethics and how you think about that, and to use the language of values and interests, if you will, because there does seem to be something that is connected between the intervention into the natural world that C2G is looking into—this is a human intervention into nature, unprecedented in a way, and obviously, with the pandemic as well, nature is talking to us and we will intervene in some capacity.
Could you share a little bit about how you think about this question of values and what values are primary in your thinking as we think about human intervention into nature at the global scale? Your first point was science—science in a sense embodies a sense of values—but could you elaborate a little bit more on that?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: Sure. Thanks for the question.
Clearly, both the pandemic and climate change have at their base a scientific understanding of how the world works. As we've seen in the last 20 years, this opening chapter of the Anthropocene has brought us questions to be addressed concerning science, concerning governance, but also concerning profound reflections on what does it mean for our species to have an outsized footprint on not only the planet itself but all the species that are here in our ecosystems. We are in a new era. Humanity has not had these inherently global challenges in the past.
Where do values fit into this? Well, if we say science is at the heart of some of the decision-making, the bigger question really is: Who gets to decide, who has the authority, who has legitimacy, in society to make these kinds of decisions? And how do we look at issues of vulnerability, whether that means vulnerability to a climate change impact, for example, or vulnerability to a disease based on demographic factors? How do we triage our responses? How do we think about intergenerational equity, because at least on the climate side of things, next and future generations will be affected by decisions that are made—or not made—right now.
In fact, one of the most chilling quotes that I've read in the recent past is by a group of scientists who said, "The next 20, 30 years will have an effect on history that goes far beyond even 10,000 years." That is an awe-inspiring and very heavy responsibility.
So a very important part of these discussions is about how do we think about ourselves and ensuring safety and reducing risks, but also what are the potential consequences for generations who follow us, and how do we inculcate that sense of intergenerational responsibility into our own thinking, how do we make sure that the voices of those people who are most affected—be that by a pandemic, be it by climate change, or most affected by any potential use of a climate-altering technology—are also heard and are part of this?
Just one last point. Many have said that with the technological capabilities we now have, that we're playing God. Oftentimes when people hear about things deliberately manipulating the climate, their response is, "So we're playing God now?"
That brings up issues of human hubris toward other species, toward future generations, but also at a profound, almost theological or mythological level, what is it that humanity should or should not be doing in terms of interfering with the Creation, as some believers call it, or with nature, with ecosystems? Are we deluding ourselves in thinking that we have things figured out so well that we can deliberately manipulate this ecosystem?
Many also say, "Do we abdicate our responsibility to do so?" There's a flip side to that: If we have science as one of our tools, should we not be using that to potentially alleviate suffering, alleviate risks, and help future generations?
C2G does not take a stand on whether use of these technologies is good or bad, but what it's doing is raising questions about the ethics, the values, that underpin any possible discussion of how we might govern these, both at a local and a national level but also internationally.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Thank you.
To follow up on that, that's a big ask, to bring these voices in and to have a global discussion about the values and interests and so on, on these very profound questions. That raises a question about leadership. How important is leadership—and again maybe starting with C2G and then maybe moving into the pandemic if you will—how is this coordinated, who leads? What have you seen and what do you think can and should be done from a leadership point of view?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: Thanks, Joel. That's a very good question.
I would just start, before I get into C2G's specific work, with climate change writ large. Many of us working with C2G also worked at the United Nations for the former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon specifically during the period when the Paris Agreement came into being, so from the years leading up to the Paris Agreement and then a few years after that when it was ratified and countries met within the framework of the Agreement in Paris.
Leadership was essential to have the Paris Agreement come to fruition. It was essential that the United States and China both acknowledged responsibility for the climate change issues that we see—at varying levels, but both acknowledged they have responsibility—and countries came forward in a spirit of "Let's see what we can do together that is qualitatively different than what we might be able to do by ourselves because we realize this is a global challenge."
In the arena of post-Paris, when we are looking at potential technologies to supplement—not substitute, supplement—what we already have to do on climate change, which is reduce emissions to zero and then net negative, scientists have been talking about potential ways to do that using some technologies.
What we're finding as we take that conversation from the scientific community and broaden it into the policy world is: First of all, there's a lot of awareness-raising and information-sharing and dialogue that needs to happen because that conversation is really at the early, early stages in the policymaking world.
A big part of what C2G has been doing for the last few years is raising awareness and actually saying that we need a risk-management approach to thinking about our shared climate future and the greater risk is in not talking about some of these options, some of these potential tools—not only because of their very serious potential risks but also their potential benefits, how might they affect other areas of the Sustainable Development agenda.
We need to bring that together in a package and say to policymakers: "Please, you need to learn about this. We can't put the genie back in the bottle scientifically, but you need to come forward and form your own opinion about how these technologies should be governed."
And leadership is essential in this regard. Leadership and governance is not just in some kind of ivory tower or some kind of marble hallway, it is about from the grassroots to the grasstops, it's about leaders at the civic level, leaders at the national level, and leaders at the multilateral level coming together to learn more about what possible options might exist and then making their own views about what might need to happen to address some of these concerns.
So leadership is essential to bring that debate forward, to make sure that it's inclusive, that it's transparent, and that leaders start talking across borders because these are global challenges.
We are in a situation now where the pandemic has come to the top of the international agenda. All leaders' eyes are focused on "How do we save lives? What do we need to do to address this urgent challenge?" But our message now is that, again, we can't let the urgent undermine the essential. We have known for the last 30 years, and in particular in the last several years, it is urgent to act on climate risks, to reduce what we can in terms of emissions and look at how we might govern other potential tools or technologies that scientists are discovering.
And leadership here is also critical. We are in a period where we can't lose precious time dealing with these questions. We can't pretend they are going away. We need leaders at the civic level, at the national level, and the international level to continue to debate these very hard topics, continue to look at the climate challenge.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Cynthia, that's helpful.
In the past you have spoken before about the need for awareness that there are no risk-free options. Often when we talk about ethics in governance the casual observer thinks, Oh, "ethics" just means compliance, it means aspirations and so on. That's all fine and good and can help set direction, if you will—"These are the values that matter to us, we want to go in this direction." But the reality is, as you have seen in C2G and as we may be seeing in the pandemic as well, that you may have two goods that compete or you have values that clash.
You talked before about risk management. Maybe you could say a little bit more about the illusion that we could be risk-free in any of these potential paths forward?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: You just nailed it right on the head, the "illusion" that we're coming into a future where there are options that are easy to address and that there is one road ahead.
Unfortunately, our message is no, there is no risk-free option when we look at the issue of climate change. Even if all the commitments that were pledged back in 2015 in the Paris Agreement were fulfilled—and they have not been thus far—we are still looking at perhaps even doubling the limit that scientists say is the safe limit.
A few years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with a report saying that they think the safer level is to stay at a 1.5°C temperature rise and not even go up to 2°C. But, unfortunately, right now we are approaching double 1.5°C—even 3°C—temperature rise, which is catastrophic. "Business as usual," what we're currently doing, is approaching a 4°C temperature rise, which is absolutely catastrophic at every level for human civilization and for the continuation of ecosystems and the species as we know it.
So we are in a very, very tight spot and we don't have time to lose. That was the key message that the IPCC put forward.
Our message at C2G as we talk to leaders at all levels of society and all countries is that we can't live with the illusion that we are going to get there using tools that have been tried in the past, that we need to go beyond just reducing emissions now. According to the IPCC, we also need to be sucking carbon out of the atmosphere—in other words, removing carbon in addition to reducing our emissions. So we both have to reduce emissions and remove them to try to stay at this 1.5°C safety level. That's a very, very tall order.
Why do I say that we're looking at options that are not risk-free? Well, let's look at the first option, which is basically reduce emissions. Why is that risky? The simple answer is because we're not doing it, we're not doing it at nearly the speed or the scale that science tells us we need to. We have been on this path for decades and we have not responded in the ways we know that science is telling us we need to do.
Now scientists say, "Not only do you have to reduce, you have to remove existing emissions from the atmosphere." That's a second step—we have to reduce and now we have to remove.
And then there are scientists saying even that may not be enough. If we're really looking at a 3°C or 4°C temperature rise within the lifespan of someone who is born today, that is only 80 years from now—and, with populations aging, 80 is not just restrained to a small segment of the global population, there are people who are alive today, who are being born as we speak, who will be alive in the year 2100—and scientists are saying the situation at 3°C or 4°C by 2100 is so catastrophic that we might need to look at additional technologies to help lower some of those risks.
One of those sets of technologies is something called solar radiation modification, or SRM for short. What it does is it seeks to dim the sun, to reflect incoming solar radiation back into space and therefore cool global temperatures. So it would not address the cause of climate change but it would address one of the symptoms, one of the manifestations of climate change, which is global temperature rise.
However, that is anything but a free lunch, it's anything but a silver bullet. That option has numerous risks on an environmental level, on a governance level, on a security/geopolitical level, and on an ethical level, these questions of justice—of intergenerational justice, of the voices of the most vulnerable being part of the conversation—and on the issue of human hubris, are we overreaching, are we trying something that we deliberately should not be doing?
These questions are at the heart of any kind of governance considerations and at the heart of risks. Risks are not only physical risks, they can be ethical risks, they can be governance risks.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great.
Can you say a little bit more, building on that, in terms of how you envision governance of these issues? We do have some traditional multilateral institutions built out of the UN system. Again making a parallel to the pandemic or the moment, everybody now is thinking about World Health Organization (WHO) as a coordinating institution for public health.
Can you say a little bit from the climate perspective about what you've learned in terms of climate governance and so on? What's the health of the institutions there? How do you see that going? And, if you're comfortable, can you also speculate a little bit about which way the pandemic will move? Will it move, do you think, a tide toward recognition that these problems—because of their scale, because we're talking about nature—will require some kind of coordinating governance mechanism, or, as you said before, what's your sense of worry that this will not happen and that there will be a retreat and that the consequences could be quite dire?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: Thanks, Joel. That's an important point.
In some ways it feels like multilateralism itself is on trial with the pandemic as well as with climate change. With the pandemic many people have seen the value of an international body like WHO in terms of preparing agreed-upon guidelines for testing, for risk surveillance, and for treatment, and the value of collaboration that goes across borders, just like the virus goes across borders, the tremendous importance of transparency, the tremendous importance of monitoring, evaluating, and testing in a transparent way so that the public trusts the information it is receiving.
In the climate change arena some of those same issues apply. I would say in terms of climate multilateralism we hit a high point in 2015 with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, 195 countries came forward and basically said: "We're in. This is a global problem and we need to respond in a globally coordinated manner." So issues of transparency, of monitoring emissions, of reporting of emissions, of verifying emissions, the importance of methodologies for accounting, the importance of a liability mechanism—all of these things are benefits that global cooperation can bring.
However, there is a flip side, and I think in some of the responses we've been seeing from certain countries, from certain leaders on the pandemic we have seen the opposite of a multilateral spirit. We have seen a "We can do it on our own" or "We don't trust X country's data" or "We are not going to share some of our pharmaceutical vaccine research" or "We're not going to share protective equipment with other countries that might need it at the moment."
I very much do think that we're at this pivotal moment in multilateralism where we're facing global challenges. One response is more investment and more energy devoted to multilateral cooperation. Or you're also seeing responses that say: "Hey, globalization got us where we are, that virus came from some other place, not from our own country." So globalization/multilateralism is a threat in that mindset.
In the climate change discussions, as I said, we reached a high point on multilateralism in 2015. When we're talking about some of these new technologies—the kinds that reflect sunlight back into space, that dim the sun to lower global temperatures—that's inherently a global technology. We need a global mechanism to look at how that might be done, how research might be shared, how monitoring verification reporting should be transparent to engender trust among all governments and among all populations.
But one could envisage a scenario where one of these technologies is tested or potentially even deployed by a small group of countries or one country or even a non-state actor. That feels very, very threatening. National legislation alone will not be sufficient, there needs to be a multilateral response to something that is inherently multilateral in nature.
However, that shift—that dynamic between nationalism and populism on the one hand and multilateral cooperation on the other hand—is going to be constantly in play over the next few years as the climate crisis continues to worsen. I think it is not a sure bet, a guarantee that all countries will see and value multilateral cooperation, that's not a given. From our perspective we think it is a wiser course, but as I also just said, there are risks in every option going forward.
So we're really at a pivot point in human history, looking at how we address these challenges that transcend borders.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: It's particularly appropriate that we're talking here under the auspices of Carnegie Council. Andrew Carnegie over 100 years ago thought there was a multilateral solution to the great power conflict that he could see coming. His answer was to create a better future, and for him that future was the creation of a world court where great powers would bring their disputes, creation of a league of nations for collective security, have the great powers sign treaties of arbitration to agree to take their conflicts to the court, and so on. Carnegie was a great optimist. He believed that we could create a new way of doing things, and not only a new way, but for him it was a new institution.
My question for you: I'm just curious how you're thinking about this, Cynthia. First of all, where do you find optimism? There has to be something that you can imagine a better future, if you will. That's what Carnegie was really all about, how do we imagine a better future. For him it was the institutions of multilateralism, but it could be something different, it could be again just global coordination in some way. How do you handle the optimism question? Where do you see it going from an optimistic point of view?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: I'm often asked this question. I start by referencing actually my own family. My daughter is named Hope, there's a very long family story behind that that I won't get into, but we deliberately named her Hope. So this is not a question that I take lightly. It cuts very much across both my professional and personal values.
My answer when people ask me, "Do you have hope?" is, "That's the wrong question. For me the more important question is, do we have courage? Do we as society have the courage to look at these extremely challenging concerns, these extremely challenging global issues, face them squarely, have an honest debate about the risks we face—because again, in the climate world there is no risk-free option—and then come forward in an honest, sober way and say: 'We've looked at this and we are considering this path forward.'" So it starts with really a reckoning of where we are and trying to bring together different parts of society to address a very knotty problem, a very ethically challenged problem.
I do think that multilateralism provides optimism, it provides reason for hope, but I also know, even in my short lifetime, we have seen pendulum swings on the value placed on globalization, on multilateralism. As we have learned with the pandemic, everything can change overnight when you have a global threat.
So optimism comes at the personal level, I think, when people feel like they can do something that helps alleviate the suffering of someone else, or that makes a community feel more resilient, or provides a sense of solidarity across borders or within communities. I think that gives me a sense of optimism.
But I would say at the global level I'm probably more on the realist side in thinking that Yes, multilateralism does provide many benefits, but we also have to see what is the current crop of leadership the world now has, and is that necessarily the way that we're going to go?
We cannot afford illusions. I guess that's the point. We cannot afford illusions. We need to bring forth difficult questions. The risks of not doing so are greater than the risks of doing so.
JAN AART SCHOLTE: Cynthia, I hear an implicit equation of global cooperation and multilateralism. Have the last few decades not suggested that global cooperation needs additional, or even alternative, institutional designs to intergovernmental organizations? Don't we see again with COVID-19 that global cooperation through multilateralism, in this case the WHO, falls way short? Do we not need to be more creative with transgovernmental networks, epistemic communities, multi-stakeholder arrangements, etc.? Thanks, from Jan Aart Scholte, University of Gothenburg and the University of Duisburg-Essen.
CYNTHIA SCHARF: I would start by saying none of the institutions that are responding to this pandemic are perfect. That's because human beings aren't perfect. WHO is a member-driven organization, its members provide the funding, its members set the policy, and within WHO they also have very strong regional governance of different areas around the world. So WHO is not the end all be all, each country also has its own national healthcare system that it needs to rely on.
But I think we do see the value of global standard setting, of global transparency, of global monitoring. I would come down on the side of net benefits to a multilateral approach, but again without illusions that WHO, if it had all the money in the world or every single member behind it, agreed on one solitary path forward—that isn't going to exist. So we need to supplement at other levels—at the community level, at the national level—in addition to what a global body can bring.
On the climate side, when the Paris Agreement was finally brought forward and ratified, there was never any illusion among those countries that it would solve everything. It was the first major step in over 20 years to address a global problem, but no one there had any illusions that it would solve every dimension of climate change. It was a precursor to even more difficult global challenges and discussions that need to be held.
Again, I'm coming down on the side of honesty and sober realism about the choices we have and the values of governance at all different levels.
TOBIAS SCHÄFER: How could the time gained in terms of CO2 emissions through the pandemic be leveraged to proceed with climate-mitigation actions? What lessons for further adaptation measures to climate change can be taken from this unexpected interruption of damaging emissions?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: Good questions.
As we have seen during the pandemic, emissions have gone down—airline travel has dramatically been reduced as well as automobile travel with people staying at home—so obvious causes of carbon in the atmosphere coming from the energy sector and the transport sector. That has been one positive attribute coming from this pandemic.
The other is really seeing that radical lifestyle changes can take place within a week. Something that once seemed unthinkable—with leadership, with global coordination, with a sense of shared solidarity and shared risk—actually can come into being.
We have also seen how people at a very human or community level have really responded and shown solidarity, shown compassion, demonstrated empathy and creativity and ingenuity. All these are signs of optimism coming from a situation which, of course, en masse has been tremendously tragic.
That gives some reason to hope that on the climate change front adaptation, meaning adapting to inevitable climate risks, could happen, and could happen on a much quicker time scale than we previously had thought. It also helps us see that maybe all the business travel that many of us have taken over the last few decades isn't necessary, that maybe we can do with more video conferencing, like this luncheon discussion.
These lessons or experiences that we have had during this pandemic can be taken in a positive light and used to help address some of the challenges of climate change.
That said, they are not an overall solution. The problem is much more systemic. It's much more global. So let's take the good from what we can but realize that there is so much more that needs to be done at an urgent and essential level to abate the climate crisis that we're in.
ANEEL KARNANI: Climate change is a perfect example of "tragedy of the commons." I think the economist Nordhaus has argued that international cooperation has failed so far because of the free-rider problem. He concludes that international cooperation requires a mechanism to penalize free riders who do not cooperate. Do you agree with that assessment? If yes, how can we implement a system that incorporates such penalties?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: I know of Nordhaus's work—he won the Nobel Prize, he's a very eminent economist—and the free-rider problem.
It's not for me to say what is necessary or not necessary, what is good or bad. It's really for governments, who are the ones who make decisions—at the United Nations, at the WHO, governments in the G20 making decisions for the G20—to decide.
But I do think it is incredibly important to have a rich society-wide debate about these issues because the implications of climate change of course affect every country and every sector of society, so having a society-wide discussion in which values, interests, ethical concerns, and intergenerational concerns can feed into that discussion is to everyone's benefit.
ILGU OZLER: Can you talk about the intersection of science and human rights? What are some of the potential pitfalls in policy in the current global governance processes for C2G?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: That's a really important question and it's something that we are putting our heads to in the coming years when we think about these challenges.
For example, some of the approaches that scientists have recommended to remove CO2 from the air might involve huge swaths of land. In that scenario who makes the decision what the best use of land might be? Is it to address a climate risk? Is it to address global hunger? Is it to address crowded urbanization? Who is making that decision about how limited resources like land are used?
There are many who fear that those who actually inhabit those spaces would not be included in decision-making processes about them. That one very obvious concern is on the use of land and how that might affect human rights.
The other human right—the most basic one—is right to life, right to survival. When we're talking about climate change potentially engendering massive sea level rises that flood out hundreds of millions of people and spark a migration at levels that we have never before encountered, whose rights will be respected? Who is going to help those people? Where does our sense of solidarity come into play?
Human rights are an essential part of this discussion. Who gets to decide? Who makes those decisions on behalf of whom? And how do we as a society protect those people who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts? Human rights is very much a part of these discussions. It was a part of the discussions that led to the Paris Agreement and it needs to be something that is inculcated as we think about any potential use of technologies to deliberately alter the climate.
ROSEMARY WAKEMAN: We have 20 years of experience of shared international governance approaches to terrorism. Are there lessons learned from meeting that risk that can be applied?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: Hm, interesting question.
I guess I would respond by referring to what some militaries around the world have said on that question. If I understand her point accurately, it's that there may be risks that are low probability but have enormous consequences.
For years scientists have been warning us about the possibility of pandemics. Whether it was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), whether it was Ebola, or avian flu, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), there have been scientists raising the alarm about pandemics for decades.
The probability of any one such virus coming forward is something I'm not exactly qualified to guess, but it was considered plausible, and in that sense preparation; honest, transparent discussion; and preparatory measures by governments could show incalculable benefits, and I think the pandemic has shown that that would be true in this situation. If the threat of pandemic had been taken more seriously perhaps by certain governments or by the global bodies, we would not find ourselves with shortages of necessary medical equipment as we have found out.
In terms of climate change, the risks are very great. In fact, the science is showing us that if anything we've been too cautious, we have been underestimating the risks, including the probability of truly tragic consequences. So to err on the side of more preparedness, of more resilience building, of more honest, transparent dialogue about measures that cut across countries and within countries themselves on how to address the climate crisis is to our benefit.
The preparatory mode of perhaps little prevalence but catastrophic consequences is something that again some militaries follow when they address terrorism or other crises but also has a place in smart risk management about climate change.
KENNETH MILLER: Ethical analysis will require impact reports, which require predictive models that we know are highly complex and incomplete. How do we manage this process to reduce risk and ever get to a level of comfort in making these decisions?
CYNTHIA SCHARF: I think the answer is there's no easy answer. Levels of risk depend on where one sits in society. There is an aphorism that says, "Where one stands depends on where one sits." So what might be an acceptable risk for me, living an hour north of Manhattan, may not at all be an acceptable risk for somebody living near Grand Central Station. I do think there is a wealth of factors that come into risk management.
Models aren't perfect. Scientists will very often say that straight upfront, that their models are not perfect. And models contain assumptions, as do economic models—assumptions about human behavior, assumptions about responses, assumptions about values.
There is no perfect model, but all of these factors need to come into play when assessing risks, from the physical risks, to the equity risks, to even the more, you could say, maybe even "archetypal" risks about the proper role of human intervention in nature.
AMINATA JAITEH: Considering the poor nature of the economics of developing countries which makes it difficult for them to control climate change issues, what options do you think are available for these countries to control the borderless consequences of climate change, especially with greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries? This is Aminata Jaiteh, from The Gambia.
CYNTHIA SCHARF: She has hit the nail on the head. Issues of equity are at the very heart of the international climate change negotiations. Who is responsible for the situation we're in now? Who is responsible to help ameliorate it, to help not only reduce emissions but remove emissions? On whose timetable? How does this affect future generations?
So equity is at the very, very heart of all the international climate discussions. When you strip away perhaps some of the more turgid terminology, it's about what's fair. The question she asks is a question that has been at the heart of these discussions for a long time.
C2G, which is talking about supplements, not substitutes, for traditional tools to address climate change, is looking at this question of equity and addressing who needs to be in the room to have that conversation about how these technologies are governed.
It might be a very different answer that we hear from developing countries on whether or not such research, or even potential use, might happen. There are many in the developing world who have no illusions about how difficult this crisis is, how catastrophic it already is, how much suffering it is already bringing, in addition to what future challenges may bring. If there is some kind of technology that promises to ameliorate one of the symptoms of climate change—say, global temperature—that could seem very interesting to a country that is on the climate frontlines and that is greatly suffering right now from climate change.
I think we have to widen our lens when we think about the issues of equity and consider again that where one stands on an issue may depend on where one sits.
TIMOTHY EHLINGER: The complex challenges of governments in integrated food, energy, and water systems is at the heart of anthropogenic disturbance causing increased zoonotic diseases, the ability to bridge different metaphors of knowledge is essential.
CYNTHIA SCHARF: I basically would agree with that. There are many layers to these issues, like an onion to peel back.
Many have said that the pandemic is also a consequence of environmental degradation. With 8 billion people on the planet, approaching 10 billion or more in the next 80 years, our proximity to species that might have viruses that jump across species and mutate into viruses that affect us, that probability increases, just as the human footprint on the planet has increased the potential risks of climate change.
There are commonalities that tie these two issues together. In addition to looking at multilateralism as a possible amelioration of the situation, we also have to look at what are some of the impacts of our Anthropocene in the opening decades of this century.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Cynthia, thank you. I think with that we'll move toward wrapping up.
I want to alert the audience that the C2G project has really been an inspiration to all of us at the Council, and I think to a wider community, of looking at ethics in governance of emerging technologies.
I really appreciate the way in which you shared these thoughts this afternoon, which is the work of C2G is profound in and of itself, but we can see how it really affects some other big questions that are facing us, again most urgently the pandemic, but there are others. When we think about emerging technologies in everything from artificial intelligence to cyber and other fast-moving global-scale issues, the ethics and governance questions are so profound. I hope our Council is contributing in some way to the understanding of these issues.
Your efforts today are very much appreciated, and I'm sure a lot of people will take away some valuable insights. I hope I can persuade you, other members of the C2G team, and perhaps some people who are watching this afternoon to continue to participate in these conversations. They are very helpful to us. Thank you.
With that, I want to let people know that we have recorded this webinar so that you can share it with friends and you can find it on the Carnegie Council YouTube channel and on the Carnegie Council website.
I hope some of you will join us next week, when our topic will be "Democracy on the Verge: Leadership in Times of Crisis." Our guest will be Ted Widmer, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow and author of a new book called Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.
Thank you all for joining us and have a great week.
CYNTHIA SCHARF: Thank you very much.