Capabilities, Sustainabilities, Ethics and Facing up to Wicked Problems

Crabtree, Andrew (2016). 'Capabilities, Sustainabilities, Ethics and Facing up to Wicked Problems' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

While the term `sustainable development´ is not an oxymoron, it does highlight the wicked problems we face, namely the tradeoffs we sometimes have to make between development on the one hand and sustainability on the other. One of the foremost problems we face, climate change, is one such. On the one hand, climate change is already with us and causing or intensifying various extreme weather events with consequent reductions in human wellbeing as measured by capability loss. On the other hand, poverty reduction conceptualized as capability deprivations requires CO2 emissions - at least until green growth is a realistic possibility. The decisions as to what is acceptable and what is not are ultimately ethical in nature. This panel session faces up to these problems.
The session consists of three papers Tiwari (presenter) and Crabtree in Capabilities and Climate Change examine the debates ensuing the COP21 Paris summit in December 2015 - an optimistic discourse signaling the end of the fossil fuel era and a rapid shift to cleaner energy sources and 'green growth'. The critical discourse highlights the gaps as the framework does not show or suggest how the climate targets can be met nor does it bind the countries, as there are no sanctions.
Given this context, the authors ask what the implications are for green growth on the sustainable development agenda for the existing and emerging high carbon emitters. The paper proposes to understand and critique what the above two streams of thinking mean for the capabilities and intergenerational equity of the key players and its impact on the climate change agenda.
The paper begins by observing the fact that, according to the IPCC, climate change is already with us. It goes on to side with those who find the meaning of “dangerous climate change” be it set at 2oC or 1.5oC (as at Paris) misleading as the effects of climate change are unevenly distributed. Capability losses are occurring now. This emphasizes the urgency of reducing carbon emissions.
At the same time, the urgency of eradicating poverty is equally clear. As is well documented capability deprivations in addition to being deprivations increase vulnerability to climate change. Nor is it clear why poor people should be satisfied by getting out of poverty and not achieving higher aspirations.
The ethical dilemma appears to be solved by the notion of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities but it unclear what this means in practice. Darrel Moellendorf has argued that people have a right to sustainable development that is, to achieve high human development whilst remaining below the 2oC “dangerous” climate change mark. Based on IPCC data Moellendorf argues that to remain under the 2oC level average per capita emission targets have to be under 1.33 mt of 2oC. Only two countries, Albania and Peru, meet this demand. This suggests that other countries of high human development should reduce their emissions to below those levels and that other countries should only peruse development paths that remain within these levels.
Two criticisms are made. Firstly, the HDI is too narrow and development involves a broader range of capabilities. Secondly, the 2oC level is too high rendering Moellendorf’s approach impractical.
This issue is taken up on a practical level by Dr Ajay Mathur in What COP21 means for India. He arguesthat while the Paris COP21 ushered agreements countries to slow down and arrest the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The deal has been criticized for putting premature pressure on emerging economies like India to cut emissions even before addressing its high levels of energy poverty. The developed nations on the other hand have taken on disproportionately lesser responsibility in tackling the issue. While some progress was made in a few critical domains that had remained unresolved in the past, such as the financing of the green agenda and the time frame for achieving the goals, others such as the penalty for non-compliance have not been addressed. Mathur’s unpacks the details of deal and its implications for the race towards a low-carbon future. Within this context India has been accused of throwing a spanner in the works of the climate deal while in some quarters India seems to be on the receiving end. The paper engages with arguments on both views and unravels what the inclusion of the phrase "common but differentiated responsibilities” means.
Indicators of sustainability are central to demarcating the boundaries of any related wicked problems. Thus Andrew Crabtree in The Ethics of Sustainability Indicators examines four major indicators of environmental sustainability - Adjusted Net Savings (ANS) as employed by the World Bank, the Ecological Footprint (EF) which is often combined with the Human Development Index and the Planetary Boundaries approach both versions I and II - and their possible usage in relation to the capability approach. A fourth possibility, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is also discussed although exact indicators are still far from clear. The paper argues that all of these approaches have major weaknesses in terms of scientific credibility, legitimacy in relation to stakeholders and as guides to policy. It argues that a broader set of more flexible indicators needs developing which takes scale (local to global) into consideration as there is a tendency within international debates to conceive sustainability at national or global levels whereas many important aspects of sustainability are local. Thus the paper argues for a multidimensional and multilevel set of indicators.
The paper then goes on to discuss the issue of legitimacy. While it is argued that what – say – a tipping point is a question of science, whether this is an acceptable cut off point or not is a question of ethics. Legitimacy is then conceptualized in terms of reasonable rejection – a boundary at whatever level is one that the crossing of which can be reasonably rejected. Uncomfortably, all indicators show that we are living unsustainably, at least on some dimensions, and that the business as usual trajectory will lead us, on the larger scale, to tipping points.

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