By Hermine Durand
A few months ago, I had the chance to be part of the very first university student delegation in Hong Kong to attend a COP. Among the four representatives from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) at COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt, I had privileged insight into the inner workings of high-level climate negotiations. As a Finance and Economic Public policy student, my motivation in attending was to closely observe and refine my understanding of how global climate decisions are made, in particular, decisions around financing mechanisms. This experience strongly resonated with my experience in the EAHK Horizon Fellowship in which I gained new perspectives and tools on how effective altruism can help address climate change as a paramount avenue for effecting meaningful and far-reaching positive change on a global scale.
1. Attending COP27: Understanding International Long-Term Decision-Making for Present and Future Generations
COPs, or "Conventions of the Parties," serve as the supreme governing bodies for international conventions or treaties. They bring together representatives of member states that have agreed to a convention - as well as accredited observers - to review and enhance the effective implementation of said convention. COPs are organized to address issues like tobacco control, desertification, safeguarding endangered species from international trade, nuclear non-proliferation, and protecting human health and the environment from anthropogenic mercury emissions. Yet, the most widely recognized and discussed conferences of the parties are the United Nations Climate Change Conferences (UNCCC), like the 2022 COP27 in Egypt. These gatherings are held under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty signed in 1992-1993. As of 2022, the UNFCCC had 198 parties. This convention aims to combat human interference threatening the climate system, partly by stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Since the inaugural 1995 UNCCC or COP1 in Berlin, Germany, a UNFCCC COP has been organized every year, except for 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
COPs such as the one I attended offer a unique vantage point to witness and be part of the intricate interplay between international diplomacy, funding concerns, scientific expertise, UN organs, and civil society demands, all of which are central to effective decision-making in addressing climate change. At COPs, all these puzzle pieces converge to influence and shape decisions that have far-reaching implications for both present and future generations. Negotiation agendas encompass a large array of topics, ranging from emission reduction targets, adaptation strategies, technology transfers, and financial support for developing nations, to the mitigation of climate change's causes and effects.
2. Climate Change: a Cause of High Importance
Simply put, climate change corresponds to large-scale shifts in weather patterns. This can be caused by natural factors, such as solar activity variations, Earth’s orbit changes, or intense volcanic activity. Since the 1800s and the advent of the first industrial revolution, however, human activities have emerged as the main drivers of climate change, mainly due to fossil fuel consumption and the associated buildup of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. There is a direct, linear relationship between atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and global temperatures, and this connection has held true throughout Earth’s history: as greenhouse gasses, notably carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), accumulate in the atmosphere, they form an increasingly insulating layer enveloping Earth like a blanket wrapped around it, trapping the sun’s heat and thereby raising temperatures globally. That's why we talk of a "global warming" phenomenon.
Over the past 2000 years, global atmospheric CO2 concentrations oscillated within a 270s-280s parts per million (ppm) bracket. However, since the 18th century, they have increased rapidly, reaching almost 420 ppm in 202, their highest level in the last three million years, with no sign of slowing down (see Fig.1.). In parallel, Earth’s average temperature is now approximately 1.1°C higher than in the late 1800s. It is also warmer than at any recorded period within the past 100,000 years. That’s because CO2 emissions from hundreds of years ago continue to contribute to contemporary and future global warming and weather pattern disruptions.
The potential consequences of this dynamic are substantial—and to some extent, are already manifesting. These include a heightened likelihood of increased natural disasters, rising sea levels, melting polar ice, escalating water and food insecurity, large-scale ecosystem disruptions, species extinctions, as well as adverse effects on human health and well-being. Left unchecked, these profound changes have the potential to converge and intensify, posing a direct threat to the very survival of humanity itself and, at best, signifying a radical shift in the way we experience life on Earth today.
3. Effective Altruism and Climate Change: Tools to Address the Horizon Challenge
Mark Carney, the Special Envoy of the United Nations for Climate Action Financing, said in 2015 that "Climate Change is a tragedy of the horizons.” This framing encapsulates the inherent challenges in addressing a phenomenon that extends far beyond immediate concerns, nationalistic agendas, geopolitical feuds, and short-term net financial gains.
In fact, what sets “weather change” apart from “climate change” is the time scale: while the weather encompasses atmospheric conditions over a short period, the climate involves atmospheric behaviors over relatively long periods of time. It is because global warming is increasingly, cumulatively, disrupting the average weather patterns on Earth over many years that we talk of human-induced climate change. As Carney highlights with his words, climate change is not merely a future crisis for us to prepare for or anticipate, like a distant horizon humanity would be navigating towards; instead, it is an ongoing and evolving challenge that requires proactive and collaborative efforts to mitigate its effects and the inevitable clash of competing horizons it raises.
Hence, climate change transcends traditional boundaries and timeframes, challenging the way that humanity has approached most issues it has faced so far. This is where international climate negotiations can learn from effective altruism and the tools that it offers.
Taking part in the EAHK Horizon fellowship this summer, I couldn’t help but notice the
many ways in which Effective Altruism proposes a range of tools that can help reinforce the approach we have within international climate negotiation conferences and improve institutional and governmental decision-making on the matter.
First, scope insensitivity: many people still frame climate change as a "warmer temperatures problem." Unfortunately, rising temperatures are only the tip of the melting iceberg: Earth is a system, a whole, where changes in one area can influence changes in all others, over a long time frame. Yet, humans have a natural tendency to undervalue or underestimate the importance of large-scale impacts or changes, often focusing on the absolute scale of a problem rather than its relative magnitude. For example, we might be more inclined to donate to a charity that helps a smaller number of people in a direct and straightforward way because we can feel the effect more tangibly, even if a smaller donation could potentially have a more significant impact on a larger group of people, but seems less immediately concrete. Scope insensitivity can lead to suboptimal resource allocation, which can be a substantial issue in international climate negotiations. Instead, EA urges us to consider the interconnectedness of various facets - from economic implications to environmental repercussions - and prioritize impact over narrow focus.
Second, long-termism and cause prioritization: Climate change is a defining crisis of our time, yet we are far from powerless in the face of its threats. As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently pointed out, "the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win." The concept of long-termism underscores the urgency of addressing climate change beyond short-term gains, pushing for strategic investments and policies that yield lasting benefits for both current and future generations. Systematically and methodically prioritizing scalable, neglected, and solvable problems contributing to climate change should also be essential to decision-making processes.
Lastly, evidence-based decision-making: Effective and robust climate policies are like an insurance policy for the planet. For instance, if we were insuring a house, we would demand evidence. Similarly, given the climate risks, we need to invest in resilience. Just as evidence guides effective altruists toward impactful interventions, incorporating rigorous scientific data into climate negotiations is crucial to ensuring that we make informed and more effective decisions.
By incorporating these concepts, international climate negotiations and climate-related decision-making could become more effective, comprehensive, strategic, and impactful. These tools could help effectively address the tragedy of the horizons that Mark Carney coined, leading to collective efforts that transcend short-term interests and effectively combat the existential threat of climate change.
Fig. 1. View of annual CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2021 by source category in billions of tonnes of CO2. Source: Carbon Brief. URL: https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-which-countries-are-historically-responsible-for-climate-change/