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Moravian students will see politics of climate change firsthand

by Gordon Weil

December 4, 2009
Originally published in The Morning Call

Climate change is one of the defining issues of our times. What the world does, or fails to do, about climate change will impact virtually everyone on earth. In a very real sense, the contingent of 22 Moravian College faculty members, students and alumni who will attend the United Nations Framework Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, Monday through Dec. 18, have an opportunity to watch history being made and sharpen their skills as activists at the same time.

One reason climate change is a particularly thorny problem is that the market mechanism leads to sub-optimal results. In the case of burning fossil fuels, each individual nation determines that it is better off, with benefits exceeding costs, from increasing its carbon emissions. However, from a global perspective, the decisions of each nation add up to disaster. That's why climate change is one of those issues for which markets simply do not work. Here the span of the ''invisible hand'' is just too narrow. This kind of market failure can be corrected through collective action. But as we all know, there is no global government able to force nations to emit carbon levels that are optimal from a global perspective. Enter the United Nations. However, the U.N., without the authority of a central government, can only provide at best a framework within which central governments must negotiate cooperative agreements leading to a slowing of carbon emissions growth.

These negotiations are made more difficult by the lack of inexpensive technologies to substitute for carbon-based energy sources. Nations fear that limiting carbon emissions also means slower economic growth and lower standards of living for their populations. At the center of the negotiations is the issue of equity: both intra-generational equity (which is why we see the rich nations and the poorer nations on different sides of the table) and inter-generational equity (which is why this is so important to young people). Once it's clear that we are dealing with issues that center on equity concerns, it is also clear that they can only be addressed in the political arena. Welcome to Copenhagen!

It seems to me that, in the future, more and more of the world's most difficult problems will require collective action, or will center around issues of equity, and so it will be in arenas like this in which they will be resolved, if they are resolved at all. Observing what happens (or doesn't happen) at Copenhagen is preparation for more conferences to come.

Members of the Moravian College delegation will have the opportunity to participate firsthand in what could be history-making agreements on the reduction of greenhouse gases; in the creation of international collaborations that lead to innovative, clean and sustainable technologies; and in conversations that will consider issues of environmental justice. They'll have a front-row seat from which to observe a political process that will hopefully be repeated many times over. Successful democracies demand educated, informed, active citizens. Preparing those citizens is what a liberal education is about.

Moravian is one of only six private liberal arts or predominantly undergraduate institutions to be selected to serve as a ''civil society observer'' from the United States. Hilde Binford, associate professor of music, and Diane Husic, professor and chairwoman of biological sciences, who co-teach ''Climate Crises: Past, Present, Future,'' applied for the observer position. They attribute the selection on the strength of Moravian's academic course work and undergraduate research related to environmental science. Other factors in Moravian's favor included its many community partnerships and its proposal to use the observer status to engage and educate both the campus and broader community.

The delegations' experiences in Copenhagen will give the students a head start in understanding how to become the kind of citizen this world will need more of in the future; the kind of citizen that Moravian College calls its own. I invite readers of The Morning Call to follow members of the group as they share their experiences at conference on the blog: http://moraviancollegeatunfccc.blogspot.com/ .

Gordon Weil is a professor of economics, dean of the faculty, and vice president of academic affairs at Moravian College.