Monday, February 14, 2011

Negotiating The Climate Change Regime: The Case of Saudi Arabia

by Norman K. Swazo


The failure of parties at the December 2009 Copenhagen conference to secure a new treaty on global climate mitigation has elicited various reactions. Nearly 200 countries participating in the negotiations concluded by merely “taking note” of the Copenhagen Accord of December 18, 2009. Some have argued that the lack of a viable treaty at Copenhagen reflects the reality of “a world divided” about (a) the facts of climate change, (b) what count as legitimate mitigation actions, and (c) how obligations are to be distributed internationally. Shawn McCarthy commented aptly, that “very different political agendas” simply did not allow for “a visionary agreement” in Copenhagen.[1]

Visionary agreements presuppose a pursuit of common purposes and interests, consistent with past multilateral agreements and reasonable empirical evidence that adds to the substance of the debate. Some analysts, like Joanna Depledge, argue that not all participating countries seek agreement.[2] She reviews the example of Saudi Arabia as one party to the talks that “strives for no” and is thereby “obstructionist.”

One such as Wael Hmaidan sees Saudi Arabia’s position as disruptive of “the whole negotiation process.”[3] He argues, “The Arab League should be leading the fight against climate change, and demanding a strong post-2012 regime with clear long-term targets. Saudi Arabia should not hinder the negotiations for a new treaty like it did for the Kyoto Protocol.” Hmaidan directs his critique while nonetheless acknowledging that parties to the Abu Dhabi Declaration on Environment and Energy (2003) assert, “Arab countries have the right to develop their natural resources, particularly oil and gas; supply of oil and gas to international markets should be continuous and unobstructed; and that industrialized countries should not adopt policies leading to a reduction in demand for oil and gas and harm the revenues of producing countries and their development.”[4]

An analyst such as Mari Luomi of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs similarly identifies the Saudi position as one that “stems from a long-term strategy of obstructionism, the ultimate aim of which is to prevent an agreement from emerging.”[5] This strategy, she argues, evolves “around four pillars: preserving oil revenues, receiving compensation for the adverse impacts of climate change mitigation, avoiding commitments, and acquiring technology and capacity for adaptation.”

Critics of Saudi Arabia’s negotiating position of course recognize that there is ample debate about the adequacy of the scientific evidence, raised again prior to and during the Copenhagen summit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its 2007 “Synthesis Report” on climate change, in which it argues (more often than not with “high confidence” or 80 percent probability), “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.”[6] Indeed, the IPCC reports, “Of the more than 29,000 observational data series, from 75 studies, that show significant change in many physical and biological systems, more than 89% are consistent with the direction of change expected as a response to warming.”[7] Further, “For the next two decades a warming of about 0.2°C per decade is projected for a range of SRES [Special Report on Emissions Scenarios] emissions scenarios.” Therefore, “Societies can respond to climate change by adapting to its impacts and by reducing GHG emissions (mitigation), thereby reducing the rate and magnitude of change.”[8]

In contrast, Richard S. Lindzen (MIT professor of meteorology) argues, “Claims that climate change is accelerating are bizarre. There is general support for the assertion that GATA [globally averaged temperature anomaly] has increased by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 19th century. The quality of the data is poor, though, and because the changes are small, it is easy to nudge such data a few tenths of a degree in any direction.”[9] At issue here is the causal relation between global warming and “natural internal variability” versus anthropogenic sources. Lindzen indicts prominent climate modeling for its “scandal… namely the suggestion that the very existence of warming or of the greenhouse effect is tantamount to catastrophe. This is the grossest of ‘bait and switch scams.’”[10] It is no wonder, then, Lindzen adds, that several of the emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) revealed “machinations in the emails designed to nudge temperatures a few tenths of a degree.”

On the other hand, responding to the issue of the significance of the CRU emails, Peter Kelemen (professor of geochemistry, Columbia University) opines (even as he says he is “not a climate science specialist”), “It is equally essential to emphasize that alleged problems with a few scientists’ behavior do not change the consensus understanding of human-induced, global climate change, which is a robust hypothesis based on well-established observations and inferences.”[11] It is in the face of this unsettled scientific evidence that Muhammad al-Sabban, Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator in the climate talks, stated at the opening of the Copenhagen summit, “The level of confidence is certainly shaken,” and that “The size of [economic] sacrifices must be built on a secure foundation of information, which we found now is not true.”[12]

In that context, and writing for Arab Environment Watch, Wael Mahdi characterized Saudi Arabia as “still refusing any climate deal.”[13] Similarly, during the Copenhagen meeting, Kelly McEvers described the country as “a major dissident” and claimed it “tries to stall global emissions limits.”[14] Yet, as Lindzen argues, “the climate science isn’t settled,” even to the point that one has reason to beware scientific data in relation to alternative modeling outcomes not adequately presented or reviewed. The problem of global climate change, such as presented by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is then questioned insofar as it is consequent to this argument, “characterized by a single iconic claim.”[15]

In this article, criticism of Saudi Arabia such as the foregoing is examined and challenged insofar as the arguments advanced are deficient in the analysis of relevant and reasonable moral, philosophical presuppositions. To do this successfully, however, the analysis must go beyond historical observations such as those made by Depledge and Hmaidan to engage the philosophical (moral) presuppositions that motivate negotiating positions, including that of Saudi Arabia.


Depledge argues that Saudi Arabia has long played the role of obstructionist in climate change talks. She acknowledges that States Parties to such talks (i.e., the governments of nation-states) will “vigorously defend their national interests.” What Depledge does not consider adequately is whether they reasonably should do so, consistent with a normative framework that guides deliberation and development of negotiating stances, which, thereby, have their justification. At issue for Depledge is the question: “Why do governments join a negotiation whose concerns they apparently do not share, or whose aims they reject?” The implication relative to Saudi participation in climate change talks is that Saudi Arabia does not share the concerns and rejects the aims of global climate change policy. Depledge claims, “a state may join a negotiation process not only to promulgate its own concerns, but also in an attempt to stop others from reaching a strong collective deal, or to delay and weaken that deal.”[16] Yet, of course, if it is reasonable to expect that a State Party may vigorously defend national interests, then it is reasonable that it will promulgate its own concerns, that it may act to delay or weaken a deal, and even attempt to stop others from reaching settlement on the basis of its defended national interests. The same holds true for Saudi Arabia in climate change mitigation talks, in which case the foregoing claim from Depledge is no compelling objection, especially when one accounts for the same right or privilege of other States Parties and observes the same occurring with other delegations to such talks. The question here is not merely whether such interests are defended, but rather what the basis of such a defense is so that these actions are deemed morally permissible. The latter can be made explicit in the case of the Saudi negotiating position vis-à-vis the climate change regime, as will be argued in subsequent sections of this article.

First, it is important to recognize that Saudi Arabia adheres to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (hereafter, UNFCCC) as well as the 1997 Kyoto Protocols (hereafter, KP). That fact speaks to Saudis’ prima facie acceptance of what is stipulated in the two agreements, in both letter and spirit, even though such acceptance is motivated by inclinations of self-interest. Depledge opines that the Saudi position on climate change “is clearly founded on its fears over the potential negative impacts of climate change mitigation policies on its economy.”[17] Yet clearly then, that is a legitimate concern to promulgate in the process of international negotiations. Depledge, by contrast, asserts that “Saudi Arabia appears to view action to tackle climate change as more of a threat than the problem itself.”[18] Assuming the claim true, this would depend on the term of analysis presupposed here—short-term or long-term within the time-frame of action stipulated in the UNFCCC and the KP. Saudi Arabia acknowledges a climate change problem, notes that the scientific authorities are not in agreement though there may be a reasonable consensus, and is nonetheless prepared to see the problem mitigated. However, the national and international means to mitigation are also a reasonable concern and can be legitimately problematic for a developing economy such as that of Saudi Arabia, from the perspective of either short- or long-term national interest. Here then, what one has to acknowledge is a manifest dependence on one or another “conceptualization of justice in climate policy,” sometimes explicit but often tacitly assumed to be valid for all negotiating parties.[19]

As Sonja Klinsky has argued, there are varied assumptions operative in climate change talks, including conceptions of justice. This means there is relevant and reasonable concern about how rights are asserted and responsibilities are distributed within the international community. One has to consider here also, as Terry Barker and colleagues have argued, that economic analyses within climate change negotiations often rely upon “crude economic utilitarianism” that is problematic because of inadequate concern for a broader concept of social justice.[20] Edward Page engages the same issue in linking global distributive justice to reciprocity—i.e., to “justice as reciprocity”—so as to ground intergenerational justice and thereby manage both the causes and the impacts of global climate change.[21]


It goes without saying that States Parties to global climate change talks pursue varied interests in the formulation of what Jouni Paavola calls “international environmental governance.”[22] To speak of governance here means that politics, law, and morality are unavoidable variables as “aspects of political globalization in environmental matters.” This globalization is political insofar as the principal actors are nation-states, notwithstanding any number of international observers and contributors to debate such as those of international governmental or non-governmental organizations. The fact is that States Parties can be realists in the sense that “rationally acting sovereign states would not consent to agreements that are not in their interest.”[23] This is not to say that states necessarily are or ought to be realist in their negotiating positions as they move toward formal installation of binding multilateral treaties on climate change mitigation. It is, however, to say that defense of national interest is a conditio sine qua non in multi-party deliberations, this as a matter of justice as fairness. Thus, such defense is not merely realist but can, and often does, have its own philosophical presuppositions about intergenerational justice.

Concern about global climate change is at base an argument about the rights of future generations. While arguments vary, the basic arguments hold that individual human rights are more important than any other value in international law, including the collective rights of nation-states; that future generations of humans on this planet (e.g., those alive between 2050-2100 C.E.) also have human rights; that among these rights is the human right to inherit a global environment (i.e., the global ecosystem of land, air, water, fauna, and flora) no worse than the one humans of the present generation (2010 C.E.) now have. Further, it is argued, in the case of the heritage of the global environment (the “global commons”), the category of future generations does not discriminate preferentially between citizen or resident members of particular nation-states in terms of who has right to inherit; that OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) industrialized countries, the developing countries of the Group of 77, the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) member-states, and individual nation-states all inherit the global environment in common as a matter of right. Yet if there is then no discrimination between or among nation-states in the individual human right to inherit the global commons, then the human rights of those individuals of future generations in all nation-states impose an obligation upon the present generation to act from a duty to secure the future of the global commons against accumulating degradation.

Such an argument has been related in part to the work of philosopher Derek Parfit. Engaging the question whether this generation owes a duty to future generations to preserve the global environment, with reference to Parfit, Anthony D’Amato notes that this claim is “sometimes said to be an emerging norm of customary international law.”[24] Parfit identifies “future people” as those “people who will exist whichever way we act” in relation to our present options and choices. “Possible people,” in contrast, are “the people who will exist if we act in one way, but who won’t exist if we act in the other way.”[25] The question, here, is whether such possible people have rights and interests, understanding that present decision-making—to do or not to do X—affects those rights and interests.

Parfit takes note of what is called “the Self-interest Theory about rationality,” according to which, “If what is fundamental is that we are different persons, each with his own life to lead, this supports the claim that the supremely rational ultimate aim, for each person, is that his own life go as well as possible.”[26] Of course, others may hold that “another equally rational ultimate aim” is “that things go, on the whole, as well as possible for everyone,” thus that “this is the ultimate aim given to us by morality.”[27] Now, as Parfit observes, precisely how this aim is achieved is at issue, since this concerns possible ways of acting to secure what goes well for everyone.

For example, “Utilitarians reject distributive principles. They aim for the greatest net sum of benefits minus burdens, whatever its distribution.”[28] The utilitarian approach is basically impersonal in its “impartial observer” comportment: “When such a Utilitarian asks himself, as an observer, what would be right, or what he would impartially prefer, he may identify with all of the affected people. He may imagine that he himself would be all of these different people. This will lead him to ignore the fact that different people are affected, and so to ignore the claims of just distribution as between these people.” [29]

Yet one may be committed as well, or alternatively, to a principle of equality, such that “every increase in the sum of benefits has moral value,” as the utilitarian would have it. However, “Though every gain in welfare matters, it also matters who gains.”[30] This is the distributive claim that “certain distributions are… morally preferable,” especially such that “We ought to give some priority to helping those who are worse off, through no fault of theirs.”

Now, Paavola has argued, “the climate change regime does not address the key issue of distributive justice,” which Paavola identifies immediately as, “the responsibility of developed countries for the impacts of their greenhouse gas emissions.”[31] This is part of what is at issue in the failure of the Copenhagen talks to arrive at a new treaty. The OECD, the Group of 77, OPEC, small-island states, and other countries are all seeking to advance national or regional interests even as they have a common concern about the global environment in relation to climate change; and this is why distributive justice is a necessary component of negotiation. There can be no rational advancement of such negotiations unless it is acknowledged that certain distributions of rights and responsibilities are morally preferable, in the sense that it does matter who gains (or loses) in recognized rights and responsibilities. As shall be seen in due course of the extended argument presented here, this is surely an element of the Saudi negotiating stance in the global climate change talks.

The gain or loss must also be understood with reference to the distributive aspect of concern for future generations. Parfit has argued, “We have special obligations to some of our contemporaries, and that, for this reason, we ought to be more concerned about some presently existing people than about most future people.”[32] Accepting this premise means, in present context, that Saudi Arabia could likewise claim special obligations to some contemporaries, and that in this case the obligation is at least local, viz., the residents of the kingdom. Thus, the question of distribution is not only what is to be gained or lost in climate change mitigation, say, in 2050; it is also what is gained or lost in the intervening time frame for Saudi Arabia, with the understanding that the country being “better off” in 2050 because of climate change mitigations also means it being better off, say in 2009 (Copenhagen), for having taken a negotiating position expected of it when its decision is taken (in 2009). OECD countries, for example, that favor rigorous climate change mitigation measures for the industrialized nations in particular, even while acknowledging concerns about adverse effects such as those raised by the Saudis, surely at least assume (if they do not demonstrate) that a country like Saudi Arabia is benefitted by such mitigation measures. Parfit would say here:

“When we claim to have benefitted someone, we are usually taken to mean that some act of ours was the chief or immediate cause of some benefit received by this person. On the maximizing principle, we benefit someone if we make some choice that is either good for this person, or better for this person than the alternative, even when such a choice is a remote causal antecedent of the benefit received by this person. All that needs to be true is that, if we had chosen otherwise, this person would not have received this benefit.”[33]

The assumption here would then be that OECD countries, for example, claim they benefit Saudi residents through a decision to implement rigorous climate mitigation measures, that such measures are good for Saudi residents, and that this policy option is better for Saudi Arabia than the alternative, such as that advanced by the Saudi government in its own negotiating positions vis-à-vis the UNFCCC, KP, or whatever may have been issued as a Copenhagen treaty. Consider that an act utilitarian could argue that Saudi Arabia has “no duty to maximize utility”—in this case, no duty to agree to the maximized benefit of rigorous mitigation measures—when this would require from the Saudis “too great a sacrifice or too great an interference” in the lives of its people.[34] Of course, as Parfit notes, when such a principle is put forward, one may reasonably ask, “And how much weight should we give to this principle when other things are not equal—when this principle conflicts with one of our other moral principles?” Thus, it would be entirely reasonable for Saudi Arabia to weigh any number of applicable moral principles, without privileging any principles a priori and without simply conceding to the position of OECD countries as a matter of political (as distinct from moral) deference.

Clearly, the Saudis could voluntarily advance a position of benevolence, showing itself beneficent in the sense that it would act altruistically and thus promote the interest of global society without expecting anything in return (other than what is supposed to be the inclusive benefit to Saudi Arabia from globally implemented mitigation measures). That is, it would be morally permissible for the Saudis to adhere to such an agreement. This stance, however, conflicts with a conception of justice as fairness, according to which Saudi Arabia must be concerned about its own self-interests (even as it is conceded the Saudis ought not to interpret those interests in any way that is merely self-interested, i.e., manifesting an excess of self-interest). From the Saudi perspective of analysis, then, although some (e.g., OECD) would consider and promote as morally permissible a position seeking to maximize utility, what is morally permissible may conflict with what is morally obligatory for Saudi Arabia, precisely because things are not equal; that is, Saudi Arabia cannot accept the premise of ceteris paribus given the national short-term and long-term interests it is obligated to defend consistent with its status as a developing country and developing economy, not to mention that it has its own religious principles to observe as an Arab Islamic state.

It is important to bear in mind that the problem of distributive justice here concerns both present people and future generations. Some confuse both benevolence and justice, without allowing for differing conceptions or considering the diverse implications of these differences in conception for practice (e.g., actual policies being formulated and implemented). For example, Parfit[35] clarifies three conceptions of beneficence, even as he notes, “All claim that, if other things are equal, it is wrong knowingly to make some choice that would be worse for people than some other choice that we could have made,” thus:

· “On the Narrow Principle, ‘worse for people’ has its narrow sense. This principle condemns some choice only if this choice would be bad for, or be worse for, some of the people who would ever live.”

· “On the Wide Total Principle, ‘worse for people’ has its wide total sense. This principle… ‘requires weighing the potential benefits to different actual and possibly actual people, and choosing the act that produces the greatest total net benefit—that is, the greatest sum of benefits minus burdens.’”

· “In the Wide Average Principle, we substitute the words, ‘the greatest average net benefit per person.’”

With the above conceptions one has to distinguish narrow benefit or cost, total benefit or cost, and average benefit or cost; and then one must decide whether what is of concern in a policy decision is the narrow benefit, total benefit, or average benefit, bearing in mind that the people here are also different—different actual people and possibly actual people among the “future generations” that are of concern in global climate change mitigation.

Further, if one is to understand Saudi Arabia’s position and give it due credence, one must understand its claims vis-à-vis compensatory justice as well as distributive justice. The Saudi position that it is owed compensation by the Annex 1 countries is a claim of compensatory justice. Renée A. Hill clarifies what would be “non-paradigmatic cases” of injustice that are sometimes construed as incompensable and that, over time, become indefensible claims.[36] Yet when such claims are advanced, it is important to have some means of resolving this “compensatory conflict,” especially since in present case this is at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s negotiating position. One cannot merely reject such claims as indefensible. Edward Page reminds of philosopher David Gauthier’s argument that “norms of justice are defensible only in so far as they can be shown to be rational, and they are rational only if they are in the interests of the individuals they bind, where the prime motivation of all individuals is assumed to be the pursuit of their own advantage.”[37] Consider here that, as J. Mouawad and A.C. Revkin report, “Saudi Arabia is trying to enlist other oil-producing countries to support a provocative idea: if wealthy countries reduce their oil consumption to combat global warming, they should pay compensation to oil producers.”[38] What is provocative here is the prospective, not retrospective, feature of this claim of compensation. The base referent for estimating likely injury done to Saudi Arabia is the country’s production and export of oil at the volume of trade that is today “business as usual,” i.e., without the effect of the more stringent global mitigation measures that would call for significant reduction in the use of petroleum resources and, thereby, have a significant impact on Saudi Arabia’s international trade income. The latter is a rational interest, and in that sense is also defensible in Gauthier’s sense. It is defensible in its appeal to treaty authority, i.e., to binding interests expressed in treaty: Saudi Arabia calls on Annex 1 countries to assist in diversification of its economy “through foreign direct investments, technology transfer, insurance, and funding,” a call that has its warrant in stipulations generally agreed to by States Parties (the articles from UNFCCC and KP cited earlier). This claim presupposes that, absent Annex 1 countries complying with these stipulations, a wrong is done to those parties to whom the relevant treaty articles refer. That is, a distributive wrong is done to Saudi Arabia.

Hill argues, “The central goal of compensation is to restore the victim to some baseline point…”[39] The fact that the UNFCCC and KP identify nation-state groups due special treatment provides prima facie support for a group claim of compensation such as that asserted by the Saudis. Further, as Hill reminds, inasmuch as “the group entity” is “more than the sum of its parts,” then the collective “can be advantaged and harmed in a more meaningful way than just that its members have been advantaged and harmed.”[40] Indeed, Hill adds, “This group whole has its own identity and history, and has evolved to the point where it has attained certain moral rights.” In such a case, “compensation would be owed to the group entity and would be paid to that entity, that whole, and not to the individual members.” In the present context of argument, the whole of concern is the kingdom as represented by its government.

Page makes it clear, “A host of intergovernmental reports and philosophical analyses have argued that climate policies must be consistent with international and intergenerational justice in order for them to secure the legitimacy needed to be effective in meeting their aims and objectives.”[41] Accordingly, the Saudi negotiating position is reasonably advanced not only from the perspective of defending its own national interest, but also in assuring that developed countries comply with current treaty commitments without simply shifting the burden of consequences unfairly to the developing world. Page’s analysis is important for the fact that it considers “the normative assumptions” that underlie the objectives set forth in multilateral treaties such as the UNFCCC. Within this analysis, he advances the significance of justice as reciprocity, “considered either as mutual advantage or fair play,” understanding here that “requirements of justice” can be “determined by considerations of self-interest” as well as by “considerations of fairness (or fair play).”[42] Further, “As ‘constrained utility maximisers’, Gauthier argued, rational individuals will cooperate with others who are similarly disposed by respecting certain norms of justice so long as: (1) it is in their own interest; and (2) the selection of these norms is the outcome of a bargaining situation that reflects the differential resources of the participants.”[43]

Given this more general argument, the specific argument regarding the Saudi position can be stated as such: Saudi Arabia will cooperate with others who are similarly disposed to cooperate by respecting certain norms of justice, so long as: (1) it is in Saudi Arabia’s own interest to cooperate; and (2) the selection of norms is the outcome of the bargaining situation. In this case, the bargaining situation is the concluded and binding UNFCCC and KP treaties. These treaties reflect and account for the differential resources of the States Parties that concluded these treaties and committed to them. Thus, the treaties today count as the operative norms of justice for the climate change regime. Accordingly, Page has argued:

Suppose that developing countries had contributed as much to the origins of climate change as developed countries. It would not seem fair to expect these countries to bear the same absolute burden to mitigate or adapt to the problem as richer countries since they have far less capacity. Rather, it would be appropriate only to require a contribution from the developed world, considered either in collective or non-collective terms, that reflects that capacity.[44]

The point here is not that a country like Saudi Arabia would make no contribution, given that “fair reciprocity obtains only when all parties contribute something to the costs of a collaborative activity.” The Saudis have consistently been clear that they are prepared to cooperate, to be reciprocal, but consistent with the operative principles of the UNFCCC, especially Principles 1, 2, and 5, as set forth in Article 3 of the convention:

· “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”

· “The specific needs and special circumstances of developing country Parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, and of those Parties, especially developing country Parties, that would have to bear a disproportionate or abnormal burden under the Convention, should be given full consideration.”

· “…Measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade.”


Saudi Arabia consistently expresses its concern with the socioeconomic impact of global climate change response measures, to be undertaken in the first place by Annex 1 countries (OECD and former Eastern European countries) consequent to an international treaty such as the KP or what was to have become the Copenhagen agreement. In its First National Communication submitted, Saudi Arabia provides in Section 3.6 of this report a vulnerability assessment in relation to adaptation measures.[45] It is important to note from the outset that the Saudis expressly desire a “win-win strategy” such that both (a) the requirements of climate change policy are satisfied and (b) Saudi Arabia’s socioeconomic vulnerability is secured. Yet again, reasonably asserted is Saudi Arabia’s appeal to the overarching authority of Principles 1, 2, and 5 of the UNFCCC. These allow for a win-win strategy through the implementation of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities.

To this end, Saudi Arabia appeals to the authority of provisions of the UNFCCC (Articles 4.8 and 4.10) and the KP (Articles 2.3 and 3.14). These articles are central to the Saudi position: “Annex 1 parties agree to meet specific needs of developing countries arising from the impact of the implementation of response measures.” These needs include “funding, insurance and the transfer of technology.” UNFCCC Article 4.8(h) references, “Countries whose economies are highly dependent on income generated from the production, processing and export, and/or on consumption of fossil fuels and associated energy-intensive products;”—this provision thereby includes Saudi Arabia. Article 4.10 adds the condition that some “such Parties have serious difficulties switching to alternatives.”

Consistent with KP Article 2.3, the Saudis expect Annex 1 countries to “implement policies and measures… in such a way as to minimize adverse effects, including the adverse effects of climate change, effects on international trade, and social, environmental and economic impacts on other Parties, especially developing country Parties”—without dispute this includes Saudi Arabia. KP Article 3.14 stipulates the same requirement.

The Saudis’ argument here is straightforward: (1) “A substantial portion of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a result of revenue from oil export sales;” (2) “energy policies will include measures to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide;” (3) such measures “can translate into a reduction in fossil fuel demand, of which petroleum is the largest global contributing source of greenhouse gases;” (4) such a reduction has “not only economic impacts but also social implications as well for Saudi Arabia;” therefore, “The implementation of certain climate change policies by Annex 1 countries will undoubtedly impact the economies of oil-exporting countries,” including here Saudi Arabia.[46]

In reference year 2002, the oil sector (differentiated here from government and private non-oil sectors) contributed 35 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP. The oil sector, however, contributed 77 percent of available government revenues in that year. GDP and oil revenue are to be analyzed further in reference to demographic pressures that “have continued to burden the domestic economy resulting in unemployment, thus causing the real GDP per capita to shrink over time.” The population total for Saudi Arabia in 2010 is estimated at 29 million, with an annual average growth rate of 3.1 percent.[47] The facts that (a) “65 percent of the Saudi population is below the age of 25” and (b) there is high unemployment among many Saudis with “inadequate labor skills,” are both very important components of the demographic pressures on government expenditure. As reported in 2010:

…the Saudi economy’s wealth can easily obfuscate the crude reality of an unemployment rate that already stood at 11% at the outset of the global financial crisis…. The resulting risk of social instability… is undoubtedly a prime motivation behind Government efforts to mend this quandary…. From a theoretical perspective, the obvious answer to high youth unemployment is the creation of a diversified and vibrant private sector capable of absorbing the excess labour generated by the recent demographic revolution.[48]

The above structural deficiency has to be understood further in terms of all “the difficulties created by the low level of qualification of the labour force. This fact is buttressed by a 2008 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which underlines the need for an efficient education system to create the human capital necessary to assist in the development of the private sector and overall economic diversification.”[49]

Further, as the Saudis work towards the development of a knowledge-based economy, the government observes that real GDP per capita decreased during the 1980s and 1990s “from approximately $28,000/year to $9,300/year in 2000,” with projected drop to $3,000 per year by 2010 (assuming “business-as-usual” without climate change response measures).[50] In light of these various structural deficiencies as domestic pressures, the Saudis estimate, “It would require a present value lump-sum payment between $100-200 billion to offset the economic damage to Saudi Arabia during the period between 2000 and 2030 due to Annex 1 climate change response measures.” Among these measures, petroleum imports are targeted more severely in contrast to other fossil fuels that contribute to CO2 emissions: “For example,” Saudi Arabia notes, “the subsidization of coal and nuclear energy production as well as the relatively high and discriminate taxation on petroleum products are both environmentally unfriendly and have adverse impacts on economic growth… of oil exporting countries like Saudi Arabia.”[51]

Saudi Arabia
’s domestic economy depends on the international trade volume of its oil exports. Despite favorable per barrel prices on oil, Saudi “government expenditures have predominately outstripped government receipts,” such that domestic debt reached “as much as 100% of GDP in the late 1990s.” The oil revenue base is entirely central to Saudi Arabia’s undiversified economy, with “production and export of non-oil based goods and services… very limited.”[52] It goes without saying that “the diversification of the Saudi economy can offer a more stable revenue base than the country’s current high dependency on crude oil production.” As a developing country established in its present territorial borders only in 1932, Saudi Arabia will see development of its “physical and social infrastructure” only through government expenditure. As the government reports, “If Saudi Arabia fails to diversify its economy sufficiently away from its fossil fuel dependent revenues, then Annex 1 countries will neither meet their commitments in Articles 4.8 and 4.10 in the climate change convention nor promote the United Nation’s goals of sustainable development.”[53] In addition, the Saudis assert, these goals can be achieved “predominately through the diversification of the Saudi Arabian economy.”[54] Saudi Arabia’s point here is not that it does not desire a diversified economy; it is that it cannot accomplish this without the Annex 1 countries providing the requisite compensation.

The Saudi argument here can be viewed in some perspective such as provided by the International Energy Agency, which estimates:

…the cumulative revenue of [OPEC] would drop by 16 percent from 2008 to 2030 if the world agreed to slash emissions. The OPEC could lose $4 trillion in revenue between now and 2030 if a UN conference in Copenhagen strikes a deal on global warming curbs. The International Energy Agency projected that with the current policies in place, OPEC revenue will be about $28 trillion between 2008 and 2030 if there is no climate change deal. If there is a deal, OPEC revenues will be only $24 trillion. With no change in current energy policies, worldwide demand for oil would come to 105.2 million barrels a day between now and 2030. However, with the limitations envisaged by the IEA, demand would come to only 89 million barrels a day by 2030.”[55]

Such estimates are disturbing to Saudi Arabia, given its dependence on oil revenue from international trade in the face of an undiversified economy. Rashid Husain cites an earlier study by the Charles River consulting firm, according to which a Copenhagen agreement portends “losses in revenue for Saudi Arabia alone would be $19 billion a year starting in 2012.”[56] These are the sort of estimates that cause alarm in Saudi Arabia and motivate calls for compensation.[57]

Compensation here reflects the Saudi attention to the local developing economy in the face of what they foresee as “a major transformation in the oil market.” Even the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action under the Convention, in proposed draft text issued on December 11, 2009, reminded that “social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties…”[58] In 2010, Saudi Arabia announced a record budget, “projecting expenditures at SR540 billion and revenues at SR470 billion, leaving a deficit of SR70 billion.” This deficit spending occurs because of “the government’s plan to increase spending on welfare projects,” consistent with its policies on economic development of the country. John Sfakianakis writes, “…the state has to not only spearhead the country’s drive to sustainable development at least for now but also to help the economy recover fast. As the private sector is now becoming half of this economy’s annual output (47.8 percent of the country’s GDP in 2009) it too has to increase its domestic investments. The state has to be recognized for doing its duty of spurring private sector growth.”[59]


Saudi Arabia is an Arab Islamic state, its constitution of government is the Koran and Sunna (teachings and practices of Muhammad), and it implements a tradition of Islamic jurisprudence (the Hanbali school) that includes both law (fiqh) and ethics (akhlaq) as a comprehensive way of life. National policies, including those advanced on climate mitigation measures, require adherence to the guiding juristic principles of Islam even in the interactions of international trade that presume free market economic ideology.

According to the interpretation of Islam prevailing in Saudi Arabia today, a Muslim must comply with the divine imperative to protect the Earth, in as much as it is “a source of blessedness.”[60] Nature, thus, is viewed always metaphysically in its divine signification, and not merely as physical nature such as is understood through the empirical evidence of scientific explanation.[61] That said, of course, the fact is that Islamic jurisprudence recognizes “the changing historical condition of Muslim communities” and therefore appreciates that “the Muslim communities’ conscience is a changing one.”[62]

Nawal H. Ammar states that “the Islamic paradigm as it relates to the sacred and profane practices is based on ontological rather than epistemological principles. In essence, Islamic behavior and moral codes are patterned by the existence of the revelation” given in the Koran, which as “divine revelation,” “is not subject to empirical or other testing procedures.”[63] What is given as “Allah’s revelation,” Ammar clarifies, “is ultimate and absolute,” while the “how”, as “the domain of humans” is “changing and developing.” Human agency, therefore, requires a dual comportment—“promotion of the good” and “prevention of evil.” This is the ethical prescription of al-m’aruf, or “ethical accounting” (hisba), “as a product of both the practice of good and the prevention of evil deeds.”[64]

In Islam all acts are evaluated in terms of their consequences as social goods and benefits (masalih) and social detriments and evils (mafasid)… [When] it is impossible to satisfy all immediate interests, the universal common good requires evaluation and prioritization by weighing the welfare of the greatest number, the importance and urgency of the various interests involved, the certainty or probability of benefit or injury, and the ability of those affected to secure their interests without assistance.[65]

However, “Jurists have emphasized that Islamic ethical values prioritize the avoidance of evil over achieving good deeds.”[66]

This applies both to individual action and to collective choices such as are manifest and considered in the formulation of national policies, thus in environmental policy. Two relevant principles are part of hisba: (1) “Exigency does not cancel the rights of others;” and (2) “The averting of harm from the poor takes priority over the averting of harm from the wealthy.” In this case, scientific claims of global climate change, while urgent, cannot be taken as dictating a cancellation of the rights of a developing nation, such as Saudi Arabia, vis-à-vis the primary burden industrialized nations have in implementing mitigation measures and controlling for adverse effects on developing economies.[67] Indeed, precisely where a local population is young, undereducated, and underemployed (as in the country’s undiversified economy), and which therefore is not in a position to secure its interests without the government assistance, the guiding Islamic principles allow for priority to them while seeking accommodation of international environmental concerns in climate change mitigation.

In the context of environmental ethics, then, this ethical accounting begins with human agency conceived as a duty of “stewardship” (amana) of the earth’s resources, a comportment paramount among the virtues of commerce as a matter of respect (hay’a) for the “divine creation.” That understood, then there follows attention to justice (adl), equity (qist), and public benefit (mursala maslaha), in deliberation about business transactions; this includes, thereby, international trade.[68]

The process of negotiation within the Islamic perspective presumes voluntary, explicit informed consent to terms in any transaction; this is a judgment that complies generally with the prohibition on theft consequent to the inviolate character of private property. Further, within the Islamic perspective, there is a distinction of stakeholders among those that are primary (owners/financiers, management, employees) and derivative (secondary: suppliers, customers; tertiary: all external parties—debtors, competitors, community and the natural environment).[69] This applies to decision-making in international trade transactions such as pursued by Saudi Arabia in petroleum exports.


The foregoing review of Saudi Arabia’s negotiating position makes it clear that: (1) the government acknowledges the rights of future generations; (2) it is sufficiently concerned about global climate change and reasonable mitigation measures on greenhouse gas emissions; but that (3) it is also reasonably concerned to safeguard the rights of future generations of Saudis according to what, in international treaty, is recognized as declared standards of justice, viz., those stipulated in the UNFCCC and KP principles governing common but differentiated responses among the international community; further, (4) sustainable development of the Saudi economy remains an unquestioned and reasonably defensible commitment; the government recognizes that such development entails (5) diversification measures far beyond its present financial and technological capability; hence, (6) the argument for compensation is itself reasonably grounded in the context of international negotiations for climate change mitigation.

This position is also consistent with international law. As Darrel Moellendorf has argued, “Any agreement will be required to conform to UNFCCC norms related to sustainable development and the equitable distribution of responsibilities… [These norms] have status in international law, and legitimacy requires their satisfaction; but by protecting policies that facilitate development of impoverished countries, they also serve the moral end of eradicating poverty.”[70]

Moreover, the Saudis appreciate the need for responsible competitiveness in the Arab world, given that there has to be sustainable development relative to both regional and international market performance.[71] One such as Abd al-Karim Abu Al-Nasr writes on this theme, recommending improvement upon international and regional governance systems as part of the response to the global financial crisis: “As a starting point at the regional level, we should aim to ensure that we meet the highest international standards such as the recommendations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).”[72] Of course, standards of fiscal governance are important in all corporate activity. Yet this means that in the same way OECD standards may be appropriated and applied in regional markets in the Arab world, so it is warranted to recognize the authority of international standards now in place in the UNFCCC and KP with respect to how global climate change mitigation measures relate to economic development policy, such as is being pursued in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is now working to improve the operations of the non-oil sector, even as it must sustain the performance of the oil market while working to diversify its economy.

Al-Nasr adds:

As the global economic slowdown hits the region, governments are expected to step in with stimulus funding of major infrastructure projects. For example, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone is expected to invest $400 billion dollars in national projects over the coming five years. For all regional investment, there is an opportunity to achieve immediate progress in further factoring the wider range of environmental and social risks into these projects, so that we can implement projects which contribute to global stability over the long-term and do not risk leading us towards new crisis.[73]

As Said Al-Shaikh makes clear, “Government investment expenditure will remain the key driver of growth in Saudi Arabia. This is based on aggressive fiscal policy plans emphasizing capital expenditure as well as indirect fiscal stimulus measures to support the non-oil sector. With large accumulated reserves and low levels of domestic debt, we believe that Saudi Arabia will be able to spend its way out of the crisis.”[74]

In short, analyses make clear the Saudi negotiating position is defensible and reasonable. It cannot fairly be said that the Saudis are merely negotiating for “no” and seeking to obstruct progress. Rather, Saudi Arabia is seeking “yes,” but according to a “win-win” scenario that requires OECD Annex 1 countries to abide by the terms of UNFCCC and KP. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s first priority is national economic development followed by all appropriate technical and financial cooperation that enables diversification of its economy. This is consistent with both currently governing international law and international norms of morality present in the climate change regime.


[1] Shawn McCarthy, “Copenhagen Fell Victim to a World Divided,” The Globe and Mail, December 20, 2009.

[2] Joanna Depledge, “Striving for No: Saudi Arabia in the Climate Change Regime,” Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 8, No. 4 (November 2008), pp. 9-35.

[3] Wael Hmaidan, “The Arab World in the Post-Kyoto Regime,” World Environment Magazine, May 2008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mari Luomi, “Bargaining in the Saudi Bazaar: Common Ground for a Post-2012 Climate Agreement?” Briefing Paper 48, The International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment Research Program, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, December 1, 2009.

[6] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report,” IPCC Plenary XXVII, November 12-17, 2007, p. 30.

[7] Ibid, p. 33.

[8] Ibid, pp. 47 and 56.

[9] Richard S. Lindzen, “The Climate Science Isn’t Settled: Confident Predictions of Catastrophe Are Unwarranted,” The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2009.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Peter Kelemen, “What East Anglia’s Emails Really Tell Us About Climate Change,” Popular Mechanics, December 1, 2009,

[12] Wael Mahdi, “Saudis Say Trust in Climate Science ‘Shaken’,” The National, December 8, 2009,

[13] Wael Mahdi, “Saudi Arabia Still Refusing Any Climate Deal,” Arab Environment Watch, December 8, 2009,

[14] Kelly McEvers, “Saudi Arabia Tries to Stall Global Emissions Limits,” National Public Radio, December 10, 2010;

[15] Lindzen, “The Climate Science Isn’t Settled.”

[16] Depledge, “Striving for No,” p. 10.

[17] Ibid, p. 12.

[18] Ibid, p. 14.

[19] Sonja Klinsky, “Conceptualizations of Justice in Climate Policy,” Climate Policy (Earthscan), Vol. 9, No. 1 (2009), pp. 88-108.

[20] Terry Barker, Serban Scrieciu, David Taylor, “Climate Change, Social Justice, and Development,” Development, Vol. 51, No. 3 (September 2008), pp. 317-24.

[21] Edward A. Page, “Fairness on the Day after Tomorrow: Justice, Reciprocity and Global Climate Change,” Political Studies, Vol. 55 (2007), pp. 225-42.

[22] Jouni Paavola, “Seeking Justice: International Environmental Governance and Climate Change,” Globalizations, Vol. 2, No. 3 (December 2005), pp. 309-22.

[23] Ibid, pp. 311-12.

[24] Anthony D’Amato, “Do We Owe a Duty to Future Generations to Preserve the Global Environment,” American Journal of International Law, 190 (1990).

[25] Derek Partfit, “Rights, Interests, and Possible People,” in Samuel Gorovitz, et. al., (eds.), Moral Problems in Medicine (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976), pp. 369-75.

[26] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 329.

[27] Ibid, p. 329.

[28] Ibid, p. 330.

[29] Ibid, p. 331.

[30] Ibid, p. 339.

[31] Paavola, “Seeking Justice,” p. 310.

[32] Derek Parfit, “Future Generations: Further Problems,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring 1982), pp. 113-172.

[33] Ibid, p. 124.

[34] Parfit (Ibid, p. 126) states the general claim, thus: “On this view [i.e., act utilitarianism], we have no duty to maximize utility when this would require from us too great a sacrifice, or too great an interference in our lives.”

[35] Ibid, pp. 137-38.

[36] Renée A. Hill, “Compensatory Justice: Over Time and Between Groups,” The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 4 (2002), pp. 392-415.

[37] Page, “Fairness on the Day after Tomorrow,” p. 227.

[38] Jad Mouawad and Andrew C. Revkin, “Saudis Seek Payments for Any Drop in Oil Revenues,” The New York Times, October 13, 2009.

[39] Hill, “Compensatory Justice,” p. 399.

[40] Ibid, p. 402.

[41] Page, “Fairness on the Day after Tomorrow.”

[42] Ibid, pp. 226 and 227.

[43] Ibid, p. 227.

[44] Ibid, p. 228.

[45] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), First National Communication of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Presidency of Meteorology and Environment PME, 2005.

[46] Ibid, p. 120.

[47] Ibid, p. 126.

[48] The Majalla, “The Young and the Jobless,” January 11, 2010.

[49] Ibid.

[50] KSA, First National Communication, p. 121.

[51] Ibid, p. 123.

[52] Ibid, p. 124.

[53] Ibid, p. 129.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Syed Rashid Husain, “Producers, Consumers Gear Up for Fierce Debate in Copenhagen,” Arab News, November 29, 2009.

[56] Ibid.

[57]See here also, Jared Killeen, “Fearing Less Oil Consumption by a Climate-Conscious World, Saudi Arabia Asks for Financial Assistance,” October 8, 2009,

[58] Chair’s Proposed Draft Text on the Outcome of the Work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action under the Convention, Version, December 11, 2009.

[59] John Sfakianakis, “2010 Will be the Year of Reassuring Recovery for the Economy,” Arab News, December 22, 2009.

[60] Mawil Y. Izzi Deen, “Islamic Environmental Ethics, Law, and Society,” in J.R. Engel and J.G. Engel, Ethics of Environment and Development (London: Bellhaven Press, 1990).

[61] Ibrahim Ozdemir, “Towards an Understanding of Environmental Ethics from a Qur’anic Perspective,”

[62] Nawal H. Ammar, “Islam, Population, and the Environment: A Textual and Juristic View,” in Harold G. Coward (ed.), Population, Consumption, and the Environment: Religious and Secular Responses, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 123-36.

[63] Ibid, p. 125.

[64] Ibid, p. 126.

[65] Islamset, “The Mandate of the Governing Authorities,” Environmental Protection in Islam,

[66] Ammar, “Islam, Population, and the Environment,” p. 126.

[67] Islamset, “The Mandate of the Governing Authorities.”

[68] Rafik I. Beekun and Jamal A. Badawi, “Balancing Ethical Responsibility among Multiple Organizational Stakeholders: The Islamic Perspective,” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 60 (2005), pp. 131-45; Lisa Wersal, “Islam and Environmental Ethics: Tradition Responds to Contemporary Challenges,” in Mashood A. Baderin (ed.), International Law and Islamic Law (Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2008), pp. 271-79; Iqtidar H. Zaidi, “On the Ethics of Man’s Interaction with the Environment: An Islamic Approach,” Environmental Ethics, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1981), pp. 35-47; Imad-ad Dean Ahmad, “Islam, Commerce, and Business Ethics,” Plenary Address at the Loyola Institute for Ethics and Spirituality in Business, International Ecumenical Conference, June 10-12, 2004.

[69] Beekun and Badawi, “Balancing Ethical Responsibility.”

[70] Darrel Moellendorf, “Treaty Norms and Climate Change Mitigation,” Ethics & International Affairs (2009), pp. 247-65.

[72] Ibid, p. 82.

[73] Ibid, p. 86.

[74] AMEinfo 2009;

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Dr. Norman K. Swazo is Interim/Acting Dean and Professor of Philosophy & Biomedical Ethics, College of Science and General Studies, Alfaisal University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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