The Case for Climate Justice
All assessments of vulnerability to climate change concur that the countries whose people are most seriously threatened are those which bear the least responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. This is the core injustice that strives to make its voice heard in international discourse.
Data published by the World Resources Institute shows that two-thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions since 1850 are attributable to just five major emitters—the United States, European Union, China, Russian Federation and Japan. Historic emissions are relevant because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many decades. Contemporary figures are similarly lopsided, with as many as 100 countries accounting for only 3.5% of current global emissions.
In their foot-dragging approach to international climate negotiations, rich governments turn a blind eye to the impact of global warming on the world’s poorest households. The daily struggle for marginal resources of food, water and energy is already undermined by unfamiliar weather patterns, coastal inundation, warming oceans and desertification.
Climate research is increasingly focused on the impact of high temperatures on health and productivity, yielding evidence of further injustice. The International Panel on Climate Change (2014 Fifth Assessment Report) warned that “climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income.” And the unlikely source of a 2017 Global Economic Outlook of the International Monetary Fund concluded that “increases in temperature have uneven macroeconomic effects, with adverse consequences concentrated in countries with relatively hot climates, such as most low-income countries. In these countries, a rise in temperature lowers per capita output, in both the short and medium term.”
The sense of grievance within the poorer countries has been accentuated by the focus on two degrees Centigrade as a tolerable temperature rise, a figure adopted by politicians without any rigorous evidence in science. Many small island states are unlikely to survive this level of warming, due to salinisation of water supplies, inundation by rising tides and exceptional exposure to hurricanes and cyclones.
The devastation of Barbuda and other Caribbean islands during the 2017 hurricane season delivered a powerful reminder of this vulnerability. It also illustrated how poorer countries are less able than their wealthy neighbours either to construct defences or restore normal economic conditions in the aftermath.
Most climate models predict that richer countries in temperate zones will benefit from higher crop yields within the two degree range. By contrast, crops in tropical regions are already approaching the limit of their sensitivity to peak daytime temperatures and warmer nights.
For example, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture believes that a two degree temperature rise in West Africa will make it impossible to grow cocoa, without relocating plantations. The fate of the Arabica coffee bean, the world’s most popular variety, is subject to similar concern due to its sensitivity to temperature.
Furthermore, the two degree figure is a global average – most of inland Africa will experience significantly higher increases. On the Tibetan plateau temperatures have been rising at double the global average over the last three decades, setting in motion the retreat of most Himalayan glaciers, with complex implications for the watersheds of South Asia.
A strong sense of injustice is also felt by young people in richer countries. Through no fault of their own, they face a barrage of disturbing forecasts for their planetary home as the century advances. Intergenerational anger across the globe may be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back of political intransigence on climate justice.
more Climate Justice briefings (updated March 2018)
Paris Climate Agreement
Climate Justice and Right to Development
Loss and Damage
Source material and useful links