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 on climate change.
In 1992, the year in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signalled the start of a coordinated global response, the CO2 emissions attributable to the United States were four times greater than any other country, over the period from 1850. Historic emissions are relevant because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for many decades.
In researching a more recent cumulative period, 1990-2015, Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute produced dramatic evidence of climate injustice. The richest one percent of the world’s population were responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity.
Contemporary figures are similarly lopsided, with as many as 100 countries accounting for only 3.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Yet it is amongst these low emitting countries that the most damaging impacts of climate change are to be found. According to Germanwatch, compilers of the Climate Risk Index, “eight of the ten countries most affected (by extreme weather events) between 2000 and 2019 are developing countries with low or lower middle income per capita.” The countries most seriously affected in that period were Puerto Rico, Myanmar and Haiti.
The experience of these climate impacts at the scale of individual households introduces human rights concerns into the grievance of climate justice. Basic rights to food, water, health and shelter, already a daily struggle for the world’s poorest households, are disrupted by unfamiliar weather patterns, coastal inundation, and higher temperatures. In their foot-dragging approach to international climate negotiations, rich governments turn a blind eye to the potential failure of the UN sustainable development goals on account of climate change.
The sense of grievance within poorer countries has been accentuated by the focus on two degrees Centigrade as a tolerable rise in temperature. Without any rigorous evidence in science, this figure was adopted by politicians in the first decade of the 21st century, until its cautious modification in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Many small and low-lying island states are unlikely to survive two degrees of warming. And the extent of the devastation of Barbuda and other Caribbean islands during the 2017 hurricane season raised serious questions about the a tolerance threshold. Such extreme events are already more commonplace, and the poorer countries lack the financial reserves of their wealthy neighbours necessary to construct defences or to restore normal economic conditions in the aftermath.
An all-embracing global average rise in temperature is a flawed concept, regardless of its prescribed level. Most climate models predict that richer countries in temperate zones will benefit from higher crop yields within modest levels of warming. 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.
Even the earliest scientific reports on climate change warned that most of inland Africa will experience significantly higher increases than a global average. And 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, home to over a billion people.
Such concerns about oversimplifying the impact of global warming were addressed in 2017 by the unlikely source of the International Monetary Fund. Its Global Economic Outlook 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.
The concept of climate justice has recently acquired a new dimension through the School Strikes movement, inspired by Greta Thunberg. Through no fault of their own, young people in both richer and poorer countries face a barrage of disturbing forecasts for their planetary home within the span of their lifetimes. Intergenerational mobilisation across the globe may be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back of political intransigence on climate justice.