ODVV Interview: Addressing climate change...
Facts that corroborate the world is entangled in a climate emergency are abundant. Scientific evidence paints a clear and unambiguous picture of what lies ahead for the humanity: climate change is happening, it is almost entirely triggered by harmful anthropogenic activity, and in the decades to come, its impacts on human life will be scorching and at times irreversible. 2020, the second hottest year on record since 1880, witnessed unfortunate natural disasters almost unvaryingly linked to climate change. Record-setting wildfires engulfing Australia, California, Brazil and Siberia; an unprecedented hurricane season in the Atlantic marked by 30 named storms; massive floods overwhelming India and Bangladesh, and protracted droughts that drove millions of people into hunger in Zimbabwe and Madagascar were only some of the environmental morasses of the year that rolled by.
Although greenhouse gas emissions dwindled slightly in 2020 as a result of the economic recession induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists don’t expect 2021 will be significantly better for life on Earth unless governments act with determination on slashing emissions, reforming their energy consumption and production patterns and fulfilling their commitments to the Paris climate agreement, most importantly cutting global emissions by 7.6 percent every year until 2030. Climate change and its offshoots are now being illustrated as the most immediate, pervasive threat to human rights and adequate standard of living in communities worldwide. United Nations experts warn climate change not only compromises people’s right to food, water, housing, sanitation and health, but has the potential to spark armed conflicts with gigantic human loss. World economies are already feeling the twinge of climate change: the global cost of adapting to climate impacts is expected to grow to USD280-500 billion annually by 2050.
Joshua Gellers is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Florida. A research fellow of the Earth System Governance Project, his research is centered on environmental politics in the developing countries, with a focus on environmental rights and development finance. He is the author of the 2017 book “The Global Emergence of Constitutional Environmental Rights.”
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Gellers to discuss the human cost of global warming, the intersection of human rights and climate change and the challenges ahead of the developing countries in ditching fossil fuels and turning to renewable energies.
Q: Later this year in November, five years after the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders will convene in Glasgow so as to discuss their achievements in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and identify new targets. The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres described this year a moment of “make or break” for climate change. Does 2021 herald a meaningful reform in favor of the environment, while the world is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic? Will the world governments bring some good news to the Glasgow summit?
A: Yes. 2021 presents an unusual opportunity to observe the importance of international cooperation on a range of issues. Quick government action, in partnership with the private sector, brought numerous life-saving vaccines to market in record time. The urgency with which the world sought to address the pandemic will serve as an unmistakable backdrop to ongoing efforts to combat climate change. The United States’ return to the Paris climate agreement signals a renewal of leadership from one of the world’s largest emitters of CO2. The fact that the US is back in the fold of the climate change regime should be viewed as a positive development that will help the international community tackle climate change with renewed vigor.
Q: Why do some government resist the process of decarbonizing their economies and refuse to embrace initiatives to slash the consumption of fossil fuels? Today, only less than 10 percent of the world’s electricity is generated using solar and wind power and other renewables. Does the reduction of carbon footprint involve costs these nations are reluctant to pay?
A: Some governments resist the transition to a clean economy either because the costs of switching to renewable sources of energy are prohibitively high – without foreign assistance to ease the financial burden, or because their economy remains dependent upon fossil fuel production and they have yet to diversify enough to sufficiently absorb the shock of decarbonizing. The international community can provide financial support to help countries in the former camp through initiatives like the Green Climate Fund, while countries in the latter group need to weigh the long-term costs of inaction versus the short-term benefits of continued reliance on a dwindling resource.
Q: China is an industrial country and one of the world’s foremost economies. At the same time, the country is one of the major environmental polluters and accounts for 28 percent of the total global emissions. Against the odds, President Xi Jinping announced recently that the Asian powerhouse plans to become carbon neutral by 2060. How do you assess this turnaround? Do you think other major powers, including the United States, will tread the same path to contribute to decreased pollution and mitigation of emissions?
A: As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. While China’s ambition to become carbon neutral is no doubt impressive, a lot will depend on how the economy becomes decarbonized. For instance, if the plan involves relocating polluting industries to poorer countries, China will effectively have shifted their emissions from the country’s own balance sheet to that of another, resulting in no change at the global level.
A more optimistic take would be that China recognizes the environmental and economic benefits of decarbonizing and the country is positioning itself as a leader capable of selling their green technology to the rest of the world. China, despite its large size, can make such moves precisely because its governmental system doesn’t have the same checks and balances one finds in a consolidated democracy like the United States. This kind of authoritarian environmentalism permits dramatic societal shifts that would not be possible in multi-party democracies.
The US is in a less favorable position to achieve carbon neutrality because of the extent to which partisan politics and special interests influence the governing process. The US could make a bold gesture by seeking to become carbon neutral, but the next administration could easily frustrate the pursuit of that goal.
Q: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stipulated that governments have an “affirmative obligation” to adopt effective measures to mitigate the human rights impacts of climate change. Across the world, the number of climate lawsuits brought forward by individuals and NGOs against big corporations and governments over their failures to protect the environment is rising steadily. Does this trend presage the emergence of a global legal movement to combat climate change?
A: This global movement has already been under way for some years. Whether the claimants are non-governmental organizations or youth, we are witnessing a widespread effort to use our current legal toolbox, in this case litigation, to compel responsible actors like countries and corporations to take more definitive steps to address climate change. It is hard to say that this movement is truly global, however, as many developing countries have not seen the same level of legal mobilization as have been observed in developed states like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.
Q: World Bank has estimated that by 2050, the three regions of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia will have generated at least 143 million more climate refugees fleeing unfavorable climatic conditions in their homelands. Is the international community prepared to tackle the phenomenon of climate refugees and the challenges it produces, including competition between states and peoples over water, food, resources and the increasing frequency of communicable diseases? Why aren’t there multilateral strategies or legal mechanisms to address climate change as a driver of migration?
A: The international community is presently not well prepared to address the likelihood of over 100 million internally and externally displaced people who will leave their homes due to climate change impacts. One need only look back at the refugee crisis in Europe from a few years ago to understand all the potential pitfalls the international community might face with larger numbers of people fleeing to more hospitable territory. Part of the problem lies in the fact that so-called climate refugees do not fit into the existing legal framework for refugees under the UN system. There are efforts underway to address this oversight, like amending the 1951 Refugee Convention and establishing a new treaty that includes climate refugees, but so far this group of individuals lacks the same level of protections afforded traditional refugees.
Q: What are the most notable human rights that are infringed upon as a result of the inability of governments to meet their environmental commitments, particularly under the Paris agreement?
A: Some relevant human rights that fall within the purview of state environmental commitments include the rights to life, health, property, privacy, housing, water and sanitation. These rights are enshrined in both international law, most notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and regional human rights instruments like the European Convention on Human Rights, African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and American Convention on Human Rights. There are also regional treaties with specific procedural rights to information, participation, and access to justice in environmental matters, such as the Aarhus Convention in Europe and the Escazú Agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Q: According to the United Nations, the developing countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change will be sustaining USD168 billion in additional debt payments by 2028 due to the augmentation of climatic risks and recurrence of extreme weather conditions. Different studies have shown that changing climate disproportionately impacts the developing countries and some scholars have recommended that a targets-with-trading system is put in place through which the high-income countries pay the less privileged nations for lowering their emissions. How do you think it is possible to moderate the pressure developing, poorer countries endure due to the economic effects of climate change?
A: Addressing climate change equitably requires global adoption of a climate justice lens. This means acknowledging the historical responsibility that Western countries have had in contributing to the current climate crisis and turning that responsibility into action that will help developing countries adjust to the new reality they had little hand in creating. In particular, developed countries will have to provide financial and technical resources to developing countries in order to help them become more resilient and resistant to economic shocks caused by climate change.
Q: As a political science scholar, what’s your take on the implications of unilateral coercive measures, in the form of indiscriminate economic sanctions against different countries, for their ability to combat climate change? Do broad-ranging economic sanctions targeting the entire sectors of a nation’s economy disrupt that state’s efforts to address the climate crisis?
A: The literature on economic sanctions is pretty clear – they don’t work to achieve their intended goal and often hurt society’s most vulnerable in the process. International action on climate change should focus more on carrots than sticks. Sanctioning a developing country for failing to achieve emissions reductions targets could set back the entire country economically and socially, leading to political instability. Countries, especially wealthy ones, would be better advised to support developing states and encourage their enactment of strong climate change policies than to punish them for not meeting lofty expectations.
By: Kourosh Ziabari