ODVV Interview: Poorer nations are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change

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Publish Date : 08/06/2022 9:39
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World Bank has projected that by 2030, climate change could force more than 132 million people into extreme poverty, and without adequate adaptation measures, agricultural yields can be slashed by up to 30% by 2050, which portends a massive crisis awaiting the global food supply chains.

Extreme weather events unfolding daily in the form of storms, droughts, floods, forest fires and heatwaves are revealing the most ruthless side of climate change. Although world leaders continue to give reference to climate action as an urgency in their statements, it seems the international community is a far cry from fulfilling its targets for containing the tidal wave of global warming, and as a result, the most underprivileged communities suffer the most seismic effects of untamed emissions disrupting the planet’s natural carbon cycle and climatic patterns.

Scientific evidence suggests that climate change is multiplying socioeconomic disparities and worsening development gaps. This is why taking steps to phase out fossil fuels, drumming up investment in renewable energy and scaling up circular economies will substantially reduce poverty, mitigate health crises and make our societies more sustainable.

World Bank has projected that by 2030, climate change could force more than 132 million people into extreme poverty, and without adequate adaptation measures, agricultural yields can be slashed by up to 30% by 2050, which portends a massive crisis awaiting the global food supply chains. Africa, the continent in which 70% of people rely on agriculture to make a living, accounts for only 4% of global emissions, and the 20 richest nations in the world produce nearly 80% of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Stephen M. Gardiner is the Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is also a professor of philosophy and studies the global environmental problems and their human rights implications. His latest book is “The Ethics of “Geoengineering” the Global Climate: Justice, Legitimacy and Governance” published in 2020.

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Prof. Gardiner to discuss the ethical considerations of climate change, the efficiency of international frameworks to address the simmering climate emergency and the effects of global warming and extreme weather events on the enjoyment of human rights.


Q: In your different writings and speeches, you’ve discussed the ethical considerations of climate change and raised the concept of the tyranny of the contemporary. In the underprivileged and developing societies where the most immediate priority of the average family is to heat up their houses in the harsh cold of the winter or ensure the next meal is on the table, and few people are concerned about a warming planet, should the ethical considerations be interpreted similarly by saying the communities are putting today’s benefit first and neglecting the principle of offsetting the costs for the future generations?

A: Clearly, people shouldn’t be put in a situation where they have to choose between inflicting severe harms on the future, or inflicting similar harms on themselves. That’s a tragic scenario that the world in general has strong moral reasons to avoid. Indeed, I’ve argued that inflicting it on others is itself a serious injustice.

Still, we need to be careful here. Many countries around the world are not stuck in an extreme scenario where their immediate need for shelter and food does and should swamp everything else. Many rich people living in poor countries are not in that situation either. Moreover, those communities who are genuinely in that kind of extreme bind are probably contributing very little to climate change right now. Given this, I’m concerned about the rest of us, who aren’t in such dire circumstances, using the plight of the most vulnerable to justify our own high emissions, when our communities are in very different circumstances. Some communities today might invoke what I call a right of generational self-defense, but only if the harms imposed on them through complying with climate goals that protect the future would really be extreme. Nevertheless, notice that even a right like this would come with sharp limits.

Consider an analogy. Imagine that our gen¬eration faced a different intergenerational issue where the normal food supply became contaminated with a pesti¬cide that had only intergenerational effects. Specifically, the pesticide caused increasingly severe and painful deformities starting three generations in the future and then for ten more generations, in direct proportion to the amount used by us. What could justify our continuing to use the pesticide? Presumably not minor inconveniences, or the loss of various luxuries. If stopping would literally cause us to starve or our societies to collapse, that might do it. However, even then any right to generational self-defense would come with sharp limits. Just like any other right of self-defense, it could not be invoked by everyone, or forever.

For example, normally we don’t think you can do just anything to defend yourself - there needs to be proportionality. If I shoot my neighbor just because I’m afraid she’s going to step on my flowerbed, I can’t claim self-defense. I also can’t invoke the right to self-defense if I have other, relatively easy and nonharmful ways of neutralizing the threat, such as calling out her name to warn her that the flowers are there. This matters because in the climate case, many communities will have nonharmful ways out available that they could implement relatively quickly, so the self-defense exemption would not apply to them. While other communities, especially very poor communities, may legitimately invoke generational self-defense right now, even in those cases there seems to be a strong moral reason for them to get on a climate-friendly path as soon as possible, and for wealthier countries to help them to do so.

Think about our pesticide analogy again. Imagine that an immediate pesticide ban would cause mass unemployment and collapse for some communities, so that they are permitted by self-defense to continue to use it. Still, they should work hard to phase out pesticide use quickly, since the harm to the future is so great. Others should also help then, especially if these others are partially responsible for the harmful pesticide in the first place. Notably, the present may also eventually owe some compensation and redress to their victims in the future even if they invoke a right to self-defense. Calling on the extreme scenarios is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. What seems clear is that communities today should not merely say protecting the future is too hard and continue with business-as-usual. That would be way too complacent and raises worries about moral corruption. In the climate case, we should be wary of falling into the same trap.


Q: In some of your presentations, you have noted that there is a governance gap in responding to global warming and that the present structures, including the Paris Agreement have failed to address the global climate emergency. What are the attributes of the alternatives you propose, including the global constitutional convention that resembles the United States constitutional convention of 1787? Why do you believe the current frameworks are inadequate?

A: Current frameworks, such as conventional negotiations between national governments and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, have shown themselves to be inadequate in substantive terms. Global emissions are way up since the early 1990s when negotiations began. Even now, when the scientific consensus is that we need a cut of around 50% by the end of the decade, global emissions continue to grow. I think that part of the problem is that there is a governance gap. Many people are concerned about the future, but it is difficult for those concerns to make themselves really count in policy. Our institutions are very focused on the very short-term, and often the narrowly economic concerns. They are not designed to protect the longer term against severe global threats like climate change.

To meet this governance gap, I think we need a global constitutional convention focused on the future. This would be a deliberative forum charged with representing humanity in its primary relations, political and moral. Its task would be to provide institutional recommendations for protecting against the tyranny of the contemporary, paying special attention to manifestations at the global scale and over the very long term. In doing so, it might propose the creation of new institutions, modification of existing institutions, or, most likely, both.


Q: The United Nations describes climate change as the most serious threat to human rights. Does the international community recognize the gravity of climate change as a human rights dilemma? When the leaders of major democracies lay out their vision about human rights advocacy and protection the world over, should they also be construed as implying protection for the vulnerable people of the developing countries against the detrimental impacts of extreme weather events, or isn’t the theme still embedded in their discourse?

A: I am sympathetic to the claim that climate change should be understood in part as a human rights issue. However, unfortunately, most conventional thinking about human rights does not fit well with a global, intergenerational and ecological threat like climate change.

In my view, we need new ways of thinking about human rights institutions and the concepts that back them up. For one thing, conventional human rights laws and institutions are very backward-looking, and involve addressing wrongs that have already occurred. But much of the climate problem involves impacts that will take place in the future and need to be prevented. So, simply invoking conventional ideas about human rights risks being inadequate to the problems we actually face.


Q: How significant are the impacts of climate change on the vulnerable groups of our communities? According to the United Nations, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in natural disasters, especially because they are more dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods and societal roles. The disparities also apply to racial minorities, including the African-Americans, who face higher risks of death because of extreme heat, devastating floods and air pollution. How is it possible to narrow these gaps to support the most unprotected?

A: Climate change can affect anyone, anywhere. But the impacts on more vulnerable groups are extremely important. One thing to emphasize is the injustices involved, including around issues of race and gender. Climate change interacts in unfortunate ways with the present global power structure.

In my work, I highlight the problem of skewed vulnerabilities. For one thing, whereas the responsibility for historical and current emissions lies predominantly with the richer, more powerful countries, the poorer nations appear much more vulnerable to climate impacts, at least in the short- to medium-term. Thus, we see a situation where the richer, big emitters do not bear the brunt of their own behavior, which instead is disproportionately suffered by the poorer countries. They both contribute least to the problem, and are poorly-placed to hold the richer countries to account.

I’d also highlight the ongoing risk of affluent populations passing the burdens of their activities onto poorer communities, including economic costs and physical harms. One piece of evidence that this is occurring is the Paris Agreement, which analysts say favors the developed countries, and is least fair to Africa, probably the most vulnerable continent. We should also be concerned about the wider backdrop of injustice against which all of this occurs, including those related to the history of colonialism, currently pronounced global poverty and inequality, and the role of rich nations in structuring existing transnational institutions. Global environmental change creates major threats of compound injustices, where later injustices build on earlier ones as powerful countries take further advantage of those already exploited by the current structure.


Q: Many developing countries with tenuous economies complain that the high-income, developed nations have not discharged their responsibilities committing $100 billion to mitigation and adaptation projects globally, and this has substantially attenuated their ability to cope with climate-related threats. How is it possible to guarantee the fulfillment of these obligations and hold the powerful governments involved accountable?

A: They are right that there are real problems in fulfilling existing commitments. We should also say that even if they were fulfilled, those commitments alone are almost certainly inadequate to the problem. This is one reason why not just adaptation but also loss and damage continue to be important parts of the discussion in climate policy. But, as with mitigation, so far these efforts are largely failing. Again, I think we need institutional reform, and the global constitutional convention would be an important step in the right direction.


Q: The share of the oil and gas companies of the global economy is about 3.8%, but their role in fueling climate change is monumental, and only the top 100 major energy giants have been responsible for 71% of the global greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2017. Is it that these corporations are so influential that makes it impossible to regulate their emission levels and hold them to account before international legal bodies working to uphold environmental standards?

A: Fossil fuel companies clearly share in the blame, and have a lot of power, including over current institutions. At the same time, we should not ignore the fact that there’s a lot about the current international system that is dysfunctional and will have to change if we are to protect the future. Threats like climate change challenge the system at a fundamental level.


Q: Do you think it is a realistic anticipation that governments will be fighting over water and resources in the future instead of territory or ideological, political interests? A 2019 study by a group of American and British scholars published by the Nature found between 3 and 20% percent of the wars in the past century were to some extent induced by climatic variabilities, and there is a possibility armed conflicts and violent wars over climate-related tensions will be put on steroids in the future. What are your thoughts?

A: My guess is that all of that will happen, and that the various threads, [including] resources, competing interests and ideology, will be run together, as they often are. What people may not realize is the sheer magnitude of what we are talking about. As climate change unfolds, we are not talking about marginal impacts on our societies, but potentially massive, era-defining effects.

These may fundamentally reshape the world we live in, and in ways which make injustice far more likely and pronounced. Currently, we’re running a serious risk of triggering temperature rises of not just 1.5 or 2 degrees – the usual international benchmarks for climate change that is deemed dangerous – but of 3, 4 or 5 degrees in this century or the next. This is the same magnitude as an ice-age shift, except it will happen very quickly and in the warmer direction. Wars may be put on steroids, as you put it. But so will many other problems. For example, some say that at 4 degrees global agriculture may collapse. If that happened, then it would not be surprising to see many states failing, and the unraveling of the whole international system.


By Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV Interview: Poorer nations are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change ”