A guest post by Dr. Jason Whittle, @jasonmwhittle.
Heading into the Paris climate talks this year there is a lot of hope for significant action from the developed world. The United States and other developed nations finally seems to be making meaningful pledges to reduce their carbon emissions. President Obama has made climate change a top priority as his Presidency winds down (Goodell 2015, Barron-Lopez & Sheppard 2015). Additionally, all of the major emitters and most of the smaller emitters have submitted carbon reduction pledges (Miliband 2015, Carbon Brief staff 2015).
There seems to be a general consensus that even the perennial free rider (the US) is finally willing to pay a portion of its bus fare. Even if these pledges do fall short of what is required to reach the agreed upon goal of 2c or less warming by 2100, they are a significant improvement over the business as usual scenario (climateinteractive.org, Fairfield & Williams 2015). This is great news, however let us not forget the debt owed by many developed countries, especially the US to developing economies and climate vulnerable regions (Matthews 2015).
Assuming Paris is successful, world leaders will pat themselves on the back and claim ‘they’ve done it’ and leave those most vulnerable to climate change figuring out how they will adapt to the damages that have already been done. These vulnerable regions will have to figure out how to adapt to the 2c warming (or more) and where to get the money for such adaptations (Porter 2015).
For Paris to be a truly successful from a climate justice and sustainable development perspective much more will have to be agreed to (or at a minimum, placed on the negotiation table).
First, a plan and binding commitments for increases in aid, not just promises of more money or “repurposing” existing aid funds. Vulnerable regions have been further disadvantaged by the climate change caused by rich nations’ economic development of the last 150 years. Even if the 2c goal were to be reached in the future, vulnerable regions are still owed a climate debt by those countries that developed fast and dirty (Matthews 2015). Vulnerable regions cannot be placed in a position of having to choose between building schools and adapting to lower crop productivity.
Second, a commitment to rework free-trade agreements globally to incorporate climate change concerns. Currently these agreements severely limit the pathways to supporting a clean energy transition making it less likely that large emitters will clean up their act (Klein 2014, Klein 2015). These agreement, as currently structured, also limit the collective action potential of vulnerable regions to demand climate compensation from developed nations. Free-trade agreements as they are typically structured take away potential avenues to redress the power of the large emitters. By their very nature they remove the ability of a country to place a carbon tariff on large emitters that are not playing nice or even implement an extraction freezes on carbon based fuels (Sierra Club 2015, Klein 2015). The climate can no longer play second fiddle to the needs of large multi-nationals, especially when the vulnerable regions of the world are already experiencing climate crisis.
Third, a meaningful and compassionate strategy to deal with refugees. Even if all countries manage to meet their emissions pledges, warming will far exceed the 2c goal by 2100. Warming above the 2c goal runs the risk of crossing various climatic tipping points and experiencing many of the most devastating consequences of warming. Even with less than 2c warming, it is likely we are already seeing climate related refugee crises throughout the world. As we have witnessed lately many refugees find extreme resistance to relocating away from disasters. It will not be obvious that someone is a refugee because of a climate change related issues or some other disaster. This is why it will be important to rethink how the developed world handles all refugees all together.
The climate pledges are a significant step forward but their is much more work to be done in Paris this year beyond just lowering emissions. Collectively we need to address the damage that has already been done and provide meaningful pathways for sustainable development to continue to occur.
Dr. Jason Whittle is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Redlands. His research focuses on the asymmetric costs of climate change and the political economy of the environment. You can contact Jason on twitter @jasonmwhittle.