Saturday, December 12, 2009

Climate Justice

The notion of Climate Justice barely surfaces in the U.S., but it is a major theme among poor countries and many NGOs here at the Copenhagen conference. U.S. negotiator Todd Stern “completely rejected” the concept upon his arrival a few days ago.

Climate Justice is a moral position, based on the fact that those people least responsible for climate change - the poor - are often the most affected by it, and have the least means to cope with it. As stated by Ethiopian Dr. Habtermariam Abate at a session hosted by Christian Aid, the expectations that poor countries have of rich countries are two: 1) “Allow us to survive” by keeping carbon dioxide at <350 ppm (that is, cut emissions), and 2) Compensation for damage already done by wealthy nations. He cited as an example of this damage the fact that in the high altitudes of Ethiopia, malaria had never been experienced until about 5 years ago - today people are becoming sick and dying from it as mosquito and disease habitat migrate in response to warming. Shirley Bolinos described how fishermen in her native Philippines, hit by multiple devastating typhoons this past summer, are no longer able to predict local patterns of wet and dry seasons (which they could do well until about 10 years ago), and as a result of these changes are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain adequate amounts of food.

Under this view, the responsibilities of developed nations are far greater than those being contemplated in the Copenhagen negotiations. Tom Athanasiou of Eco-Equity estimates that on the basis of historical responsibility, the U.S. obligation to mitigate their emissions is 129% by 2020 (vs the 4% the U.S. has put on the table), with 40% of this done within their borders, and the rest outside such as by investing in reforestation and clean technologies in poor nations.

The least developed countries fear that they will be permanently trapped in a position of poverty by climate change, unable to develop due to emissions regulations. Climate Justice advocates thus argue that wealthy nations, beyond mitigation, must transfer and finance development with carbon-free technologies.This would allow LDCs to “keep the oil in the ground” (a position repeated at a later meeting of indigenous Amazonian representatives), rather than being forced to exploit and export it (or their forests, minerals, etc.) in order to finance their debt and development, as is often the case today.

Naomi Klein, speaking at this same session, summarized this position by arguing that we must maintain a historical memory of the roots of the climate crisis, so we do not repeat the same mistakes of two-tier development, and in fact, repair the injustices done by this original history of development.

All of the panelists converged on a position that this is ultimately a human rights argument – that at its extreme, climate change can be seen as threatening or extinguishing people and cultures, which if done willfully (knowing that climate change is underway and failing to adequately address it) is genocide. Naomi Klein predicted that with the likely weaknesses of the agreements coming out of Copenhagen, creative litigation on this basis is likely to emerge – lawsuits based on the rich nations’ culpability for climatic injustice.

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