We must not lose sight of the justice demands highlighted by the effects of climate change

A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank opens with the fear that the symptoms of climate change will distract from the issue’s root causes. In other words, that the more we busy ourselves with the effects – droughts, flooding and extreme heat, for example – the less capacity we have to focus on cutting emissions and reaching net zero. We can’t lose sight of net-zero, that is true, but past and present inaction means that addressing these symptoms is something that must be a key consideration, as much so as cutting emissions, especially considering the concerns of climate justice that are inextricably linked with climate change impacts.

The “doom loop” that the report warns of – climate impacts drawing focus and resources from tackling causes, leading to higher temperatures and so more severe consequences, diverting even more attention and resources, and so on – exposes the lack of seriousness of many world leaders and voters to the issue. Here we have two very important tenets of an issue, yet we are being forced to worry about rightly giving one of these tenets (addressing climate change impacts) adequate focus for fear of compromising the other. This clearly shows that we are not paying enough attention to the issue of climate change generally.

Whether it’s drought in Argentina or flooding in Pakistan and Nigeria, the effects of climate change – these events have been said to have been exacerbated by climate change – are deadly and they are only going to get worse as events like these get more frequent and intense, as they are expected to. Pakistan’s floods claimed almost 1,500 victims last year, Nigeria’s over 600. As well as deaths, in Pakistan over 8 million were displaced and over 2 million homes destroyed. An estimated 9 million were forced into poverty. Given that, according to research from the World Weather Attribution project, rainfall causing the flooding was probably fifty-percent more intense because of climate change and the most intense rain up to seventy-five-percent more intense, we can say that even now, climate change is causing death, displacement and destruction.

Climate Finance as it is known – funding, usually from developed countries to less developed ones, to help with mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage – has never lived up to what scientists and policy-makers predict is and will be necessary. Just considering the effects, we notice a shortfall. Parties at the Paris conference reaffirmed an earlier commitment to contribute $100 billion yearly by 2020. By 2021, this had not been met, and was estimated to be reached by 2023. But even $100 billion yearly will have to be built on considerably – the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that by 2025/30, $150 billion will be needed yearly for adaptation costs, and this is just adaptation, not considering mitigation and loss and damage. Therefore, even if we meet this target, we will be quite short of estimates.

Not only this, but most of the funding being made available by the developed world for the developing world is for mitigation, rather than adaptation or ‘loss and damage’; the numbers we seem to deal in for the two are completely different. Take the Obama administration’s pledges around the time of the Paris agreement, for example. They pledged $3 billion dollars to the Green Climate Fund, which is split 50:50 on projects for mitigation and adaptation; loss and damage does not feature. Comparatively, the Obama administration announced a $30 million contribution to three pacific island insurance funds for loss and damage at the same time. Quite the distinction.

There are clear justice implications in the case of, particularly, who is responsible for the dealing with the effects of climate change, specifically in terms of providing finance for adaptation and loss and damage. Take the previous example of the floods in Pakistan, floods which have been found to have been exacerbated by Climate Change. CNN reported last year that Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of historic greenhouse gas emissions, yet is the eighth-most vulnerable country in the world to the climate crisis. This is clearly unfair from the perspective of holding those who have caused bad things responsible for fixing them, if high-emitting nations were to not take responsibility and aid Pakistan and other similarly placed countries.

This approach in climate discourse is referred to as the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP). It’s no good for holding nations legally liable for climate change impacts, as there are no mechanisms to do this, even in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement which outlined the issue of Loss and Damage. This was negated from a liability sense through article 51 of the agreement’s decision text; the US, particularly, resisted attempts by nations vulnerable to the effects of climate change to draw wealthier, high-emitting countries into any legally-binding agreements which could hold them responsible for future climate disasters. For them to insist on this, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, would “kill the deal”.

But the PPP is a good way to frame arguments, without trying to use it to legally bind nations into action, particularly if we consider other arguments like the Ability to Pay Principle (APP). This holds that because wealthier nations can afford to bear the burdens of Climate Action, it is in the interests of justice that they do.

The point is, if we start to think that we shouldn’t be treating climate impacts just as seriously as the root causes of the crisis, we are failing. We are ignoring some of the key demands of justice, because people are dying, or losing their homes or ways of life, already. For the most part, this is not their fault, and developed nations are in a much stronger position to fund responses to these catastrophes. We cannot properly think about the climate issue without putting the justice concerns of climate impacts front and centre.

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