Change The System - Not The Climate

Climate Change is a moral issue which means we are all in this together....
Those most affected by climate change are those least responsible and the international policy frameworks in place to protect them don't work making it a moral issue. But we must believe that the larger goals of environmental sustainability and social justice can be achieved - if we just work together writes Asoka Bandarage
The world's economic structures must be transformed so that the exploitation of people and plunder of the Earth and the relentless pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are replaced by systems that honour environmental sustainability and social

We are seeing the realities of climate change: rising temperatures, declining Arctic sea ice, extreme weather events, heatwaves, wildfires, floods, droughts, stronger storms and hurricanes and so on. According to UN estimates, there will be 1 billion ‘climate refugees', i.e. victims of disasters induced by climate change in the world by 2050.

India is now experiencing the highest temperatures ever with a heatwave and drought, which has left many people with little access to water. Bangladesh got pummeled yet again by heavy rains leaving two million people homeless. Sri Lanka - which has experienced significant rise in sea levels in recent years - has just faced unprecedented floods and landslides which have left some 500,000 people homeless and over 200 families buried in the landslides.

Those most affected by climate change are those least responsible: the poor nations and communities of colour that have historically provided the natural and human resources for the enrichment of the privileged classes in the industrialized nations. The international policy frameworks in place are far from adequate to address the urgency of the climate crisis.

International Frameworks

The Kyoto Protocol, linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in 1997, though flawed and never fully implemented, committed parties to internationally-binding emission reduction targets. Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, it placed a heavier burden on developed nations based on the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities."

However, even minimal efforts to address climate change became derailed by international economic competition. Industrializing countries such as China, India, and Brazil wanted the "rich, powerful and deeply fossil-fuel addicted" countries in the Global North to take the lead in drastic emissions reductions allowing them room to industrialize and advance economically. Fearing loss of their economic edge, the Global North wanted to move away from the targets and obligations to which they had previously agreed. Lobbied heavily by the fossil fuel industry, The United States government never even ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

The world's economic structures must be transformed so that the exploitation of people and plunder of the Earth and the relentless pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are replaced by systems that honour environmental sustainability and social

Pointing out that the ability of populations to adapt and mitigate against climate change is shaped by political and economic realities, civil society organizations mostly from the global South declared the Bali Principles of Climate Justice in 2002. It framed the climate crisis as a political and ethical issue, not simply an environmental and physical phenomenon. The countries of the global South demanded the rich Northern nations to pay their ‘climate debt', that is, compensation for their historically disproportionate emission of greenhouse gases which has contributed to extensive environmental and societal damage in poor countries.

Given these on-going contentions, the U.S. China bilateral Climate Deal of November 2014 was welcomed as an important achievement by the two most polluting nation states. Unfortunately, however, this Deal is merely a statement of aspirational goals: it has no binding targets, no specific plans to cut emissions and no penalties for non-compliance.

According to this Deal, China will not begin reducing emissions until as late as 2030. While the US agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 is significant, it is not considered sufficient to reach the target of below 2 C increase in temperature by the end of the century. There is no guarantee that President Obama's successor who will have to implement the deal will do so.

Paris Climate Agreement

The Climate Treaty signed in Paris in December 2015 is hailed as an historic achievement in international consensus and a turning point in climate policy. Practically all countries in the world opted to sign agreeing to hold the increase in the global average temperature increase to 1.5 °C.175 countries have already signed the Agreement which will go into effect in 2020. US Secretary of State John Kerry signed on behalf of the United States holding his little granddaughter in his arms.

Symbolism and rhetoric aside, the Paris Agreement, unlike the previous Kyoto Protocol, provides no detailed timetables or country-specific goals for emissions reduction. It leaves every country to decide its own cuts in pollution (so-called "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions") according to its own criteria. It provides no clear, measurable targets, no accountability no legal obligations. Each country that ratifies the agreement will be required to set a target for emission reduction, but the amount will be voluntary. There will be neither a mechanism to force, a country to set a target by a specific date nor enforcement measures if a set target is not met. 

The Agreement was a victory for the United States given its opposition to mandatory emissions reduction targets and the Kyoto Protocol. It was, however, a failure for the smaller nations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which wanted to include stricter emissions targets and enforcement mechanisms.  Apparently, the U.S. gained their compliance through backdoor diplomacy and offers of international funding for climate adaptation. The United States also succeeded in ensuring that the Agreement was not legally binding and countries were not open to litigation for non-compliance of the Agreement.

The Paris Agreement will not be binding on its member states until 55 parties who produce over 55% of the world's greenhouse gases ratify it. Thus far, only 17 countries - overwhelmingly vulnerable small island nations - have ratified the Agreement. There is doubt that given global economic competitiveness whether some countries, especially high polluters, such as, China, the US, India, Brazil, Canada, Russia, Indonesia and Australia will do so. There is also no guarantee that the developed countries will honor the pledge to mobilize $100 billion per year for climate financing for the poor countries starting in 2020.

The Paris Climate Agreement does not even mention fossil fuels let alone the need to leave 80% of it in the ground, which many experts consider a requirement to mitigate climate change. It does not address the need to cut government fossil fuel subsidies, military expenditures, air travel, shipping, etc. as keys to global de-carbonization.

Hardly anyone expects countries to do much for climate protection under this arrangement. No wonder fossil fuel companies were the financial backers of the Paris Climate Conference, which was dominated by market based solutions to climate change, notably emissions trading.

Carbon Trading

Carbon trading, which constitutes the bulk of emissions trading was introduced as the main mechanism for meeting emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Within this system, a country having more carbon emissions can purchase the ‘right' to pollute more if it exceeds its cap by purchasing the permits of less polluting countries. As Carbon Trade Watch explains: "emissions trading partitions and privatizes the atmosphere and institutes the buying and selling of ‘permits to pollute' just as any other international commodity". This strategy for commodification of emissions was pushed by the US in response to heavy corporate lobbying.

Critics argue that there have not been measurable reductions in carbon emissions attributable to the mechanisms established under the Kyoto Protocol. They point out that the two most important carbon markets, the EU Emissions Trading System and the UN's Clean Development Mechanism have essentially failed. They argue that the market-based cap and trade system, designed to reduce carbon emissions has actually aggravated the problem by giving unfair financial advantages to major polluters to continue polluting while putting the onus of climate protection and maintenance of carbon sinks on the poorer countries and inhibiting their economic development. Moreover, ‘emissions trading' takes attention away from the search for less complicated strategies, such as a straightforward carbon tax on polluters and changes in patterns of economic production and energy use.

Despite these problems, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change still strongly supports carbon trading. International financial interests are now gearing up to expand carbon trading under the new Paris Agreement. They see a huge new market and business opportunity in carbon trading. The World Bank has established a Carbon Finance Unit to create an international system to price carbon. The World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim recently stated that there is an ‘obvious consensus' among World Bank economists studying the problem, and that ‘putting a price on carbon pollution is by far the most powerful and efficient way to reduce emissions' Christine Legarde, the director of the International Monetary Fund has called carbon pricing the ‘crown jewel' of efforts to mitigate climate change.

Many environmental justice activists, however, are deeply concerned about the possible effects of this approach motivated by profit. They argue that  carbon trading will lead to increasing ‘financialization of nature', the commodification of everything that can be seen as a carbon sink, especially forests but also agricultural land and even the ocean's capacity to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) for photosynthesis via algae'.  The Pope's June 2015 Encyclical also voices the grave concerns that many people have over the status quo's push for carbon trading:

Rather than upholding and extending the extremist growth oriented system through new strategies, such as, carbon trading, the world's economic structures must be transformed so that the exploitation of people and plunder of the Earth and the relentless pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are replaced by systems that honor environmental sustainability and social justice.

We have to be careful too that eco-fascist views and movements do not gain ground as economic conditions deteriorate and social and environmental dislocations worsen around the world. Change towards renewable energy has to be accompanied with changes in the control over resources and production and access of wider groups of people to economic opportunities.

In the face of dramatic recent acceleration in the warming of the planet, the failure of the Paris Agreement to address divesting from fossil fuel and the support of governments for new fossil fuel projects, climate action is intensifying around the world. There are thousands of organizations and people all around the world engaged in positive nonviolent and collective action. Indigenous people have been at the forefront of struggles to protect Mother Earth from the very beginning of their encounter with European colonization. We must believe that the larger goals of environmental sustainability and social justice can be achieved and that ‘Another World is Possible' if we work together to ‘Change the System, not the Climate'.

This article is excerpted by the author from:…

Asoka Bandarage, Ph.D. is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013) and many other publications.

She serves on the Board of the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.



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