Climate change: Scaring people will only yield scars and no solutions

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change rightly placed climate change in the context of other goals such as poverty elimination, economic development and reduction of inequality.  (AP)
In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change rightly placed climate change in the context of other goals such as poverty elimination, economic development and reduction of inequality. (AP)

Summary

  • It’s for the rich world to bear the bulk of the burden in honour of the Paris agreement on common-but-differentiated responsibilities. The trade-offs are such that insistence on an absolutist path would make it hard to reduce deprivation in the developing world.

Last week, the economics division at the ministry of finance in India invited Professor Mike Hulme at the University of Cambridge to share his views on climate change. In 2007, he received a personalized certificate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recognising his contribution to the (joint) award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC. His recent work, Climate Change Isn’t Everything piqued my interest, and I read it. In the book, he decries “climatism," which he defines as an ideology that “naturalises" all the problems of the world in that they are all attributed to climate change. The dominant explanation for all social, political and ecological phenomena is a “change in the climate." Social, economic and cultural factors, policies and paths do not matter.

The world is strewn these days with such an absolutist and exclusivist approach in many areas, of which climate change is the most prominent example. Mechanisms such as doomsday clocks, climate-change cliffs and apocalyptic predictions of the end of the world have become so common that they have lost their power to demand our attention, let alone action. If alarmists were right, the world would have become extinct several times in the last decade or two. Such alarmism, far from motivating action to mitigate the effects of climate change and combat it, spreads panic and foments ‘climatism.’ On this, we have not learnt much, if anything, from our recent failures in dealing with the pandemic.

The costs of a total-lockdown approach to the pandemic are now being tallied. We are not done with it yet. The most striking outcome was the lost years of learning for children. We are at it again. A scare-mongering approach polarizes people and deters cooperation. It alienates and discourages ownership of the problem that must be solved. In a recent report (alturl.com/woxf9), the Financial Times clubs India along with the US and EU in an astonishing display of ignorance of the historical responsibility for emissions over two centuries that are stalking us and of current per capita emissions of the three regions.

If we pick up a copy of The Economics of Climate Change by Richard Tol, it is clear that average global temperatures have shifted higher since the 1970s. Pursuing growth at all cost through the neo-liberal agenda of financialization (debt accumulation) and globalization bears a large share of the shame and blame. His book features a chart that converges with another one carried by The Economist 13 years ago on how much economic growth happened in the second half of the 20th century and first decade of the next, eclipsing the growth of the previous 19 centuries (alturl.com/syodj). The simple point is that much of the acceleration in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases was due to the pursuit of growth through globalization and leverage, unmindful of trade-offs. So, the West is trying to compensate for it through another approach that places emission mitigation above all else— again, unmindful of trade-offs. Two wrongs, however, do not make a right.

In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change rightly placed climate change in the context of other goals such as poverty elimination, economic development and reduction of inequality. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of September 2015 followed that template. Three months later came the Paris Agreement. Given the varied historical contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris pact accepted common-but-differentiated responsibilities in accordance with national capabilities. But, over time, this principle is being shoved aside amid rising insistence in the West that developing nations prioritize emission reduction equivalently.

A standard argument many deploy is that no economic development is possible without tackling climate change. It is a seductive but vacuous argument. Resources are finite, and there are trade-offs. Climate change will have negative consequences, but whether experts believe it or not, humans adapt. Further, combating climate change, whose severest consequences will be towards the end of the 21st century, while letting people suffer in poverty in the next few decades serves no purpose. Climate change will have adverse impacts and we must acknowledge them, but elevating it to the near-total exclusion of equally pressing humanitarian problems is to trivialize the existential concerns of millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The SDGs include climate and environmental aims and the world gave itself a more exacting timeline for achieving SDGs by 2030 than for ‘net zero.’ Taking those goals and the timeline seriously will give the world’s people hope and the resources to tackle climate change.

In 2022, India updated its Nationally Determined Contributions, first enunciated in 2015, and upped its targets of reducing the energy intensity of growth and share of installed capacity of non-fossil-fuel power by 2030. The country is well on track to meet those goals. India is investing in public transportation in major cities. Indians, with their lifestyles (alturl.com/2g8n7), including eating habits, are already making a contribution to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The economic and social costs of asking them and the people of other developing economies to shoulder the burden of keeping greenhouse gas emissions in check will far outweigh the benefits, if any. The onus of action rests on advanced geographies.

Daniel Yergin of S&P Global wrote eloquently in a recent research note (alturl.com/3sw55) that an energy transition could progress only if energy security were assured. Otherwise, a backlash against climate policies would follow, as is already happening in Europe today, he said. Similarly, he noted that energy transitions have historically taken a century to achieve (alturl.com/srtrp). To try and compress the time-frame to one-fourth of it is to risk social upheavals and conflicts.

Towards the end of his book, Hulme wrote, “Climate change isn’t everything. It is quite easy to imagine future worlds in which global temperature exceeds 2° C warming, which is ‘better’ for human well-being, political stability and ecological integrity, for example, than other worlds in which—by all means and at all costs—the global temperature was stabilised at 1.5° C." That is precisely the trade-off that should be debated, along with all the costs and benefits of either approach on the table.

Four attitudes are critical if policymakers and experts are to help billions of poor people realize their aspirations and keep the world safer from climate change. One is humility. The second is to resist the temptation of hectoring nations into submission. The third is to minimize certitudes in an area where science acknowledges uncertainties. The fourth is to trust people and grant them the agency to adapt and do the right thing for themselves.

These are the author’s personal views. 

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