Author Q&A: Climate Justice in a Non-Ideal World

03 August 2017

Saleemul Huq discusses a new book exploring the thorny and highly topical issue of climate justice. The book includes a chapter he co-authors with Achala Abeysinghe.

IIED senior fellow Saleemul HuqThe issues surrounding climate justice have been discussed over many years, but are particularly relevant ahead of the next UN climate change negotiations (COP23) in November.

A new book makes the case for putting the various different theories on climate justice into practice, demonstrating how these theories can be made more relevant and applicable to political realities and public policy.

Here, Saleemul Huq, a co-author of one of the chapters in Climate Justice in a Non-Ideal World, explores the issue of climate justice in the light of the United States' withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and advocates ways for the most vulnerable countries to work together to make further progress.

What's the book about?

SH: Climate Justice in a Non-Ideal World features chapters from a group of academics working on the issue of climate justice, or climate equity. There are many different views on what would be a 'just' or 'equitable' way of solving the climate change problem, making this a contentious and politically sensitive area.

Reconciling these very different perspectives is what the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change is all about. The book presents these different perspectives and suggests ways forward for reaching an outcome that each side feels is fair.

You've used two terms there – climate justice and climate equity. What's the difference? 

SH: The 'equity' argument is seeing the climate change problem in terms of the action needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rich countries perceive they have more to do than other countries and so argue their burden is greater. They don't see taking this action as their responsibility, having caused the lion's share of climate damage. 

Climate change... is a problem continually created by rich countries that is continually harming poor countries. The situation is simply not fair – it's fundamentally unjust.

The 'justice' argument takes the view that the heaviest polluting countries created the problem and poorer countries suffer as a result. In fact, a more accurate term would be 'climate injustice' because of the way climate change is manifesting itself: it is a problem continually created by rich countries that is continually harming poor countries. The situation is simply not fair – it's fundamentally unjust. 

Can you give some specific examples of the differing perspectives you mention? 

SH: The United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on the basis that the deal imposes a disproportionate financial and economic burden on the country. But countries in the developing world – let's say China or India, who are also heavy emitters of greenhouse gases − would argue that the US has benefited enormously from being the world's biggest polluter.

Through the industrial revolution it made itself the wealthiest country in the world – but caused over 200 years of climate damage getting there. It therefore has much greater responsibility to act than countries that have been emitting for a very short time and still have a long way to go in terms of their development and reaching long-term prosperity.

As an aside, it's useful to put the scale of emissions into perspective. If you divide the emissions of China and India on a per capita basis, they are tiny compared to the US. China's emissions are a 10th of the US', while India's are about a 50th.

Why is this book timely? 

SH: President Trump articulated his intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement in exactly these terms, perceiving the deal as being unfair to the US. That's a perception − and it's not one shared by the rest of the world. No other countries, not even the developed countries, are willing to join him. 

According to an African saying, "when two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled". When it comes to climate justice, the Least Developed Countries are the grass (Photo: Stephen Baines, Creative Commons via Flickr)

It's worth remembering that this isn't the first time the US has made this argument. President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol but President George W. Bush, when he took office, refused to abide by it. The issues of climate justice and climate equity have been at the heart of the climate negotiations from the very beginning. 

What does your chapter discuss? 

SH: In our chapter 'Climate Justice for LDCs Through Global Decisions', Achala Abeysinghe and I explore a slightly different area, looking at fairness – or, more accurately, unfairness – in relation to the impact of climate change, and how the world's poorest countries position themselves in the global climate negotiations. 

The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) argue that carbon emissions – whether they come from rich countries such as the US or big developing countries such as China and India – will hit them the hardest. The LDCs have not created the problem: if you add up all their emissions they count for less than three per cent of the global total. They are suffering and will continue to suffer the most. The biggest polluters have caused the problem and the LDCs are the victims − and argue they should be duly compensated. 

But getting their voices heard is an ongoing struggle.

There's an old African saying: "When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." In this scenario, the LDCs are the grass

At global climate summits, the richest countries negotiate together, which puts them in a very powerful position, while the bloc of developing countries − including China, India and Brazil − is rapidly growing in strength. As these rich countries and emerging economic powerhouses battle it out, the poorest countries get left behind. 

There's an old African saying: "When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." In this scenario, the LDCs are the grass.  

Our chapter argues that the negotiating capacity of this group of poor countries has greater leverage if they can work together. With collective leadership and by negotiating as a group rather than lots of small, individual countries, their position will get greater traction. 

How would you hope the issues of climate justice and climate equity play out at the COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn later this year? 

SH: The Paris Agreement is a strong deal on two levels. From the equity point of view, the LDCs fought hard to keep the temperature rise at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – far more ambitious than the 2C previously in place. Neither the developed nor the developing countries welcomed the 1.5C but in the end they accepted it. That was a big win for the LDCs. 

In terms of climate justice, this term is politically sensitive and is not used in the negotiations, instead referred to as 'loss and damage'.  The LDCs fought against some stiff resistance here, but finally won: the agreement includes an article on loss and damage, recognising that the poorest countries will need to be compensated for the irreparable harm they have suffered, and will suffer, as a result of climate change caused by the biggest polluters.

In Bonn, the LDCs will be pressing hard for implementation – they have got the agreement, they like the agreement. Now parties to the agreement have to deliver. 

It's worth noting that while this year's Conference of the Parties (COP) will take place in Germany, Fiji will preside over the talks. And they've set out very clearly that they will use their presidency as a platform to push for climate justice, with the intention of lobbying the biggest polluters to allocate adequate funding to the countries that will suffer the most due to the shocks and stresses of climate change. 

The Pacific Islands are among the most vulnerable on the planet. Fiji, along with islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, could disappear off the face of the earth if we don't take action. 

Fiji negotiates as part of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) bloc, which has pushed the issue of loss and damage from the very beginning − but without much success. It was when the SIDS and LDCs joined forces that we started to see some real progress. The Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage was established at COP19 and this became legally binding when it was incorporated into the Paris Agreement at COP21. 

So looking ahead to COP23, the LDCs will be fully behind the Fiji presidency, doing everything possible to make the promises of Paris happen.

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