Monday, November 12, 2007

Justice and Climate Change

This guest essay by V. Balaji at Tony Karon's Rootless Cosmopolitanism, "Global Warming as White Man's Burden," points out that the novel, experimental approaches under development for dealing with climate change are nonetheless patterned on an old ideology: that the West has the answers, especially since those answers are technological.
Not only is the science now deemed settled, but that set of technical and policy responses is also now fast gaining acceptance. A story about a scientific controversy has now changed into one where the white-coated scientist, against long odds, has finally isolated the serum that will save the remote village from the mysterious disease that has laid it low, and now our heroes are in a desperate race against time to save the dying villagers. That, at least, seems to be the message of this week’s CNN special (which I confess I haven’t seen, but for which I had glossy promotional material delivered in my mailbox). Many of the stories center on remote places dealing with environmental catastrophes of various kinds, which are explained by metropolitan scientists, along with proposed solutions. Sanjay Gupta, part of CNN’s team, makes it very explicit on his blog that noone, including the victims of climate change, are expecting anything less: the lead quote, from a Chadian fisherman on the shores of that disappearing lake, has it that “the white man will bring us water. Only, the white man has power.” Is global warming then the white man’s burden this century? Sure enough, many of the solutions currently being touted, involve exotic new technologies, advanced ‘green’ materials, planetary-scale geo-engineering, and the like, which only the advanced industrial nations could possibly provide.
From my perspective in a policy school known for its environmental policy program, the above seems certainly on target. Most policy approaches - even some of the most innovative - use technical tools designed at their intellectual foundations to eliminate uncertainty.

But Balaji's claim is not entirely on target. And while Balaji mentions Davos (and Al Gore as Davos Man) over and over (in contrast to Bandung), Davos has very little to do with the nuts and bolts of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Davos has always been one giant quasi-intellectual country club with an impressive membership roster of people who speak in sweeping generalities. That's the wrong target. A more accurate target would be the existing and developing mechanisms for tackling global climate change. Namely, the UNFCCC. But then, the UNFCCC has taken up some of the key concerns.

The fundamental injustice of anthropogenic climate change is that many of the countries least responsible will suffer the most harmful effects. Furthermore, many of those countries that will suffer the most severe effects are least able to adapt to the effects, let alone contribute to mitigation. The developed, industrialized countries which are most responsible for accumulated carbon emissions and other GHGs are also most able - financially and technologically - to put in place mitigation and adaptation measures. This is what makes US resistance to genuine climate change measures fundamentally unjust and unacceptable (for more on this, see here).

Balaji may sarcastically call this "the white man's burden," but I don't see how it can be otherwise if by "white man" we mean the industrialized, developed countries, as well as rapidly developing countries like China and India. Anthropogenic climate change is due to a combination of the historical use of certain kinds of high-energy-use technologies by economies that encourage production and consumption as the engine of individual and social well-being. There's no way to tackle climate change without tackling both the technologies and normative assumptions of the good life conceptualized in economic terms at the core of these societies.

In this sense, while one might worry about the Chadian fisherman above as a symbol of aloofness on the part of developing and least developed countries' own economic aspirations and how they would achieve them, the Chadian fisherman is indeed irrelevant to the process of mitigating climate change in the short-term timescale we have in front of us. The only way I can conceive of where that might not be the case would be in possible positive and negative lessons about local practices and traditions that are more sustainable or, in the case of Chad, unsustainable. For their own sake, they'll have to change their own practices. But for the sake of mitigating the global problem of climate change, this is a small drop in the bucket. Yet, the Chadian fisherman and others around the world in similar positions may also suffer some of the more severe effects of climate change.

It's not as if such considerations are not included in UNFCCC deliberations. They are. We can even frame much of the ongoing UNFCCC dialogue in terms of justice: distributive justice, procedural justice, and the politics of recognition. Distributive justice generally looks to the fair distribution of goods and services, and harms, generated by a given institutional arrangement, whether in the past, present, or future. Procedural justice focuses on the processes by which which decisions about appropriate institutional arrangements are made. It's one thing to determine a distributive scheme according to a particular set of interests and judgments; it's another to determine it through processes of fair, democratic participation on the part of all those who will be affected by the new institutional arrangement. And justice as recognition demands that institutional practices themselves recognize how some communities and individuals may be traditionally excluded or marginalized from dominant methods of creating policy, reconstructing institutions. There's nothing simple about any of this, however, perhaps especially when it comes to climate change.

For instance, in UNFCCC deliberations, distributive justice is central to thinking about how the effects of climate change fall on "vulnerable" countries and groups, how the costs of mitigation and adaptation may fall in somewhat different patterns on vulnerable countries and groups, and what responsibilities high-emission countries have for paying the costs of mitigation and adaptation as well as how the costs are shared among developed countries. The UNFCCC has been developing basic principles based in such concerns: common but differentiated responsibilities, intergenerational equity, and burden-sharing (noted in Article 3 of the UNFCCC and reappearing in all the Conferences of the Parties (COPs)). The procedures of the COP system attempt to be inclusive of varying concerns from different parties. Representation from groups traditionally excluded from such deliberations has increased, often through the participation of NGOs representing these groups.

Yes, it's true that technology transfer, funding mechanisms such as the Global Environmental Facility (the GEF), and capacity-building are all central elements of the redistributive patterns by which developed nations take up responsibility to developing and least developed nations. Such approaches seem generally to be typical of developed nations - solve problems with technical fixes. And, when put as such, only technologically advanced wealthy nations hold the answer to a problem that they have framed as largely a technical problem. But we shouldn't ignore the ethical dimension to climate change that is already embodied in many of the articles of the UNFCCC and ensuing COPs. These assumptions may yield feeble tools for the instant, but this is not all a matter of simply the technical fix. Too many people here are too cognizant of the fact that they don't have a nice, neat techno-economic answer to climate change. Too many well-intentioned people want to tackle climate change as something other than the "white man's burden" precisely because they're wary of the fact that many of the norms and values and practices that got us into this predicament are still predominant. I can't think of anyone who thinks we have the ideal system, ideal knowledge, and ideal norms in place except those who line their pockets through the status quo ante.

If someone has a better option than the international treaty system with its various mechanisms grounded in increasingly articulate concerns about global justice, new experimental technologies, and ongoing scientific studies of the complexity of ecosystems, for dealing with a problem of such inherently global magnitude, I'd like to hear it. And while it's clear that responsibilities are indeed "differentiated," I can't see how the language of a "white man's burden" does anything for anyone.

1 comment:

MT said...

It sounds like the same objection as gets quoted from China on "human rights." And probably from the Papuans whose culture called for the sacred consumption of the brains of their beloved dead when scientists told them they needed to stop or they'd keep getting kuru/mad cow/spongiform encephalopathy. And probably like from the parents of Terry Schiavo when neurologists told them she wasn't there anymore. Ironically, it's America's religious conservative who protest something like the cause of these unfortunate disconnects when they decry "cultural relativism." Nobody, no institution, no discipline and no ideology represents a universally recognized authority. We're just lucky we agree on 99% of things-- within our political boundaries at least. Well, not luck, but natural selection I suppose.