The Crisis of Justice Inside the Emissions Emergency (Part II)

Experienced campaigner reflects on 20 years of effort

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By Tom Athanasiou, Earth Island Journal 

Since the Copenhagen climate change summit didn’t succeed, the inevitable question becomes, "Why not?"

One possible answer is that, as the street protesters had it, we need "system change not climate change:" Our governments, in thrall to corporate interests, are incapable of organizing a decisive response to the climate crisis. Another explanation is that the United States was willing to undermine a multilateral agreement with the cynical goal of avoiding real emissions commitments while, if possible, looking good. A third possibility is that the Obama administration, desperate to break Senate Republicans’ hold on climate policy, was willing to take any deal, no matter how weak, as a way to "unlock" the Congressional stalemate. Jamie Henn of captured this point of view when he quipped to me, "This isn’t a negotiation; it’s a hostage crisis."

Alternatively, Copenhagen’s failure may have been China’s fault. This explanation, alas, has become quite popular. It demands discussion, beginning with a widely read, and rather fantastically misleading article titled "How Do I Know China Wrecked the Copenhagen Deal? I Was in the Room," by Mark Lynas, a reporter-activist who was part of the Maldives’ negotiating team. Here’s Lynas’ key paragraph: 

"To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialized country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

It’s easy to see why Lynas’s fly-on-the-wall account is so compelling, particularly to Westerners primed to see China as an implacable mercantilist threat to their preferred style of capitalism. Certainly Lynas’s conclusions are much in line with the North’s strategy of hiding behind the emerging economies. But caution is in order here. It’s important to go to the core of China’s inflexibility, which, as Lynas subsequently put it, is that "Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity." How so? Because, although NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least," in fact, "there is no room for expansion by anyone."

The emissions emergency is, above all things, a crisis of justice.

This, alas, is almost true. The central fact of our carbon-constrained future is that China – along with India and South Africa, Brazil and Mexico, and indeed the entire "emerging" world – stands at the edge of an impossible future. These countries are expected to constrain their carbon emissions while at the same time (here’s the punch line) pulling hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty. Yet the only model of modern prosperity that they have
to work with is one based on huge per-capita emissions. No wonder they balk at demands from the North.

In order to halt catastrophic climate change, the major emitters must act decisively. All of them, at once. But this will only be fair, and indeed it can only happen, if the wealthiest among us pay for most of the action. That, however, is politically impossible (see: US Senate). And it’s impossible, in part, because the debate about "fair burden sharing" that has raged among climate negotiators during the last few years has not reached the public consciousness. We do not know our duties. The Northern climate movement has quite failed to explain the structure of the global problem to its home constituencies. The term "climate justice" might be well understood by green NGO-istas and, say, Bolivian president Evo Morales, but that doesn’t mean that most people get it.

A Crisis of Development

What exactly is this "global problem?" First, that we’ve reached the limits to growth, and done so in a world that’s bitterly divided between haves and have-nots. Second, that despite decades of warning, the wealthy nations have neglected to demonstrate that low-carbon development is possible. Third, that the industrialized countries have stonewalled, rejecting the demand for meaningful reduction commitments. And finally, that China – which, despite its faults, has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty – has emerged as the chief voice of a bloc that refuses to choose between developmental justice and climate stabilization.

The situation is easy enough to visualize. Consider the "G8 style" emissions pathway that provoked China’s backroom confrontation with the North. The details of this pathway are that: 1) global emissions peak soon (about 2020) and decline by 2050 to 50 percent below 1990 levels; and 2) Northern emissions simultaneously decline to at least 80 percent below 1990 levels. Now ask yourself – why might China’s rejection of such an offer be reasonable? The answer lies in arithmetic: The remaining global emissions budget is so small that, despite a relatively ambitious program of Northern emission reductions, Southern emissions must still peak soon after global emissions, and then drop
almost as rapidly. Further, they must do so while the people of the South are still struggling to escape poverty, and more generally to invent new, dignified, and sustainable models of life. The climate crisis is, in other words, a crisis of development.

I want to be very clear here: The problem is not that poverty alleviation or sustainable development are impossible in a
carbon-constrained world. The problem is that they have not been pioneered, that the only proven routes up from poverty still involve an expanded use of energy and seemingly inevitable increase in fossil-fuel use. Which is why it’s almost impossible for the South to imagine an equitable future in which its emissions precipitously decline. The South is concerned that an inequitable climate regime will force a choice between developmental justice and climate protection. And justly so.

This brings us back to China, which despite its wealthy enclaves is a deeply impoverished country. The targets that the Chinese insisted on expunging from the Copenhagen Accord have developmental implications. The South in general has made it quite clear that it will not allow itself to be trapped into sacrificing development for climate protection. More specifically, the Chinese have repeatedly insisted that the North accept an aggregate reduction target that is at the "upper end" of the 25 percent to 40 percent range (from the 1990 baseline) by 2020. Yet the North was attempting to enshrine a global emissions reduction pathway without making any such short-term commitment. Given the North’s refusal to accept stringent targets, what (other than explaining themselves coherently) should the Chinese have done differently? The answer is not obvious.

The Politics of Obligation

The wheel is still in spin. As Copenhagen passes into history, the politics of climate obligation may well shift in significant ways. For one thing, although the rich countries may have succeeded in sidelining the Kyoto Protocol (we don’t know yet) they did not manage to remove the presumption that it’s still their move. Nor, despite Copenhagen’s adoption of a pledge-based system, was the momentum of the UN negotiations broken. Copenhagen reaffirmed the need to devise a formal global accord that’s fair, stringent, and capacious enough to contain both the United States and China – while stabilizing Earth’s climate system.

To get there will require admitting a few difficult truths. Like the fact that the United States did a great deal to poison the Copenhagen waters and that, going forward, it may do even more. And that there will be no breakthrough until the wealthy countries pursue stringent domestic reductions, and help to underwrite the larger transition as well. The fact that the South’s biggest emitters have, to a small extent, stepped outside the G77’s overall ranks does nothing to change this underlying reality. The new game is one in which the players as well as the rules belong to a still-emerging world. China’s end-game posture makes this clear enough.

The toughest admission will be that of national obligation, of duty. If we in civil society are to do better than our putative leaders, we must escape the "dysfunctional system" frame that spreads the blame around so thinly. More precisely, we’re going to have to actually work out a coherent way of assigning responsibility for the fundamental deadlock in the international climate negotiations. This gives us a clear mandate: We must fight for a framework within which all countries, but first of all the wealthy ones, make the commitments demanded by the science, by their own record of emissions, and by their fiscal capacity to act. If we’re to assign responsibility, we must also assume it.

Justice Is Key

Copenhagen, for all its disappointments, marked a turn. The need for an emergency mobilization is obvious, and with it a set of challenges that can no longer be denied. These will get clearer in the years ahead, but the essential situation is before us: With the atmosphere’s ability to absorb carbon critically limited, we face the greatest resource-sharing problem of all time. For all its complexity, the core of this problem can be stated simply enough: What kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

The climate problem is and remains a justice problem. It’s more than this, of course, but justice is nonetheless the key. If we fail to solve it in time, it will be in large part because we refused to see it as such.


(Republished with permission of Earth Island Journal

Tom Athanasiou directs EcoEquity (, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project, and is a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors’ group.