By Charles B. Chilufya, SJ

As nations start an important conversation on climate in Glasgow starting today, Monday 1st November, we are worried that conversations around climate action and development often take place in silos and are often driven by myopic economic and national interest. Climate action and development and even poverty eradication are inextricably linked. Extreme climate change is already exacerbating poverty, reversing development gains and will completely transform the global development project. The stakes are high for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26).  The summit will be finalizing the “Paris rulebook,” landing emission reduction commitments, solving the climate finance challenge, and promoting fair, inclusive climate action on a global scale. This will require unprecedented global collective action between all stakeholders. This year’s COP is an essential milestone for global policy making in the fight against climate change, as well as a timely opportunity for the development community to understand and engage in the process. Already, the Sustainable Development Goals provide a good reference framework for engaging both climate and development challenges in an integrated way.

The question then is: how should governments and organisations meeting Glasgow tfor the next couple of weeks and already working toward the Sustainable Development Goals engage in the climate negotiations? Or put differently, what does development look like in the context of climate change, and how do we need to transform the way we work around the two issues? How can we leverage the COVID-19 pandemic as a turning point — not a missed opportunity — to forge the global cooperation we need to advance climate action for poverty eradication and sustainable development? How should nations frame the conversation beyond myopic nation-focused and market driven solutions toward global conversation and action?

Not one, but multiple interrelated crises

Firstly, As Pope Francis has stated several times, the COVID-19 pandemic is the defining crisis of this generation, from which we can either emerge for the better or the worse. The virus has laid bare the inequities and injustices that threaten people’s well-being, safety, and lives, and exacerbated an interconnected set of crises – economic, ecological, political, social – that disproportionately impact the poor and most vulnerable. As we seek to move through recovery as a global community, we must ensure the cures for the immediate crises are steppingstones to a more just, inclusive, and integrated set of systems, and that a global, regenerative healing takes place to transform societies and our planet. 

This means that advancing the COP 26 conversation toward meaningful outcomes must start from illuminating the intersectional links between climate and a host of cross cutting issues such as health, education, food systems, migration, finance, and more. In this regard, in contexts of poverty and other development challenges, the work to respond to climate change must at the same time ensure the maintenance of critical government services and effective service delivery, particularly in nutrition and education, health, water, and sanitation. Maintaining education and health services including advocating for vaccine equity will be an important component of all development practice and advocacy with a focus on reaching vulnerable groups like women, refugees, the disabled, children, especially girls. Advocacy and work for climate justice should also pay attention to the aftermath impacts of COVID-19 on jobs, households, and food prices. All this is good economics but it is also an ethical imperative.

Economics: A Handmaid of Climate Science? 

The question that conversations on climate change should handle adequately is what do scientific findings on climate mean in human terms?  This means that all conversation on finding solutions to climate change must first begin from unpacking the complexity of the climate science and find out what that means for the SDGs and for those working to achieve them in low- and middle-income countries including governments, organisations and individual professionals.  Economics has made attempts to provide an answer to this question. Economics can put a cost to both the current and future projections of the impacts of climate change. It can also provide a powerful framework of analysis for thinking about what kind of policy instruments can be used to achieve the desired level of mitigation in terms of targets and timetables for total greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris Agreement did this very well through which governments agreed to adhere to certain pollution limits in order to cap the rise in temperatures at or below 1.5 degrees for this century. Economists, by and large those in the neoclassical paradigm, seem to agree that market‐based instruments are the most efficient in this regard, and in particular emissions trading or cap‐and‐trade.

However, even though economic theory is very clear, the politics and policy making is much murkier and as we have seen so far, they are far from aligning themselves to sustainable development. Here is why.  Economics may provide the necessary monitoring and compliance targets but what we have seen is that polluters with sufficient political power will always demand exemptions and free permits for themselves in order to promote their own interest. It is no wonder we still have established dirty industries like coal‐burning electricity generators and still favoured at the expense of more efficient technologies.

From Economics to Ethics, Climate Justice and Global Justice

Calculations have shown that the costs of climate change are concentrated among the rural poor in developing countries who bear the greatest brunt of climate change. As soon as we begin to assess and realise how the poorer communities bear the greater burden of climate change than those who pollute, we will have begun to move beyond the confines of standard economic analysis to contemplate other ethical and justice issues. These ethical issues pertain to basic human needs, and the distribution of burdens as well as the benefits of action and inaction across rich and poor, national boundaries and across generations. This asymmetry of burdens and benefits across social and economic classes, national boundaries and across generations helps us to see that economic thinking should not be at the core of climate policy analysis but justice, ethics, concern and compassion for the suffering.

It makes sense here to introduce the theme of climate justice even though it is an ideal that remains a distant aspiration in what concerns climate change. In the wake of so much suffering that poorer communities have undergone at the hands of climate change it has certainly become clear that considerations of justice cannot continue to be marginalised in favour of economic efficiency and aggregate welfare in public policies and intergovernmental negotiations. Climate justice must seriously inform the COP 26 policy debates and positions that will be taken in negotiations, as well as political activism.

The challenge of climate change is a collective global problem that should not be framed as an issue of international or intergovernmental negotiation as is the case at the COPs. The conversation on climate justice at the COP 26 must increasingly pervade questions of global governance of climate change. COP 26 should be about effective global action that could benefit from taking a more cosmopolitan approach to justice. In such an approach, it is people, citizens of a global community, rather than nations that are the subjects of moral consideration and responsibility. The obligations of justice in this case transcend those owed only to those in our own country and exceed national borders. Representatives of nations at the COP 26, owe it to every citizen of the world and not only their nationals because their decisions affect every son and daughter of our Common Home.  What this means is that while we insist that the conversation on climate justice be put in the service of those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, it will also deliver solutions to collective problems.

Global Action and Coordination of Disparate Actors

It is in the light of the foregoing that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992, to host and organise negotiations that eventually bring together just about all the world’s nations to a roundtable discussion. It was a realisation that coordinated collective action and discursive reframing cannot stop at the national level. Climate change is a global phenomenon that is in fact, a complex set of both causal practices and felt impacts of global proportions that requires coherent global action, at a minimum, coordination across some critical mass of global players. The current economic framework based on market considerations that nations use in climate negotiations cannot provide such coordination. Such a framework will only provide incentive for every player to seek their own interests and to impose the burdens of mitigation on others and to want to take a free ride on the efforts of others. The result is clear. There will be no effective action toward the desired end. Unfortunately, such is the current state of affairs!