Climate change: from science and economics to human rights

Camilla Toulmin Saleemul Huq
7 November 2006

The Stern Review's report on the economics of climate change, commissioned by the British government and published on 30 October 2006, thoroughly assessed the best currently available scientific evidence on human-induced climate change. It trained its focus on the phenomenon's economic aspects in order to compare the consequences of inaction with the costs of the actions needed to prevent catastrophic global warming over the next fifty years.

On the basis of a highly detailed and credible analysis of the evidence, Nicholas Stern - the former chief economist of the World Bank who wrote the report - concludes that the costs of inaction could result in losses of 5%-20 % of global GDP by 2050-60, equivalent to the costs of the second world war. He finds that the cost of firm action to prevent such catastrophic levels of climate change in these next five decades would amount to as little as 1% of global GDP. This is still a significant sum, and would not be politically easy to deliver; but it is clearly a good investment in simple cost-benefit terms.

Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), a policy-research NGO based in London. An economist by training, she has worked in the drylands of Africa on land, agriculture and livelihood systems.

Also by Camilla Toulmin in openDemocracy:

"Africa: why climate change matters"
(May 2005)

"Why Montreal matters" (December 2005)

"Montreal scorecard: Kyoto 157, United States 1" (December 2005)

"James Lovelock and Gaia's revenge"
(March 2006)

"Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Saleemul Huq is the head of the climate-change programme at the IIED

Also by Saleemul Huq in openDemocracy:

"The clean cabs of Dhaka" (12 May 2005) – with Ijaz Hossain

"The G8 summit: don't forget climate change" (12 July 2005) – with Camilla Toulmin

One planet, divided

The report also points out that the lag in planetary atmospheric systems offers a window for action that will remain open only for another five to fifteen years. After this it may well be too late to head off the threat of catastrophic impacts. The inexorable conclusion is that it is essential to act now to prevent catastrophic impacts, rather than carry on with business as usual and face terrible consequences later.

The Stern Review has therefore produced a robust analysis of the economics of climate change, based on current knowledge of the science. It has also laid the foundations for taking the next obvious step - even if it has not itself done so. This next step is to face up in practice to the certain results of climate change, which will be felt over the next ten-to-twenty years, whichever policies are pursued.

These next decades are likely to see significant impacts on more vulnerable ecosystems, such as the polar ice-caps, glaciers, and coral reefs. The Stern report concludes that devastating effects will be felt primarily by some of the world's most vulnerable communities, such as drought-prone parts of Africa, flood-prone parts of Asia and hurricane-prone parts of the Caribbean and Pacific.

These adverse impacts are the result of our collective failure to act over the last decade and a half, since the signing of the United Nations's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the inaugural Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It is likely that the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due to be published in February 2007, will reinforce this conclusion.

The 1992 agreement binds all its signatory countries (including the United States) to take action to prevent dangerous climate change, yet it has failed to protect many of the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities. Stern emphasises that these poor and vulnerable countries and communities are most at risk from adverse impacts, yet are the least responsible for causing the problem. This reality deserves a prominent place in the delegates' considerations at the Nairobi conference of the UNFCCC on 6-17 November.

Action and inaction

Stern rightly highlights both the moral obligation and the pragmatic need for the rich countries, who are most responsible for creating the problem, to assist poorer and more vulnerable nations in order to help them adapt to the inevitable impacts they will face in the near term. The analysis must now be carried further, to acknowledge that the failure of those most responsible for climate change has caused the loss of life and livelihoods for poor and vulnerable communities. Once this damage has been inflicted, adaptation is much less of an option. Rather, issues of liability and associated compensation will need to be considered.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of global climate change:

Tom Burke, "Climate change: time to get real" (29 September 2006)

Simon Zadek, "Accountability: the other climate change" (31 October 2006)

Andrew Simms, "The climate-change choice" (1 November 2006)

John Elkington, "After Stern: fixing the climate machine"
(2 November 2006)

Adam Poole, "Climate change: new game, new rules, new outcome" (November 2006)

It follows that to build on the Stern review, there must be a conscious reframing of the climate-change debate in terms of human rights. One group of the world's peoples (namely the poor and vulnerable) have found that their right to live and prosper has been harmed by the actions of another group of people (namely the rich). While it may be true that no single climate event, such as a hurricane, drought or flood, can be directly attributed to human-induced climate change, it has become quite clear that such events (and the wider processes of which they are constituent parts) are no longer attributable to "acts of God" alone.

Responsibility for the damage inflicted on poor countries and communities from climate change in future cannot be evaded. The Stern review's economic insights could help to address some of the important distributional issues raised by this damage: between generations alive today and those as yet unborn, and between rich and poor.

Economics and science are essential to creating effective understanding and policy about the greatest collective challenge mankind has faced. But if we are to live up to the moral imperative so often referred to by our leaders, these disciplines must be set within a framework of global justice. The cloak of moral self-righteousness will be revealed as threadbare if we cannot meet our responsibilities to brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world, whose possibilities of a better life risk being destroyed for ever because of our failure to act.

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