Climate justice, or “should the U.S. help Malawi adapt to climate change?”

As countries set out their COP19/CMP9 negotiating positions in the days before next Monday’s openingUNICEF Haiti plenary session in Warsaw, my colleague Ben Sovacool reminds us in his recent Nature article that negotiating a new international climate change text is about ethics, as well as economics and technology.  He points to Sam Barrett’s observation:   “climate change creates a double inequality through the inverse distribution of risk and responsibility.”  Barrett illustrates this point bluntly:  the majority of lesser developed countries (LDCs) have emitted less than 115 tons of CO2 per capita since 1960 while industrialized country emissions range from 1600 to 2700 tons per person during the same time period, yet the LDCs will – have, in fact – experience more climate-related damage like flooding, extreme weather, crop damage, and the resulting health impacts.  According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), people in rich countries impose 200-300 times more climate-related health damage than they experience, given historical GHG emissions.

adaptation fundBarrett not only argues that rich countries should help poor countries adapt, but that they should do so in a way that understands internal, subnational issues.  He studies Malawi, which he argues is the most “climate vulnerable” mainland African country, given its history of flooring, drought, land degradation, food insecurity, and poverty. And he urges countries, like those who will negotiate the Climate Adaptation Fund text in Warsaw next week, to think about adaptation mechanisms that really work.  (For some background on options, read this Guardian article.)  Barrett walks the talk of Elinor Ostrom’s  Nobel Prize-winning work on a “polycentric approach” to managing common pool resources. He makes four, concrete suggestions for wise climate change adaptation policymaking: 1. Gain local knowledge; 2. Accept that no single adaptation technique will do the trick; 3. Plan to implement at all levels of organized human activity, fromelinor ostrom village to province to country to UN; and 4. Work from the ground up, not top down, to put community needs at or above national adaptation priorities – or as he frames it more academically, using a “soft” vs. “hard” adaptation pathway.  Barrett applies this framework to Malawi and observes that power dynamics even at the local level (e.g. based on ethnicity, class, political clout) can result in unfair distribution of adaptation aid and thus a local form of climate injustice.

Ben ends his review of Barrett’s case study of Malawi this way:  “No intervention will ever match a principle of fairness or responsibility in its purest form:  climate justice is about shades of grey, rather than being black or white.  Justice is a series of negotiated compromises that seek to manage trade-offs, adaptation mosaicmaximize gains and minimize losses, but it can never eliminate losers entirely.  Therefore, climate justice is most useful as a pragmatic rather than absolute concept.”  Incredibly sound advice as we do the nitty gritty legal textual work to get the Adaptation Fund off the ground and into developing countries that need it.