You are here

A Time for Leadership on Climate Justice

I spent the recent U.N. climate negotiations in Doha trying to reconcile two injustices. The first is captured by Nicholas Stern’s “brutal arithmetic.” This is the simple, unavoidable fact that bold greenhouse gas emissions reductions will be needed from all countries to hold global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, thus preventing climate change’s most dangerous impacts. Developing nations, many of which are battling crippling poverty and inequality at home, are being told that the traditional, high-carbon pathway to prosperity is off-limits, and that they, too, will need to embrace aggressive mitigation actions. This is a glaring injustice – the product of two decades of missed opportunities in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), inadequate domestic action in industrialized countries, and substantial geopolitical changes in major emerging economies.

But the second injustice is even greater – one that is manifest and which must be avoided. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has illustrated, breaching the 2°C threshold would seriously degrade vital ecosystems and the communities who depend on them. This, itself, is an issue of justice, as climate change undermines the realization of human rights, including the right to food, health, an adequate standard of living, and even the right to life. Those same developing countries who are home to the poorest and most vulnerable members of our global community—and who are now compelled to act on reducing emissions—will be hit first and hardest by climate change’s impacts. It didn’t need to be this way. Despite important steps over the past two years and considerable efforts by some countries domestically, there is a significant gap between where we are today and where we need to be by the end of this decade to limit temperature rise to no more than 2°C.

Rethinking Equity in UNFCCC Negotiations

Closing that gap may remain beyond reach unless we succeed in rethinking and operationalizing Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC), the principle at the heart of the UNFCCC. CBDR-RC aims to generate enough ambition to close the emissions gap while recognizing that capacity to act is often determined by countries’ varying stages of development. CBDR-RC was coined at a time when ambition and equity could coexist. That time is closing fast. As the scientific case hardens and the need for urgent action by all becomes clearer, the scope for CBDR-RC begins to narrow. This, in turn, forces countries into defensive positions and short-sighted posturing. Now is the time to rescue CBDR-RC as a valuable and effective part of this regime. This will require dialogue and leadership.

The recent U.N. negotiations in Durban and Doha have provided the platform for this dialogue. In Durban, governments agreed to launch a new round of negotiations that will culminate in 2015 with the adoption of a new, international climate agreement. In Doha, negotiators agreed to undertake a one-year work program to think through the application of equity, and how it relates to the scope, structure, and design of the new agreement.

The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, welcomed a discussion on equity, noting that unless we can find common ground on CBDR-RC, we will not succeed in producing a deal in 2015. In private sessions, some major emerging economies also acknowledged that they would need to assume more responsibilities in the decades to come. This year, governments and civil society organizations will be able to join the dialogue with their own proposals on the principles that should guide equity and ambition. Submissions on the principles of the Convention—including equity—should be sent to the UNFCCC Secretariat by March 1, 2013. Now is the moment to put forth sound principles of climate justice.

The Climate Community Can Compel Leaders to Lead

And what of leadership? Many people continue to depend on negotiators, looking to them to guide us to greater equity and ambition. But we cannot expect them to lead in the COP process before we shift their mandate at home. We need to apply domestic pressure to compel them to act.

There are numerous examples of this strategy working throughout history. In the 1930s, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with a group of activists who sought his support for New Deal legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time, and then said, "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it." At the height of the civil rights movement, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson listened intently as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about daily humiliations, intimidation, and violations of basic rights. As Bill Moyers noted in an essay, the President’s response was "OK. You go out there, Dr. King, and keep doing what you're doing, and make it possible for me to do the right thing." Both FDR and LBJ knew that domestic constituencies, equipped with powerful and compelling narratives, could move the political process. The climate community will need to force our leaders to lead.

The new social movements that have emerged over the past five years have taken this message to heart. We can learn lessons from the revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Iran; the indignado protests in Europe; the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon; the Tea Party; and throughout the Middle East and North Africa on the tide of the Arab Spring. These movements are all very different, but have one important commonality: They each used justice as a core narrative to push for change. They mobilized people around notions of rights, freedom, and justice. And with differing degrees of success, they captured a prevailing zeitgeist.

There is an opportunity for the climate community to learn from this example. This “justice narrative” could serve as an additional pressure point on the road to 2015. If governments can be persuaded to do more by the volume of demand domestically, their negotiators will come to the COPs with a mandate to push for a more effective, ambitious, and equitable agreement through the UNFCCC.

Addressing the British Parliament in 1940, Winston Churchill said, “Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” In the new climate agreement, equity cannot be about sharing failure. It must become a means to share both the opportunities and challenges of the transition to climate-compatible development. In addition, equity cannot remain a quarrel about the past. It must be our opportunity to secure a fair future for all, with equitable access to sustainable development and respect for planetary boundaries.

  • LEARN MORE: Visit our website to find out more about a new project, the Climate Justice Dialogue.

Add new comment

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletters

Get our latest commentary, upcoming events, publications, maps and data. Sign up for the weekly WRI Digest.