Climate Change’s Public Secrets

Earth Island News

AdaptationHIRES_BW.jpg© George Nikitin/Greenpeace Message to world leaders: Any attempt to stabilize the climate
must also, with equal zeal, ease the plight of the world’s poor.

When it comes to the climate crisis, the level of public sophistication is rising quickly. Not that everyone can explain the difference between, say, CO2 and CO2 equivalent, but lots of people can, and even more understand that we’re in serious trouble. The ice, the methane, the storms, the droughts – they’re almost daily news, and they come to us against a dark background that involves far more than climate change or even environmental crisis. There are the first causes – capitalism and corporate economics chief among them – and there are the proximate causes – economic, political, cultural, and military instability, a terrifying new kind of class inequality, fossil-fuel lock-in, and all the rest. They shape the landscape within which we confront the climate crisis, and they do not do so in a particularly helpful way.

All of them hung in the air in Poznan, Poland in December 2008, when the world’s climate negotiators met to continue their plodding march down the “road to Copenhagen,” the road that, if we’re extremely, blessedly lucky, will deliver us, at the end of 2009, to the momentous political breakthrough we so desperately need.

Poznan is a long story, but let’s just say that things didn’t go particularly well. Too much now is too obviously at stake, and yet the fundamental impasse over North-South “burden sharing” – who does what, and where, and most importantly, who pays? – is still unresolved. Given this, it’s not clear where the breakthrough is going to come from. Obama’s election brought new hope, true, but as we all know, it won’t automatically make the decisive difference. Obama is a deliberate man; he will abandon his measured centrism to acknowledge the full extent of the climate emergency only when he believes that the conditions are right, and the risk worth taking.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us in 2007 that the wealthy countries must collectively reduce their 2020 emissions by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels. Better calculations, taking the latest science into careful account, indicate the need for even larger reductions. In practice, these must be seen as obligations to pay for reductions, rather than obligations to make those reductions domestically. This is because it’s the developing world where greenhouse-gas emissions are growing fastest. If this trend is to be reversed in time, it will be because the wealthy countries – which not only have most of the responsibility for the climate crisis, but also enjoy the bulk of the capacity that must be tapped if we’re to face it down – have pledged the technological and financial resources necessary to make it possible.

The challenge here is huge. Suffering as they are at the brink of a depression, the American people may be forgiven if they seek to put domestic economic renewal and not international climate mobilization at the top of their wish list. Nevertheless, it remains critically important that we accept our fair share of the burden of this mobilization, and here again we must understand that we cannot do so entirely within our own borders. There is, to be sure, much to do here at home – the efficiency work, the solar and the wind, the grid, the bridges, the schools and the trains – but at the same time there are the demands of global climate stabilization. And this is where, to the extent that our obligations exceed our domestic efforts, international financial and technological assistance must bridge the gap.

The more you know of the science, the less likely you are to believe that we are going to rise to the occasion.

Will this happen? We cannot know. The times are changing, but we’re almost out of time. And given the size of the US obligation, we’ll have to push beyond the parameters of traditional political realism if we’re to break the impasse in the international negotiations. Which brings us, despite Obama, to the public secret of the climate crisis: The more you know of the science, and of the speed with which we must now move, the less likely you are to truly believe that we’re going to rise to the occasion.

Not to reject hope. Nor to follow James Lovelock and prepare a survivors’ migration to the poles. But it would serve us well to admit that his pessimism is widely shared, for such an honesty would ease our way to a badly needed precision of action. We have the money, the knowledge, and the tools to stabilize the climate. We even have the foresight. We lack only the political conditions. And if Obama’s election means that these conditions may yet be within our reach, this tells us only that we cannot allow them to slip from our grasp.

This won’t be easy. No more movies, please, that stun us with images of the danger, then fade to montages of happy lightbulb swaps. The swaps are necessary, sure, but they’re not enough, and everybody knows it. It’s time for solutions on the same scale as the problem. Time to acknowledge that the climate treaty must move hundreds of billions of dollars a year around the world, and redirect the motion of trillions more. And to admit that, while this promises investment, renovation, and opportunity on a vast scale, all will not be frictionless and profitable.

Which brings us to another public secret: The climate crisis is essentially a crisis of development, one closely linked to the crisis of inequality. And any attempt to stabilize the climate that does not seek, with equal zeal, to ease the plight of the world’s poor – those billions who live in the shadows of our wealth – is doomed to failure.

This, of course, is not a provable claim, but it’s easy to defend. We’ve manifestly overdrawn the global carbon budget, and now global emission levels must drop with astonishing rapidity. So quickly that, even if the wealthy countries were to bring their emissions down to zero, the developing countries would still have to more or less immediately find their own emergency emissions reduction pathways. And (here’s the punch line), that they would have to do so while most of their citizens were still, on average, quite poor.

Given this, it’s not surprising that the climate negotiations have made only the most achingly slow progress. Indeed, they are in near impasse, and this impasse reveals a deadly symmetry. On the one side, the northern countries balk at making stringent emissions cuts while the developing countries are exempted from similar limits. On the other, southern decision-makers refuse emissions reduction commitments that they fear (with every justification) will derail their journey to “development.” It’s a classic deadlock, in which neither side will take the decisive step, and it was on full display in Poznan. The future depends on breaking it as quickly as humanly possible.

To do so, we must admit a final, obvious but rarely acknowledged secret: Our world, divided between North and South, is even more fundamentally divided between rich and poor. Which is to say that, encountering the central precepts of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, which declare that the burdens of climate stabilization must be divided between nations “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” we must admit that this means taking proper account of the rich-poor divide within countries. That, to be pedantically clear, the rich among us have far greater responsibilities, and far greater capacities, than the poor, and that this is true regardless of where they live.

Wealth and capacity, whether in the US or in China, is still wealth and capacity.

This critical realization points the way forward, for it shows us that the Kyoto Protocol’s division between wealthy “Annex 1” and developing “Non Annex 1” countries, the division that sets the terms of the global impasse, is not our perpetual fare. That if we see countries differently, not as sovereign monoliths but as collections of individuals, some of them wealthy and some, alas, impoverished … well, let’s just say that climate politics, and environmental politics in general, starts making a whole lot more sense. That it becomes apparent that reducing emissions while raising the living standards of the poor is as much the responsibility of the rich in Beijing as of the rich in Boston.

The good news is that climate negotiators are becoming desperate enough to read the writing on the wall, which tells us that any climate-protection framework that remains merely a climate-protection framework is doomed to failure.

There is no choice between climate protection and human development. We shall have both, or we shall have neither.

—Tom Athanasiou

Tom Athanasiou is the director of EcoEquity ( and, most recently, a co-author of The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework: The Right to Development in Climate Constrained World.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.