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Cambridge University Science Magazine
People of the world are divided on climate consciousness; some even believe climate change is a hoax. Despite this, the vast majority of climate scientists and experts agree that climate change is largely due to factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and irresponsible livestock farming as a result of increased human activity. Indeed, there are many individuals from laymen to policy-makers who disagree with science and policy objectives. Without unity outside of the scientific community, cooperation in climate conservation is impossible. To deal with climate change the international community must be united regarding climate: agenda, policy, and justice.

The insufficiency of unity in the scientific community

While there is a lack of unity, effective and concerted efforts cannot be undertaken. Many individuals outside the scientific community have yet to come into agreement with current science. Perhaps, this is simply because of the nature of scientific language. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) qualifies its statements and assertions with words such as ‘likely’, ‘very likely’, and ‘virtually certain’. It also holds some climate-change deniers as expert members who are in disagreement with their peers. As a result, predictions and claims by the IPCC appear, to non-experts, as uncertain and ambiguous. Hence, it is understandable that those who take this as a sign that climate change is not an officially recognised phenomenon would find it unnecessary to address it in the first place. For example, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement is one example of refusal to deal with climate change due to the misconception that the existence of manmade climate change has not been confirmed.

Such events could have more unfortunate outcomes. In 2019 while the US was absent from the Paris Agreement, the Climate Action Tracker projected that “US greenhouse gas emissions [will be left] at least 3% higher in 2030” than if it does not withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The USA’s absence from the Paris Agreement could compromise public pressure on other nations to honour their commitments, encourage other countries to withdraw, or even render the Paris Agreement ineffective, given that the USA is the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2. Other policies taken in defiance of the scientific community include the rollbacks of 50 climate-related goals.

The importance of unity in international climate change frameworks

Unified international climate policy is necessary but there is often great disparity in the extent to which different countries are committed to addressing climate change. Even if the international community collectively commits to dealing with climate change, individual countries may not completely carry out these commitments. This may be because of their unique domestic situations. In general, policies addressing climate change are associated with considerable short-run costs; and benefits which are only noticeable in the long-run. Understandably, policy-makers, especially those with regular and short election cycles, find these short-term costs difficult to justify. Also, the international endeavour of dealing with climate change cannot be divorced from the free-rider problem, and the fear that other countries would not take commensurate climate action. This means that there is every chance that, by addressing climate change, one’s own state would be putting itself at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other states.

Consider the example of the Kyoto Protocol. This agreement was signed in 1997, and called for industrialised countries to lower global CO2 emissions by 5% relative to 1990 standards. However, the agreement utterly failed and CO2 emission levels increased by 40%. Such international conventions, like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), fail because they do not and cannot govern or even monitor states’ commitments. Hence, states are unaccountable and free to pursue policies which would avoid the free rider problem described above. Moreover, the agreement failed to even make signatories of the world’s two largest emitters, the USA and China. In the USA, president Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol agreement, but failed to convince the US Senate to ratify it. Among the reasons cited by the senate were damages to the economy, especially when developing countries like India and China were not bound by what the senate saw as economy-stifling regulations. This example illustrates the influence that the fear of being put at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other states can have over international climate policy. Hence, to tackle climate change, states’ agendas must transcend domestic, short-term interests.

Unfortunately, disagreements about how policy should be crafted to best address climate change has prevented the international community from making progress. For example, there is disagreement over whether or not some countries should be allowed to emit CO2 if they are still developing while other more developed countries that have already contributed immense levels of CO2 emissions should bear the brunt of restrictions. According to the Global Carbon Project, the USA has cumulatively emitted 25% of all emissions while India has only contributed 3% as of 2019.

Countries may also disagree on the rigour of climate change policy because they are not equally vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Consider the Paris Agreement, which is an international accord where countries have made voluntary commitments to reduce their emissions and limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees (UNFCCC, 2021). Signatories to the Paris Agreement originally committed to ensuring increases in global average temperature are limited to 2 degrees Celsius. However, following opposition from the low-lying, vulnerable islands-nations of the Pacific, this was reduced to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

There are also those who criticise the Paris Agreement for infringing on national sovereignty. In fact, this was one of the reasons provided by Trump for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Ambiguity in the terms of the Paris Agreement is another manifestation of the disconnect between countries. For example, Article 4(1) calls upon signatories “to reach global peaking greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”. Not only is “global peaking” not explicated in detail, there is also no clear timetable by which signatories are expected to abide. Since policies stipulated in the Paris Agreement must come to the best compromise between signatories with starkly contrasting policy objectives, any policies codified are only the lowest common denominator. The Paris Agreement is an example of what happens when there is disunity in policy. A 2020 paper by Raiser et al. argues that its effectiveness in pursuing its largest goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees celsius is debatable because countries’ pledges are inadequate. Moreover, many countries are not on track to fulfill their own pledges. As of 2017, the journal Nature reported that no major industrialised country was implementing pledged policies or achieving pledged carbon emission reductions, thus, they are insufficient in dealing with climate change. Furthermore, in 2018 experts writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warned that even if signatories are successful in limiting global increases in average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, risk that cascading feedbacks will push our ecosystem into a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway would still not be eliminated.

Unity in climate justice

Putting up a comprehensive global effort against climate change might also require addressing issues of climate justice, which refers to the way the ravages of climate change are distributed inequitably. According to UN Secretary-General Guterres, “the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.”

For example, according to the NAACP and American Lung Association, ethnic minorities are often more vulnerable to air pollution. There are many reasons why this might be the case. A 2020 study by Nardonne et al. provides evidence that many years of residential segregation (such as red-lining in the USA) has increased the probability of ethnic minorities to live in areas more-likely to be exposed to air pollution. This includes population-dense cities, and industrial areas.

Another example is the case of indigenous communities, especially those living in floodplains. Consider the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which includes approximately 100 families. Writing in Yale CLimate Connections in 2016, Bud Ward described how the people of this tribe generally grow crops, fish, and hunt on a subsistence basis. They live in the Isles de Jean Charles in Louisiana. Being a low-lying coastal area, residents have long been threatened by coastal erosion. In fact, every year, the state of Louisiana has been losing land mass equivalent to the size of Manhattan, according to journalist Nathaniel Rich in the New York Times Magazine. When engineers of the US Army looked into the issue faced by the tribe, they determined that tribal lands could not be protected without great cost, and instead offered money to relocate the community to higher ground. This demonstrates the injustice of climate change – communities which contribute minimally to it can often be forced to bear the brunt of its effects.

Another commonly-debated issue of climate justice is with regard to the distribution of burdens between countries. While the West has been industrialising for over 200 years, all the while detrimentally extracting resources from colonies, many developing countries are still dependent on the prospect of industrialisation for economic development. Moreover, the wealthiest one billion individuals, mostly found in Euro-American societies, are responsible for 60% of greenhouse gases, while the poorest 50% of people are only responsible for 5%. This creates various ethical problems. Should developing countries be allowed to continue industrialising and shoulder less of the burden in the fight against climate change? To what extent should we treat the climate sustainably, and in so doing pursue the welfare of future generations at the expense of the 783,000,000 who live in poverty today? Such ethical questions are acknowledged by the accumulation of the Green Climate Fund and the institution of the Global Environment Facility, which are tasked with aiding developing countries to bear the costs of climate action. However, even these measures are limited. According to the World Bank, these funds are short of the US$ 700-1000 billion required. Therefore, though efforts have been made to address issues of climate justice, climate justice has yet to be served.

Until political systems begin to be accountable to the marginalised, it is likely that it will continue turning a blind eye towards those who suffer from climate change the most. Without governmental attention, it is unlikely that a comprehensive, concerted effort will be taken to address climate-related issues plaguing marginalised communities. Until marginalised communities are able to address climate-related issues too, society as a whole cannot say it has comprehensively dealt with climate change. Even if there is agreement within the majority of the scientific community, climate change cannot be addressed until there is unity in climate change agenda, policy, and justice.

Donovan Sim is a rising second-year student studying economics at Robinson College.