Climate change and environmental justice

Awatef Abdel-Rahman
Friday 25 Jan 2019

Further prevarication in facing up to climate change will have catastrophic repercussions on a world scale and lead to huge economic and human losses

The Earth’s climate is currently subject to various risks, but unfortunately too much of the public and too many in official circles in the Arab world still lack an awareness of the dangers threatening it.

Scientifically speaking, climate change has direct and indirect effects on agricultural policy, industrial and economic trends, and on the daily life of people.

Such effects can be clearly noticed in the countries of the South, where many of the poor are suffering from the devastating consequences of climate change in the form of floods, hurricanes, drought and famines.

Both the 1992 Cairo earthquake and the Qena flooding revealed a catastrophic absence of plans to help face natural disasters in Egypt.

The continuation of the same practices, including the combustion of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests, will cause the emission of more greenhouse gases responsible for climate change and global warming.

This in turn will lead over a period ranging from 50 to 100 years to the enormous melting of the glaciers, the extinction of many kinds of living things and a scarcity of rain, especially in South Asia and Africa and parts of North America.

A decrease in the world’s production of food, in addition to more climate change with equally destructive effects, will be the result, especially if the level of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere keeps rising.

The present crisis of food waste is another reason for global warming, as it leads to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to recent statistics, one third of the world’s population wastes food worth about $75 billion a year.

The issue of climate change has been tackled in international and regional conventions calling for participation on a global level to save the planet and protect our joint future.

The Kyoto Protocol called for the gradual and successive reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, defining the costs and responsibilities the industrialised countries should bear while implementing the targets of the treaty.

The US refrained from signing the protocol, arguing that it was unfair to put the whole burden on its shoulders at a time when China and India, two main countries that can be blamed for much of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions today, evade responsibility or costs.

Although the Kyoto Protocol was just the beginning of further steps to be taken in the future, the US opposition nearly emptied it of its effectiveness and hindered its implementation.

The problem is that the main challenge represented in climate change contradicts the globalised and traditional concept of the free market. If the current activities of that market continue, disaster will take place in less than a century.

Advocates of free-market policies believe that the costs of avoiding current climate disasters exceed anything that might be saved in the future. However, bearing in mind the current disastrous situation, any slowness in facing this phenomenon will have very serious repercussions and huge economic and human losses.

Should we waste more time on economic theories that serve the interests of those controlling the global market? Or should we start a march towards change?

The issue of climate change cannot be tackled away from the market economy, even if environmental issues may not often cross the minds of those controlling the global market.

They don’t want to risk upsetting the equilibrium of the market system that protects their interests. In fact, their commitment to such theories of equilibrium constitutes a political necessity, and they do not take seriously the fact that climate change has a direct and negative effect on market activities, threatening their interests.

Environmental justice relies upon the important principle that “he who pollutes pays.” In other words, the countries that cause pollution should pay the price for cleaning it up afterwards, and they should bear the costs of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

They should also define the criteria by which such costs will be distributed. This is a practical way to help achieve environmental justice.

Some 38 per cent of current greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by the US, Europe and Japan, which constitute together 15 per cent of the world’s population. This percentage will increase to 58 per cent of emissions within 100 years.

The amount of carbon dioxide emitted in America is estimated at 20 tons per person, in Germany and Japan 10 tons, and in the rest of Europe seven tons.

In France and Sweden, two countries which rely on nuclear energy for electricity generation, the amount is less.

While the rich countries are required to participate in bearing the costs of climate protection, the developing countries are also responsible for rectifying the environmental behaviour of their peoples.

The aim is to reduce carbon dioxide gas emissions ahead of 2030, necessitating the launch of an emergency programme to invent new technologies with less emissions.

Some environmental scientists have called for an international treaty to protect the Earth’s climate, viewing this as an absolute necessity. Reducing the world’s carbon dioxide emissions should not be the responsibility of just one country, and participation in protecting the climate is a universal rather than a national necessity.

Recent environmental studies have proposed a draft agreement for protecting the climate under which each of the advanced countries should bear a percentage of the costs as follows: the US 34 per cent, Europe 27 per cent, Japan eight per cent, China seven per cent, India three per cent and the petroleum-exporting countries 7.8 per cent.

The agreement should stipulate that the advanced countries are to bear a percentage of the costs exceeding the percentage of the emissions they cause.

Towards Solutions

There are two views on tackling the issue of climate change. 

The first prefers introducing minor changes to the current situation, arguing that the costs of climate protection exceed projected economic revenues.

The defenders of this point of view mostly overlook the negative repercussions of climate change on the coming generations.

They also overlook the fact that the future effects of such phenomena depend mainly on decisions made now. An accumulation of such negative effects will threaten the Earth and the lives of its population, both rich and poor.

This leads us to the alternative view, based on the principle of environmental justice, which is in turn linked to societal justice with its political, economic, cultural and social dimensions.

The first view is adopted by those controlling the centres of economic and political influence worldwide, defending the global market laws, and deliberately overlooking future environmental challenges in order to keep their current wealth safe. For such people, these are the keys to political and economic security.

However, the solutions proposed by the supporters of the globalised view and the market economy do not take the justice principle into consideration.

The poorest peoples will be the first to pay the price of the shocks resulting from climate change, although they are among the least of those causing them.

This is in addition to their inability to bear the costs of climate protection or to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

It is also clear that the global powers, including multinational companies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the G-7 group of countries, will not exert serious efforts to help unless natural disasters threaten their interests, profits and influence.

We do not have any idea about the kind of technology that might be able to protect the climate in 50 years’ time. The current stances of the countries responsible for increasing the level of greenhouse-gas emissions, in addition to behaviours that lack environmental awareness, are going to trace our future options.

Do we expect the rich countries to take the initiative and carry the responsibility for protecting the climate? Do we expect the elite, including scientists and environmental defenders, to play their role in increasing the environmental awareness of the coming generations? Through educational curricula and cultural and technical programmes, these generations must be taught how to protect the Earth, its climate, and its natural and human resources.

* The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Climate change and environmental justice

Short link: