Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ethics - not Evidence - can achieve real Climate Justice

The climate change debate gathers pace as the crucial negotiation horizon of Copenhagen lies only 50 days away. HDEO believes there is too much distraction and distortion endlessly debating whether or not this disaster, that drought, or the next typhoon is linked to climate change or not. The fact remains climate change is linked to human behavior, specifically behaviors that strive for unregulated economic growth - whatever the cost. At its most fundamental it is an ethical issue. An issue of climate justice.

We would appear to be living in an increasingly hazardous world. Over the last few weeks we have witnessed wildfires in California, typhoons in the Philippines and the continuation of devastating droughts in East Africa.

There has been a tendency, in the media and among the environment and development community, to attribute human agency to all meteorological hazards - basically, every time the weather "misbehaves" there are people who want to project human agency onto the catastrophe offering the event as "evidence" of climate change.

But unfortunately, it is impossible to link any single anomalous weather event to human-induced climate change.
I wish I could get on my soap box and tell people that their profligate resource-consuming behaviour is causing droughts in Kenya. But as a scientist, I know I can't do this.

While I firmly believe that some of the changes in climate being witnessed around the world today are a result of human-induced climate change, I cannot condone the slipshod analysis of non-specialists who use received wisdom, as opposed to science, to draw links between humans and climate.

There is a simple reason, however, why people are being forced to make links that cannot be proved conclusively by science: They are desperate to force change at all costs. And, frankly, who can blame them?

It would be nice to think that the science would speak for itself. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide far exceed the natural range over the last 650,000 years; the IPCC also states that warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

In Africa, for example, this warming could reduce yields from rain-fed agriculture by up to 50% and expose 75 to 250 million people to an increase in water stress by 2020.
But sience doesn't stir people's hearts and minds; scientific reason hasn't been a traditional basis for mass behavioural change.
If quantitative reason isn't enough then we have to try to make people realise what is at stake by doing what I have criticised above - linking human behaviour to specific weather events.

And finally, if that doesn't work, we have to speak to the innate sense of right at the core of most of humanity. We need to use moral philosophy - ethics.

Realising something is wrong should force action. What humans (mainly those in the industrialised North) are doing to the environment for short-term economic growth is wrong.

Indeed, the concept of justice makes everything very clear. Even if you're a climate change skeptic, you cannot deny the fact that if everyone in the world were to live like the average UK citizen, we would need the resources of three Earths simply to exist, let alone "develop".

This simple fact shows that our behaviour, and the economic and political systems that underpin and promote this behaviour, are wrong and unjust.

So climate change as a justice issue becomes much easier. We can move away from the uncertainties of the science that preclude action and we can focus on human behaviour. We can start to conceive of, and work towards, a more sustainable future.
Yet even when climate change is framed as a justice issue there are still barriers to progress. Amazing as it may seem, most people (in the countries that caused the problem of climate change) are simply too busy to worry about the environment and how their actions impact it.

So while I cannot condone ungrounded analysis and "untrue" messaging about climate change, I get why people do it. If facts don't work, if reason doesn't work, if ethics don't work, then what are you left with?

If we want to promote a more reasoned analysis of climate change and want to see "sound" science underpin all aspects of the climate change debate - from local campaigning through to international negotiations - then we have to take action today.

Taking action now will buy time to ensure the ways we mitigate and adapt to climate change are appropriate.
In order to buy time, and to create space for sensible, reasoned analysis of climate change, we need politicians to take concerted action. Unfortunately, most politicians value their economies above nature and therefore actions to address climate change are perceived as secondary especially at a time of global recession.


We are living through crazy times when the blind pursuit of economic growth - the cause of climate change - is perceived to be the solution. It is interesting to note that cancer cells (like the global economy) grow for growth's sake - but eventually destroy their host.

Politicians are going to meet in Copenhagen in December to decide a deal on global climate action. I reiterate the fact that it is impossible to attribute any single catastrophic weather event to human-induced climate change.
But the people I work with in Africa, Asia and Latin America are seeing changes to their weather that are destroying their livelihoods and their ability to flourish as human beings.

If there is even the remotest possibility that these changes could be the result of human activities then I have a moral obligation to take action - and so do you.

The photo above depicts Niuleni artificial islands, part of the Solomon Islands group and now the focus of a Red Cross disaster-preparedness effort that aims to protect against possible climate change impacts like rising sea levels and more intense storms: Photo, George Baragamu, Solomon Islands Red Cross.

This post was written by Mike Edwards and first appeared in Reuters Alertnet. Mike is the climate change adviser for CAFOD.

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