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Climate change and global justice: a letter to Al

Dear Al Gore,

It was an interesting experience to see you in London in June 2006 giving your presentation on climate change; in light of your successful film and book An Inconvenient Truth. It was an impressive presentation on why climate change is happening and what needs to be done to stem its inexorable tide of bad effects. The fantastic images, graphs, charts and high-tech tools carried a powerful set of messages. All this was delivered with a welcome lightness of touch: you have learned how to be funny, ironic, self-deprecating, and witty at others' expense, bringing skill and vigour to the debate in ways that visibly energised your audience.

As the impressive delivery flowed, and in the question-and-answer session that followed, it became more and more clear that your message is tightly directed at the United States voter. Your pitch is to convince the American citizen of the need for changes in behaviour that have the effect of cutting back on carbon emissions and investing in new technology, so that his or her children and grandchildren will have a future worth living. It's an appeal to the US public's interests and affections, and there's a profit to be made from it too. New environment-friendly investment, carbon-trading, biofuels, engineering innovations engines … you can have your cake and eat it too.

You are engaged here in a Herculean task of persuasion, and you deserve the support and encouragement of non-Americans in pursuing it. If you can help your compatriots to understand the significance of the CO2 emissions their everyday behaviour is responsible for, and take measures to reduce them substantially, that would be of immeasurable benefit to the United States and to the world we share.

But in listening to your London talk and your responses to the audience, this is precisely the point at which my own doubts started to focus: namely, your apparent blind-spot when it comes to considering the rest of the world. No one would dispute that it is important to think about future US generations, but what about current generations living in other parts of the world who are suffering the adverse impacts of climate change now?

You may recall that in the Q & A session after your tour de force, I asked you about the connection between climate change and global justice, and in particular: are there any grounds for some kind of compensatory mechanism to provide redress for people who have been badly hit by climate change, even though they are the least responsible for carbon emissions? The question seemed to catch you by surprise, as though such issues are not yet on your radar screen.

This is itself surprising, for the imperative we face to care for this one and only earth by mitigating global warming is moral as well as environmental and social: it is a question of justice as well as sustainable life, relationships between people and planet as well as self-interest, human solidarity and security as well as lifestyle.

As yet, however, it seems that little thought has been given to the fundamental injustice of polluters having damaged earth systems held in common, and the negative consequences this has for some of the poorest countries and communities. It would, in your words, be "inappropriate to think of compensation" being paid for such depredations. There was, you argued, as much likelihood of establishing such a mechanism as there would to meet claims by black people in the United States for compensation for the slavery experienced by their forebears.

The justice argument, I persisted, applies equally to the other leg of global climate-change action: the adaptation process. The rich world has caused and is causing destruction to others, usually much poorer than itself; surely, then, people who live in rich countries should provide funds and technology to make it easier for their fellow world-citizens in the global south to adapt to the (in many cases, irrevocable) changes now underway? Moreover, isn't it necessary that such mechanisms of support are built into the agenda for "2012-plus", the agreement that follows the Kyoto treaty?

Oh no, you responded. To accept adaptation as an essential part of the Kyoto process would lessen the pressure to mitigate; it would encourage people to feel that they can "go with the flow", let global warming happen and adapt as they go along.

I left your lecture with mixed feelings, realising that the intellectual gulf across the Atlantic ocean – even in relation to a leading US liberal voice – was much wider than I had thought. If it is to be bridged, there has to be movement towards a shared understanding of the vision needed for 2012 and beyond. Here, I believe – as you seem not to – that questions of justice, redress and adaptation are critical to making a fair and robust deal.

A number of key questions must be faced in the negotiations which lie ahead:

  • what should the future, post-Kyoto climate-change regime look like? How can a fair balance between adaptation and mitigation be achieved?
  • what is the best mechanism to support adaptation? Is this best done through government-to-government transfer, or can cleverer ways be invented that bring support to the level at which it is really needed and can make a difference?
  • in light of the uneven impacts of climate change around the world, what is a reasonable target for parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere which would better protect the interests of poorer people and communities?
  • can a mechanism be created which links the level of adaptation payments to emission levels? In such a case, the longer and slower the cuts in emissions by rich countries, the greater the redress that would be sought
  • most of all, how best can the language and arguments of justice and human rights be used to make a forceful case for unfair use of global assets?

The rich world has fallen badly into debt and, like all debtors, hopes that by looking in the other direction and mumbling about the money being on its way it can postpone the time for a true reckoning.

But that moment is arriving fast. This inconvenient truth cannot be avoided – and it renders your project only half as intelligent and courageous as it needs to be.

Yours sincerely,

Camilla Toulmin


Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), a policy-research NGO based in London. An economist by training, she has worked in the drylands of Africa on land, agriculture and livelihood systems.

Also by Camilla Toulmin in openDemocracy:
"Africa: make climate change history" (May 2005)
"The G8 and climate change: a campaigners’ scorecard" (July 2005) – with Saleemul Huq
"Why Montreal matters" (December 2005)
"Montreal scorecard: Kyoto 157, United States 1" (December 2005)
"The G8 summit: don't forget climate change" (July 2006) – with Saleemul Huq

opendemocracy.net This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. To view the original article, please click here.

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