Existentialism with equity: The climate dilemma
Should the threat mean all countries do everything possible? Should it mean that those responsible do more?
The enduring image of the United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit held on September 23 is the young climate activist, Greta Thunberg. “How dare you continue to look away?”, she demanded, invoking wide-scale suffering, collapsing ecosystems, and the beginning of a mass extinction due to climate change.
Thunberg and burgeoning groups of other climate activists are responding to a drumroll of news of a destabilised global climate. According to the scientific report submitted to the UN, the last five years are on track to be the warmest ever recorded; higher carbon dioxide has made the ocean 26% more acidic; the four lowest levels of winter sea-ice were recorded in the last five years; and heatwaves and cyclones have become more common and more deadly. A short list of implications for humanity is greater food insecurity in the face of heat, drought, and declining crop yields; greater exposure to heatwaves causing illness and decreased productivity; and decreases in GDP, particularly for poorer and warmer countries. None of this accounts for the risk of catastrophic climate change, which could happen if certain tipping points are reached.
Faced with this growing science and growing pressure from the street, the UN secretary general called for leaders to come to the summit with far-reaching plans, not speeches.
What he, and we, got was, for the most part, slightly warmed-over policies. A few countries pledged to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, a bold stretch. Many others, including India, reiterated that they will meet their Paris Agreement pledges, sometimes with a few teasers thrown in (such as India’s statement we would increase renewable energy to 450GW, but with no date, and an intriguing proposal for a coalition on disaster resilient infrastructure). A sizeable minority, including the United States, Brazil, Japan and Australia, were simply no-shows.
Thunberg is right: We are looking away.
Beneath this failure to act sit two equally true, but different, ways of understanding the climate problem.
The first is that climate change is an existential problem that threatens life on earth and ecosystems, and requires extraordinary measures. And the evidence is mounting that business as usual measures — an energy saving light bulb here, a few percentage points more renewable energy there — are not going to solve the problem. The UN secretary general is informed by this view when he calls on all countries to halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and go to net zero by 2050. Implicit in this view is that everyone needs to act with urgency.
By contrast, the second, closer to India’s historical view, is that while action is needed, agreeing on which countries need to act and how much — how to divide the carbon pie — is equally important. From this perspective, understandably, it is outrageous to ask a country like India, whose citizens use less than a tenth the amount of electricity on average than an American, to take equivalently strong measures to address climate change. From this perspective, climate existentialism is threatening, as it ramps up the pressure for poorer countries to take on equivalent obligations to richer countries, which may risk short-circuiting future development by curtailing energy use.
The tension between the two perspectives is heightened by the rise of nationalism in several countries. That the US, historically the largest emitter, is unwinding its domestic climate policies on the basis of tenuous arguments about its economic competitiveness lends weight to those concerned about how the pie will be divided.
When the governments of major countries like Brazil also express scepticism about climate change, it further lowers the incentive to act. This explains the lukewarm statements by India and China that they are fulfilling their existing pledges, and this should be quite enough.
These divided perspectives place India in a particularly difficult place. As a poor country deeply vulnerable to climate change, we should be in the climate existentialism camp. But as a country with considerable future energy needs, we vociferously stress that the carbon pie has to be divided equitably.
In the meantime, India, as with most other countries, continues with business as usual policies. We add renewable energy, but also look to sign oil and gas contracts and attract investment in coal. In this, we are not dissimilar to other countries. But neither are we leaders. Reconciling climate existentialism and the fair division of the carbon pie is not easy. But it is not clear that India is really seeking the answer. Like everyone else, we, too, are looking away.