Climate Change: Equity in Burden-Sharing Holds the Key

Share the Burden

Brahma Chellaney

The Times of India, July 30, 2008

Climate change has been correctly identified as a threat multiplier. Yet it has already become a divisive issue, with the danger that the rich nations’ efforts to lock in their advantages by revising the 1992 Rio bargain and rejiggering their Kyoto Protocol obligations through a new regime could create another global divide between haves and have-nots — an NPT of climate change. A new bargain is at the heart of the efforts to fashion a 2009 Copenhagen Protocol.

With the Kyoto Protocol’s target of a mere 7 per cent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions below 1990 levels falling by the wayside, the standard excuse being trotted out for failing to meet one’s responsibility is that global warming cannot be slowed unless India and China also agree to cut their emissions. That China and India serve as a convenient pretext for political foot-dragging is apparent from the widely held belief that the climate-crisis impact would be borne largely by the developing world and, therefore, the rich nations ought not to slow their economic growth through major emission cuts at a time when they face a growing challenge from the emerging economies.

An extension of that belief is the contention that global warming would change the relative strategic weight of nations, with those in the colder climes gaining, like Russia, but many others suffering an erosion of security and status. Such smug beliefs, as Senator Joe Lieberman acknowledged at a group discussion two months ago in which this writer was involved, have helped foster resistance in the US Congress to America slashing its high emissions, accounting for almost a quarter of the world’s total. The recent defeat of the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill thus is not a surprise. Ironically, the desired new global bargain would call upon the vulnerable states on the frontline of climate change, like India, to shoulder responsibility with those who would supposedly benefit.

The blunt fact is that there will be no winners from climate change. Not only will its effects be global, climate change is likely to make weather patterns more unpredictable in higher latitudes. Indeed, with the upper reaches of the Arctic already warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, climate change could wreak havoc on agriculture, public health and ecosystems in colder lands, besides helping breed unmanageable viruses.

At a time of greater international divisiveness on core challenges — from disarmament and terrorism to the food crisis and the Doha Round — the world can ill-afford political rancour over the climate crisis, which carries the seeds of exacerbating existing security challenges, without necessarily creating a new category of threats. While it is easy to exaggerate or underestimate the likely impact of climate change owing to the continuing gaps in scientific knowledge, three broad strategic effects can be visualized.

First, climate change is likely to intensify interstate and intrastate competition over natural resources. A new Great Game over water, for example, could unfold, with Asia as the hub, given China’s control over the source of all of Asia’s major rivers except the Ganges — Tibet. Accelerated melting of glaciers and mountain snows would affect river-water flows, although higher average temperatures are likely to bring more rainfall in the tropics.

Second, higher frequency of extreme weather events and a rise in ocean levels are likely to spur greater interstate and intrastate migration — especially of the poor and the vulnerable — from the delta and coastal regions to the hinterland. Such an influx of outsiders may provoke a backlash that strains internal and regional security. India, for example, could face a huge refugee influx from the world’s seventh most populous country, Bangladesh, already losing land to saltwater incursion.

Third, human security will be the main casualty as climate change delivers a major blow to vulnerable economic sectors. Disparities would intensify. The spectre of resource conflicts, failed states, large-scale migrations, growing extremism, and higher frequency and intensity of extreme weather events helps underscore the human-security costs.

Unlike other unconventional challenges, climate change is caused not by hostile forces but by production and consumption patterns. While the reluctance of the rich to accept any diminution in their lifestyle comforts is understandable, there is a need to go beyond symbolic approaches. The diversion of food for biofuels, for instance, has only helped create a windfall for major farm industries while burdening the world’s poor. Also, buying carbon credits from poor states to exceed one’s own emission targets is environmental grandstanding, at best, and carbon colonialism, at worst.

A strengthened regime will have to be anchored in differential responsibility, a concept at the heart of the Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, but also embedded in international law through several other agreements — from the Montreal Protocol to the Maastricht Treaty. If the emerging economies were to assume obligations of the rich states, emission-cut targets would have to be set on objective criteria calibrating a country’s reduction burden both to its historic contributions to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to its current per-capita emissions. But if the privileged were to keep their emission rights and tie any cuts to burden-sharing with the underprivileged, it would constitute an NPT variant. By pledging that its per-capita emissions would never exceed developed countries’, India has ingeniously challenged the rich to help cap its emissions by cutting back on their own.

The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.

(c) Times of India, 2008.

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