The climate change story – and who it does not feature

On 18 November, the 23rd Conference of Parties (CoP23) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded in Bonn. After the ambitious goals set in Paris in 2015, this year’s conference made the news mainly because of the announced US withdrawal from the Paris agreement. However, two important topics re-surfaced in the negotiations and were partly successful in drawing attention to neglected issues.

On the one hand, with Fiji chairing the conference there was hope that the most vulnerable regions would finally get a voice in the negotiations, as islands will be particularly susceptible to major flooding events following global warming. “This means life or death for us” Tommy Remengesau, the president of Palau, was cited in the New York Times. But even with this open call for help, the countries could not agree on how to compensate those who suffer damage through climate change.

On the other hand, the Parties agreed upon the creation of a “Gender Action Plan” which acknowledges the gendered impacts of climate change. Both topics shed light on the human dimension of global warming, which is hardly ever addressed in the negotiation process, but is crucial if we truly want to tackle climate change.

Climate change is mostly presented as a global problem, which needs global action. This way of framing the issue stems from the scientific work, which has mainly focused on aggregated emissions and impacts and has always been highly valued in climate change governance. While it is true that greenhouse gases like CO2 will not accumulate locally, but spread globally, this silences certain social nuances in the debate. Questions of responsibility and differentiated mitigation options are often overlooked.

Many leading scientists mention the use of fossil fuels as being the key problem alongside overpopulation. In doing so, they frame third world countries with high fertility rates as one of the main “problems”. This is very concerning, even if we set aside the problematic notion of dictating how many children a woman can have. The growing population (in the global South) might pose challenges in the future, considering the adoption of a high emission lifestyle during development, so the typical line of thought. But this distracts from the current situation. Children born today in Bangladesh (or any other country in the Global South) will have a negligible effect on the climate and their resource use will be insignificant in comparison to nationals in the Global North. In fact, around 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the richest 10%, while the poorest half of the world’s population accounts for just 10% of global emissions.


Fig.1: CO2 emission by income. Source: Oxfam

This disparity is addressed in Article 3 of the UNFCCC, where the notion of “common but differentiated responsibility” is introduced. It acknowledges that some countries might be greater polluters than others, assigning them a higher responsibility for mitigating action.

At the same time, the highest emitting countries will be among the least vulnerable to the consequences of their emissions like extreme weather events, floods, prolonged droughts and food insecurity. This means that countries emitting less will have to take adaptation measures, as in the case of Fiji, or in the worst-case scenario cope with loss and damage. Having to cope with the consequences, more vulnerable countries understandably raise the question of who should pay for the measures.

In addition to the differential responsibilities between countries, climate change can have varied impacts on different groups of people within a country. Indigenous peoples, the poor population and women are among those that will be hit hardest. That is why agreeing on the creation of a “Gender Action Plan” at the CoP23 in Bonn is a breakthrough for feminist institutions. There is mounting evidence that women in the global South are “particularly vulnerable to climate related dangers and resource scarcity”. At the same time, women are underrepresented in important governing bodies and in the climate change negotiations. Acknowledging this underrepresentation and greater vulnerability could be one step towards a gender sensitive approach, which might lead to policies that are fit for addressing and alleviating some of these inequalities.

There are two important insights: emissions are not evenly spread, and their consequences will not affect all people in the same way. Our portrayal of climate change should, therefore, not miss these important social dimensions, which give rise to questions of equity and responsibility.

Climate change is hugely a responsibility of the industrialized nations (and especially the affluent and privileged part of the population), which have been developing while imposing hardships onto poorer countries. In light of the 23rd CoP in Bonn, this means we should engage in an open dialogue to find solutions, not only for the compensation of losses, but also for mitigation policies that do not further these inequalities.

I argue that we must recognize not only the scientific implications of climate change, but also the differential responsibility of and consequences for different parts of the world and groups of people within them. Incorporating insights from social science research focused on these inequalities will enhance the discussion and governance and will lead to an increased efficiency and effectiveness of proposed policies.

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