News & Media Opinion Pieces Climate change; ethics and human rights

Climate change; ethics and human rights

The recent Poznan meeting on climate change produced thousands of statements but little progress. In sifting through the deluge of words, one fundamental issue emerges, the conflicting views of developing and developed nations. This has human rights and ethical connotations. To illustrate the issue I will discuss statements from Evo Morales, President of the Republic of Bolivia, from representatives of the Pacific countries and from a US ethicist representing Western thought.

Climate Change: Save the Planet from Capitalism a statement delivered to the meeting in Poznan by Evo Morales Ayma, President of the Republic of Bolivia.

“Sisters and brothers:

Today, our Mother Earth is ill. From the beginning of the 21st century we have lived the hottest years of the last thousand years. Global warming is generating abrupt changes in the weather: the retreat of glaciers and the decrease of the polar ice caps; the increase of the sea level and the flooding of coastal areas, where approximately 60% of the world population live; the increase in the processes of desertification and the decrease of fresh water sources; a higher frequency in natural disasters that the communities of the earth suffer; the extinction of animal and vegetal species; and the spread of diseases in areas that before were free from those diseases.

One of the most tragic consequences of the climate change is that some nations and territories are the condemned to disappear by the increase of the sea level.

Everything began with the industrial revolution in 1750, which gave birth to the capitalist system. In two and a half centuries, the so called “developed” countries have consumed a large part of the fossil fuels created over five million centuries.

Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet. Under Capitalism we are not human beings but consumers. Under Capitalism mother earth does not exist, instead there are raw materials. Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world. It generates luxury, ostentation and waste for a few, while millions in the world die from hunger in the world. In the hands of Capitalism everything becomes a commodity: the water, the soil, the human genome, the ancestral cultures, justice, ethics, death … and life itself. Everything, absolutely everything, can be bought and sold and under Capitalism. And even “climate change” itself has become a business.

“Climate change” has placed all humankind before great choice: to continue in the ways of capitalism and death, or to start down the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.

In the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries and economies in transition committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% below the 1990 levels, through the implementation of different mechanisms among which market mechanisms predominate.

Until 2006, greenhouse effect gases, far from being reduced, have increased by 9.1% in relation to the 1990 levels, demonstrating also in this way the breach of commitments by the developed countries.

The market mechanisms applied in the developing countries have not accomplished a significant reduction of greenhouse effect gas emissions.

Just as well as the market is incapable of regulating global financial and productive system, the market is unable to regulate greenhouse effect gas emissions and will only generate a big business for financial agents and major corporations.

The earth is much more important than stock exchanges of Wall Street and the world.

While the United States and the European Union allocate 4,100 billion dollars to save the bankers from a financial crisis that they themselves have caused, programs on climate change get 313 times less, that is to say, only 13 billion dollars.

The resources for climate change are unfairly distributed. More resources are directed to reduce emissions (mitigation) and less to reduce the effects of climate change that all the countries suffer (adaptation). The vast majority of resources flow to those countries that have contaminated the most, and not to the countries where we have preserved the environment most. Around 80% of the Clean Development Mechanism projects are concentrated in four emerging countries.

Capitalist logic promotes a paradox in which the sectors that have contributed the most to deterioration of the environment are those that benefit the most from climate change programs.

At the same time, technology transfer and the financing for clean and sustainable development of the countries of the South have remained just speeches.

The next Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen must allow us to make a leap forward if we want to save Mother Earth and humanity. For that purpose the following proposals for the process from Poznan to Copenhagen”

Morales’ statement then goes on to list 18 conditions for progress. These relate to responsibility for causing the problem and fairness in distributing the burden of its remediation. For example

* “Developed countries need to control their patterns of consumption – of luxury and waste – especially the excessive consumption of fossil fuels. Subsidies of fossil fuel, that reach 150-250 billions of dollars, must be progressively eliminated”.
* “Establish new minimum commitments for the developed countries of greenhouse gas emission reduction of 40% by 2020 and 90% by for 2050, taking as a starting point 1990 emission levels. These minimum commitments must be met internally in developed countries and not through flexible market mechanisms that allow for the purchase of certified emissions reduction certificates to continue polluting in their own country”.
* “Developing countries not responsible for the historical pollution must preserve the necessary space to implement an alternative and sustainable form of development that does not repeat the mistakes of savage industrialisation that has brought us to the current situation. To ensure this process, developing countries need, as a prerequisite, finance and technology transfer”.
* “Acknowledging the historical ecological debt that they owe to the planet, developed countries must create an Integral Financial Mechanism to support developing countries in: implementation of their plans and programmes for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change; the innovation, development and transfer of technology; in the preservation and improvement of the sinks and reservoirs; response actions to the serious natural disasters caused by climate change; and the carrying out of sustainable and eco-friendly development plans”

Bolivia is one of South America’s poorest countries. President Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous President. His statement represents a view coming from much of the developing world which includes some major polluters such as India and China. In digesting what Morales says we must put aside his view on capitalism and look at the kernel of his anguish. It seems that Copenhagen like Poznan will fail to make advances unless the Western nations recognise reality. The reality is that this is a human rights issue, as recognised by many individuals and organisations in the West, and so well articulated by Mary Robinson on this page.

That climate change is a human rights issue is emphasised by the situation on Australia’s door-step. Soon after Poznan, Parliamentarians from ten Pacific countries, meeting in Brisbane identified climate change as one of the biggest challenges to human rights in the Pacific Islands region. This was a regional consultation on how to apply in practice the international human rights conventions their countries have adopted.

Esther Pavihi an MP from the Pacific nation of Niue said “One of the biggest issues in the region right now is climate change. And in the interests of solidarity our participation, I think, here is supporting vulnerable island nations like Tuvalu, Kiribati. For them it’s a right to life. It’s a right to nationality and these are some of the basic human rights. Diplomacy can only work so far and we’ve been talking and talking for the past two decades. It’s time for some action. And it’s about time parliamentarians and traditional leaders of all the Pacific Islands come together and support our region because it will in the end affect us as well”.

As pointed out by Mary Robinson …. “Global warming has already begun to affect the fulfilment of human rights, and to the extent that polluting greenhouse gases continue to be released by large industrial countries, the basic human rights of millions of the world’s poor to life, security, food, health and shelter will continue to be violated”.

One wonders if these thoughts were raised at the December 2008 Cabinet meeting that decided Australia’s response of 5% reduction in emissions

The matter can be considered in the realm of philosophy — ethics—what is it right to do? It would be wrong to believe that a consideration of philosophy is irrelevant to our understanding of climate change for whether our decision makers recognise it or not it underlies the way they have inherited their approach issues of the day. Unfortunately philosophy has not grappled with intergenerational equity, there is little guidance. On the St James Ethics web site the only article I could find on climate change was written in 1997 prior to the Kyoto agreement. Let us look, therefore, at an ethical opinion based on Western thought from the US.

Mathias Risse is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Philosophy from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In a paper “Climate change lends itself to a discussion in terms of collective ownership of the earth,” Risse writes. “We cannot simply assume that the harm done through climate change is a wrong. Competition harms people by thwarting their interests, but this does not show any wrong was done. The ownership standpoint helps us understand what wrongs occur in this case. Yet since there has been little interest in that standpoint, there has been no systematic development of its implications regarding climate change.”

“… the philosophically most plausible understanding of collective ownership of the earth does not support an equal-per-capita principle, nor does it support certain versions of a principle of accountability for past emissions. Instead, we end up with a combination of “polluter pays” and “ability to pay” principles to the regulation of access to the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere…”

The problem is that the understanding of the ownership of the earth is a Western one which has evolved from the Greek philosophy. The concept of ‘polluter pays’ is a long way from human rights.

David Shearman

Since writing this review I have come across an article in the Washington Post on adaptation funding for poor countries. Worth reading.