Craig Collins | Climate Equity: A Lost Cause?

The message delivered by the poor nations and climate activists who gathered last week in Bolivia is undeniably just: The world desperately needs an effective climate agreement. However, rich countries are primarily responsible for causing this problem and have reaped most of benefits of two centuries of fossil-fueled industrialization. Therefore, they must bear most of the costs of responding to climate change and overcoming the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. Only the callous or ethically challenged would dispute this position on moral grounds.

Who can doubt that the carbon emissions disrupting Earth’s climate are the gaseous refuse of a modernization process that has enriched a handful of nations? The Souththern Hemisphere’s demand for equity, of course, can also be leveled at the fast lane, energy-guzzling jet-setters in every country whose opulent lifestyles clog the atmosphere with climate-altering carbon. If justice requires polluters to shoulder the cost of cleanup and compensate victims for their losses, then rich elites and wealthy nations must take the primary responsibility for halting climate chaos and rectifying the damage it causes.

But even though the South’s case for climate justice is ethically sound, it may be politically doomed. The call for atmospheric equity emanating from Cochabamba will be either ignored or distorted by Washington and the Western press. It’s best to plug your ears and turn a blind eye if you don’t have a leg to stand on.

But indifference and denial are not the main reasons the quest for climate justice has scant hope of success. Power, not morality, is the currency of international politics. In the corridors of power, the moral high ground is worthless without real leverage to back it up. And when it comes to climate change, the South has very little leverage to wrest justice from the North.

There are those who believe the South has substantial bargaining leverage because – without the participation of developing nations like China, India, South Africa and Brazil – no effective climate agreement is possible. Twenty years ago, the South’s successful holdout strategy compelled wealthy nations to assume responsibility for protecting the ozone layer by phasing out CFCs and funding the South’s adoption of ozone-friendly alternatives. But, even though the South’s participation is as essential to the success of climate negotiations as it was to protecting the ozone layer, the threat of boycotting inequitable climate negotiations is no longer an effective strategy for winning climate justice.

There are a few major reasons why this strategy has lost its bargaining power. First, unlike ozone negotiations, the holdout strategy is not credible because the South will suffer more from climate change than the North. Back in 1990, the North was more desperate for an ozone agreement than the South. Northern nations needed to protect their lighter-skinned, cancer-prone populations from the UV rays bombarding them through the ozone holes spreading out from the poles.

This situation gave the South bargaining power because its people were less threatened by ozone depletion than the North and needed CFCs to preserve food through refrigeration. Thus, the South’s threat to boycott negotiations, unless the North helped defray the cost of adopting CFC alternatives, was quite credible and effective.

For climate negotiations, the situation is reversed. Compared to rich nations, poor countries already suffer more from climate change and have less capacity to adapt. Rising sea levels and increased tropical storms already threaten the existence of small island nations and low-lying countries, while desertification, drought and shrinking glaciers in the Himalayas and the Andes endanger the water and food supplies of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Thus, the South needs to halt climate chaos even more than the North. Even though this strengthens the Southern nations’ ethical case, it severely undermines the credibility of their threat to walk out on any agreement that doesn’t meet their equity demands. Even the European countries who are more enthusiastic about cutting their carbon emissions than the United States are not convinced that they’ll need to make any significant equity concessions to garner Southern participation.

Finally, compared to the assistance needed to help the South replace CFCs, the price tag for any major effort to fund the South’s transition to a carbon-free energy infrastructure would be astronomical. Wealthy countries are hard-pressed to finance alternative energy development within their own borders. Foreign assistance to promote these efforts abroad will face monumental resistance, fomented and financed by the fossil fuel industry.

Once again a comparison with ozone negotiations is instructive. Because major CFC producers like DuPont were also the inventors of CFC replacements, they became downright enthusiastic about an ozone fund to help poor nations adopt these alternatives. But for climate change the economic calculus is reversed. The powerful fossil fuel lobbies in the North steadfastly oppose any fund to help the South afford carbon-free alternatives. It has no interest in encouraging countries to adopt wind and solar even if it has made some marginal investments in them. Petroleum is far more profitable and heavily subsidized than renewables, and any fund designed to help the South adopt carbon-free alternatives could undermine the fossil fuel industry’s hegemony over the global energy market.

Therefore, unless the North becomes: 1) unified around the urgency of preventing climate disruption; 2) convinced that it must make significant equity allowances to garner Southern participation; and 3) willing to absorb the costs of assisting their transition to carbon-free development, the Southern nations will remain in a weak bargaining position, despite the strong ethical argument behind their equity demands. Unlike ozone negotiations, time does not favor the South’s holdout strategy because the ravages of climate disruption will be felt more in the South than the North. This means the South may have to settle for considerably less equity compensation than justice would demand in an ideal world.

Craig Collins, Ph.D. Environmental policy instructor, CSU East Bay Author of the recently released book “Toxic Loopholes” (Cambridge University Press).