Spotlight Durban: Climate Change Gets Personal

It’s that time of year again.

This week marks the start of the 17th annual United Nations climate change conference, or Conference of Parties (COP). Held this year in Durban, South Africa, COP17 will bring together hundreds of official delegates along with thousands of demonstrators and other unofficial observers. It’s always possible that COP17 will reach an international agreement on a viable climate policy (17th time’s the charm!), but the complete lack of consensus seems likely to derail negotiations.

Climate change impacts each nation differently, and each nation would have very different costs from lowering emissions to safe levels. This diversity of impacts complicates climate policy negotiations and makes it very challenging for rich and poor nations to find common ground. But the broad range of climate impacts expected around the world has another critical effect on negotiations, one that receives very little media coverage or scholarly analysis: there is an enormous range of likely climate impacts not just between countries, but within them.

Each country has just one official voice at COP17, so in effect a country’s entire population speaks in unison. But within each country, some people are net losers from climate change (damages to them are greater than their savings from not reducing emissions) while some are net winners (their savings are greater than the damages they suffer). More people will become net losers from climate change with each passing year, but today many people are saving more than they lose. Whose interests will be represented in Durban?

Most analysis of the costs and benefits of climate change look at net impacts for the entire world or, at best, for each of several world regions. The Climate Impacts Equity Lens (CIEL) is a new tool for looking instead at impacts on an individual level, showcasing diversity in vulnerability to climate change and in the expected cost of lowering emissions. (To learn more about CIEL go to Using results from CIEL, there are already many net losers from climate change, but most people around the world are still net winners. The balance changes over the course of this century; before 2100, the majority will experience net losses, but by 2150 the net winners shrink to a very small, unusual minority.

Whether or not any one person is a winner or loser today depends on their vulnerability to climate change and on their costs of reducing emissions. Climate vulnerability is modeled in CIEL based on income, dependence on at-risk industries (like agriculture, fisheries and tourism), exposure to coastal flooding, and water scarcity. All too often, several of these key vulnerabilities to climate change coincide: it is the poor who are most likely get a large share of their income from farming or fishing, to live in coastal flood zones, or to lack a secure supply of fresh water.

Over time, if climate change continues unchecked, more and more people will become vulnerable to its impacts. But today, it seems unlikely that the people who are already suffering net losses from climate change – including many of the world’s poorest people – will be the ones sitting down to negotiate a climate treat at COP17. Instead, they must hope that their national representatives have their best interests at heart.

Economists who suggest that we should put off serious emissions reductions until later in this century are, in effect, taking the point of view of today’s net winners. We should all hope that the negotiators in Durban, instead, have at heart the best interests of both today’s and tomorrow’s net losers from climate change.

Emissions reduction may look expensive today, especially for those who are unlikely to experience significant climate damages in their lifetimes. But the poorest and most vulnerable today, as well as our children and grandchildren, will see it very differently.