Whose Lives Matter? A Crisis of Solidarity at the Climate Talks in Paris

Activists stage a die-in at a climate justice demonstration. (Photo: David Ciplet)Activists stage a die-in at a climate justice demonstration. (Photo: David Ciplet)

The medical anthropologist Paul Farmer once wrote that “the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” For many in the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris this week, this idea is at the heart of disagreement on a pathway forward.

Those least responsible for causing climate change are suffering first and worst from its impacts.

Climate change is not primarily an institutional, technological or scientific problem; it is a crisis of solidarity between nations and peoples globally. It is the belief that major polluting countries and wealthy people have more of a right to fill the atmosphere with carbon. It is the idea that the flooding of Miami under rising seas represents more of a catastrophe than that of Dhaka. It is the lack of a shared historical memory that links the suffering of the economically marginal and climate vulnerable to the imperialist actions of wealthy countries and corporations. It is the fact that some lives, and largely those of people of color, women and Indigenous peoples around the world, are treated as mattering less.

As Dr. Saleemul Huq from the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh explained, “We know the science and we know that the lives of millions of people are already being jeopardized by climate change. Not taking adequate climate action violates the basic terms of what it means to be human.”

Here is the climate paradox: Those least responsible for causing climate change are suffering first and worst from its impacts, and will likely be most harmed by climate policies that constrain future economic development. A new report from Oxfam reveals that the richest 1 percent of the world’s population produces 175 times as much carbon dioxide per person as the bottom 10 percent. That’s a bathtub of emissions for those at the top and a Dixie cup for those at the bottom.

The United Nations climate change negotiations are where the bathtubs and the Dixie cups collide. This is the atmospheric divide that underlies interactions in Paris, as it has for nearly a quarter century of negotiations. It sits behind nearly every comma and bracket in the text and is the subtext of every exclusionary backroom meeting, snub and sentiment of distrust. It is this chasm in solidarity that the negotiations must bridge to reflect basic qualities of humanity.

First, we must bridge the temperature gap. Under the slogan “one point five to survive,” more than 100 states are demanding a maximum target for global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius and a clear pathway to achieve it. This means a total phase out of fossil fuel use worldwide by 2025 to 2030. Small island nations have reminded the rest of the world that entire countries will be swallowed by the sea above this threshold. As Enele Sopoaga, prime minister of the island nation Tuvalu, explained in his statements to the Conference of the Parties, “Like other nations in the Pacific, our survival depends on the decisions we take here in Paris. We stand on a cliff edge. Either we stand united and agree to combat climate change, or we all stumble and fall.”

Current pledged emissions reductions have us on track for a temperature rise far more extreme than even the weaker 2 degrees Celsius target favored by many wealthy countries.

Second, we must bridge the development gap. In Paris, all countries are expected to contribute to fighting climate change. While the wealthy countries are still responsible for the majority of historical emissions, most future growth in carbon dioxide pollution is projected in poorer countries. But nearly a billion people still live on less than $2 a day in countries of the global South and their emissions per person are orders of magnitude less than those in the wealthy countries.

Most global South nations will need large transfers of finance and clean-energy technology from the wealthy countries if they are to have any chance of transitioning to a low-carbon economy in the context of a destabilized climate and huge remaining fossil fuel reserves that must stay in the ground. India, with more than 10 times less emissions per person than the United States, has asked that it be provided $2.5 trillion in order to pursue a low-carbon development pathway through 2030, including major investment in solar energy. The 49 “least developed countries” have asked for close to a collective $1 trillion over an 11-year period to make this transition.

These sums of money will not be forthcoming in Paris, but the agreement should make explicit that commitments to reduce greenhouse gases in poorer countries will be contingent on commensurate finance and technology to enable a just transition to a low-carbon economy. It is the only way.

Third, we must bridge the adaptation gap. One single storm, Typhoon Haiyan, killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in 2013. Those in the “least developed countries” are five times more likely to die from climate-related disasters than the global average. The UN Environment Program estimates that climate change impacts in poorer countries will cost roughly $150 billion a year by 2025 or 2030, yet wealthy countries provide at least 10 times less than this in adaptation support.

This is a matter of priorities, not economics: Hundreds of billions of dollars each year subsidize fossil fuel industries globally – the main cause of climate change – and nearly $2 trillion are spent on the military.

In Paris, mechanisms must be established to dramatically and predictably scale up public funds for adaptation, particularly in terms of establishing a collective finance target beyond 2020, and to address the losses and damages experienced due to climate impacts like sea level rise, which are so severe that nations cannot adapt to them.

As delegates haggle over concentrations of molecules of carbon in the atmosphere this week, let’s not forget that this isn’t the only thing that is out of balance and unsustainable. The true test of success in Paris will be if some lives aren’t valued as mattering less than others.