Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

11 Oct, 2009

One man’s climate change is another man’s climate justice

Originally Published: 11 Oct 2009

Just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one man’s climate change is another man’s climate justice. This fundamental difference of perspective goes to the heart of both the environmental challenge as well many other facets of the emerging world order.

To the developed world, climate change and global warming is largely a technical — and universal — problem. To the developing world, it requires much deeper reflection – how did this problem arise? Who caused it? And who should pay to fix it?

Developing countries rightfully demand that developed countries, having become rich by burning low-cost oil in abundance over the last four decades, should both bear the brunt of cutting their greenhouse gas emissions and provide the money and technological support to help transit to a low-carbon economy.

Developed countries are in no hurry to do either, nor pay what they consider to be a disproportionate share of the adaptation and mitigation costs.

As the climate change talks dragged on Bangkok over the last fortnight, the devastation left by Tropical Storm Ketsana in the Philippines offered a stark reminder of the severe weather disruptions resulting from the accumulation of billions of tons of carbon in the atmosphere. That led developing countries to indulge in some extra table-thumping for developed countries to remember their “historical responsibilities”.

Personally, I remember these “historical responsibilities” well. When working in the Gulf in the 1970s, I recall the howls of outrage that greeted the slightest increase in the price of oil announced after the bi-annual meetings of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, even as the so-called Seven Sisters, the multinational oil giants of the time, were making a veritable fortune.

Today, the world faces the same transition that it did when shifting away from coal. After two years of climate talks, there is little progress to show. Frustrations amongst the developing countries are as high as the global warming levels as they deal with stalling tactics and conditionalities attached to the funding programmes.

At one press conference during last fortnight’s climate change talks in Bangkok, I asked Ambassador Lumumba D’Aping of Sudan, who was there in his capacity as chairman of the G77+ China group, if he felt “neocolonialism” would be an appropriate way to describe what was transpiring.

“I would not call it that,” he replied. For a second, it seemed as if he thought the term was too strong. But, after a pause, the diplomatic demeanour faded. “I would call it climate totalitarianism,” he bristled.

In astonishingly frank language for a negotiator, he said the talks (at that stage of the game) reflected the “will of the few to impose their absolute interests to advance their economic superiority, to maintain their profligate consumption lifestyles at the expense of the rest of humanity, and to do that by spinning it as if the rest of the world is responsible for damaging the environment. I think that’s what this is all about.”

Mr D’Aping is convinced that the developed countries are seeking to impose their economic and ecological systems across the world over the next 20-30 years.

“Why is it that they can come up with 1.1 trillion dollars (to bail out their failed banks and financial companies) during the financial crisis. Is the financial crisis systemically (bigger) than the climate crisis? Is that a much bigger risk to our survival? The answer is no.

“So I believe that we have to push developed countries to come up with the money. Delaying and dithering is simply causing more problems,” he said, inserting another reminder of the huge package western Europe coughed up to finance the economic transformation of the former communist countries of eastern Europe in the 1990s.

He said developed countries were now looking to buy time (so as to) “restructure the global competitive landscape and maintain their superiority.”

Later, in an interview, he said the same negotiating strategies were being used by developed countries in the World Trade Organisation talks as well as in relation to global geopolitical issues such as the “war on terror.”

“It’s all coordinated,” he said. “The EU anyway negotiates as a bloc, a single entity.”

This anger was reflected in well-articulated official positions. At the opening of the talks, the African group said, “We believe that 5 percent of the developed countries’ GDP is required for the stabilization of the climate. A considerable share of it must be allocated for Africa. Africa insists that the future agreement in Copenhagen must have a compliance mechanism for monitoring commitment of developed countries.

“Adaptation required is linked to the level of mitigation. The greater the greenhouse gas emission reductions, the lower the cost of adaptation. Developed country parties should take ambitious targets for mitigation in line with the polluter pays principle, their historical responsibility and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility.”

The Least Developed Countries, too, complained about the effort to “privatise” the entire transition process. Their statement said, “Today, we have before us hundreds of pages containing proposals for the marketing of the atmosphere, which would involve the granting of a right to developed countries to continue polluting, through the international trade of greenhouse gases, to the detriment of our right to development.

“Approaching the climate change issue as a purely economic one perverts the principle of the ‘polluter pays’, transforming it into ‘who pays, may pollute’. This not only does not help to solve the problem, but increases it by introducing the emissions trading of greenhouse gases as a new business opportunity and a source of enrichment for the major economies in the world, most of which are Annex 1 countries (the developed countries).

“We must remember that these markets on which we are being asked to place our trust for the provision of resources to address the problem of climate change have devastated the lives of millions. The financial crisis has cost the world, only in the last two years, more than 2 trillion dollars, and the developed countries have had to pay heftily to save their economies.”

If developing countries are to win this battle, they will need to read up on Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian revolutionary leader whose 140th birth anniversary was marked right in the middle of the Bangkok talks on Oct 2.

To the people of India, he was a freedom fighter. To the British, he may well have been something else. His agenda was not climate change, but regime change in India.

If he can triumph against formidable odds, there is no reason why the developing countries cannot.