Yesterday, I attended a meeting on climate change, security, and human rights (mentioned before). One thing about it disturbed me: namely, that the entire perspective offered was a north-south narrative of industrialized states causing harm to vulnerable populations around the world. The discussion was largely about how that harm could be reduced, and whether any legal mechanism exist through which states could be called to account, for the damage they do to the prospects of vulnerable groups.
Sadly, this perspective is over-optimistic, given the world’s track record so far. While highly vulnerable groups and poor states may be hit first and hardest by climate change, the idea that they will be the only people profoundly affected is misleading and potentially dangerous. It feeds into the flawed notion that rich states can basically keep behaving as they have in the past, with the worst possible outcome being a lot of suffering for poor people elsewhere.
The reality is that business-as-usual emissions would probably produce a mean global temperature increase of 5.5Â°C to 7.1Â°C by 2100. That is a massive enough change to raise doubts about the future of even some rich societies. Could Australian agriculture cope with that much of an increase? Could cities in the southern United States continue to provide the minimum level of water required to sustain their populations? (US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu suggested perhaps not.)
My fear is that people who expect that only the poor and vulnerable will suffer from climate change will not be sufficiently motivated to deal with the problem. Such a belief strikes me as a serious misunderstanding of both the best scientific and political assessments. It would be hard to read the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC and not conclude that people in rich countries face acute vulnerability to unchecked climate change. Similarly, the basic message of economic analyses like those performed by Nicholas Stern is that the costs of inaction are very high, especially when compared with the real but comparatively modest price of dealing with the problem.