Toward sustainable, equitable societies

By Sagar Dhara, December 7, 2015

Several times over the past decade I have visited the Maldives, a nation of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean, to help the Ministry of Environment and Energy monitor air pollution. But Maldivians, I have found, are less interested in discussing air pollution than in discussing their fate after the sea swallows their beautiful islands and makes roughly 400,000 people into permanent climate exiles. In 2009, to highlight the climate threats that the Maldives face, the country's president held a seafloor cabinet meeting. But few, it seems, are really paying attention to the nation's challenges.

Poor people from developing countries, who have done little to cause global warming, will constitute a majority of global climate refugees. Their average per capita historical emissions are only one-eighth as high as those of people in developed countries. Yet people such as these, with their low levels of development and often unfavorable geographical locations, will be most exposed to the harshest impacts of global warming—sea level rise, drought, extreme weather events, and rainfall variation.

Developed countries, meanwhile, have benefitted from 200 years of using energy-dense fossil fuels. The newly rich in less developed countries have begun to benefit too in recent years as their energy consumption has increased. So the historical emissions of developed countries are high (as noted, eight times as high on a per capita basis)—and the current emissions of the world's wealthy, regardless of nation, are likewise high.

To be sure, the emissions gap between developed and developing countries has narrowed. The developed world's average per capita emissions are now a little more than twice the corresponding level in developing countries. But the emissions gap between rich and poor individuals, regardless of nation, has increased. And rich countries and individuals can rely on their wealth to protect them from many effects of global warming.

As so often before in history, the rich are seeking to retain their privileges. Indeed, it is difficult to think of instances in history when the rich have relinquished privilege in order to help the poor. To the contrary, history provides numerous examples of the rich fighting hard to retain their privileges—for example, when the big cotton planters of the American South led secession efforts in order to preserve slavery.

Developed and developing countries are meeting now in Paris, staking claims to the carbon dioxide that the world can still emit without allowing average global temperature to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times—a level that scientists consider a red line. Developed countries, wishing to maintain their high per capita emissions, are claiming squatters’ rights over the remaining carbon budget.

In Round One, I proposed that the United States and Canada reduce their energy consumption by 90 percent—to save the Earth, and to save nations such as the Maldives from drowning. My roundtable colleagues Jennie C. Stephens and Elizabeth J. Wilson have characterized this proposal as laudable but unworkable. To Americans, the Maldives are a distant and unknown land, but that doesn't explain my colleagues' attitude. Rich Indians, who live next door to the Maldives, think similarly. The real explanation is that the rich are unwilling to forego their privileges.

My colleagues have correctly pointed out that the world must shift to renewable energy sources. And they have applauded a set of accompanying social, cultural, and political changes (though they have yet to explain precisely what these changes entail). But though renewables may retard global warming a bit, technology alone cannot adequately address climate change. Nor can renewable technologies make societies sustainable and equitable—not as long as the global economy is predicated on growth and on inequitable consumption of natural resources.

How much energy and how many natural resources can human beings draw from nature without destroying it? How can these resources be distributed equitably among all people? Facing these questions realistically might help human beings understand that they are a part of nature, not a thing apart from it—and might even help humanity achieve true sustainability and equity.


Topics: Climate Change


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