Why it’s wrong to preach “climate justice”

Two wrongs don't make a right -- carbon is not a prerequisite to development

The Copenhagen Accord is a month old, but its future -- and origin -- is still being furiously debated. The international political profile of climate change is now changing rapidly -- and growing in what will, I hope, be a more useful direction. Old alliances are breaking apart, and new ones are forming.

All of us must reconsider our beliefs as a result.

My decision to write about the heads of state meeting I attended in Copenhagen was not taken lightly; I was initially reluctant to speak publicly about what I had witnessed. The piece I eventually published in the Guardian (with a short version here in the New Statesman) got a lot of attention, but also exposed polarised opinions on who was to blame for the failure at Copenhagen.

What surprised me most was how many campaigners automatically rejected the conclusion, backed up by my direct participation in the negotiations, that it was the developing world -- primarily China and India -- that destroyed the putative "deal". In blogs and emails between groups such as the World Development Movement and their supporters, it was suggested that anything calling into question the roles of developing countries must be a plot by the rich former colonial powers, of which I must be an unwitting (or witting, if you believe the conspiracists) pawn.

Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity. NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least, while advocating limits to an increase in temperature (1.5°C) and carbon concentrations (to levels of 350 parts per million or less). Yet, for these goals to be realised, global emissions must peak now -- there is no room for expansion by anyone.

This would be a problem if carbon were a prerequisite for development. But it isn't. Large-scale alternatives, such as wind, hydro and nuclear, can generate all the energy at present delivered by burning coal. Electrification will gradually deliver carbon-free surface transport, while solar power can produce both heat and cooling (and more electricity) at reasonable costs in the tropics and subtropical regions. That is why the decision of the Maldives (whose delegation I joined in Copenhagen) to go carbon-neutral is so important in showing a better way ahead for developing nations.

Many NGOs, with the best of motivations, insist that the historic responsibility for causing climate change (which lies overwhelmingly with rich countries) should confer an equal right to pollute on those who are poor. But two wrongs don't make a right, and the fact is that the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a waste dump for carbon has already been overshot -- if we want to limit temperature increases to levels that would allow nations such as the Maldives to survive.

In my view, the historical responsibility question is an unassailable argument for adaptation financing. It is a clear legal principle that if you cause damage you must pay compensation. (Indeed, the $100bn in initial financing put on the table at Copenhagen was a de facto recognition of this principle.) But to use "climate justice" as an argument for increased future pollution by anyone is wrong. It is time that campaigners rightly concerned with equality recognised that there can be no trade-off between solving poverty and planetary survival.

This article appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman, available from all good newsagents.

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Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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Grandpa was ill and wasn’t keen on climbing the volcano – but we forced him up all the same

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

At first, Grandpa was sceptical about the volcano. “I used to be into that kind of thing,” he said, “but not now.” He did not mention that he was 88.

The guidebook to Indonesia – which he disdained – described how, once you got to the crater, the mist would rise to reveal a shimmering lake. His fellow travellers, my sister and I, often joked about our family’s tendency to declare everything to be “just like Scotland”. This was a living, breathing volcano. It would be nothing like Scotland.

But as Grandpa reminisced about his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, he began to warm to the idea. We set off at 7am and drove past villages with muddled terracotta roofs and rice paddies spread across the valleys like glimmering tables. We talked excitedly about our adventure. Then it began to rain. “Perhaps it will blow over,” I said to my sister, as the view from the windows turned into smears.

Our driver stopped at a car park. With remarkable efficiency, he opened the doors for us and drove away. The rain was like gunfire.

To get to the crater, we had to climb into an open-sided minibus where we sat shivering in our wet summer clothes. Grandpa coughed. It was a nasty cough, which seemed to be getting worse; we had been trying to persuade him to go to a pharmacy for days. Instead, we had persuaded him up a cold and wet mountain.

Five minutes passed, and the minibus didn’t budge. Then another bedraggled family squeezed in. I thought of all the would-be volcano tourists curled up in their hotels.

“Look,” I said to the attendant. “My grandfather is not well. Can we please start?”

He shook his head. “Not till all seats are full.” We exchanged a glance with the other family and paid for the empty seats. The driver set off immediately.

The minibus charged up a road through the jungle, bouncing from puddle to puddle. Grandpa pulled out his iPhone and took a selfie.

The summit was even colder, wetter, rainier and more unpleasant. We paid a small fortune to borrow an umbrella and splashed towards the lake. My sister stopped by a fence.

“Where is it?” I said.

“I think . . . this is it,” she replied.

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

I thought remorsefully of the guidebook, how I’d put my sightseeing greed before my grandfather’s health. Then I noticed the sign: “Danger! Do not approach the sulphur if you have breathing problems.”

Grandpa, still coughing, was holding the umbrella. He beckoned me to join him. I didn’t know it then, but when we made it back to the car, he would be the first to warm up and spend the journey back telling us stories of surviving the war.

But at that moment, in the dreich rain, he gave me some advice I won’t forget.

“If anyone tells you to go and see a volcano,” he said, “you can tell them to fuck off.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution