Climate Change and Social Justice

QCEA believes in “the intrinsic equality of all people everywhere and a sustainable way of life for everyone that the one earth we share can support”. This belief has profound implications for how we understand climate change and, in particular, gives us reason to focus on the social justice aspect of the issue. There are lots of ways that you can get involved in trying to reverse the injustices within climate change, see our suggestions at the end of this post. The philosopher Stephen M. Gardiner eloquently explains the foundations of climate injustice as such:

“Climate change is a truly global phenomenon. Emissions of greenhouse gases from any geographical location on the Earth’s surface travel to the upper atmosphere and then play a role in affecting climate globally. Hence, the impact of any particular emission of greenhouse gases is not realised solely at its source, either individual or geographical; rather impacts are dispersed to other actors and regions of the Earth.”

This presents an obvious social justice concern, and it is most plain in the problem of small islands that will be affected by rising sea levels. Communities whose contribution to anthropomorphic climate change has been negligible may have to relocate as their homes are engulfed by the sea. Injustice is not limited to those on low-lying islands; it can be seen in the impact of climate change on the poorest in the world. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that “the impacts of climate change, and the vulnerability of poor communities to climate change, vary greatly, but generally, climate change is superimposed on existing vulnerabilities”. That is, those with the fewest resources to adapt to climate change – those already in poverty – are most vulnerable to impending change. This is further explained in a paper from the University of Sussex looking at the effects of climate change on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): “it has become apparent that poor people are already, and will continue to be, at the forefront of exposure to extreme weather events and the impacts of climate change”. They suggest that achievement of all of the eight core MDGs could be negatively affected in certain parts of the world. It is now clear that some of the poorest communities in the world will be adversely affected by the actions of the richest communities in the world. The historical (and current) emissions of the developed countries are a significant part of the causal chain which now presents less developed countries with damaging and harmful changes in climate. Countries in the midst of rapid development are also now contributing to the problem. From the possibility of increased prevalence of mosquito-borne diseases to natural disasters affecting food security, the likely scenarios for world’s poorest, whilst far from being well understood, are worrying.

I recently attended a climate change event run by the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think-tank here in Brussels. The ‘policy dialogue’ coincided with the launch of their report entitled “The climate is changing – is Europe ready? Building a common approach to adaptation”. The focus of the event was adaptation, explained in the EPC report as follows:

“While the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions grows ever more urgent, the reality is that even the best mitigation efforts will not stop heat waves, forest fires or floods, all of which already affect us today. Given the long time lag between mitigation measures and their effect on the climate, our efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions must be coupled with adapting to a warming world”.

Adaptation assumes the climate is changing and that, whilst we do need to lower our emissions (in order to prevent further change), we also need to prepare for the changes that are already taking place: surface temperatures are rising, artic sea ice is becoming increasingly smaller and sea levels are rising. This approach stands in contrast to mitigation, which includes efforts to reduce emissions now in order to halt impacts on climate in the future.Considering that it will be the world’s poorest who will likely suffer most from the effects of climate change, it was noticeable how little time was given to their concerns and their future in this event.

The event began with Jos Delbeke from the European Commission outlining the Commission’s approach to climate change adaptation. Firstly, he suggested that Europe must work to “improve its knowledge base”. Admitting that “we [Europe] don’t know much”, Dolbeke advocated investment in researching the differing regional and local impacts of climate change as well as engineering solutions to upcoming climate changes. Secondly, he suggested the European Union must learn to mainstream climate change provisions into its other policy areas:  water, energy and disaster policies must all include provisions for climate change. Thirdly, he spoke about how the private sector (including the healthcare, financial, agricultural, construction and information industries) could connect with EU climate change initiatives and noted the market opportunities for European businesses. Lastly, Delbeke suggested greater cooperation across Europe is needed. Cities, regions and states must work together, and the European Commission could help facilitate this. Whilst it would be naïve to expect the Commission to have the institutional capacity to address the social justice concerns of global climate change alone, the lack of focus on those likely to be most affected in the approach outlined by Delbeke was noticeable.

An interesting contribution came from the only scientist on the panel. Pier Vellinga is Professor in Climate Change at Wageningen University Research and VU University Amsterdam, and he had the audience enraptured with his presentation on climate change adaptation in the Netherlands. From creating parks and playgrounds that act as flood defences to developing  ‘floating ports’ to cope with rising sea levels, Pier Vellinga showed us some of the incredible developments in the field of climate change adaptation.

Concept Water Plaza in Rotterdam Credit: DE URBANISTEN

The space in the image above acts as both a playground and park as well as a huge basin to hold excess flood water. Credit: DE URBANISTEN

While The Netherlands is a wealthy country with centuries of water engineering experience, I wondered how these developments will help those in other low-lying but poor countries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses a conservative estimate of sea level rise in Bangladesh to predict that over 1 million people living in coastal areas will be directly affected by rising sea levels. There has been some European focus on this with the Commission contributing 8.9 million euros to work on disaster management in Bangladesh, but is this enough? The question of how much the European Union should contribute to these sorts of initiatives is a difficult one. Should Europe only look after itself?

An incredibly diverse range of people attend these sorts of events: the Confederation of British Industry, IKEA and the International Committee of the Red Cross were amongst those present at this discussion for example. It is remarkable to see just how many people and organisations are involved and engaged in the everyday politics of the European institutions. Perhaps a little worrying, however, was the absence of members of the public from such discussions; everyone at this event represented an interest of some kind. From corporate lobbyists to regional representations, as well as various non-governmental organisations (NGOs), there are lots of lobbies here in Brussels, but the voice of the individual European citizen is notably absent.

So here’s where you can make a difference! If European policy (both EU and member state) on climate change is to become more fair and just, the voice of the European public may well make a difference. I’ve listed a few suggestions for getting involved, and I would love it if you’d let us know how you get on:

1 – Contact your Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and ask what he or she is doing to highlight at the European level the injustice at the heart of climate change. Feel free to use some of what I’ve written above, or get in touch [cvenables at qcea dot org] if we could help you find more information. We’ve written a briefing paper on how to contact MEPs; it’s available here on our website.

2 – Get clued up on what the EU is doing with regard to climate change by looking at what QCEA and other organisations are saying on these issues. Try Friends of the Earth Europe or the Climate Action Network Europe. You can see what the European Commission itself is doing through its Directorate-General for Climate, which we heard a little about above. Join the QCEA Action Alert on sustainable energy security, or follow us (@QCEA) or other advocacy organizations on Twitter.

3 – Talk with your friends and family about the European Union and what happens here in Brussels. How much do they know? Could you explain to them a little about how it all works? The European Union itself has a resource aimed at introducing itself to the uninitiated. It can feel a little daunting at first but before long you’ll be an expert on Council, Commission and Parliament and be able to influence policies. I know it seems artificial, but QCEA’s experience is that MEPS, and local MPs, do listen to the people they represent. You are one, and you can help make the world more equitable in the future.

Belgium is holding local elections next weekend, and the local posters abound. One near Quaker House translates roughly as: ‘If you don’t take care of politics, politics will take care of you.’

Local Elections Poster in Brussels

About Chris Venables

Chris was a Programme Assistant at the Quaker Council for European Affairs from September 2012 to September 2013. He researched and wrote on the militarisation of the European Union.
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