When talking about climate change, Sealey-Huggins (2017) observes that the common discourse reduces the issue to a technical problem that is going to be solved through science, engineering and economics. At the same time, a different dialogue applies in the context of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which portray climate change as “existential threat”, due to its adverse effects. This piece looks at climate change and inequality, addressing the question of who bears the costs of climate change. This is a discussion about fairness and moral responsibility in the face of one of our generation’s biggest issues.
Climate Change and Inequality
How do climate change and inequality connect? According to Roberts (2001) thinking about climate change means realising that is all about inequality, both in terms of who suffer most of its effects, and in who created the problem in the first place. The underlying premise of the debate on climate change and inequality is, as highlighted at the World Economic and Social Survey (2016) that the vulnerable are disproportionally affected by climate hazards. Within states, disadvantaged socio-economic groups are more exposed and susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change and have less capacity to cope and recover in the aftermath of natural hazards. The same doctrine applies at the state level, where the overall coping capacity of developing states is lower than that of developed nations.
In response, the UN has strengthened its advocacy on climate change, with the issue being of particular interest to the current UN Secretary-General. This efforts of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), an ad-hoc lobbying group formed of member states, have not gone unnoticed, as they have been vital for the negotiation of the Paris Agreement. AOSIS recognises that the capabilities to mitigate climate change and its adverse effects are vastly different from country to country and advocated for financial support to SIDS and strong commitment to slow down global warming. Meanwhile, developed states benefit from strong economies and infrastructure that can withstand shocks, which makes them able to cope better with the challenges of climate change. This points to a divide between those who can afford the costs of waiting and deny the impacts of climate change, such as the current US administration, and those for whom the clock is ticking and every second brings them closer to their demise.
Risks and costs
What are the risks and costs of climate change for SIDS? In a story after the tragedy of the commons, the degradation of the common good – climate and environment, represents a tragic story for those whose involvement in the erosion of the environment has been insignificant. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face climate change as “existential threat”. A study by Benjamin (2010)on Caribbean SIDS shows that climate change can cost the Caribbean economy alone at least $22 billion annually by 2050, with the sum doubling by 2100. This is the result of heightened risk to natural disasters and environmental erosion. Increasing resilience to tropical storms, droughts, and more frequent floods, as the planet temperature rises put pressure on the developing capabilities of SIDS. Moreover, an increase in sea levels may even make some of the SIDS islands uninhabitable. This is not only about material cost, but it also about the potential for the loss of human life, habitat and livelihood, which is bound to lead increase in climate-driven forced migration.
The Paris Agreement is considered by some as a historic agreement that would help slow down the rise in temperature. It was never an overly ambitious project, with only voluntary targets and commitments, giving states a lot of freedom to act within the premise of the agreement. But the deal has come to a halt, as the targets in CO2 emissions have failed to be achieved. The Paris Agreement is not an ambitious proposal to how to deal with climate change; it merely delays the inevitable. Its main goal is to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. SIDS face a heightened risk from natural disasters, and their limited capabilities make costs of climate change higher to these small nations. Under the agreement, Article 7 states that developed country parties shall give financial resources to aid developing country parties regarding mitigation and adaptation. According to the Brookings Institution, parties are worried by the lack of commitment from the USA, while the area of financial provisions is a matter of concern for both developing nations and SIDS. These rely on a well-functioning Green Climate Fund to boost their ability to cope with climate change.
However, recent news has shown that countries have been slow at taking action to meet the Paris Agreement. China and the UK are the best performers regarding decarbonising their economies, but more needs to be done if 1.5 degrees Celsius target is to be reached. Meanwhile, Australia hit a record high of emissions and aims to curb that impact with more investment in green technology. This is in a way expected, as the process of decarbonisation and transitioning to a greener economy is slow. Unfortunately, it is also true that those who bear the costs of the failure to tackle climate change will be those who had the least involvement in it.
Where do we go from here?
Moving forward means acknowledging that the discourse on climate change should address the issue of inequality and accountability. Inequality and climate change are interlinked, but what are we doing about it? Despite rhetoric of commitment and support to the Paris Agreement, actions speak louder than words, and so far, our actions have failed to reach a target that for SIDS meant survival. The platform of AOSIS has brought awareness of the issues faced by SIDS, and they are critical players in convincing the world that it needs to take action on both on financing the climate adaptability funds and on slowing down global warming. It is not all bleak, there have been changes towards the better and an increased awareness that the climate matters, the questions remains if our actions will be prompt.
Benjamin, L. (2010). Climate change and Caribbean small island states The state of play. The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 16, 78-91. Retrieved from http://researchjournal.cob.edu.bs
Roberts, T. (2001) Global Inequality and Climate Change, Society & Natural Resources, 14:6, 501-509,
Sealey-Huggins, L. (2017) ‘1.5°C to stay alive’: climate change, imperialism and justice for the Caribbean, Third World Quarterly, 38:11, 2444-2463
UN (2015) Paris Agreement