Mar 14, 2009

Beyond rhetoric…

The earlier we understand that climate change is more than just a shift in weather conditions, the better
By Zubair Faisal Abbasi
Popular and policy rhetoric around the challenges posed by climate change calls for concrete steps to implement adaptation strategies in the developing world. The realisation that ‘we did not inherit this Earth from our forefathers, but have borrowed it from our next generations’ has prompted both environmental activists and capitalist industrialists to go ‘green’, in order to save the planet and human beings from an untimely yet avoidable atrophy. However, the story does not end here; it is much more complex.
While images of droughts, hunger, cyclones, melting glaciers, forced migrations and human miseries are used to depict the challenges posed by climate change, the global distribution of resource endowments seldom comes to the fore with a solution. Therefore, if we look at climate change from the perspective of political economy and human development, an interesting scenario emerges. The divergence tendencies in global economic growth and development situations exemplify skewed distribution of already scarce resources for adaptation projects: rich countries have not met the promises they made under the Kyoto Protocol, thus poor countries have received only 10 percent of the committed money.
Another interesting aspect is also related to this inequitable distribution of resources. Under the Global Environment Facility of the United Nations, during the last three years, about $700 million have been doled out to China, India and Brazil, while only under $100 million have been given to 49 poorest countries of the world. In this vein, another comparison also carries weight. While rich countries are showing a declining trend of human casualties due to extreme weather conditions, poor countries are still vulnerable to climate change.
The political economy dimensions of climate change are alarming, mainly because of deteriorating environment, and warnings of rising economic costs by deep-ecology and capitalist discourses on climate change. Thus, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the empirical evidence of one degree Celsius rise in temperature, and its impact on the systems of economic productivity and governance. In fact, there is a need to go beyond interpreting climate change as just a shift in weather conditions. For example, the reversal of industrial fortunes since the 1980s, or decline in economic growth due to malaria and HIV/AIDS, has complicated climate change adaptation in poor countries.
In fact, the political economy of success or failure of global climate change management – sprouting out of the history of global growth divergence – can be more intense for the developing world than for the developed one. In a way, ‘climate change impacts’ re-narrate the story associated with underdevelopment, inequitable growth distribution and ill-conceived economic change strategies; they may involve mindless and arrogant uprooting of people, loss of livelihoods, destruction of stable social structures and increase in crime. Yet another dimension is a protracting and lingering ‘war on terror’ perching on poverty and deprivation of masses already affected by climate change.
For now-developed countries, climate change may mean developing carbon markets or ‘green industrialisation and smart infrastructure’ for growth stimulus (as in the United States), but for developing countries it points to a historical lack of adaptation capability and an emergent collapse of human development. For developing countries like Pakistan, climate change means increased visibility of the failure in modernising public infrastructure (transport, health, education, water management, etc); more stress on the state to diversify industrial and agricultural systems of production; and, most importantly, increased need for equitable distribution of natural resources (for example, water) among diverse range of economic and political agents.
Due to persistent economic divergence tendencies – meaning that fruits of global economic growth are being inequitably distributed among countries – and capability divergences – meaning gaps in technological and institutional capabilities – the political economy of climate change shows an interesting pattern. As common sense may also accept, it has been argued in recent researches that the political economy impacts of climate change will be different for developed and developing countries.
After having evaluated half a century of data, it is estimated that one degree Celsius increase in temperature will stifle global economic growth. There will be reduction in both agricultural and industrial value-added products. It can also be safely assumed that there will be decline in both the subsistence level production of agriculture and tradable surplus. For developing countries, the impact of climate change will not only be confined to habitats and livelihoods; foreign direct investment (FDI) to them will also decline due to factors like erosion of domestic growth capability.
The decline in agriculture, industry and investment will be devastating for democracies as well. The National Bureau of Economic Research in the US estimates that the incidences of social unrest due to climate change may result in increased frequency of ‘irregular regime changes’, including military coups. In short, climate change is much bigger a threat to be left only to environmental cheerleaders and moral turpitude of rich countries.
Climate change demands looking back at the basics of the political economy of development and underdevelopment, as well as of global distribution of resources and capabilities, and going beyond the rhetoric of ‘going green’. Climate change adaptation strategies and projects must create another wave of resilient and ‘smart’ public infrastructure development in developing countries.
This time, however, the state needs to be more active and be prepared to take the agenda of climate change adaptation at the micro-level. It needs to be more active than a macroeconomic incentive-based market-oriented economic change strategy allows; it needs to create state-society and state-individual synergies for climate change adaptation strategies. The governments and public interest organisations attending the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change (COP 15) in December 2009 must take note that climate change challenges can best be met with advances in equitable economic, human and ‘green’ infrastructural development processes.

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