Climate Emergency Hazard
A DISCUSSION OFClimate Emergency Politics Is Dangerous
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As Mike Hulme makes clear in “Climate Emergency Politics Is Dangerous” (Issues, Fall 2019), declaring a climate emergency shortcuts democratic policy-making for expedience. Society may thus adopt a singular focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions—at the expense of other pressing social concerns such as inequality, public health threats, and others that are sure to arise. These risks are serious, but they are worth facing because the climate problem is both pervasive and urgent.
First, the pervasiveness of the challenge makes it difficult to imagine the world retaining an exclusive focus on reducing emissions over the long term. Climate change is a truly global public goods problem, involving millions of decisions under deep uncertainty about future impacts and costs to address them, with diverse perspectives about risk tolerance and time preferences, all sustained over the course of multiple decades. It is difficult to imagine nine billion people—or even an undemocratic climate elite—decarbonizing the economy over decades without taking into account competing social priorities given that carbon-intensive activities affect all aspects of the economy.
Moreover, historical evidence suggests that issues such as public health scares, recessions, and military conflicts have a habit of foisting themselves on us. Surely emerging ones such as artificial intelligence would do the same. Political theories such as the issue-attention cycle indicate that a more likely path is that such crises divert our attention from long-term goals, rather than seeing us stoically suffering crises due to our obsession with emission reductions. The Cold War, the 1970s oil crises, and the War on Terror drew in tremendous resources, but they were never the only social objective; they also created spillover benefits.
Second, the primary motivation for declaring a climate emergency is not just the dire future consequences, which are indeed prone to exaggeration, but the languid pace at which the world has addressed the climate problem over the past 30 years. The decades-long lifetimes of both carbon-intensive infrastructure and atmospheric carbon are inertial forces that make decarbonization of the world economy urgent, as well as daunting.
A gradual approach that positions climate change as one of many social objectives is likely to see the next 30 years match the progress of the previous 30, resulting in proliferation of policies without stringent commitment, peaking of global emissions but not deep reductions, and improvements in low-carbon technology without widespread adoption. That would bring us to 2050 facing a set of unappealing, even if not existential, choices. How do we rapidly adapt to a disrupted climate? How do we manage the resettlement of millions of climate refugees? Who decides how much sunlight-blocking planetary cooling we deploy? None of these decisions seems particularly amenable to a democratic process, as they are likely to made from a reactive position while resolving a crisis.
Developing a broad consensus to commit to addressing climate change during what may be an nascent policy window entails risks—but they are likely more manageable than those we corner ourselves into via a gradual approach, even with the virtues of it being democratic. A climate emergency is a way to start getting serious.
Gregory F. Nemet
Professor, La Follette School of Public Affairs
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Mike Hulme is rightly concerned about what is being excluded from climate emergency politics. Poor and otherwise marginalized people do not necessarily have the luxury of singling out climate change as an emergency because they face a host of other, perhaps equally significant risks.
Hulme is also right to point out that some of these risks may be systemically exacerbated in the name of decarbonization. In the global finance sector, where climate change is being taken seriously by regulators (as evidenced in the fostering of voluntary measures to disclose climate change risk), decarbonization efforts are thus far unfolding without significant consideration of social risk. It is important to note that financial disclosure of climate change risk is not being fostered by the finance industry because of the climate emergency per se. Rather, climate system instability is seen to be creating a second-order, global-scale risk to the global financial system that may occur, for example, if the insurance sector is hit hard by multiple disasters or if fossil fuel companies collapse.
The financial sector is most fundamentally concerned about stability risk to the financial system, and is thus undertaking new measures to prevent financial instability associated with climate change. Decarbonization is only a part of this effort. Led by global financial industry regulators, the aim is to stabilize the climate-finance “meta-system” and prevent a global financial crisis arising from systemic effects of the bio-physical impacts of climate change and the transition to decarbonization. The solution being proposed is the circulation of better information about climate-related risk through markets, believed to enable better analyses of interactions between the climate and finance systems. This data collection and analysis is intended to provide the basis on which both stabilization and decarbonization of the global economy can be achieved.
Although this may appear to be good news for the “climate emergency,” for those concerned with equity, justice, human rights, and sustainable development, the changes to the global financial system warrant closer scrutiny. Enabling systemic decarbonization through financial markets may, if not implemented with careful social analyses and new social policy, also introduce new systemic risks for the world’s poor of being even further marginalized by the global financial market’s climate change “solutions.”
This can occur in multiple ways: through the individualizing of climate risk among the poor instead of providing more systemic redress through institutional reforms and access to justice alleviating poverty and vulnerability; through transfer of financial and climate risk to those without good access to risk information and adaptive capacity; and through the use of private, proprietary climate-finance models, which leads to lack of access to data and modelling outputs, and ultimately the privatization of financial decision-making on climate change risk. If decarbonization is achieved by systemic financialization of climate risk, itself a highly complex task, the poor may nevertheless be facing an unprecedented new form of systemic inequity.
What is needed, as Hulme suggests, is to expand attempts to decarbonize—to always include the ultimately more sustainable and just tasks of holistically addressing the range of social, economic, and environmental challenges facing the world’s poor and marginalized.
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO)