Climate Challenge Cannot Be Overcome in an Unjust World

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 22 Nov 2021

Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

Climate Change, Survival, and Justice in Relation to Agricultural and Food Security

16 Nov 2021 – This is a somewhat modified version of my remarks at the 3rd International Congress of Agricultural and Food Ethics, organized and held virtually in Turkey, on November 5-6, 2021. I was invited to give a keynote talk on the topic of “Climate Change in an Unjust World.” Such a theme explains the tensions and disappointing results of the UN COP-26 Summit at Glasgow that attempted to update and go beyond the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015, especially with respect to the phase-out of coal, ending of fossil fuel subsidies, and exhibiting a somewhat greater sensitivity to particularly vulnerable states and people.

Points of Departure

The UN COP-26 Climate Change Gathering in November 2021 Glasgow delivered mixed messages that basically disappointed a worried world public. More than previously most governments seemed more sensitive to the need to find agreed pathways to meet climate change challenges before global warming reaches the disastrous tipping points recently delimited by a consensus of climate experts.

Only the future will tell us whether Glasgow was a welcome new beginning or, in Greta Thunberg’s well-chosen rhetoric, “more blah, blah, blah.” International youth and world leaders articulated a single unified theme at Glasgow: climate exhortation had finally succeeded in raising public awareness about the dangers ahead if drastic action is not undertaken on an emergency basis, making now the time to turn words into bold action.

There is no doubt that civil society was deeply committed at Glasgow in its demand that that governments act in ways more congruent with their rhetoric of concern, which would include being responsive to the consensus among climate experts. But what of the leaders and representatives of sovereign states torn in contradictory directions by short-term domestic political calculations and pressures, and by a variety of special interests? What should be realistically expected from these global policymakers continues to evoke skeptical assessments until actual policies justify more affirmative evaluations. The obstacles to heeding the evidence are daunting even in the most affluent and technologically sophisticated societies where pre-modern magical thinking is given priority over scientific experts by an alarmingly large proportion of the citizenry. Such a divided societal consciousness about the nature of reliable knowledge also was exhibited by the anti-vaccine resistance to vaccines proven effective against the health menaces posed by the COVID-19 virus.

At best, it would not be easy to meet the challenges associated with climate change as it involves a willingness of political elites to go sharply against the grain of the heretofore defining characteristics of modernity: capitalism, statism, nationalism, militarism, materialism, short-termism, and individualism. Yet with nature taking revenge, the incentives could not be stronger to fashion unified and coherent individual/community/state/region/world effective ecologically grounded problem-solving mechanisms. It will ultimately turn out to be a matter of discovering whether the human species can learn to act as if it possesses, or can quickly evolve, a robust collective species will to survive. There is no doubt that there exists a strong survival will among human sub-species groups, as well as individuals, and thus overcome the severe threats to community and national wellbeing and survival. So far, there is not present convincing evidence of a sufficient species survival instinct. This is not encouraging. The overwhelmingly statist and corporate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are a further indication that to the extent that a species identity actually exists, it remains far too weak to support the sort of collective responses needed to implement human and global interests with respect to climate change. In contexts such as climate change where ideas, values, and interests clash the limits of collective action that calls for significant financial and behavioral commitments are co-terminus with the national interests of sovereign states as defined by the transnational political class. A further complexity arises in relation to disputes about the relative responsibility of states in generating the dangerous conditions, thus making contentious the apportionment of the burdens of adjustment among states.

Relevance of Ethical Considerations

In this process of coming to terms with climate change, it is increasingly appreciated that it will not be possible to achieve safe, effective, and sufficient control over harmful greenhouse gas emissions that give rise to global warming trends without taking into simultaneous equitable account of damage done to especially vulnerable peoples in the process of adaptation. The equity challenge is particularly difficult in the context of food and agriculture for the following principal reasons: (1) the degree to which traditional agriculture and all aspects of food security are being damaged by the climate change crisis and efforts to overcome it that are used to justify greater reliance on ‘smart agriculture.’ The overall effect of this reliance is to undermine the livelihood of individuals and groups who are most vulnerable as well as to burden the least developed countries with negative impacts of problems that they were not responsible for causing. (2) Looking ahead, it becomes apparent that conflict patterns and the generations of the majority of migrants will arise from global warming impacting on traditional agriculture and food security in ways will raise awareness of the unjustness of the world in many intersecting ways of interpreting current circumstances, including geoeconomical, ecological, social, and political. The ethical lines of demarcation when drawn inexactly almost coincide with the boundaries between the Global North and the Global South. It was these boundaries that from the 1960s until the present most clearly exposed the contentious abysses in international policy and practice relating to trade, investment, technology, and development policy, and have done so more recently with respect to climate change.

This amounts to an additional explanation of the victimization of societies and peoples concentrated in the Global South due to their vulnerability to climate change. The human costs are being most acutely experienced as a result of the destruction displacement of traditional agriculture and food security. These challenges to the vulnerable have been further aggravated, above all by ‘smart agriculture,’ and also by neoliberal globalization, gross inequalities, elite corruption, the paucity of resources, exploitative foreign investments, as well as the geographic vagaries of climate. In particular, such practices as large-scale land-grabbing by foreign companies in the North exhibit one aspect of this exploitative pattern. Such developments of industrial agriculture tend to destroy communities long dependent on traditional farming and agriculture while cutting the costs of food production. This is in itself is a widespread human tragedy in the wake of global warming often in societies with the least coping capabilities.

Ecological Imperialism

These more general conditions of deprivation, which characteristically exhibit the cumulative impacts of various forms of injustice, including the greening of Europe at the ecological expense of Africa. In effect, the dynamics of climate change, including adjustments made to lessen or postpone its impacts on the Global North—‘buying time’—have the effects of reproducing and accentuating the myriad injustices of the unjust hierarchies of the global system of international order. As the North relocates some of its most carbon-emitting activities in the South, the richer countries become decarbonated and greener, while the peoples of the South become subject to ever greater harms from global warming. These harms arise from many sources, including increases in polluting fuels, regulatory standards kept weak to attract foreign investment in post-colonial settings, and massive human displacements due to the effects of global warming, extreme weather events, and labor practices associated with  technologically oriented corporatized agriculture. The overall pattern is leading to new forms of North/South hegemony and injustice. If present trends continue it might become appropriate to describe this emergent situation ‘ecological imperialism.’

One dimension of injustices deriving from climate change is nothing more complicated than the fortuities of geography, and this outside the orbit of human responsibility. The impact of global warming yields data showing that 1% of the world population is currently has been made subject to barely livable climate conditions because of rising temperatures. It is strongly predicted that this figure will increase in the future as global temperatures rise even further. The geographic scope of marginal habitability is expected to reach an incredible 19% of the earth’s land surface by 2070.  Additionally disturbing from a humanistic perspective is that literally all of the most geographically disadvantaged countries are situated in the Global South, mainly in north/central Africa and large portions of northern South America and Central America. It is estimated that these extreme adverse conditions of livelihood will alone produce more than a billion climate migrants, which should be more properly regarded as climate asylum seekers. If current ethical insensitivity to these migrants persist, it will induce even more intense hostility to all immigrants, accentuating already rising tides of ethnic or chauvinistic nationalism, which work against reaching the sort of indispensable arrangements of global cooperation that will become vital if climate change is to be addressed in accordance with the holistic imperatives of the precautionary principle.

Threat Multipliers

Climate change in the world we know, often operates as what think tank strategists call ‘threat multipliers.’ For instance, Syria suffered from poverty, political discontent, and ethnic/religious tensions before 2011. The fact that climate change seemed responsible for drought in the North, undermining agriculture as a way of life for much of the population, resulting in internally displaced Syrians in the north moving south, compounding preexisting tensions in the country. This Syrian crisis was further aggravated by the coincidence of a Chinese food shortage at the time that led China to make large purchases on world markets driving food prices much higher, including in Syria.

These factors produced a tipping point in Syria turning the long simmering discontent into spasms of insurrectionary violence lasting more than a decade, and still not completely over. Undoubtedly the civil strife in Syria was further aggravated by regional tensions, as well as being encouraged by the uprisings taking place in several other Arab countries, a regional phenomenon widely known as ‘the Arab Spring.’ The resulting decade long civil strife in Syria caused somewhere between 494,000 and 606,000 estimated deaths, as well as giving rise to more than 6.7 million internally displaced persons and 5.1 refugees (3.8m in Turkey, 670k Germany). The outflow of Syrian migrants also increased populist extremism and anti-migrant nationalism throughout the Global North, especially in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia. As a result, further cruel hardships were experienced by persons fleeing the Syrian strife if in desperation they departed from the country. The events in and beyond Syria illuminate a variety of transnational victimization scenarios taking place on a global scale. The tragedies experienced by Syrians forced many to leave their homeland in search of livelihoods and even subsistence to support themselves and their families were reproduced in other conflict zones and human habitats afflicted by climate adversity. The fact that such migrants mostly encountered hostility wherever they went, generating impressions that such persons were viewed as disposable human beings who were unwanted almost everywhere. These reactions were indicative of the weakness of global solidarity, as well as revealing the ethically and empathy deficient societal postures toward human suffering in the world at large. At the same time it is important to acknowledge that large number of immigrants do not cause strains in societies already beset by a variety of insecurities. These are ethical dilemmas that reflect the limits of community in a politically fragmented world.

There are additional climate change worries that will bear negatively on the Global South, and in the process making the negotiation of global scale arrangements even more problematic. At one extreme are the oil and natural gas rich countries of the Gulf that are likely to face severe internal crises in coming decades if a fossil fuel phase out is seriously implemented in the Global North as seems increasingly likely. This energy core of climate change adaptation is almost certain to take no more than minimal account of the inequities for fossil dependent economies generated by the overriding preoccupation in the North with reducing carbon emissions as rapidly as possible. This dynamic will also entail its own more national adjustment calamities in the North, leading governments in the North to devote whatever ethical concerns they possess to minimizing internally sensitive impacts of such dislocations while ignoring more extensive exterritorial harms. We presently reference this disruptive phenomenon in controversies in the US and elsewhere about ending coal mining.

At the other extreme of adversely affected societies in the Global South are the least developed African societies battling extreme poverty, very dependent on developing natural resources and reducing poverty to stave off famine and reduce extreme poverty with the effect of virtual mindlessness when it comes to addressing the challenges of climate change.

Glimmers of Light amid the Darkness

Additional to the recognition of the seriousness of climate change in elite circles, is growing evidence of mainstream rethinking of national security priorities to incorporate ecological prudence. This rethinking seeks to overcome the iron grip on the formation of global policy long enjoyed by a political class that continues to subscribe to an increasingly obsolete paradigm of ‘political realism.’ Anatol Lieven, an author and researcher attached to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft has written an important analysis that points to the anachronistic influence of ‘residual elites’ that are woefully out of touch with the changing character of threats to national security. In Lieven’s words: “This is not a failure of the Biden administration alone. Rather, it stems from deeply embedded cultures, traditions, and interests within the U.S. establishment as a whole. America today is suffering from an acute case of “residual elites” — elites that came into being in one historical context and to meet one set of historical challenges, and are by nature unfit to deal with a new historical era and a new set of national tasks.” [Lieven, “Climate Change: The Greatest National Security Threat to the United States,” Quincy Brief No. 18, Oct 25, 2021; see also, Stewart M. Patrick’s insistence that a new paradigm for international relations is necessary if the climate change challenge is to be successfully managed. Patrick ”The International Order Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis,” Foreign Affairs, Nov-Dec 2021. Patrick is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs is the flagship journal of establishment thinking with regard to U.S. foreign policy.] These portents of shifts in mainstream understanding of how to approach climate change is far from being accepted by the political class in the U.S. that still overwhelmingly adheres to a militarized and statist versions of ‘political realism’ and remains much less concerned about the threats from climate change than from geopolitical rivals.

It may seem odd that in the U.S. the Pentagon now seems somewhat more enlightened about the security threats posed by climate change than does the foreign policy establishment. National security strategy has begun to elevate the dangers of climate change above those associated with the geopolitical rivalry with China. Those advising the political leaders cling to the belief that national security of major states continues to be mostly about geopolitical rivalry rather than ecological hazards.

COP-26 in Glasgow also exhibited increased recognition that failure by the Global North to provide substantial financial assistance to helping countries in the Global South to cope with the damage being caused by climate change and the failure to do so will work against achieving their global cooperation. In addition, without such financial help, local conflict and material shortages will intensify, generating streams of climate migrants desperate to escape from devastation and losses of livelihood due to rising sea levels, extreme weather events, industrial agriculture.

The tenor of presentations at Glasgow strongly affirmed that only a transnational ethos of human solidarity that is capable of devising win/win solutions could have any realistic prospect of  responding effectively to the magnitude and diversity of growing climate change challenges. It seems that an inter-governmental consensus supports the assessment of protesters on the streets that without a rapid transition to such a globally inclusive ethos, the world trend of retreating into nationalist enclaves of protectionism would continue, accentuating the dysfunctionality of  the political, economic, and psychological fragmentation of the world.

In the immediate future, the best adjustment that can be hoped for is more ecologically responsive behavior by sovereign states as their governments become aware of the deterioration of planetary life circumstances due to climate change. Such adjustments might be viewed pragmatically as midway between urgently necessary buying of time when operating within the existing architecture of world order and an ecologically/ethically/economically transformative meta-nationalist, globally unified world order. Thought and proposed policy shifts along these lines are being strongly recommended by the Quincy Institute under the rubric of ‘responsible statecraft.’ It is supremely important that the richer, more powerful countries lead the way. A breakthrough could be brought about by an acknowledgement of major strategic self-interests of countries in the Global North in treating climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts in the Global South as matters of their national security at least on a par with geopolitical competition. For this to work would require a consensus in the Global North to apportion equitable assessments for assisting countries in need, almost all in the Global South, while promoting responsible corruption-free and competent governance in the recipient countries. Putting such ideas into practice on a large scale, however difficult, would yield self-generating positive impacts consistent with seeking win/win problem-solving frameworks.

Toward Ecological Globalism

It seems evident as never before in human history that it has become a practical necessity to establish and implement win/win frameworks withing which to address climate change challenges. Climate change is the most formidable challenge that ever confronted modernity as initially evolved in the West during its five or so centuries of planetary dominance. Industrialization, capitalism and imperial geopolitics have allowed the Global North to climb the ladders of wealth and power by relentlessly pursuing win/lose logics at the primary expense of the Global South, embedding injustice in the structures and processes of world order.

If the American-led West could abandon its recent geopolitical maneuvers aimed at China, and instead appreciate and learn from Chinese mastery of win/win approaches to foreign policy and national development as exemplified by their Road and Belt Project. China’s remarkable ascent from a poor and weak nation to become a credible challenger for the position of global leader is a strong historical validation of their behavior in the course of the last half century. Of course, the challenges of development are not the same as those of climate change, and it remains to be seen whether China can innovate a comparable win/win strategy in global contexts of adapting ecologically, ethically, and economically to climate change.

As asserted above, only a transnational ethos of human solidarity based on the genuine search for win/win solutions at home and transnationally can respond effectively to the magnitude and diversity of growing climate change challenges. Only a transition to the ascendancy of a win/win ethos can alter the present world trends: a retreat into nationalist enclaves of protectionism that acts to accentuate the political and psychological fragmentation of the world, further encouraging win/lose strategies.

What needs to be done is increasingly known, but getting it done poses unprecedented challenges. It will require greatly narrowing present gaps between the gravity and proximate causes of harm and the feebleness of policy responses; upsurges of civil society activism and local initiatives, also bottom-up procedures for imposing responsibility, accountability, and enlightened self-interest on government; overcoming short-termism; empathy toward migrants, relying on climate friendly sources for nutritious food for all, overall stability, promotion of basic human rights. In short, a transition from present barbarisms to a yet unborn humanistic civilization protective of natural habitats, including that of non-human animals.

Will the leaders listen? Even if these do, can they transform structural sources of resistance while buying time through a systemic turn toward responsible statecraft? Will national publics use their bottom-up power to induce governments to choose the right path? Can the world’s awakening youth, exert enough pressure to make the political class in the Global North to downgrade militarized belief systems of political realism and the ecologically, ethically, and economic dogmas of neoliberal capitalism.

And beyond ambitious revisions in statecraft, can the energies of moral and political imagination lay the groundwork for a transition to a post-statist world order that is ecologically responsive, ethically empathetic with the poor and vulnerable, and economically enlightened in the use of the natural resources of the earth, including air, soil, and water, the fundaments of humane agriculture and universal food security. 

There are other worries that will bear negatively on the Global South. Even the oil and natural gas rich countries of the Gulf may face severe crises in coming decades if a fossil fuel phase out is seriously implemented in the Global North as seems increasingly likely. This energy core of climate change adaptation is almost certain to take no more than minimal account of the inequities for fossil dependent economies generated by the preoccupation in the North with reducing carbon emissions as rapidly as possible. This dynamic will entail its own more national adjustment calamities, and lead governments in the North to concentrate whatever ethical concerns they possessed on minimizing internally sensitive impacts of such dislocations while ignoring more extensive exterritorial harms. We notice this disruptive phenomenon in controversies in the US and elsewhere about ending coal mining.

Toward Ecological Globalism

It seems evident as never before in human history that it has become an urgent and practical necessity to find win/win solutions to climate change challenges. This will be the most formidable challenge ever faced by modernity. Industrialization, capitalism and geopolitics have allowed the Global North to climb the ladders of wealth and power by relentlessly pursuing win/lose logics. It is time to appreciate and learn from Chinese mastery of their win/win approach to foreign policy as exemplified by their Road and Belt Project and their ascent from a poor and weak nation to a challenger for the top position. Of course, the challenges of development are not the same as those of climate change but the reliance on soft power as a prime policy mechanism is highly relevant both ecologically and ethically.

Another mildly hopeful sign is the increased recognition that the costs arising from not offsetting the damage caused by climate change with substantial financial assistance will intensify local conflicts and tensions. It will contribute to material shortages, and if severe enough it will generate streams of climate migrants desperate to escape the devastation and harsh conditions due to rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and industrial agriculture. These challenges not only cause massive internal and international human displacement. They also tend to add to the disruption of beneficial interdependence between natural habitats and human wellbeing;

Only a transnational ethos of human solidarity based on the genuine search for win/win solutions at home and transnationally can respond effectively to the magnitude and diversity of growing climate change challenges. Only a transition to the ascendancy of a win/win ethos can alter the present world trends: a retreat into nationalist enclaves of protectionism that acts to accentuate the political and psychological fragmentation of the world, further encouraging win/lose strategies.

A midway position between the functionally necessary and the ethically desirable meta-nationalist perspective might be found in what is being called ‘responsible statecraft’ by the richer, more powerful countries—an acknowledgement of their rising national self-interest in maximizing climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts at their transnational sources. For responsible statecraft to become widely operative requires a sufficient consensus in the Global North to apportion assessments for assisting countries in need, mainly in the Global South, while encouraging responsible internal statecraft in the recipient countries, especially more equitable and non-corrupt patterns of governance.

What needs to be done is increasingly known, but getting it done poses unprecedented challenges. It will require greatly narrowing present gaps between the gravity and proximate causes of harm and the feebleness of policy responses; upsurges of civil society activism and local initiatives, also bottom-up procedures for imposing responsibility, accountability, and enlightened self-interest on government; overcoming short-termism; empathy toward migrants, relying on climate friendly sources for nutritious food for all, overall stability, promotion of basic human rights. In short, a transition from present barbarisms to a yet unborn humanistic civilization protective of natural habitats, including that of non-human animals.

Will the leaders listen? Even if these do, can they transform structural sources of resistance? Will national publics choose the right path? Can the world’s awakening youth, exert enough pressure to make the political class in the Global North to cut themselves off from the militarized belief systems of political realism and capitalism.

NOTE:

[†] Based on an online presentation at the 3rd International Congress on Agricultural and Food Ethics. November 6, 2021

__________________________________________

Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).

Go to Original – richardfalk.org


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