Climate Change, Survival, and Justice

EDITORIAL, 15 Nov 2021

#719 | Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

Points of Departure

The recently concluded UN COP-26 Climate Change Gathering in Glasgow delivered mixed messages to a concerned world public. Governments seemed finally sensitive to the need to find a global pathway to meet climate change challenges before global warming reaches disastrous tipping points recently identified by a consensus of climate experts. Only the future will tell whether Glasgow was a welcome new beginning or, in Greta Thunberg’s well-chosen rhetoric, “more blah, blah, blah.” Whether from international youth or world leaders there was a single unified theme at Glasgow–the time of climate exhortation was over, the time for dramatic action was long overdue. There is no doubt that the Glasgow sense of civil society urgency was deadly serious, but what of the leaders and representatives of sovereign states. For the latter, skepticism lingers with good reason.

It will not be easy to meet the challenges poses by climate change as it involves going against the grain of capitalism, statism, nationalism, materialism, and individualism. Yet with nature taking revenge, the incentives could not be stronger for taking advantage of potential ways of connecting individual/community/state/region/world relations has never been greater. It is ultimately a matter of discovering whether the human species will 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 collectivities, as well as individuals, to survive, and overcome threats to community and national wellbeing and survival. So far, the evidence for the presence of a species survival instinct is not encouraging. The overwhelmingly statist responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are a further indication that if a species identity actually exists, it remains far too weak to support responses that implement human and global interests.

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 and sufficient control over harmful greenhouse gas emissions that give rise to global warming trends without taking simultaneous equitable account of damage done to vulnerable peoples in the process:

  1. The degree to which traditional agriculture and all aspects of food security are being undermined by the climate change crisis, the livelihood of many of those most vulnerable;
  2. Looking ahead it becomes apparent that conflict patterns and the source of the majority of migrants will arise from global warming impacting on traditional agriculture and food security in ways that call attention to the unjustness of the world on many levels, including geoeconomical, ecological, political.

The ethical lines of demarcation when crudely drawn inexactly duplicate the boundaries between the Global North and the Global South that from the 1960s on exposed contentious abysses with respect to trade, investment, and development policy.

This victimization of societies and peoples in the Global South due to their vulnerability to climate change is being most acutely experienced above relation to the destruction displacement of traditional agriculture and food security. These challenges to the vulnerable have been 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 vagaries of climate. In particular, such practices as large-scale land-grabbing by foreign companies in the North. Such developments of industrial agriculture destroys communities long dependent on traditional farming and agriculture cause 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 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—‘buying time’—have the effects of reproducing and accentuating the myriad injustices of the global system of international order. As the North relocates its most carbon-emitting activities in the South, the richer countries become greener, while the peoples of the South become subject to ever greater harms from global warming whether from increases in polluting fuels, weak regulatory standards to as to attract foreign investment post-colonialism, or massive human displacement. The overall pattern is giving rise to subtle forms of North/South hegemony. It is not an exaggeration to call this ‘ecological imperialism.’

A dimension of injustice can arise from the fortuities of geography. The impact of global warming points yields data showing that 1% of the world population is currently subject to barely livable climate conditions. This figure is expected to increase in the future as global temperatures rise. The spatial scope of marginal habitability is expected to reach an incredible 19% of the earth’s land surface by 2070.

Disturbing from a humanistic perspective is that literally all of the most geographically disadvantaged countries are situated in the Global South, mainly in 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, more properly regarded as climate asylum seekers.

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 those 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?


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).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Nov 2021.

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