Climate Change and Human Rights: A More Central Role for Lower and Middle Income Countries in Climate Governance

By Clement Loo - 20 November 2015
Climate Change and Human Rights: A More Central Role for Lower and Middle Income

This column by Clement Loo is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The 2015 Paris Conference and the Task of Protecting People on a Warming Planet’, edited by Marcello Di Paola and Daanika Kamal. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in November 2015. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter using #GPclimatechange.

The global community must recognize that effectively responding to anthropogenic global warming will require lower and middle-income countries (LMICs) to play a more central and robust role in the design and implementation of strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation. This is for two reasons. LMICs will most likely experience the worst consequences of climate change: adaptations to climate change must therefore be designed with the context of LMICs in mind. Also, one of the currently most intractable challenges related to addressing climate is identifying how we can decrease global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions without undermining the ability of those living within LMICs to gain fair access to and opportunity for economic development. To overcome this hurdle requires a deep and comprehensive understanding of the values and priorities of those living within LMICs.

Currently, many of the most water insecure countries are LMICs within North Africa, Central America, and West and South Asia. It is also LMICs that are often the least able to cope with such insecurity, due to limited infrastructure and resources. Given the effects of climate change, the outlook for these countries, at least when it comes to water, is quite bleak. Projections by a wide range of scholars and organizations, including the IPCC, suggest that arid areas should expect to become even drier as temperatures rise.

While many LMICs will encounter greater water scarcity with the impending disruptions to the climate, others will experience the opposite problem due to sea level rise, flooding, and forced migration of populations living on islands and in coastal regions. Melting glaciers and the effect of thermal expansion are expected to increase sea level over the next 100 years. This will result in worsening floods for numerous small island or low lying coastal nations, including LMICs such as Maldives, Kiribati, and Bangladesh. Hence we can likely expect there to be displacement of a large number of the individuals living within those countries.

Higher temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns will also result in sizable decreases in crop yields and increases in food prices. LMICs will, again, feel the impacts of both most keenly. LMICs within the Global South, in addition to being the most water insecure, also tend to be the most food insecure.

LMICs often lag behind other countries with respect to farm productivity. Because of this, many food insecure LMICs are reliant on imported food to support their populations. With decreasing yields, these LMICs will become even more dependent upon imports to feed their citizens. This is particularly worrisome because in a number of LMICs - including Bangladesh, Ghana, Guatemala, Malawi, Pakistan, Tajikstan, and Vietnam - the cost of food already accounts for more than half of total household income. As such, the higher food prices associated with yield losses due to climate change will likely result in many households simply being unable to purchase sufficient food to maintain adequate nutrition. Thus, hunger rates in LMICs will likely increase sharply as temperatures rise.

With the adverse effects of climate change being most keenly felt in LMICs, climate adaptation will be an enterprise that is centered on such countries in at least two senses. First, adaptation will be centered on such countries geographically. With the adverse effects of climate change being concentrated within LMICs, adaptation efforts will also occur within LMICs. Second, because of the geographic concentration of adaptation efforts and interventions, strategies and solutions will need to be designed to serve the needs and be appropriate to the context of LMICs.

This is because climate adaptation has two conflicting objectives that require balancing. On one hand, adaptation is essentially aimed at change. It is aimed at re-conceiving, redesigning, and modifying how we do things to reduce our vulnerability to the threats associated with climate change. On the other hand, climate adaptation fundamentally involves preserving existing ways of life to the greatest extent possible, given the unavoidably reality of climate change. An adaptive regime would be a failure if it were to force us to change in ways that result in us sacrificing that which is the most important to us. Successful adaptation requires that we change, and perhaps change quite dramatically, but it requires that we change in ways that allow us to sustain the things most important to our flourishing. As such, successful adaptation to climate change requires the preservation of the elements of history, culture, tradition, and ways of living that allow us to maintain cultural identity and quality of life.

Because of the above, and because – as discussed earlier – adaptations to climate change will be centered on LMICs, those living within LMICs must be the ones that set the goals for adaptation. To understand which elements of ways of living must be protected and which are available for compromise, LMICs must be amongst the designers of adaptation strategies in order to advocate for, and ensure objectives which are concordant to the desires, preferences, priorities, interests, concerns, and needs of the individuals that the strategies are intended to serve.

Efforts to implement strategies for adaptation may also be more effective if they are guided by LMICs. For a potential solution to be effective, it must first be adopted. The approval of new practices or technologies is more likely to occur if potential adoptees trust that those new practices and technologies are intended to meet their interests. One common strategy for building such trust is to robustly involve members of the communities that the proposed interventions are intended to aid.

Yet, strengthening involvement of LMICs within climate governance not only promotes more effective adaptation, but may also be necessary for effective mitigation. LMICs must be allowed the same opportunities for economic development that Higher Income Countries (HICs) have enjoyed. However, many of the economic opportunities that are available to those living in HICs have been the result of access to, and use of, fossil fuels that are responsible for a large proportion of GHG emissions. Such being the case, there has been a general reluctance to require or even ask LMICs to actively pursue measures to cut emissions. Nonetheless, it might be that LMICs will be required to reduce their emissions if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

While HICs have been responsible for the largest share of GHGs for much of the industrial era, it is likely that LMICs will become so in the near future. China, India, and the Russian Federation are already amongst the top-5 countries for total emissions. Additionally, disputes regarding exemptions for LMICs have limited the involvement of some HICs (such as the United States) in climate efforts (for example: the Kyoto Protocol).

If LMICs begin to significantly cut their emissions, such cuts may have a substantive positive impact on global GHG mitigation efforts. The first steps to making those cuts would be to identify how such emissions reductions can be made without adversely affecting the opportunities for those living within LMICs, so they may continue to make gains in quality of life. This, in turn, requires that the priorities and wants of those living within LMICs be central considerations in the development of mitigation strategies. Moreover, robust involvement of LMICs within the development and implementation of mitigation strategies may act to reassure the citizens and governments of LMICs that efforts to reduce emissions will have a good-faith concern, at their core, for ensuring that economic and other development goals of LMICs are not undermined. If they are amongst the primary architects of interventions aimed at mitigation, LMICs can be confident that mitigation efforts serve their ends and are not developed with only the interests of HICs in mind.

For the reasons listed above, I argue that it may be time that LMICs also steer efforts to address and respond to climate change. Greater participation on the part of LMICs in guiding adaptation and mitigation efforts may promote more effective measures that contribute to bringing a larger share of countries into the fold of abatement efforts.

Clement Loo is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris. His research is focused on the role of social values and perspectives in guiding environmental research, assessment, and practice.

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