Equity, vulnerability and social justice

Roger Kasperson and Jeanne Kasperson of the Stockholm Environment Institute summarize the conclusions of a recent survey of the major vulnerability issues related to climate change. They discuss the main equity and social justice issues that they perceive to be primary criteria and which must inform the climate change regime.

Professor Roger E Kasperson is Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm, Sweden. Jeanne X Kasperson is Visiting Scholar and Research Associate Professor at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

It is widely appreciated that in fashioning a socially acceptable and viable international regime for climate change, equity issues must play a prominent role. And vulnerability considerations underlie global equity issues in a fundamental way.

As we enter a new century, it is apparent that people have already altered the climates in which they live and will alter them even more dramatically in the coming decades. We know from the Third Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that over the past century average surface temperatures across the globe have increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius and we now have stronger evidence that human activities are responsible for most of this warming (Tiempo, Issue 38/39, June 2001).

These ongoing and future changes in climate will continue to alter nature’s life-support systems for human life in many parts of the globe. These changes will manifest, variously, through an ongoing rise in global average sea level, increases in precipitation over most mid- and high-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, increased intensity and frequency of droughts, floods and severe storms, and as yet unforeseen abrupt changes and extreme climatic events.

Meanwhile, decades will pass before the current human efforts to reduce ongoing climate change will register their effects. In short, time is at a premium.

Human societies show a wide variability in their sensitivity to environmental change and their abilities to anticipate, cope with, and adapt to such change. Many factors shape this variability, including wealth, technology, knowledge, infrastructure, institutional capabilities, preparedness, and access to resources. Human endowments in such assets vary widely in a world of mounting inequality.

Developing countries, and particularly the least developed countries, are clearly the most vulnerable regions to climate change. They will experience the greatest loss of life, the most negative effects on economy and development, and the largest diversion of resources from other pressing needs. Since such countries and regions are also under stress from the forces of globalization, including population growth, urbanization, resource depletion, contamination of environments, dependence on global markets, and growing poverty, climate change will interact in uncertain ways with other accumulating problems.

All peoples and regions have some level of vulnerability, and even the richer countries will not escape future damage and loss of life from climate change. Nevertheless, the vulnerable countries, regions, and places of the world will almost certainly bear most of the ongoing and future toll that will occur as a result of climate change.

It is easy to identify some of the most vulnerable human and ecological systems. One-third to one-half the world’s population already lacks adequate clean water, and climate change – due to increased temperature and droughts in many areas – will add to the severity of these issues. Many developing countries (especially in Africa) are likely to suffer declines in agricultural production and food security, particularly among small farmers and isolated rural populations. Increased flooding from sea-level rise will ravage low-lying coastal areas in many parts of the globe, in both rich and poor countries, leading to loss of life and infrastructure damages from more severe storms as well as loss of wetlands and mangroves. Small-island states, in particular, face the prospect of such devastating effects that it may prove necessary for some peoples to abandon their island homes and migrate to other locales.

Recognizing and understanding differential vulnerability is a key to understanding the meaning of climate change. And understanding both the nature and the stresses that climate change will exert upon ecological and human systems and the extent of their vulnerabilities to those stresses is essential. Yet, over the past decade, studies of climate change have largely focused on issues of science – how releases of greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere and interact with biogeophysical processes to alter attributes of climate. In-depth analysis of the impacts of climate change, and particularly the impacts on the most vulnerable people and places, is only beginning.

Vulnerability assessment is not only essential for a full analysis of climate-change impacts but is also vital for delineating equity and social justice issues that require attention in any successful international climate-change regime. Complementing emissions reduction with strategies aimed at reducing human vulnerabilities, enlarging coping resources and adaptive capacity, and strengthening resilience is of paramount importance.

We find that most deliberations about global equity are incomplete. We propose the following as key elements of climate-change problems that need to be addressed in developing equity or social justice principles upon which global policy may proceed:

  • taking into account past and current emissions, the industrialized countries are overwhelmingly responsible for the current legacy of greenhouse gas emissions;
  • annual greenhouse gas emissions of developing countries are growing rapidly and will equal those of developed countries around 2037;
  • per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are higher in industrialized countries than in developing countries and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future;
  • because of their greater vulnerability, the negative impacts of climate change will be disproportionately concentrated in developing countries and particularly in the poorer regions of such countries;
  • similarly, because of their sparser social and economic endowments and their pressing development needs, developing countries are far less able to reduce emissions or mitigate potential impacts without interfering with other development priorities; and,
  • developing countries are at a disadvantage in the processes to develop an international climate regime because of their more limited expertize and access to knowledge bases.

The Kyoto Protocol recognizes the general need for equity, and thus calls upon the industrialized nations to take the lead in reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and to assist developing countries to fulfil their obligations. But equity is only one element of a broader approach in which greenhouse gas emissions reduction is the overriding goal and economic efficiency the primary means of getting there. Various other objectives are involved, including other environment goals, technology transfer and trade liberalization. Moreover, the emphasis upon flexibility mechanisms, joint implementation, and the introduction of carbon sinks has enlarged significantly the potential for the rich countries to avoid the basic Protocol objective – reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This is a situation in which vulnerability-driven considerations have occupied a secondary place as efforts to implement the Protocol have proceeded. There are numerous approaches that have been developed by analysts as alternatives to the Kyoto approach. Whatever approach one accepts, an effective climate regime over the longer term needs to be rooted in social justice principles that command support from developed and developing countries alike.

Principles that would appear to be useful in fashioning such an ethical base are:

  • those who have created the existing environmental problem have the early and primary responsibility to reduce further emissions and to ameliorate harm that past emissions may cause for current and future generations, wherever they may live;
  • those with the greatest capability to reduce future emissions and to avert potential climate-related harm have the primary responsibility to undertake mitigative action and to assist those with fewer capabilities; and,
  • those who are most vulnerable to climate change and who will bear the greatest harm deserve special consideration and protective assistance by those who will be less affected.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, despite some significant inroads, progress is well short of the scale and effectiveness of what is needed. Most emphasis has been on emissions reductions and economically efficient ways of securing them. Thus, primary attention has been given to no-regrets interventions, co-benefit policies, and flexibility mechanisms.

But, as a risk-management strategy for combating global warming, emissions reductions are insufficient in themselves. The stressors and environmental perturbations are only one part of the risk problem. Differential vulnerability and strategies aimed at creating greater resilience are the other part. Such efforts at increased adaptation and resilience have received much less attention and shown fewer signs of progress. To achieve a comprehensive and equitable risk-management approach, one that works on all major components of the climate-change problem, major new efforts are in order.

What is the “stuff” of such a resilience strategy to complement current efforts at emissions reductions? A full treatment is beyond the scope of this article but some primary elements include the following.

Broad transition strategies. The essential task of ameliorating vulnerabilities to climate change is part of a broader global transition needed to a more sustainable world. Increasing coping resources and adaptive capacity for more vulnerable societies is an essential part of the needed transitions from ever greater vulnerability to increased sustainability. Thus, climate-change mitigation and impact reduction need to be integrated into broader socio-economic developmental programmes aimed at sustainable futures.

Attacking poverty and inequalities. Efforts aimed at poverty reduction are now underway in a broad set of aid and financial institutions. These initiatives need to be expanded and accelerated, with greater funding commitments from the richer nations, which need to keep centre stage the insight of the Brundtland Commission more than a decade ago, that “widespread poverty is not inevitable.”

Technology flow. As emphasized in nearly all analyses of climate change and at the Earth Summit in 1992, the transfer of needed technologies to developing countries is an essential part of the transition referred to above. Such broadened technology choices will undoubtedly expand the portfolio of options for these countries but may, on the other hand, require substantial related institutional and social development.

Institutions and governance. The development of civil society and the strengthening of local institutions are an essential part of global transition strategies. Effective means for reducing vulnerability must be built bottom-up, from the places in which vulnerability resides. The articulation of the importance of vulnerability can occur only in governance systems in which such views can be articulated and heard.

Knowledge gaps. Most of the access to knowledge concerning climate change resides in the richer nations. Much can be done to improve the participation of developing countries in the climate-change regime. Unlike the science of climate change, vulnerability is a matter of what happens in particular places to particular people in particular local cultures.

The building of the knowledge system needed to reduce vulnerability and to build resilience must proceed bottom-up. And the active participation of those whose well-beings and livelihoods are at stake is required. The generation of such vulnerability/resilience knowledge systems calls for new assessment procedures and techniques that in turn will be necessary ingredients for global strategies aimed at enhancing resilience and adaptive capacity.

Further information
Roger Kasperson, Stockholm Environment Institute, Box 2142, S-103 14 Stockholm. Sweden. Fax: +46-8-7230348. Email: roger.kasperson@sei.se. www.sei.se.
Jeanne Kasperson, Stockholm Environment Institute, Box 2142, S-103 14 Stockholm, Sweden. Fax: +46-8-7230348. Email: jeanne.kasperson@sei.se. Web: www.sei.se.

This article is extracted from the report “Climate Change, Vulnerability and Social Justice,” written by Roger E Kasperson and Jeanne X Kasperson and published in May 2001. The report was a contribution to the Risk and Vulnerability Programme at the Stockholm Environment Institute. A copy can be obtained by contacting the authors at the address given above.