Why does climate change matter?

Why does climate change matter?

Oct 22, 2016, 4:49:35 PM Tech and Science

“The history of thinking about sustainable development is closely linked to the history of environmental concern and peoples’ attitudes to nature. Both represent responses to changing scientific understanding, changing knowledge about the world and ideas about society. Where they differ, and more particularly where their histories differ, is in their geographical scope.” (Adams, 2001)

Having moved from the realms of environmental debate to the development arena, climate change was billed in the recent UK International Development White Paper as the ‘biggest threat facing the world’ (DFID 2006):

‘It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing the Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes’ (Ciceron and Nurse).

Despite our efforts to lesson the rate and extent of climate change, we are already bound to some change. This is due to existing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations locked into the system and it is clear from recent extreme weather events that climate change is already happening. ‘Developed’ countries are primarily responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions and those living in ‘developing’ countries are being impacted most severely; per capita emissions in ‘developed’ regions at 12 tons of CO2 per person per year, compared with 3 tons in developing regions and 0.8 tons in sub-Saharan Africa (UN, 2009). In recent years, following the failure of the Millennium Development Goals in certain aspects affected by climate change – such as those related to eliminating poverty and hunger and promoting environmental sustainability (UN, 2009) – a concentration on the environment in the form of ‘sustainable development’ has taken a lead role in the global political discourse. I want to concentrate on how ‘developing’ countries are impacted, the current construction of the debate and what needs to be further addressed.


Aside from the fact that the poorest countries are being affected the most, they are also least equipped to adapt to the effects of climate change – they tend to have more limited adaptive capacities and are more dependent on climate-sensitive resources such as local water and food supplies. Changes in the environment could mean: worsening of air quality, risk of flooding and landslides, distress migration from rural areas, reduced income from agriculture and tourism, disruption to livelihoods and city economies, damage to homes and businesses, disruption of hydro-electricity, water shortages, extended vector habitats and any other knock on effects from these things. These changes we have already seen happen around the world, in ‘developing’ countires, and in the future there has been predictions of significant impacts globally from rapid and extreme sea-level rise/temperature change. Africa and South Asia have been identified as two of the most vulnerable regions to both climate variability and future climate change. In Africa, projected temperature increases of 0.2–0.5°C per decade. In South Asia crop yields are projected to decrease by up to 30 per cent by the mid-twenty-first century. In Nicaragua the mean annual temperature has increased by 0.9°C since 1960. Indigenous peoples, in which many have had no contact with the global capital world, are also experiencing the downfalls to climate change. In the Western Arctic changing wind patterns are affecting ice flows, impacting greatly on the livelihoods of the Inuits living there.


So what is the current global world doing to combat the effects of climate change on the ‘developing’ world? At the moment, there is a range of perspectives scattered across the development scene:

  • Scientific approaches: “vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity”. (IPCC’s definition). These include both geoengineering approaches and nature-based approaches, which since the 1980’s has been working alongside development in the form of the World Conservation Strategy (WCS), however has not been getting very far due to the ‘relative weakness of conservation in national policy making’ (Adams, 2001).
  • Social approaches conceive of vulnerability as representing a general set of characteristics influencing the capacity to adapt and respond to shocks and stresses, the ability to cope with shocks is seen as depending on a wide range of factors in relation not only to the nature of shocks but also the characteristics of a population and assets people possess. These include holistic approaches, intersectional approaches and, the more favorable among policy-makers, adaptation or mitigation approaches. Intersectional approaches focus on the fact that groups, such as those living in the ‘developing’ world, tend to be underrepresented at all levels of decision making regarding climate issues: ‘The existence of climate-related injustices between different countries and areas is recognised by scholars and political actors, and is a focus in international climate negotiations. Yet, geographical and economic factors are not exhaustive for explaining climate injustice. The situation is complex with great inequality regarding the causes and effects of climate change largely due to unequal power relations, which also apply to human relations with other species' (Donovan and Adams 1995, Lykke 2009b, Mallory 2010, Gaard 2011)’ (Anna Kaijser & Annica Kronsell, 2014).


When we look at the history of colonialism and the current political landscape we can see that climate change challenges governments, however institutions provide guidelines for climate responses.

For example, Lahsen discusses how ‘a dominant discourse for science whereby participation in the production or adjudication of scientific facts ensures that the latter will be viewed or described as such by scientists and decision makers’. However he then provides a counter argument from a constructionist point of view that ‘if scientific interpretations are inextricably interwoven with politics and particularities of perspective, receiving an education abroad would shape subjectivities and political agendas’. He continues: ‘integrating this insight, constructionists literature on the effectiveness of international cooperation around the environment identifies capacity building as a process that transforms values, beliefs, expectations, and policy preferences’ (Lahsen, 2007).

Following on from Lahsen’s findings we can see how in a global world order where the ‘developing’ countries are ‘underrepresented’, and it is significant that the ‘developed’ countries are the cause of climate change which affects mostly ‘developing’ countries, climate change becomes the pinpoint of the changing global structure if we wish to change climate change completely. So, is climate change a separate issue to that of poverty or is it an additional shock that is in need of the same course of action?

“Since the territorial configurations of political space are made to appear as natural, certain political and economic solutions to the climate issue become legitimized” (Paterson & Stripple, 2007).


The Development & Adaptation continuum lays out the current concentrations within development in relation to climate change:

‘activities range from reducing vulnerability to a broader range of shocks and stresses…through activities to improve response capacity for both climate and non-climate development processes…the incorporation of climate information to manage current and future risks…and through to actions to confront the specific challenges of climate change’ (McGray et al. 2007).

So far there has been radical limits to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations; an international agreement achieved, particularly under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), regarding concerns for the ‘mitigation of climate change. There has also been a growing acknowledgement of the need to enable human and natural systems to adjust to actual or expected climate stimuli or their effects – a process known as ‘adaptation’ (McCarthy et al. 2001). The finance required for these approaches will cost billions of USD and ‘developing’ countries will need international financial support for this to take place. Under the mandate of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Adaptation Fund Board are the main providers of mitigation and adaptation finance.

A second approach to financing for mitigation makes use of private sector investment through the carbon market. The Kyoto Protocol provides for three market-based climate financing mechanisms, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation (JI) and emissions trading. These mechanisms place a price on the cost of carbon emissions motivating countries, businesses and individuals to reduce carbon emissions and invest in alternative renewable energy technology. However, the CDM allows developed countries to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries as an alternative to reducing emissions domestically. Carbon offsetting allows for continued reliance on carbon and perpetuates unsustainable lifestyles in developed countries. The most recent arrival on the climate financing landscape is the collective commitment set out in the Copenhagen Accord (2010). This is a commitment from developed countries to provide new and additional funding of US$10bn a year from 2010 to 2012, with the goal of jointly mobilizing $100bn by 2020 to help developing countries to avoid high-carbon pathways of development. Allocation of the funds from this Copenhagen Green Climate Fund is to be balanced between mitigation and adaptation and funding is to be provided by public and private, bilateral and multilateral sources.


Despite the efforts to help financially with the ‘green development’ of ‘developing’ countries, these efforts are still not tackling the inequalities underneath the causes of climate change, therefore are only prolonging the problem rather than eliminating it. Inter-sectional thinking works to unearth these inequalities, shifting the understanding of humans as a homogeneous to a heterogeneous group:

‘the argument is less of the more straightforward one that state elites and others interpret climate threats through nationalist lenses, but rather to explore the ways that such a territorial framing is productive of concrete policies pursued’ (Paterson & Stripple, 2007).

If we focus on historical, geopolitical and economic legacies we can unearth the causes of climate change and therefore begin changing the political background to tackle ‘the biggest threat’ at the moment. Friberg and Hettne (1985) attack both ‘blue’ and ‘red’ development strategies, and try to set out a ‘green alternative’ opposing the institutionalization of what they call the ‘modern complex’, embracing elements of romanticism, populism anarchism and utopian socialism to create an ‘ecological consciousness’ (Adams, 2001). WAHOO!!


It is clear now that climate change appears to be tangled up in a complex web of other risks within the ‘developing world’: risks such as that of livelihoods, food security, natural resource management and health. How can we reduce vulnerability and confront the key challenges to climate change? Taking in to account what I have stated previous to this it seems to me that a ‘pro-poor adaptation’ approach needs to be worked towards. This can be a tricky task due to the fact that social categories are not static components but relational, fluid and overlapping. Inter-sectional governmental agencies seem to be a key need to begin looking at how to stop climate change. Besides this, something that seems to be a current focus, is an adaptive capacity approach:

‘the nature of adaptive capacity is considered in terms of which capacities need to be strengthened and what works or does not in terms of the development of capacities for both governance and autonomous adaptation’ (Hedger, Greeley, and Leavy, 2009)


It seems to me quite an obvious answer to why climate change matters to ‘developing’ countries, perhaps most of all. It is because of the sheer amount of loss many countries are experiencing due to the effects of it. It is because of the downfalls it has upon the economies of the countries which cannot seem to join the ‘international governmental policy makers’ without these economies improving. With a concentration on an adaptive capacity approach alongside following inter-sectional approaches in expanding the international agencies to represent all countries/areas of the world, we may getting closer to ending ‘the biggest threat we face’. We need to take a social development lens to look at the social relationships that reflect and reproduce inequalities; to improve the ‘developing’ worlds sustainable livelihoods we need to incorporate their perspectives as well as diverging ecological and social perspectives.

The Earth is one but the world is not. What can we do to combat this? Please share. This is a fight for all of us.

‘We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others. Some consume the Earth's resources at a rate that would leave little for future generations. Others, many more in number, consume far too little and live with the prospect of hunger, squalor, disease, and early death.’ (Burton, 1987

Published by Maisie Daisy Dawes

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