How do specific gases in the atmosphere cause poverty and hunger? That is fundamentally the question that Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first president, was addressing in her 2013 TED Talk. The concept of climate change is often associated with familiar buzzwords such as “carbon emission,” “greenhouse gases,” “global warming,” “melting glaciers,” “permafrost,” and “rising sea levels,” yet unfortunately, it is also closely, albeit indirectly, related to words such as “human rights violation” and “injustice,” as the impacts that it brought has caused grave devastation to millions of people around the world.
Although opponents may argue that climate change is solely an environmental issue that may affect us in the distant future, I agree with Mrs. Robinson that climate change is actually a current threat to human rights, both directly and indirectly. Natural disasters aggravated by climate change has displaced millions of people from their homes, consequently depriving them of their rights to property, education, and leisure.
It has also indirectly affected the poor’s means of subsistence and food security, which may lead to further poverty and hunger. And last but certainly not least, climate change has taken the lives of many due to extreme weather conditions, thus violating their right to live. Critics may argue that this analysis is going down a slippery slope and that these impacts are too indirect to be associated with climate change, but multiple research data from organizations such as NASA and The United Nations have proven otherwise.
Even worse, as expressed by Mary Robinson, climate change is mainly caused by the consumption and activities of people in rich, developed countries, yet it has disproportionately victimized those who are less fortunate and therefore less financially able to adapt to the current status quo of global climate. Those who are most affected also ironically contributed the least to our rocketing carbon emission. In other words, it can be said that climate change does not affect everyone equally but instead societal inequalities has caused some to be more likely to suffer from the impacts of climate change than others, in spite of their low level of carbon emissions. Therefore, although Mrs. Robinson’s arguments include some palpable fallacies and oversimplifications, I fully support her views in that all nations, both developed and developing, must come together to implement both short-term solutions, such as emergency relief to disaster victims, and long-term solutions, such as a global carbon tax, in order to grant climate equity for all.
Despite Mary Robinson’s assertion that “climate change is the greatest threat to human rights in the twenty-first century,” the link between climate change and human rights may seem farfetched at first glance. However, further evaluations clearly indicate that the increased devastation that climate change brings does indeed endanger our basic human rights. Multiple researchers have supported the conclusion that climate change has aggravated the intensity of weather extremes and natural disasters. According to the “Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective” report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, at least 14 extreme weather events out of the 28 weather extremes examined on all seven continents in 2014 bore the fingerprints of human-induced climate change. NASA, in its article entitled “The Impact of Climate Change on Natural Disasters,” also claimed that an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will probably boost global temperatures over most land surfaces, which may lead to “an increased risk of drought and increased intensity of storms, including tropical cyclones with higher wind speeds, a wetter Asian monsoon, and, possibly, more intense mid-latitude storms.” These statistics have bolstered the notion that climate change does intensify the strength of natural disasters. Indeed, the observed increase in intensity and frequency of tropical storms in populated regions of east Asia has confirmed this prediction. Research by US scientists has found that since the late 1970s, typhoons attacking the East and Southeast Asia regions have become 12% to 15% more intense. Similarly, a report entitled “Global Climate Change Impacts in the US” published in 2009 by the Global Changes Research Program stated that Atlantic hurricanes have increased both in power and frequency, coinciding with warming oceans that provide energy to these storms. In the Eastern Pacific, there have been fewer but stronger hurricanes recently. Skeptics will definitely argue that correlation does not mean causation and that there may be multiple factors at play that causes the mentioned increase in intensity of natural disasters, but how far will their argument hold against the bombardment of reports and research findings that came to the same conclusion?
A dramatic aggravation of natural disasters at this scale will surely cause higher mortality rate and more severe damage to existing buildings and infrastructures. Surely, this is not to say that every natural disaster will definitely take lives, but the increase in intensity of natural disaster will irrefutably lower the probability of survival. The repercussions of natural disasters, which are often amplified by climate change, may deprive the victims’ from their rights to their own properties; to education, as many education facilities will most likely be damaged and victims must prioritize on basic sustenances such as food and shelter; to leisure, as the urgent situation they are in demands both time and energy; and last but not least, to life, as natural disasters more often than not cause mortality.
This can be seen clearly in Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest tropical typhoon on record that made landfall on the southeast coast of Philippines on November 8th, 2013 with winds of up to 195 mph. According to BBC Reports on November 12th, 2013, 10,000 people may have died, while the United Nations claimed that Typhoon Haiyan has displaced approximately 600,000 people and damaged or destroyed 41,000 homes. Although the Philippines is indeed particularly vulnerable to typhoons because of the vast expanse of warm water surrounding it, scientists have linked the increased intensity of the storm in part to global warming. As explained in an article on Typhoon Haiyan by The Guardian, storms receive their energy from the ocean and thus if the extra heat stored in the oceans is released into the atmosphere, then the severity of storms will inevitably increase. Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford, further confirmed this by saying that “the current consensus is that climate change is not making the risk of hurricanes any greater, but there are physical arguments and evidence that there is a risk of more intense hurricanes.” It can thus be inferred that an increase in intensity of hurricanes will surely increase the severity of the damage that the hurricanes will cause, destroying more infrastructures and taking even more lives.
The notion that climate change is actively displacing millions of people is also depicted in Mrs. Robinson’s anecdote on President Tong of the Republic of Kiribati, who has bought land in Fiji in case his people are displaced due to the rising sea level. I must agree with Mary Robinson in that the idea of a president buying a land from a foreign country because his nation’s own land may be drowned by the sea is indeed extremely outrageous. Those people will be climate refugees, in other words people who are displaced from their homes due to climate change. This is particularly distressing, as I personally believe that we are both too far ahead in our civilization and too early in our journey on Earth to once again be refugees of nature, all due to a human-induced mishap.
The displacement of people, as we shall see, is unfortunately not the only ramification that climate change brings. As exemplified by Mary Robinson’s anecdote on the Ugandan, who experienced a decrease in total harvest due to long alternating periods of drought and flash flooding, extreme weather caused by climate change can negatively impact food security and simultaneously people’s means of subsistence. In her speech, Mary Robinson stated that the sentence “Oh, but things are so much worse now, things are so much worse,” is often heard in African countries such as Uganda in response to the volatile and extreme climate. Although it is understood that she used this statement to emphasize how climate change has negatively affected their agriculture and thus their lives, this statement has weakened Mary Robinson’s argument, as it can be argued that the quoted statement is a fallacy. Examination of data published by The World Bank indicates that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Uganda has multiplied more than fourfold from 2000 to 2014 from $6.2 billion to $27 billion; this large of an increase surely would improve living conditions to a certain degree. Furthermore, one person’s statement surely cannot reflect the condition of entire nations. Thus, although I acquiesce that the aforementioned statistics may not reflect the condition of the people themselves, they have proven that the quotation used by Mrs. Robinson can be viewed as misleading.
In spite of this, I fully agree with the essence of her argument: climate change is indeed threatening people’s food security and means of subsistence. This phenomenon is unfortunately can be easily observed in Africa. According to the United Nations, one in every three African live without sufficient access to nutritious food, while crop yields in East Africa are the lowest on the planet. These pre-existing issues will surely be compounded and amplified by the increase in temperature and the volatility of seasonal rain due to climate change. In fact, according to a report published by international aid organization Oxfam in October 1st, 2015, drier climate conditions and a surge in extreme weather events has already taken a devastating toll in the Horn of Africa and other parts of the African continent. In Ethiopia, below-average rainfall is decimating crops and livestock, leaving 4.5 million people in need of food relief. To the south, in Zimbabwe, many people eat only one meal a day — typically maize flour and a vegetable — as drought decimates the country’s corn and wheat production and pushes up food prices. Malawi and northwest Mozambique, meanwhile, are facing food crises after extensive flooding earlier this year washed away food stockpiles and drowned fertile land. In light of these conditions, it can be said that climate change is indeed indirectly affecting people’s food security, especially those living in poor countries.
The suffering that the East Africans are experiencing is unfortunately not uncommon, especially in developing countries. In a fascinating study that measures the economic impact of climate change on agriculture in the farmlands in Tajikistan, scientists from ICARDA observe the changes in agriculture revenue in relation to the average temperature and precipitation for winter and summer seasons. They found that in Khatlon, one of Tajikistan’s regions, the increase in summer precipitation is the main reason for the huge drop in agricultural net revenue, which will decrease by more than 200% both in the medium and long-term. The study’s findings suggest that Tajikistan’s national agricultural revenue will suffer from a huge average negative impact (−80 to −157%) due to climate change. It can be interpreted that a decrease that large will most likely translates to the endangerment of the Tajikistan population’s means of subsistence. This is quite ironic, as according to the World Resource Institute, Tajikistan ranked 139 out of 188 countries in most greenhouse gas emission in 2010. It emitted a mere 10.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010, compared to China and the United States, which emits 9,679.30 and 6,668.79 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent respectively. The inconsistency between the extent of the impacts of climate change that Tajikistan is experiencing and its contribution to the global greenhouse is truly baffling.
Why should a country that does not enjoy the vast luxuries that contribute to climate change suffer the most from it? This brings us to Mary Robinson’s next concern, which is climate injustice. As Mary Robinson herself sympathetically puts it, “Those who suffer disproportionately don’t drive cars, don’t have electricity, don’t consume very significantly, and yet they are feeling more and more the impacts of the changes in the climate.” Although some may maintain that everyone, those in both developed and developing nations, can all experience the impact of climate change, it is apparent that the widening wealth gap has created a baffling reality in which those who are affluent enough can afford environmentally-detrimental luxuries without having to suffer from the worst consequences of climate change while those who are barely making ends meet are forced to endure worse predicaments due to the change in the climate as they do not have the financial means to comfortably adapt to the new weather pattern.
This situation applies to both nations, developed and developing, and individuals, wealthy and those living in poverty. According to a report published by the US Energy Information Administration, the top 20 carbon dioxide emitters from the consumption of energy in 2011 accounts for 80% of the total carbon dioxide emission from energy. China and the United States are responsible for 27% and 17% of the total emission respectively, while the rest of the world only accounts for 20% of the total emission. Thus, it can be inferred that China’s emission is higher than approximately 170 countries combined. Similarly, according to a recent study in Australia, wealthy, tertiary-educated citizens produced more than twice as many greenhouse gas emissions — around 58 tons per capita per year — than that of nation's low-income families, which on average produced 22 tons a year. Yet when the impacts of climate change truly strikes, those who emits the least will suffer the most: according to United Nations Environment Program, 1 billion of the poorest people on Earth will lose their livelihoods to desertification; Oxfam claimed that around 17 million Bangladeshis could find themselves without homes by 2030 due to flooding, cyclones and tornadoes; The Independent reported that more than 60 million more Africans will be exposed to Malaria if temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius; UK Department for International Development declared that the homes of 94 million people living in Asia could be flooded by the end of the century. These statistics have profoundly emphasized the true extent of the inequality and injustice that is currently occurring.
In order to alleviate climate injustice, Mary Robinson stressed the need for human solidarity and the total support of the international community. Both developed and developing countries must strive to be more environmentally friendly and to seek solutions that can save humanity from the horror of climate change. As she delineated, “Industrialized countries must cut their emissions, must become much more energy-efficient, and must move as quickly as possible to renewable energy.” Yet developing countries pose another issue, which is the need to grow without emissions. Mary Robinson acknowledged that no country in the world has actually grown without emission, thus it is indeed a hefty task to accomplish. However, by exemplifying our collective success as an international community in the launching of the International Space Station and our recovery from the Second World War, she repeatedly expressed her optimism that we are capable of coming together and fully cooperating to solve this existential threat.
Although some would argue that Mrs. Robinson’s words were only meant to motivate and raise awareness and were not meant to be regarded as policy plans, I view her constant call for total support of the international community as being too optimistic and too impractical. It is not that any cooperation between nations is improbable, but that a cooperation in the scale that Mary Robinson expects is almost unfeasible. In regards to her use of the International Space Station as an evidence of global cooperation, I am of the opinion that the analogy of the launching of the International Space Station to exemplify our capability to unite against climate change is deeply flawed. As Ed Ayres, a sustainability expert, wrote in his book God’s Last Offer, “the “if we can put a man on the moon” boosterism “glosses over the reality that building rockets and building livable communities are two fundamentally different endeavors: the former required uncanny narrow focus; the latter must engage a holistic view.” Furthermore, the mention of our recovery from the Second World War, in my opinion, does not reflect our endeavor against climate change, as instead of responding to a tangible global trauma, we must take precautionary measures to anticipate the coming changes. The fact that climate change is not completely visible and that it does not seem present makes solving it all the more challenging.
Another issue that obstructs our progress against climate change is that every country has its own urgent agendas and concerns, and thus an issue as global and long-term as climate change is very unlikely to be prioritized over urgent matters such as disaster relief, political instability, and lack of basic necessities. German politician and statement Gustav Stresemann perfectly described this situation when he stated, “Here we encounter two conflicting concepts with which we must come to grips in our time: the idea of national solidarity and the idea of international cooperation.” I completely agree with this statement, as governments are tending to its people who are in survival situations, such as those who are living in poverty or in hunger, thus are unable to prioritize climate change. Just like in the triage system, those who can be saved immediately will be treated first, while those who are suffering but can wait will have to wait. My point is not that this system is erroneous, as we do have the moral obligation to alleviate as much suffering in the world as possible, but there should be long-term solutions implemented alongside these short-term aids to anticipate the dramatic transformations that climate change foreboded.
Up to the end of her speech, Mary Robinson did not outline any concrete or feasible plan of action to alleviate either climate change or climate injustice. Although she quoted ambitious emission targets to cut emissions, such as how Costa Rica and Ethiopia committed to be carbon-neutral by 2021 and 2027 respectively, it can be argued that those are just goals — and I dare say promises, as there is neither a binding contract nor sanctions that will be imposed if they fail to meet their targets. This situation is ironically parallel to the predicament that Ireland, Mary Robinson’s home country, is facing in regards to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, which was drafted and discussed in 2015 before the Paris Agreement. According to an article by The Irish Times, although the move to introduce climate legislation is welcomed, skeptics question the strength and the capability of the aforementioned bill to deliver “the low-carbon future” it promises. The article stated that the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, as drafted, falls short of the required standard for “an effective climate law” in two important respects: it fails to put in place long-term nationally binding targets and the expert body it established – the Expert Advisory Council – is not truly independent. Furthermore, the inherently short-term EU-level target that is being discussed, which “treats 2030 as an endpoint rather than a staging post,” combined with the lack of binding target for 2050 at EU level, may result in more false promises. As written in the article, “audacity of hope” often gives way in reality to the “mendacity of nope.” This statement is unfortunately realistic, as the pervasive use of non-legislated promises does not guarantee real effort to achieve the aforementioned “goals” to reduce carbon emissions.
So what can actually be done to solve climate injustice? I would argue that the solution to this injustice is not equality, as it often is, but instead equity. As Rick Riordan, the best-selling author once wrote, “Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.” Extra assistance must indeed be given to those who truly needs help. As most developing nations and most people living in poverty requires more assistance in adapting to climate change, rich nations must take responsibility for their actions and help those who suffered from climate change, even if those who suffered are not their own people.
In the short term, nations must provide international aid to alleviate hunger, disaster relief, and other issues that need immediate assistance. However, this must also be accompanied by a long-term action plan to diminish climate injustice. One possible long-term solution is the implementation of a new international wealth distributing system that centers around emissions and carbon footprint, such as a global carbon tax. A carbon tax, in local, national, or global level, will force corporations to take into account negative environmental impacts that were once merely regarded as “externalities.” This in turn will hopefully encourage investment and demand for green technologies in order to increase energy efficiency, all the while allowing economic growth. In fact, the implementation of a modest carbon tax in British Columbia, Canada is already proven to lower the province’s fuel consumption while still allow British Columbia to maintain the same rate of economic growth as the rest of the country. According to The Economist, from 2008 to 2013, while the per-person consumption in the rest of Canada rose by 3%, the per-person consumption of fuels in British Columbia dropped by 16%. At the same time, the GDP per capita growth of British Columbia from 2008 to 2013, which is at 1.75%, is actually higher than the GDP per capita growth of rest of Canada, which increased only by 1.28%. Applied to a global scale, a carbon tax can significantly lower our cumulative carbon emission in the long run without significantly disrupting the market system, all the while redistributing capital to assist sectors or countries in need of investment for the building of greener infrastructures.
I concede that a long term solution such as a global carbon tax still requires an international cooperation, as Mary Robinson has claimed. However, I would argue that this type of cooperation, unlike that implied by Mrs. Robinson, does not require a constant pooling of capital to aid a certain country or to respond to a certain tragedy. Instead, together as the human race, we can finally take responsibility for our greenhouse emissions by building greener technologies and facilities to decrease our emissions and by upgrading the existing infrastructures in developing countries to help them to cope with the changing climate for the long run using the capital raised from the tax.
Examination of the aforementioned evidences will surely consolidate the fact that climate change is indeed threatening our basic human rights. The devastating repercussions from the aggravated natural disasters, more extreme weathers and mercurial weather patterns have truly endangered our rights to properties, to shelter, to food, to leisure, to education, and most importantly, to life. Although Mary Robinson’s use of quotation may be viewed as misleading and her references to the International Space Station and the Second World War has been proven to be fallacious, the idea that climate injustice is an important yet often overlooked type of injustice still stands, as multiple researches and statistics have shown that those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change contributed the least to the issue. Therefore, in order to decipher the enigma that is climate injustice, both short and long term solutions, which include international aid and a new global wealth distribution system, are required in order to ensure equity for all. Yet beyond all the proposed solutions, humanity still won’t stand a chance if nations cannot come to an agreement to defuse the ticking bomb that is climate change. Thus, we must set aside our selfish urges and consider our future generations before it is far too late. As Voltaire iconically wrote, “Men argue. Nature acts.”