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ICRLP Webinar Series: “The Global South in the Imagining of Climate Futures"

Published originally through the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy, American University. Written for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy. 13 April 2021.

Accounts of climate futures typically advance a Northern perspective. Individuals and communities in the Global South are too often portrayed solely as victims of a changing climate, rather than as active participants in the crafting of climate responses. In his new book, The Ministry for the Future, speculative fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson presents a picture of what the near future could look like, with the Global South on the frontlines not just of climate impacts but of climate action. A world is depicted in which an international subsidiary body, created out of the Paris Agreement, attempts to ride and direct this climate rollercoaster. The novel reviews potential impacts of climate change and how strife, economics, and human ingenuity and perseverance go hand in hand. Along with global governance, Robinson evaluates, among many other things, carbon drawdown techniques and the creation of a “carbon currency” as methods to make change.


On March 23rd, 2021 Robinson joined ICRLP in a recent webinar to discuss his book alongside Olufemi Taiwo, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and a Research Fellow with ICRLP, and Kate O’Neill, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley as the session’s moderator. Taiwo looks at issues of environmental justice using the tools and perspectives of political philosophy with a specific carbon removal twist. The discussion over the course of the webinar ranged from climate governance to shifting economic systems and why environmental justice considerations must be held paramount.


Common but differentiated responsibilities

The Ministry for the Future opens in a near-future India in the midst of a climate change-induced catastrophe. The event and its aftermath drive, in the novel, a set of actions building from and strengthening the Paris Agreement.


During the webinar, Robinson and Taiwo considered the prospects of the Paris Agreement as a global pact to address a warming planet. The idea of “common but differentiated responsibilities” has come out of the international climate response regime as a recognition that developed countries have polluted the most throughout history, therefore should bear more of the responsibility for addressing climate change, such as with increased funding. Taiwo’s work evaluates this from a political philosophy stance, reviewing what he described as “distributive mechanisms and issues of justice”. He suggested that it’s not just present-day carbon pollution that is at the heart of differentiated responsibilities and impacts. Both colonization and the Industrial Revolution have had inequitable effects on developing countries, physically from emissions but also societally. These today have transpired as divisions between the Global “North” and “South”.


With this comes recognition of “climate colonialism”, an acknowledgment that developed countries continue to pollute at the expense of developing countries. Moral dilemmas and difficult tradeoffs arise in the efforts to avert climate disasters, made particularly acute in Robinson’s novel when carbon removal and solar radiation management methods come into play. A theme in the conversation between Robinson and Taiwo was, who is to say what types of technology can or cannot be implemented by Global South populations when attempting to combat an issue they didn’t create? In Robinson’s book, this complex set of social and political choices is represented by India’s unilateral use of SRM technology. In real life this is, among other things, exemplified by the Green Climate Fund, which has had a $200 billion target to allocate for green development goals yet is currently operating around $10 billion. Though western countries are attempting to remedy their climate mistakes, they aren’t as forceful or consistent with their promises, and it is the South that will bear the brunt of these shortcomings.


Governance


Moderator O’Neill asked the speakers what kinds of geopolitical changes are needed to make a fairer system.


The speakers reviewed how updated policy and global governance could help address these issues, and discussed ways policy can be shaped from a scientifically backed rather than politicizing perspective. When it comes to carbon removal, the speakers suggested that the discussion should be regarding just usage of the technology. As Taiwo pointed out, even governance structures can be looked at as technologies. The conversation pivoted to forms of governance that emphasize local participation, with the discussion of “community control” through a “citizens assembly” where experts describe issues to the people and they can make an informed decision on how to address the problem, mitigating decisions made solely by a select few corporations and their executives and shareholders. Taiwo also described privatization as a governance structure, pointing out that a social budgetary decision-making system could instead be formed with “participatory budgeting” where the public decides more directly what programs funding goes towards.


Robinson offered a related but different view on the question of markets acting as governance. Recognition was made that the problem of climate change is already quickly unfolding before us, therefore market mechanisms, or a shift back towards Keynesian economics and emphasis on financial institutions, could do the job faster than a reconfiguring of the capitalist order. A “pairing” of issues could help with this, such as development with regenerative agriculture that could simultaneously have carbon removal aspects such as biochar or soil carbon sequestration.


This brought about a larger discussion between Robinson and Taiwo: how does one make a radical shift of economics in their current economy, and who chooses? Much of the North, currently operating from capitalist or hybrid systems, is continuing to abuse the environment through engrained market mechanisms. Not is but what radical change is needed to save us from this mass extinction event? How does one come about implementing a new economic system in one that, normatively speaking, is already functioning? How desperate does the system need to become in order for change to be made? At this point in the webinar, Robinson postulated whether westernization and modernization are all simply “capitalism”, and if modernization can occur without capitalism. Taiwo believes it can.


The future, semi-based on the response to COVID


These are big questions. Yet, Taiwo reminded us that humanity has already experienced any number of civilization-shaping social shifts. Colonialism affected lives and physical environments around the world. Oil companies have already reorganized the coastline of Louisiana to build refineries. Adverse impacts for a portion of humanity are nothing new. A similar point, noted the speakers, can be made about technological interventions in Earth systems. Humans have already engineered the climate through carbon emissions; carbon removal options might be thought of as a way of engineering out of what has actually been done for almost the past two hundred years. Taiwo and Robinson described how we are “aestheticizing” the climate issue rather than using the tools we currently have to handle it: we evaluate issues of justice that can arise, but with inaction, actually exacerbate those problems. Thus, a radical shift needs to be made, and it needs to be made in the next ten years.


When asked about the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how the quarantine has affected emissions, both Robinson and Taiwo seemed on the same page. Vaccine distribution globally has been fairly inequitable, and the consequences for the rest of the world will backfire on the United States. This is similar to the climate crisis response, and where western countries occupy positions of power in global markets and political systems, their less egalitarian response will adversely affect them. Until social battles are met and reckoned with, we won’t be able to address the issue from the right framework. It’s going to take an assessment of the social systems and values of the North and the South to see the tools we have to generate change in a climate-altered world, and for consideration of the kinds of collective futures we want, or need, to build.


Published originally on 13 April 2021.

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