James Boyce: At the UN Climate Conference, Filipino delegates demanded mitigation from developed nations, but despite no concrete deal emerging, there are still ways for them to be compensated for loss and damages
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, causing widespread devastation, while the latest rounds of international climate negotiations were opening in Warsaw. The juxtaposition brought the issue of climate justice from the periphery of world attention onto center stage. The Philippines’ chief climate negotiator, Yeb Saño, announced that he would voluntarily fast for the duration of the conference to underscore the plight of his people in the face of ever more frequent climactic disasters. Here is Saño addressing the UN COP 19 climate conference.
YEB SAÑO, CLIMATE CHANGE COMMISSIONER, PHILIPPINES: I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm. I speak also for those who have been orphaned by the storm. I speak for those–the people now racing against time to save survivors and alleviate the suffering of the people affected.
We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life. Can we ever obtain the ultimate objective of the convention, which is to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system? By failing to meet the objectives of the convention, we may have ratified our own doom.
DESVARIEUX: Now joining us to discuss all this is James Boyce. James teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he directs the Environment Program at Political Economy Research Institute.
Thanks for joining us, James.
JAMES S. BOYCE, PROF. ECONOMICS, UMASS AMHERST: Thanks for having me, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, first, James, what’s the connection between the super typhoon and global climate change?
BOYCE: Well, as all of the news stories always repeat, one can’t draw a connection to say that any specific event was caused by climate change. But what we can do is we can look at the statistical probabilities associated with events and we can see how climate change affects them.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is by means of an analogy. Say we’ve been playing a game of Russian roulette. We’ve got six chambers in the gun. We put a bullet in one. And once a year, we hold it up to our heads and we pull the trigger. Say that’s the game we’ve been playing. And now we’re going to change the game. We’re going to change the climate, so speak. And instead of doing that once a year, we’re going to do it once a month. And instead of having only one bullet, we’re going to have three bullets in the six chambers. Now we start playing the game again. Well, you know that what’s going to happen when you do that is you’re going to see a lot higher incidence of people getting killed. Right? One can’t say for any given person who got killed that they wouldn’t have been killed in the old game and it’s the new game that killed them, but what one can say is that the frequency of deaths is going to change. The frequency of climate-related disasters is changing.
In the case of the super typhoon that struck the Philippines, this was not only a question of frequency, but also a question of intensity. And for that, another thing we know from the science is that as the climate changes, the damages that are done by events like typhoons not only go up, but they go up much faster then the wind speed of the typhoon itself in this case. It’s not the case that doubling the wind speed from 100 miles an hour to 200 miles an hour doubles the damage. Instead, the relationship is such that basically doubling the wind speed makes the damage go up by about 250 times. And the wind speeds in the super typhoon in the Philippines are estimated to have come close to 200 miles an hour.
So we’re talking about devastating events happening with increasing frequency around the world. And that’s a connection that I think is apparent to anybody who really looks closely at the problem.
DESVARIEUX: And Yeb Saño, the Philippines delegate, was making that connection as well at the conference, and he was pointing to the fact that climate change is–they’re demanding a compensation fund, really, for loss and damage as a part of any new international climate agreement. What would this mean exactly?
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BOYCE: Well, what came out of Warsaw was some rather vague language on this, saying that some sort of institutional arrangements will be created to handle loss and damage, but not specifying what those will be.
What they would undoubtedly be would be some sort of fund into which countries would pay according to the principles that have already been agreed upon by the United States and all the other signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which we ratified in 1992. And those principles include the statement that countries should address the problem based on “their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities.” What that means is–“differentiated responsibilities” means those countries that put most of the carbon into the air have most of the responsibility, and “respective capacities” means those countries that have relatively greater ability to afford addressing the problem should be called upon to do more. So for both reasons, both because of historic responsibilities for carbon emissions and because of ability to pay, what this means is that the richer countries of the world–and the U.S. is included in this–would be providing funds into some sort of insurance scheme, in effect, that would provide for loss and damage compensation as these climate-related events increase in frequency and in severity.
I think that would be a very good thing to do, and not only on ethical grounds, but I think the reality of having to be liable for the consequences of our actions as countries, as societies, could have a salutary effect in terms of improving our incentives to actually get our act together and do something about mitigating climate change, reducing our use of fossil fuels, which is the primary driver of this global phenomenon.
DESVARIEUX: But, James, apart from compensation for loss and damages, what else could the international community be doing? What is climate justice? How do you define it?
BOYCE: Well, I would say climate justice really has four components. One is that we ought to be acting now to actually try to reduce the threat of global warming rather than constantly procrastinating. Secondly, I think we ought to be recognizing that no matter how quickly we move, at this point there are going to be events like the super typhoon, there are going to be damages, and we need to invest in adaptation measures to try to protect people, and we need to have insurance for loss and damage that we fail to prevent.
And that should be available to everyone. The justice component is that we shouldn’t be allocating our adaptation investments and our insurance on the basis of people’s assets or income, insuring people that have the highest value of real estate, for example, impacted by coastal storms. We ought to be ensuring everyone, counting everyone’s life equally, as equally valuable, equally important. And that’s part of the justice applied to adaptation.
The third pillar is that in deciding how to go about reducing emissions, we ought to make sure that we achieve commensurate reductions in the places where communities overburdened by air pollution reside, because burning fossil fuels releases not only CO2 but a lot of other nasty copollutants that affect people’s health. One of the issues that the environmental justice movement here in the United States has been very clear about is the importance of making sure that whatever policy we have for reducing carbon emissions also try to maximize public health benefits by concentrating emissions reductions in the most vulnerable and impacted communities.
And the fourth and final pillar is that if and when we have a carbon policy that includes putting a price on emissions, that includes charging for burning fossil fuels rather than treating the limited carbon-absorptive capacity of the atmosphere as a free and unlimited resource, treating it as something that polluters have to pay for, that when that money is paid, it ought to be distributed back to the people on an equal basis to us all, on the principle that we all equally are co-owners of nature’s wealth, in this case of the limited ability of our planet to safely absorb carbon emissions.
DESVARIEUX: These pillars really sound reasonable. But the truth of the matter is is that we don’t have an agreement that is based on these pillars. What can countries do to move forward on climate justice in the absence of an agreement?
BOYCE: I think that’s a great question, Jessica, because much as we need an international agreement, if we keep waiting for that to happen before we do anything, we’re losing precious time and we’re increasing the loss of life today and in the future as a result of that procrastination. So I think it’s important to think about ways in which communities, states, nations can move forward without waiting for an international agreement, and indeed, by moving forward, can help to set the stage for what the international agreement might involve.
So I think there are things that we can do. There are things that are being done. One of the things that could be done, for example, here in the United States would be to think about passing climate legislation that would benefit the majority of Americans, would benefit working families, and would benefit them financially and in terms of public health, even apart from the climate benefits, so designing a policy that actually can be desirable from the standpoint of the majority of the people regardless of whether or not we have an international agreement on climate change and regardless of what other countries do.
I think it’s certainly possible to design such a policy. If, for example, we put limits on the use of fossil fuels, if we make sure that in implementing those limits we achieve public health benefits by reducing hazardous air pollution emissions, particularly in the places currently overburdened by pollution, and if, putting a price on carbon, we take that money and redistribute it to the people on an equal per person basis as dividends, we can achieve a giant step towards climate justice here in the United States and help to prefigure the kinds of arrangements that need to be embodied in an international accord.
These are not wild-eyed, fantastic ideas that have no salience in the political real world. Legislation that would have done this was introduced in December 2009 by Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins, Democrat and Republican respectively. So this was a bipartisan proposal. It’s a proposal that can attract support on both sides of the aisle, because the revenues from carbon pricing go back to the American people. They don’t become a tax on the public going into the hands of the government, nor do they become a source of windfall profits for corporations, as what happened under cap and trade. Instead, the permits get auctioned; the money gets recycled to the public.
And new legislation embodying that same principle is currently being written both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. And I’m very hopeful, actually, that in the coming years we will be able to move ahead with climate policy here at home even while waiting for the international agreement that we all know is also necessary. So I think it’s possible that climate justice could actually begin at home, and I really hope it will.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Professor James Boyce, thanks so much for being with us.
BOYCE: Thanks for having me, Jessica. It’s been a pleasure.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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