Who pays for climate change?

Wind turbines and the "COP apple". Photo capture and synthesis by Georgios Kostakos

The impact of climate change is visible in things big and small. But, how much do we know and what can we do about it?

Changes in climate, which have been manifesting themselves with growing intensity in recent years, are causing serious problems, especially in low-lying Pacific Island countries. Within the next decades, these countries are expected to lose a substantial part of their territory or even disappear, as they will be at the mercy of ocean waters rising due to melting glaciers and will suffer from devastating hurricanes and other natural disasters. Their people will lose their properties and national sovereignty not to a human enemy but rather to natural elements destabilised by human activity.

According to scientists, the emission of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” is largely responsible for the increase in the average global temperature by one degree Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, namely from the mid-19th century to this day. It is not only the Caribbean and Pacific islands that are at risk. Long periods of drought cause desertification and sudden downpours destroy crops and sweep away fertile soil making it impossible for people to survive in parts of Africa and the Middle East. This has led to an increase in “climate refugee” flows and to tension, even wars in many parts of the world. To a certain extent, it is considered that the wars in the Darfur region of Soudan and Syria were caused by droughts and forced displacement of populations.

The Mediterranean countries are considered particularly vulnerable to climate change and many forecasts concur on growing desertification, as is already the case in Spain. The forest fire season is extended and the cost, including loss of human lives, is becoming increasingly bigger as we recently witnessed in Attica, Greece and Portugal. Even Sweden sees an increase in forest fires, while floods and heat waves strike regularly Western Europe.

This has led to an increase in “climate refugee” flows and to tension, even wars in many parts of the world.

Response efforts

Efforts to address the impact of climate change are divided into two categories. On the one hand, the efforts tackling negative effects by halting expected natural disasters through flood defences and forest protection measures, crop substitution, information and education of the population in high-risk areas, etc. – this is what we call Adaptation. On the other hand, the efforts combatting the factors causing climate change or making it worse, such as burning fossil fuels used in energy production, transport, etc. – this is what we call Mitigation.

International agreements, like the famous Paris Agreement of December 2015 which was achieved after lengthy negotiations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), lay down a number of rules and ensure a level of transparency in an attempt for all countries to take their due share of responsibility and act decisively to combat climate change. To that end, China and the US, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, have advised on what they can do and when, on a voluntary basis but under certain international supervision. However, even this loose commitment was not to President Trump’s liking, so much so that he has initiated the procedure of taking the US out of the Paris Agreement. The excuses provided for this negative attitude vary from questioning the causes or the very existence of climate change to the safeguarding of jobs in the coal-mining or any other polluting industry at all costs.

The European Union takes the lead in international commitments to combat climate change setting high targets for greenhouse gas emission cuts in the coming years, aiming to an increase in renewable energy sources and significant detachment from fossil fuel by 2050. Of course, the theory is better than the practice, as several EU countries fall significantly short of collective goals and the debate on “the green economy” and “green jobs” does not lead to concrete results.

Who stands to gain from combatting climate change? 

Many “do-gooders” are quick to join the fight against climate change aiming at business benefits as well as political or other public recognition. It is neither the first nor the last time that this happens. Although their motives might often be self-serving, the fact that things are moving and there is increased creative innovation is vital and promising for the future. Energy production from renewable sources is thus steadily rising, with a country like Germany able to meet its energy needs from renewables under conditions of strong wind and sun. Due to the intermittent nature of renewable energy production, there are, certainly, some issues regarding the storage and distribution of the energy surplus during peak time so this can be used during periods that production is insufficient. However, technology is constantly improving and the prices of photovoltaics and wind turbines are falling.

The degree to which the average citizen benefits from such advances is another story. We witnessed – and are still witnessing – the reaction to the French government’s decision to impose an additional tax on motor fuels. Many people in the rural areas living on the verge of poverty saw this as a head-on attack and a push towards destitution. Even if we deem the intentions of the government sincere and aiming to discourage the use of CO2 emitting means of transport, at the end of the day, the irrational imposition of this measure upon “the just and the unjust” or rather the poor and the wealthy alike led to the uprising of the ones left marginalised and gave birth to the “yellow vests” movement, without ultimately benefiting the fight against climate change. The reaction to attempts to close down mines in Poland, Greece and other countries is evidence that the economic and social impact of measures  tackling climate change is rather complex, as it touches on matters of “climate justice” and controlled transition, which need to be taken seriously if this task is to be brought to fruition.

Is climate change an environmental issue?

Voting and debating may be key instruments of democratic governance but their results are binding only for people, not the planet.

From the above, it is clear that even if climate change manifests itself in the form of extreme natural phenomena, its causes can be traced back to socioeconomic factors and can only be addressed as such. A drastic change in the way the economy works is much needed, focusing on renewable energy sources and low “carbon footprint” products, namely those whose manufacturing requires low or zero greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, cutting down on the use of vehicles running on fossil fuels, phasing out plastics and a circular economy based on product reuse and recycling are key prerequisites.

In order for all this to happen, each and every one of us should change our lifestyle and assume our share of responsibility through our choices in products and means of transport or even our diet; we need to reduce the consumption of meat, which requires large amounts of energy and water in order to be produced and distributed, and prioritise food produced in close proximity and not sourced from the other side of the world, thus also helping local producers.

Are we ready for this? Unfortunately, climate change does not ask for our permission and does not answer to our orders, even if President Trump and other populist leaders choose to put the issue to a referendum and win. Voting and debating may be key instruments of democratic governance but their results are binding only for people, not the planet. This is where we need to find a fine balance between demands and practical needs and adapt, if not suddenly and absolutely then gradually and partially, our behaviour as citizens and consumers.

This does not necessarily need to result in a decline in our living standards but in a reassessment of our priorities. We are entitled to and must insist so that the relevant legal framework facilitate such adaptations and transitions, rewarding good practices and discouraging bad ones, compensating and/or training the ones that are most affected by the changes while at the same time guaranteeing that those less privileged will not suffer disproportionally or as much as the well-off.


This article was first published by the author in Greek, on his blog Kostakos.eu. It was translated into English by Maro Mantziara.

Georgios Kostakos

Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Brussels-based Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). He has been extensively involved in global governance, sustainability and climate-related activities with the United Nations and beyond. The starting point for the work of FOGGS is the need for a new “Grand Narrative” for a fair, human-centred and inclusive globalisation. One of its projects is the UN2100 Initiative for UN reform, while FOGGS also supports the Citizens Climate Pledge.

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