The Selfish Case for Climate Justice

14 minute read

The year is 2040. Countries have blown past global targets to limit temperature rise, and the world is paying the price. The migrant flow north from Central America and the Caribbean has become a flood, but government cooperation on national security has waned. In the worst-hit nations, some leaders are considering the last-resort method of trying to lower temperatures on the ground by spraying sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere, a bit of geoengineering that no one heretofore has dared risk.

This is not the grim vision of science-fiction writers but rather drawn from the assessment laid out in a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last year. Government analysts warn of 15 climate-related threats to U.S. interests that originate abroad but have a medium or high likelihood of threatening the country by 2040; seven of those threats stem directly from countries in the Global South lacking the resources, capacity, and support to manage the realities of climate change. “When instability happens in a country, it doesn’t usually remain contained within that single country,” says Maria Langan-Riekhof, director of the Strategic Futures Group at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The U.S. intelligence community is in the business of gathering information and analyzing how it may shape the future, not offering policy recommendations. But it doesn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination to understand the interplay between these scenarios and government decisionmaking. Wealthy countries can embrace an agenda that helps the most vulnerable parts of the world address catastrophic flooding, deadly famines, and unchecked migration, and in doing so help prevent destabilizing ripple effects. Or wealthy countries can dismiss the concerns of their developing counterparts and hunker down to await the inevitable shock waves.

Read More: Photos of Pakistan’s Catastrophic Flooding

“If you’re not going to address climate change equitably, then you will have conflict,” says Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate minister. “Multilateral systems will start breaking down.”

Climate Change Olafur Eliasson Time Magazine cover
Artwork by Olafur Eliasson for TIME

For years, decades even, providing assistance to the Global South has been framed as a “climate justice” agenda. The justice framing was straightforward: wealthy countries have spent more than a century emitting carbon dioxide unchecked, and they owe it to the rest of the world to pay for the damage they have caused. Words like justice, equity, and responsibility sat at the center of the plea. This logic is understandable, and the moral case is compelling, often poignant, even.

But after some 30 years of the climate-justice argument delivering mixed results, a new framing is slowly gaining traction: an appeal to self-interest. European Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, who oversees climate policy in the E.U., says that the moral argument can lack persuasive power for some audiences—even if there’s “some truth in that argument.”

“‘You have had 200 years of fossil fuels, that’s what’s created the problem’ … I could take that argument to my constituents, but I don’t think it would convince them,” he says. “What does convince them is that if we don’t increase our efforts in this area, there will be even more disruption; there will be more migration; there will be less opportunity for investment and economic development.”

The challenge now is to make that understanding sink in—not just among the politicians and policy-makers who consult with experts, but among the citizens who put them in power. The annual U.N. climate conference—known this year as COP27, and to be held this November in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt—offers an opportunity to embrace the reality that when it comes to climate, helping poorer countries helps everybody.

“At the moment, there’s a lot of discussion about the moral objective that anyone can forget once the meeting is closed,” says Laurence Tubiana, the president of the European Climate Foundation and a key framer of the Paris Agreement. “This could really be a problem of macroeconomic and global stability; the discussion should move in that direction.”

For the past three decades, the moral case for aggressive climate action has been front and center in international climate talks—and with good reason. A century of industrial development and high-carbon living in the Global North has directly caused problems of cataclysmic proportions in the Global South. In any typical conception of fairness, the parties most responsible for causing the problem should be responsible for cleaning it up.

Developed countries, most prominently the U.S. and European nations, are responsible for 79% of historic emissions despite being home to just a fraction of the global population. And yet the effects of climate change are—at least for now—being felt disproportionately in places that did little to cause the problem. Flooding now regularly puts 25% of Bangladesh underwater. Countries on the African continent have emitted less than 3% of global emissions but are experiencing the brunt of the impacts in the form of drought, flooding, and coastal degradation. Drought-driven famine in East Africa is killing a person every 36 seconds. The continent already loses up to 15% of its annual GDP per capita because of climate effects; that figure could double in the coming decades.

Many prominent climate advocates have highlighted this sheer and in some ways outrageous injustice, from leaders of small island nations to Greta Thunberg to Pope Francis. And international climate agreements have reflected climate justice over and over again, emphasizing the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” a wonky way of saying that wealthy countries owe it to the rest of the world to move aggressively.

But they haven’t followed through. The policies countries have enacted to cut emissions would limit global warming to around 2.7°C, according to Climate Action Tracker. That’s far greater than the “well below 2°C” that countries agreed to in the Paris Agreement. At the current expected level, we will likely see the inundation of small island states and tens of millions of climate migrants in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Developed countries have also failed to live up to their commitment to help their poorer counterparts adapt. The year 2020 passed without countries in the Global North meeting their longtime promise to provide $100 billion in climate finance annually beginning that year, half of which was supposed to finance adaptation. About $80 billion flowed from north to south in 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Some assessments suggest that countries in the Global North will make up for that deficit in the coming years, but that number is now outdated. Trillions will be needed because of the effects we’ve now baked in with decades of inaction.

These failures have put finance for what’s known as loss and damage—essentially funds to address the unavoidable harm from climate change—at the center of international discussions. The climate costs to physical infrastructure, industry, and economic output will be enormous, potentially adding up to $1 trillion annually by 2040, according to a 2019 study. The risk of having to pay up is precisely what has historically kept the U.S. and European countries from a full-throated embrace of policies to address loss and damage.

But there are risks in sidestepping the issue too. It’s impossible to know exactly how the effects of climate change will unfold and how these damages will ripple across the globe, but the vast body of research, government analysis, and academic literature on future scenarios suggests some common expectations. Chief among them is migration. Already, drought has uprooted communities in Central America, driving migrants to cities and, eventually, to the U.S. Meanwhile, drought in Syria has contributed to the struggles driving over a million migrants from the war-torn country to Europe. These movements of people have, respectively, stoked political upheaval in the U.S. and helped topple governments in Europe. And it’s just a taste of the expected hundreds of millions of migrants expected in the coming decades.

There’s also the economic damage that may begin in the Global South but is likely to spill over. A 2018 study from Cambridge University, for example, found that extreme weather events may begin in one country but create economic waves elsewhere, affecting everything from household income to bond yields thousands of miles away. Global supply chains will struggle to rearrange themselves in a constantly evolving constellation of climate risks—harming consumers and businesses in the north.

Heavy floods hit Pakistan
Flood victims relocate in Pakistan’s Sehwan Sindh province in September 2022.Jan Ali Laghari—Anadolu Agency/Getty

All of these challenges, and many more, create a threat to the geopolitical order that the U.S. has seeded, fostered, and administered for most of the past century. The U.S. and Europe will have less credibility as countries grapple with the damage caused by a century of unchecked emissions. Countries crippled by internal conflict may see governance break down, allowing extremist factions to rise in the vacuum and creating space for terrorist cells. As the climate situation gets more extreme, some may experiment with untested technologies to try to shape weather patterns in their favor. A few billion dollars, for example, can buy a country the technology to spray sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to reduce temperatures in a target region. That may be cheap in the scheme of a country’s budget, but these technologies, known broadly as geoengineering, have unknown implications for the global climate.

It may be too late to avoid some of these consequences, but there’s still an opportunity to reduce their impact. Funding adaptation measures—think of education for rural farmers or upgraded municipal infrastructure—will help reduce the impact of a disaster and the chance that its effects will ripple across the globe. When disaster does hit, paying to help communities rebuild will help limit spillover and keep the global economy humming. The most important thing may simply be engaging earnestly to build confidence that the Global North can still be trusted and that all countries can work together—on climate and other issues.

If the coming U.N. climate conference can foster a renewed sense of mutual faith, it will have succeeded, by many accounts. “One of the main objectives that we are aiming for is to regain the trust between the parties,” says Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian Foreign Minister who is also leading COP27, “to provide the confidence that we are all in this together and that no one is going to be left behind.”

For anyone with a sense of humanity, it can be downright depressing that it takes hearing about the threats to their own self-interest to make leaders in wealthy countries pay up to save lives in the Global South. And some may recoil at the focus on secondary effects in the Global North rather than the immediate effects on the ground. And yet there’s a simple logic to it: it works.

Dallas Conyers, international liaison at the U.S. branch of the activist group Climate Action Network, says that officials in the Global North need to be spoken to in terms that they care about. “Because of the history of our government, there’s very specific language that we have to use,” she says. “We need to start talking to them about money.”

None of this is going to be easy. Last year, I spoke with John Kerry, the former U.S. Secretary of State and current climate envoy, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City. Climate watchers were waiting in anticipation to see whether President Joe Biden would commit the U.S. government to upping its financial commitment to aid developing countries’ climate efforts.

Kerry described such a commitment as “the ticket of admission” for the U.S. to remain credible, and said he was “optimistic” it would come through. But he also said it was politically challenging for the Administration as it sought to pass infrastructure legislation and manage other concerns in Washington. “It’s just that it comes at a tricky time,” he told me. “The bandwidth can only take so much.”

The next day, Biden committed the U.S. to contributing more than $11 billion annually to climate initiatives for developing countries; climate advocates from the Global South dismissed it as the bare minimum. A few months later at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, delegates from the Global South demanded recognition of loss and damage and took negotiations into overtime until the U.S., the E.U., and other reluctant parties agreed to a “dialogue” on the topic—a small step forward with only a few details agreed at the outset.

Read More: Pakistan’s Climate Minister Warns the Global North Is Next

But since then, a surprising momentum has emerged. With the support of partner countries in the G-7, Germany proposed an insurance scheme to help protect the most vulnerable countries from the costs of climate disasters. Kerry has publicly committed the U.S. to advancing policy on loss and damage at COP27 and said the U.S. will double down on climate funding initiatives in the Global South. “We have to find a way for more capital to flow into developing countries,” he told me on Oct. 26. And leaders from both developing and developed nations have supported a wholesale reform of the Bretton Woods institutions—the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—with climate change in mind. The World Bank could commit to taking the “first loss” on big climate projects, for example, and in doing so make such projects more attractive for private-sector investors. The IMF could allocate hundreds of billions in finance to give developing countries the space to pursue climate projects. These moves could, in turn, catalyze trillions in investment from the private sector.

“There is more of a willingness on the part of all the parties to come together and try and move this discussion forward,” says Alok Sharma, a former minister in the British government who led last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow. “It is a very difficult discussion; that’s why it’s taken so long.”

By all accounts, the weight of recent climate-related disasters has helped move the needle. From Nigeria to Germany to India, the world has been inundated with a tide of extreme weather events in recent months signaling that the era of loss and damage has indeed arrived.

The conversation about the on-the-ground devastation in the most vulnerable parts of the world needs to continue. But the reality is that we also need to be talking about the ripples. Pakistan offers a prime example of the selfish case for the Global North. It’s a nuclear-armed state that collaborates with the U.S. to address terrorism in South Asia. It exports billions in textile and food products around the world, including to the U.S., its largest trading partner, and Europe.

Sending aid to Pakistan will help it cope with its precarious climate. Glaciers in its mountaintops are melting, contributing to flooding. Meanwhile, the country is home to some of the hottest spots in the world, where heat waves already kill residents on a regular basis. Pakistan now estimates recent flooding will cost it $40 billion; as of late October, it had received $129 million in aid.

But helping tackle Pakistan’s issues will help everyone else too. “The entire bargain in climate negotiations now is premised on climate justice,” says Rehman. “And that bargain between the North and the South has to be working now.”

—With reporting by Simmone Shah/New York

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