“Qu’est-ce qu’on veut ? La justice climatique ! Quand est-ce qu’on la veut ? Maintenant !” During the international climate strike on September 20, thousands of protesters around the world, largely students, took to the streets. As the French slogan implores, they demand that government and business leaders take action regarding climate change and deliver ‘climate justice.’ Despite a scientific consensus since the 1990s that human greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, land use, and waste is the principal cause of a warming climate, policymakers and business leaders have taken minimal action to address the issue.
Climate change poses an unprecedented threat to the world economy. By 2030, climate change could plunge more than 100 million people in developing countries into poverty. By 2050, agricultural yields may decline by up to 30 percent, the number of people who lack sufficient water may increase from 3.6 to 5 billion, and sea-level rise coupled with storm surge may force millions from their homes. According to the United Nations’ most recent biodiversity report, 1 in 4 species risk extinction in the coming decades.
Climate change represents the most significant market failure the economy has ever faced. The inability of markets to account for the social cost of carbon, estimated at $54.70/tonne of CO₂, will increase scarcity and harm equity – a number that is slated to rise to $4,500/tonne of CO₂ by 2100 as the effects of climate change amplify over time.
Increasingly severe weather conditions pose a threat to human capital, particularly to poorer and more vulnerable populations. In parts of Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “country-wide exposure to extreme heat stress may increase 7 to 269 fold over current levels.” Climate-change-induced scarcity may increase conflict and further the poverty cycle in which low productivity leads to low real incomes, low savings, and low investment. These costs, while caused by wealthier economies, are disproportionately borne by their developing, and largely agrarian, counterparts.
At the same time, although developed countries possess the resources to mitigate and adapt, climate change threatens their economies as well. According to scientists, Japan’s 2018 fatal heatwave, in which 1,000 people died, could not have occurred without human-caused climate change. Similarly, natural disasters linked to climate change cost the United States economy $91 billion in 2018, costs that include damages sparked by the California Camp Fire – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever in the state.
The case for 1.5 °C
To address climate change, policymakers, business leaders, and individuals must consider the costs and benefits of both climate mitigation, reducing emissions, and climate adaptation.
Mitigating emissions to reduce planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce positive temperature feedback in the arctic caused by diminished ice extent and avoid “the melting of 2 million square kilometers of permafrost relative to 2 degrees of warming.” Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius could reduce coastal flooding in the Eastern United States and Europe by 50%. Furthermore, holding global warming to 1.5 degrees would save the earth’s coral reefs that will go extinct by 2100 if global emissions raise temperatures more than 2 degrees. The cost of inaction, or delayed action, thus remains significantly high as the initiation of arctic feedback loops could render impossible even a goal of 2 degrees.
In Latin American countries, land use, namely deforestation for agriculture, compose 42% of global emissions. In 2017, the Pacific Alliance of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru agreed to increase the reporting of carbon emissions and strengthen its regional carbon market. While such action may not hold the involved countries to their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the 2015 Paris Agreement, their cooperation represents how governments can employ market structures to not only account for the negative externalities posed by climate change but encourage producers to operate sustainably.
According to a report by the Global Center on Adaptation, investing “$1.8 trillion globally in five areas [such as climate resilient infrastructure and mangrove protection] from 2020-2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.” Governments must finance infrastructure projects that adapt to increased severe weather but also eliminate fossil fuels from the energy matrix. To transition fossil fuel companies to energy companies, policymakers should implement a gradually increasing carbon tax to reflect the aforementioned increasing social cost of carbon. Such a tax would not only facilitate a structural economic shift towards decarbonization, but also finance public investment in decarbonizing electricity, transportation, land use, and waste. Institutions such as the Green Climate Fund as well as a new initiative in sustainable investing can assist developing countries in mitigation and adaptation measures. Renewable energy, for example, holds not only the potential to mitigate climate change, but also to “end energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.”
Despite the current and future consequences of a changing climate, regulation, and taxing of carbon emissions coupled with investment in infrastructure, sustainable agriculture, and land-use, can contribute to limiting rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees. In considering environmental racism and climate justice, policymakers can involve marginalized communities to develop solutions. Producers respond to signals from consumers, thus individuals bear responsibility for climate change as well. Maybe, through the coordination of the many stakeholders in the climate crisis, we can achieve climate justice. Until then, we march.