Thursday, November 6, 2014

IPCC Response Essay #3: Climate Change, Sustainable Development, and the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report

Robin Kundis Craig, William H. Leary Professor of Law, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

Proponents of sustainable development should be worried by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Fifth Assessment Report. However, they might not know that from the Summaries for Policymakers. Specifically, in the Summary for Policymakers related to climate change adaptation, the IPCC notes that:

Prospects for climate-resilience pathways for sustainable development are related fundamentally to what the world accomplishes with climate change mitigation (high confidence). Since mitigation reduces the rate as well as the magnitude of warming, it also increases the time available for adaptation to a particular level of climate change, potentially by several decades. Delaying mitigation may reduce options for climate-resilient pathways in the future.[1]

On first read, this is a fairly obvious statement: Getting serious about climate change mitigation now will reduce humanity’s need to adapt to climate change in the future and give us more time to adapt overall. However, the last sentence subtly suggests that delayed mitigation efforts may reduce humanity’s future options, including options for development.

The potential loss of future options poses risks to societies and socio-ecological systems that should already be modifying how we think about development goals, even sustainable development goals. All human societies ultimately depend on ecosystems and the goods and services that those ecosystems provide, but climate change directly threatens the current states of most of the world’s ecosystems. Change an ecosystem too much in a bad way, and you retard the economic and social development (and ultimately survival) of the societies that depend on that ecosystem.

The climate change extremes of this new reality, such as the predicted disappearance of island nations as a result of sea-level rise,[2] have been well-publicized but not yet incorporated into global development goals. In part, these kinds of extreme, indeed, existential, threats to island (and also Arctic) cultures may not seem generalizable; indeed, they are currently generally portrayed as tragic but somewhat unusual climate change fates for particular kinds of human societies, with the implication that the rest of us will still be able to muddle along in our pursuit of continuous development.

Ecological dependence, however, is more insidious than that. In particular, there are a suite of ecological changes that can thoroughly undermine development goals in a particular society without completely wiping it out. The BBC News recently published a particularly poignant example of the human tragedies that can result from ecosystem decline, tracing how the loss of terrestrial food species and especially freshwater and offshore fisheries has led to increased slavery—especially child slavery—in Somalia, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand.[3] Fewer fisheries and other food species make it highly labor-intensive to get food, promoting the enslavement of children and others to carry out this task.[4] At some point, in other words, a society’s dependence on a failing or radically changing ecosystem drastically retards, even reverses, economic and social development. And climate change is making it all the more likely that a variety of ecosystems will experience such changes, or crash completely.

If you read past the Summary for Policymakers and dive deep into Chapter 20 of the IPCC’s report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, you learn that “[c]limate change poses a moderate threat to current sustainable development and a severe threat to future sustainable development.”[5] Thus, although the IPCC still hews to sustainable development as a global goal, it acknowledges that climate change could substantially vitiate that goal. As it notes in its classically reserved tone, “[a]dded to other stresses such as poverty, inequality, or diseases, the effects of climate change will make sustainable development objectives such as food and livelihood security, poverty reduction, health, and access to clean water more difficult to achieve for many locations, systems, and affected populations.”[6]

For societies that lose their homelands, food supply, or water supply, this statement does not go nearly far enough. Sustainable development goals—indeed, any development goals—presume that the relevant society will continue to have the basic ecological requisites for development—a place to inhabit, a source or sources of food, water that is or can be made potable. Climate change calls those assumptions into question and limits the future development options for current societies—particularly in conjunction with an ever-rising global human population.

Nor is the potential loss of development options, or developmental retardation, limited to developing nations. Europe’s remaining ecosystems cannot support the human population of that continent at their current levels of affluence; indeed, in 2005 the World Wildlife Fund estimated that Europe’s consumption footprint more than doubles its own biological productive capacity, and hence “Europe’s wellbeing depends on ecological capacity from elsewhere.”[7] The United States’ ecological footprint is even greater. While consumption patterns in Europe and the United States raise valid climate change issues in their own right, the point here is much more limited: We cannot assess the United States’ and European Union’s climate change vulnerability or development futures by looking only at those nations’ capacity to respond to internal climate change impacts. These two sets of societies are intimately dependent on the health of ecosystems elsewhere, and climate change impacts on those ecosystems potentially limit the U.S.’s and E.U.’s future options as much as they limit the options of much more physically proximate societies.

The IPCC, in other words, is just beginning to wrestle with what climate change could truly mean for future human development, sustainable or otherwise. Notably, reduced and changing resources alter not only a particular society’s development options but also its adaptive capacity, potentially creating a vicious cycle of ever-diminishing resilience and ability to cope with climate change, let alone achieve economic or social progress. Clearly, as the IPC does emphasize, a strong, immediate, and effective climate change mitigation strategy is our first-best approach to preserving as many options as possible for the future. Reading between the lines, however, we should also be starting to think about what “development goals” can look like in an option-constrained—and in many places under many scenarios, severely option-limited—future.

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: Summary for Policymakers 28 (2014) [hereinafter WGII: Summary for Policymakers].

[2] E.g., Climate change: The ‘greatest threat’ to the peoples of the Pacific, Island Bus., July 31, 2014 .

[3] Matt McGrath, Global Decline of Wildlife Linked to Child Slavery, BBC News, July 24, 2014.

[4] Id.

[5] Fatima Denton et al, Chapter 20: Climate-Resilient Pathways: Adaptation, Mitigation, and Sustainable Development 2 (Oct. 2013), in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (2014).

[6] Id.

[7] World Wildlife Fund, Europe 2005: The Ecological Footprint 3 (2005).

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