IPCC Report and the Missing Dialogue in US Environmentalism

Why is the US Environmental Movement Ignoring the IPCCs message about sustainable development, poverty eradication and reducing inequalities?

The recent midterm elections will have far reaching implications with choices made on key ballot initiatives and between candidates who support plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that cause climate change and those who have chosen to fight to preserve livelihoods based in industries rather than make the adjustments to cleaner future.

Against the backdrop of the elections is the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) reminding us that urgent and systemic changes are needed to cap rising temperatures due to global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsiusor 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.

The report warns that we are not yet doing enough to avoid disaster. However, achieving that 1.5 degrees Celsius goal while very difficult is still possible if we act now. In addition to offering clear pathway scenarios to avoid the 1.5-degree threshold, the report also provides critical analysis of the potential impacts of allowing global temperatures to cross that mark.

Although we would never know it by reading the reviews of the major press and the US environmental community, the report also has a great deal to say about the links between climate action, poverty eradication, reducing inequality and sustainable development. Yet many of the most prominent responses would leave the reader unaware that roughly 2/5 of the AR5 report are actually devoted to placing the climate challenge in this context of this broader view of necessary societal transformation. 

Numerous articles have already been published about the report in the major press (see examples here, here, and here) most of which focus our attention on the report’s insistence of how important it is that we act now to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change and on what the worst of those impacts might be.

Meanwhile, a quick survey of responses from the US domestic environmental community takes a slightly different approach. Rather than focus on the sobering fact that we have as yet not risen to the challenge of climate change, our statements have sought to reassure the public that yes there is a way out of the dangers posed by unmitigated climate change.

From the viewpoints of the nation’s largest environmental organizations, the report reads essentially as:

  1. an affirmation of the scientific consensus on climate change and the advocacy position of the environmental movement.
  2. a reminder of the severity of the dangers in failing to act.
  3. an optimistic appraisal of the potential pathways forward to addressing climate change and avoiding the worst potential outcomes.

This last point is where many of the environmentalist statements focus because it reinforces our core advocacy positions centering on increased energy efficiency, pricing carbon emissions, and transitioning to 100% renewable energy. The pathways appear straight forward, and obviously rational when political conflicts over distributions of rights and burdens are not considered; when trade-offs between mitigation-adaptation and the development rights of communities and nations are not factored in.

What the US environmental community’s response to the IPCC report shows, is our preference for decontextualizing climate change from issues of inequality, persistent poverty and sustainable development. We have a bias for framing climate change as an engineering and technological problem that we can solve simply with the right mix of technological innovation, market transformation and regulatory response.

What the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Really Says

The opening chapter of the report sets the frame and context by stating that “equity, poverty alleviation and sustainable development” are each a critical compliment to addressing climate change. The final chapter of the report (chapter five) titled, “Sustainable Development, Poverty Eradication and Reducing Inequalities,” establishes these three components as the central factors that make the report's positive pathways possible. In other words, unless we integrate our response to climate change with efforts to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities and transition to a more sustainable development, pathways to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius will be impossible to achieve.

Yet, we’ll find no mention of this or the lost fifth chapter of the report in the responses of the US environmental community. Our unique and absolute silence on these issues is glaring particularly when industry and opponents to climate action use the promise of jobs and the threat of fossil-based livelihood losses as a wedge against progressive action climate. This blind spot in the environmental community is not new. I’ve written (here and here) about how we have to date neglected these issues. By taking climate change out of its social context; rather than see sustainable development, poverty eradication and reducing inequality as necessary tools for inter-sectional and interdisciplinary actions to achieve our climate goals we limit the effectiveness of our response.

Chapter One of the AR5 sees the importance of integrating climate action with efforts to ensure sustainable development, poverty eradication and reduced inequalities based on four key factors;

  1. differential contributions to the problem: the observation that the benefits from industrialization have been unevenly distributed and those who benefited most historically also have contributed most to the current climate problem and so bear greater responsibility
  2. differential impact: the worst impacts tend to fall on those least responsible for the problem, within states, between states, and between generations
  3. inequities in capacity to shape solutions and response strategies, whereby the worst-affected states, groups and individuals are not always well-represented and lack access to decision-making and scientific authority to influence mitigation and adaptation responses
  4. asymmetries in future response capacity: some states, groups and places are at risk of being left behind as the world progresses to a low-carbon economy, because they are unable to influence the preferred response paths, those paths are likely to ignore their interest, leading to increased inequality, gentrification and increased marginalization

According to the AR5, poverty alleviation is central to confronting these issues and ensuring effective actions to limit climate change. However, while there is a large and growing body of knowledge among the international community exploring the links between environment, poverty and climate change, there is no equivalent in the US environmental community of a poverty and environment initiative.

While this is unfortunate, it shouldn’t be surprising as poverty and inequality have long since been abandoned in the US and much of the industrialized world as a priority for domestic public policy and political action. The disparity in major press coverage of the AR5 report compared to the relative press silence that met a major recent report on global inequality shows we have much work to do in understanding how these issues are interconnected.

Sustainable Development Is Critical to Successful Climate Action

Most importantly, poverty eradication and the reduction of inequalities also act as the central organizing mission of the sustainable development agenda internationally. The AR5 report acknowledges that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require substantial societal (and) technological transformations.

Whereas the environmental community’s tendency is to isolate and focus on the technological transformations necessary to address climate change from the societal ones, the AR5 report frames them in tandem understanding that achieving them are dependent on global and regional shifts to a sustainable development pathway. As the report acknowledges, this is because; “many existing societal patterns of (production) and consumption (and the livelihoods generated by these) are intrinsically unsustainable.”

A societal transition that provides viable pathways towards sustainable livelihoods for communities and individuals reliant on fossil enabled economies must be at least as much, if not more important than technological shifts inspired by regulations and incentives.

Sustainable Development Ignored by US Environmentalism

Yet here again we see a disparity in priority and communication. The US environmental movement has for some time abandoned “sustainable development” as an analytical and programmatic framing for our work. The most common argument heard from US environmentalist against sustainable development is that, “sustainable development is too broad, and lacks specificity for implementation.”

This view of sustainable development more than anything shows the degree to which the US environmental movement has established itself and its policy priorities with little regard to issues of poverty eradication and the reduction of inequality. When these issues are understood as the central mission of sustainable development, decisions about how to implement it and what should be programmatic and policy priorities become increasingly clearer. Lacking that focus, sustainable development as considered by the US environmental movement became rudderless and vague, potentially involving any number of initiatives across multiple sectors with any predetermined sequence, links between them or priority.

This is the approach taken by the AR5 and specifically Chapter Five. The chapter opens by setting sustainable development and its emphasis on poverty eradication and reducing inequalities in creating complimentary and reinforcing interactions with climate action. The report emphasizes the “importance of addressing structural, intersecting inequalities, marginalization, and multidimensional poverty to ‘transform the development pathways themselves toward greater social and environmental sustainability, equity, resilience, and justice.’”

Pathways that limit global warming to 1.5 degrees while failing to address political "fragmentation, inequality and poverty" are also more likely to have higher mitigation and adaptation cost and challenges than those that integrate social equity and poverty alleviation. Further, the report warns against, “a narrow view of adaptation decision-making…[] focused on ‘technical solutions’ that tend to crowd out more participatory processes, obscures contested values for shaping a post carbon society and reinforces power asymmetries between communities and nations."

Finally, the AR5 report lays out key conditions or priorities for achieving sustainable development, eradicating poverty and reducing inequality on the path to keeping the 1.5-degree target. As the report acknowledges, “fundamental, urgent and systemic transformations” are required to meet this goal but in order to do so we must;

  1. Ensure finance and technology are aligned with the needs of local communities. There are significant gaps between the priorities of green finance and the development goals of local communities to address poverty and in equality. The priority of climate change removed from the wider social context can create harmful trade-offs that lend to opportunism by political opposition, making transition more difficult and inviting potentially negative effects of increased poverty and inequality due to many communities’ inability to adapt and thrive in the new context.
  2. Inclusive Processes. Successfully addressing climate change must not ignore inequities in power and the ability of various people, communities and groups to influence mitigation and adaptation pathways. Avoiding a narrowing view of climate change that limits actions to “technical solutions”. Without such attention outcomes will reflect specific power interest under the guise of universality and technical expertise.
  3. Attention to Issues of Power and Inequality. Addressing climate change is not a “power neutral” process. Development pathway priorities are often shaped by power interest with access to resources, technology and influence in ways that determine the direction, pace of change, anticipated benefits and beneficiaries, what are deemed acceptable trade-offs and acceptable interventions in the market. Addressing uneven distributions of power and influence are critical to ensuring that societal transformation to the 1.5-degree target does not exacerbate poverty and vulnerability or create new injustices.
  4. Reconsidering Values. We cannot expect to achieve the 1.5-degree target without critical examination of the values, ethics, attitudes and behaviors that underpin our society. We must consider how to infuse values and practices that promote and reward sustainable livelihoods and development.

Reconsidering the Broader Message of the IPCC AR5 Report

As we can see, there is much more to the IPCC AR5 report for us to consider. The report is truly groundbreaking in offering a sobering view of our climate reality, while showing clear pathways to where we need to go.

What is also clear from the report is that this transition requires much more than a mathematical formula for targeting carbon emissions in large buildings and transportation. It requires a global development agenda—one that centers poverty eradication, reducing inequality and development as its core agenda, in which all nations and peoples are equal participants and engaged.

If the environmental community hopes to be successful in addressing climate change in the time frame we have left, we must pay more attention to these core issues that ultimately will enable the transformations we know are necessary. As we continue to examine what the report means for our work, we must view it in its full context.

Because in the end, sustainable development, poverty eradication and reducing inequalities are not co-benefits to successful actions to address climate change; they are its organizing principle.

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