The Practice of Common Climate Good


Shiv Someshwar


The crisis of climate change transcends economies and ecosystems. Accelerated by the burning of fossil fuel, climate change is a ‘global bad’, posing dire consequences for all humankind in the present as well as in the future. Driven by economic self-interest and the woefully inadequate responses of industrially advanced countries, ‘fighting climate change as a common good’ is a non-starter.

The causes as well as the consequences of climate change are not uniform over time and space. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution in England in the mid-eighteenth century, manufacturing activities in the US and Western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries led to impressive economic gains, as well as to large increases in greenhouse gases.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, other countries such as Japan and China rapidly industrialized. Further, the flattening of the world through information and telecommunication networks resulted in the participation of several more in manufacturing, from Mexico to India, from Nigeria to Indonesia. The concomitant rise in greenhouse gases (GHG) from around 278 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 to, now, 427 ppm, was the unintended result.

While the countries responsible for a majority of the GHGs are in the Global North, the populations of all countries are directly impacted by the warming and attendant side effects brought about by climate change. However, those in the Global South, especially the poor and those vulnerable to impacts of sea level rise, droughts, flooding and storms, are the most affected. The lack of socio-economic safety nets to buffer climate shocks further accentuates their vulnerability to climate risks.

In countries across the world, climate change has resulted in large scale movement of people, initially within national borders, and increasingly to distant (and perceived to be more secure) places such as the US and Europe. In the coming years, all countries would be directly impacted by climate change and climate policies, and increasingly by the movement of tens of millions seeking climate refuge.

Despite their hundreds of billions, well-meaning but narrowly construed policies such as the US’ Inflation Reduction Act and the European Green Deal will only provide momentary respite. Fighting climate change should not be considered as a ‘Common Good’ in a naïve manner – as the responsibility of all populations and societies. Some populations, those in the Global North, are far more responsible to mitigate and to help adapt to climate change.  Hence the importance of realizing ‘climate justice’ in advancing ‘common climate good.’

The dynamic and global components of climate action are: the economic and trade policies of countries and the decisions of businesses (for energy and agriculture production, transportation, urbanization and industrial manufacturing); Climate diplomacy of countries in the UN framework – the UNFCCC (from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, through the 2015 Paris Agreement, to Baku later this year); and, Civil society movements, of youth and indigenous people, alarmed at the inability of countries and businesses for effective climate action.

As noted in the report of the International Task Force on Climate Action, these components are not in sync and are dangerously dissonant. Countries and companies are failing to meet their own green promises, and in response passionate civil society leaders (continue to) insist on altruistic behavior of nations, companies and people as the basis for all climate action. Despite such calls, shareholders have censured companies for making climate promises, and voters have yet to reward political aspirants for their bold climate stance. Rejecting economic self-interest as the fundamental basis for climate action has failed in practice over the last 30 years.

Climate good for the few, by the few, will be fleeting, to be inundated by the ocean swell of climate misery. Climate neutrality driven by economic self-interest, without consideration of social equity, is a political time bomb. The Common Climate Good can only be sustainable when countries and companies take climate action leavened by values of fairness and responsibility, and through innovations that are fuelled by economic and technological consideration. As the Report of the Independent Task Force on Creative Climate Action makes clear,

‘Material self-interest of people (and companies and countries) is inextricably entangled with the well-being of nature, as well as those of other people (and companies and countries). An enlightened climate understanding is the knowledge of impact entanglements from climate change.

The impacts of climate change on others and on nature, as well as their responses to it, affect one’s material self-interest in both the short and long terms. Utilizing that knowledge in the design of policies and investments responding to climate change is climate enlightened action. …[E]nlightened self-interest is the only realistic pathway to a sustainable world in the face of the current and future impacts of climate change.’

Climate action to be effective in advancing the Common Good requires us to not succumb to economic self-interest nor be seduced by the siren song of economic altruism. Only by realizing that the pursuit of economic self-interest in climate action makes matters worse for one’s own social and environmental well-being, and that altruism leads to a dead end in terms of effective and equitable outcome, would we be able to engineer the practice of climate enlightened self-interest.

The paradox of utilizing self-interest to advance common climate good can be resolved by unshackling actions from consideration of immediate gain, and by holding accountable policy and decision makers on equity and ecological outcomes. The practice of common climate good, hence, requires:

  • The consideration of climate as one amongst the complex of components of adaptive socio-economic-ecological policymaking, rather than being an independent action arena
  • Advancing social and economic equity to be an integral part of driving down GHG emissions and building climate resiliency
  • Climate financing and technology transfers are practiced with the principle of ‘Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’
  • Whether stranding fossil fuels, advancing deep decarbonization energy transition or implementing ‘polluter pays’ tax, policies and decisions to simultaneously advance well-being of vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

Shiv Someshwar is a professor at Sciences Po and Columbia University

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