Those who follow climate change in the news will know that the latest IPCC report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change does not paint a very rosy picture. It provides abundant evidence that climate change creates serious risks to “food production, fresh water, ocean acidification, species loss, human security and the global economy”, to borrow Frank Mac Donald’s list .
It’s hard to think about all that bleakness, let alone report on it. This may explain why the BBC chose to feature one of the report’s authors who has a dissenting view . Or perhaps they felt it their journalistic duty to remind us (once again, just in case we’d forgotten) that some analysts are skeptical about climate change – even though those analysts are a tiny minority, in this case one out of seventy.
The BBC wasn’t the only one to have a creative response to the report. ITV vastly overemphasized the IPCC’s fleeting references to possible positive effects of climate change with their headline ‘UN report hopes to show opportunities climate change may present'.
This conjures up some strange images. Exactly what sorts of opportunities are we talking about here? The opportunity to hone your anger-management skills while trying to mediate conflicts sparked by resource scarcity? To burn some calories by digging ever-deeper wells in search of elusive drinking water? To get your adrenaline flowing by taking part in a food riot?
Thankfully, if you feel unenthusiastic about these opportunities you can take solace. It turns out that a slight modification of that ITV headline – adding in just one missing word – could change our perception of the problems we’re facing in a way that might prove quite helpful. We’ll get back to that later.
Let’s take a closer look at the report first. We know that it says a lot of bleak things. But is there anything unexpected?
The report did have some new ideas. There’s the abundant use of the word ‘risk’, much commented on in the media, which is a good, clear, non-jargonistic word – bracingly so.
And then there is Chapter 13 of the report, which is on livelihoods and poverty and which, as far as I can see, got almost no media coverage.
Livelihoods and poverty have been touched on in previous IPCC reports, but never in much depth. Now here we have a chapter “devoted to exploring poverty in relation to climate change, a novelty in the IPCC”. There is plenty of useful information in it for those who, like Feasta members, are interested in teasing out the relationship between the economic system, climate change and some of the other major challenges we’re facing.
As Petra Tschakert, the co-ordinating lead author of the chapter describes it , the people most at risk from climate change are those in the margins of society who have the least access to resources. On an international level we see the same phenomenon writ large as the more marginalized economies already struggle to deal with the effects of climate change.
Moreover, the chapter gathers evidence to show that existing climate mitigation schemes, such as switching to biofuels and REDD, have either had no effect on poverty or have actually made it worse.
Inequality is seen as playing a key role: “Neither alleviating poverty nor decreasing vulnerabilities to climate change can be achieved unless entrenched inequalities are reduced.”
Linear or enmeshed?
We’re all too familiar with the enormous historical difficulties that have been encountered in trying to alleviate poverty and it seems as though the last thing impoverished people need is to add yet another challenge – climate change – to their list.
But perhaps it’s misleading to think of these challenges as items on a linear list. What the IPCC report suggests is that it’s more accurate to instead see climate change, poverty and inequality as closely inter-related and enmeshed. (This has much in common with Feasta ideas.)
There’s a framing issue here, in other words. And there’s a second one, equally important. While there is no doubt that we are facing some extremely severe and dangerous challenges, there may actually be – dare I say it – something positive about all this inter-connectedness. It’s just possible that an effective strategy on climate change could not only enable us to reduce climate-related risk, but also to significantly alleviate global poverty and entrenched inequality – problems which are equally stubborn and whose roots go much further back in history.
But you might well wonder what the magic strategy could be that could do all these things?
Escape from growth
Various Feasta members have been suggesting for some time that rather than basing the economy on endless expansion, which renders it fragile, volatile and inequitable, we should instead give the commons a central role in maintaining economic stability and adjust our institutions – financial and otherwise – to reflect that.
So what are commons? Commons are resources which everyone in a community has a right to and a responsibility for. In many parts of the world, most land was a commons until recent centuries. The climate is a natural commons. Some argue that money and water should be treated as commons too.
Once we start thinking of the climate as a commons, the challenge of climate-change risk management becomes less intimidating since there is already an enormous quantity of research and experience that can be tapped into. Here are a few quick examples.
We’ll start with inequality since the IPCC considers it to be so important. We all know how insidious inequality is, but it isn’t increasing everywhere. There’s one area of the world where it’s on a (gentle) decline – Latin America . This appears to be connected to the widespread introduction of social transfer schemes in various Latin American countries over the past two decades . Such schemes, which are increasingly popular in Sub-Saharan Africa too, could easily be combined with emissions reduction programmes such as the Feasta climate group’s Cap and Share to ensure that individuals or communities can receive a fair share of revenues from emissions permit sales . That would effectively trigger a massive transfer of resources in favour of the poor in much of the Global South, reducing both inequality and poverty.
Individual social transfers couldn’t solve all our problems, of course – money never can by itself and, moreover, needs to be handled carefully in order not to be counter-productive. Risk management involving regional and municipal infrastructure would need to be dealt with on a more collective basis – but this is something that could potentially be built into a transfer system . Legal aid in maintaining or restoring existing commons such as the community-managed land that until recently was the norm in much of Africa will also be a crucial component of climate change adaptation . In addition, the introduction of commons-based currency and taxation systems in both industrialised and non-industrialised countries could significantly reduce poverty and inequality while helping those countries’ economies to end their dependency on fossil fuels.
These ideas may seem disparate but they share the fact that they are extremely practical and concrete, are built upon existing, albeit smaller-scale, projects, and are all based on a commons-centered economy rather than a growth-centred one. And they aren’t particularly hard to grasp. (Interestingly, a couple of them are also recommended by the IPCC – but since the report doesn’t have an over-arching vision of moving beyond a growth-based economy and makes almost no mention of the commons, they come across as rather fragmented. This is not intended as a criticism; after all the report’s focus is on adaptation rather than on the core dynamics of the world economy.)
So how does all this relate to the ITV headline mentioned above?
The missing word in the headline is “action”. If we add it in after “climate change” we get “UN report hopes to show kinds of opportunities climate change action may present”.
Of course the report’s emphasis is on risk, not opportunity, and I don’t mean to downplay the very real and threatening risk posed by climate change. Even if we do manage to cut emissions significantly we certainly can’t take for granted that we’ll be able to avoid a four degree temperature rise, and if that happens all the poverty reduction in the world won’t be any use to us.
But there seems to be a pervasive assumption that climate change policy can never achieve anything more than damage control, whether it’s adaptation- or mitigation-focused. I think we need to think much bigger than this. And who knows- if a popular movement were to grasp this potential, we might just see some real change.
(And by the way, just in case you had forgotten, some analysts are skeptical about climate change. Just a reminder. After all, if we implemented commons-based strategies that succeeded in alleviating poverty, reducing inequality and conserving the earth’s remaining fossil fuel and then climate change did turn out to be a hoax, we’d be in a terrible fix, wouldn’t we? Oh, hold on…).
You can read about the ideas mentioned above in more detail, along with others relating to the climate and the commons, in the Feasta climate group’s book Sharing For Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, available online for free at http://www.sharingforsurvival.org. More general discussion of the role played by commons in the world economy can be found in the book The Wealth of the Commons, available at http://wealthofthecommons.org/.
Feasta is planning to organise an international conference on climate change in October 2014.
 IPCC Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report Chapter 13: Livelihoods and Poverty, p 4. Available at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/WGIIAR5-Chap13_FGDall.pdf
IPCC Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report Chapter 13: Livelihoods and Poverty, p 24. Available at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/WGIIAR5-Chap13_FGDall.pdf
 See for example Emer O’Siochru’s video at http://www.feasta.org/2013/10/31/the-money-mess-one-day-conference-may-31st-dublin/
 IPCC Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report Chapter 13: Livelihoods and Poverty, p 8. Available at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/WGIIAR5-Chap13_FGDall.pdf
 See for example Esquivel et al (2010), “A Decade of Falling Inequality in Mexico: Market Forces or State Action?”, UNDP and Rosenberg, Tina, “To beat back poverty, pay the poor”, New York Times, January 3 2011 http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/03/to-beat-back-poverty-pay-the-poor/
Image source: clouds 3. Author: Gyulavári Csaba. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1440651