December 5, 2015

Adaptation after the Paris Negotiations: Who Ought to Foot the Bill?

Adaptation after the Paris Negotiations: Who Ought to Foot the Bill?

Right now in Paris the global community is convening in order to create a climate treaty, the ultimate goal of which is to limit the adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change. The bridge to this goal will be built upon two pillars of climate policy. The first pillar is mitigation, or the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. The second pillar is adaptation, or enhancing our ability to adapt to the destructive side-effects of a rapidly warming world. Importantly, these two pillars are not completely independent from one another: the more we mitigate, the less we’ll have to adapt; and conversely, the less we mitigate, the more we’ll have to adapt.

 

Now, it goes without saying that, ideally, there would be no need for investments in adaptation. In a perfect world, we would have responded to the threat of climate change by reducing our emissions and switching to a low- or zero-carbon economy with appropriate haste, thus eliminating the need for adaptation. Regrettably, the world in which we find ourselves is far from perfect. We have failed to make the needed investments in mitigation across the past two decades. And furthermore, it is widely assumed that a similar apathy to reducing our emissions will continue despite efforts in Paris. Given the converse relation between mitigation and adaptation, our failure to mitigate sufficiently is ensuring that a substantial amount of adaptation will be required in both the near and distant future.

 

Estimates regarding the yearly cost of such adaptation vary, but the World Bank has projected that from 2010 to 2050 the costs will total $70-100 billion dollars per year. The question becomes: Who should be responsible for picking up this exorbitant tab each year? As Oxford philosopher Henry Shue has argued, there are three commonsense principles of fairness that all point to the same conclusion: the costs of adaptation should fall most heavily on the wealthy industrialized states.

 

The first principle of fairness is the polluter pays principle (PPP), which says, roughly, that those who cause a problem are responsible for remediation. Now, it’s true that the developed countries of the world are not exclusively responsible for bringing about climate change, and thus the need for adaptation. But they are overwhelmingly responsible: the World Resources Institute estimates the developed countries are responsible for over 75% of the cumulative emissions up to the year 2000, this despite them claiming less than one-fifth of the global population. Thus, the PPP points to the wealthy countries as being primarily responsible for the costs adaptation to climate change.

 

A second common principle of fairness is the ability to pay principle (APP), which states, roughly, that those parties with the greatest ability to pay should contribute the most to a common endeavor. The APP is common throughout the world and is the reasoning behind progressive taxation. Some might argue that applying different rates to different people is unfair, and that a flat tax is most equitable. But such an objection is mistaken since it fails to take the consequences of taxation into account. Imagine we have Party A, with an income of $100,000 per year, and Party B, with an income of $10,000 per year. Assume that the cost of living is $10,000 per year. If each party were to be taxed 10% of their income, Party A would contribute $10,000 in taxes but still be left with $80,000 of disposable income after meeting all of their needs. Party B, on the other hand, would only contribute $1,000 in taxes (significantly less than Party A), but would end up not being able to meet its basic needs. While it seems fair for everyone to pay the same rate in the beginning, when we look at the effects of such a principle, we see that those with a lower ability to pay experience a much greater burden than those with a greater ability to pay. Given that the developed countries of the world are much wealthier than the less developed countries, the ability to pay principle would rightly assign a greater share of the costs of adaptation to the developed countries.

 

Similar reasoning applies to a third principle of fairness. The guaranteed minimum principle (GMP) states, roughly, that when there are dramatically more than enough resources available to provide everyone with the minimum required for a decent human life, everyone should be guaranteed that basic minimum. The GMP has clear implications when distributing the costs of adaptation to climate change. The principle would imply that it is unfair for the less developed countries to be required to make any contribution that would keep or push their citizens below whatever minimum is required for a decent human life, especially when the contribution could be made by the developed countries without them sacrificing anything of comparative moral importance.

 

Thus, all three commonsense principles of fairness deliver us to the same conclusion: the wealthy industrialized states should be primarily responsible for the costs of adaptation to climate change. The good news is that perhaps with these principles of fairness in mind, the Green Climate Fund was established in 2010 at the 16th Conference of the Parties in Cancun. Financed by the wealthy countries of the world, the fund aims to allocate $50 billion annually for adaptation, with half of that sum being reserved for the countries that are most vulnerable to climatic harms (i.e., the least developed countries and small island developing states). The bad news is two-fold. First, $50 billion per year is significantly below the World Bank’s projected annual costs of adaptation. Second, so far, the contributions to the fund made by wealthy industrialized countries have been insufficient to reach even the $50 billion mark. This means that wealthy countries have, so far, failed to live up to their obligation.

 

The United States, for example, has made the largest pledge to the Green Climate Fund to date, pledging $1.5 billion to adaptation—$750 million of which will go to the most vulnerable countries. This may seem like a serious investment. But in comparison, the United States has a military budget of over $600 billion per year (excluding veteran spending). This discrepancy between military spending and adaptation investment is even more shocking when we keep in mind the U.S. is responsible for nearly a third of all historical emissions that are making adaptation a necessity. If any of the three principles of fairness were applied to U.S. federal spending, we can be sure that there would be less money spent domestically on the military, and more money invested abroad in adaptation measures.

 

Now, it’s easy to be cynical with respect to the negotiations in Paris. After all, we are almost certainly going to overshoot the internationally recognized goal of limiting warming to 2°C. Yet, despite this tragedy, there is reason to be hopeful. While decisions about mitigation have been largely predetermined due to fact that the major emitters have already released their intended nationally determined contributions, the specifics regarding adaptation and finance are still to be negotiated. If negotiators are able to work through the intricacies of financing adaptation to climate change and reach an agreement that is guided by substantive principles of fairness, Paris will have been a miraculous achievement of global solidarity. And with the projected negative consequences of a warming world worsening with each year that passes, a miraculous achievement of global solidarity is exactly what is needed.

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About Daniel Callies

Daniel Callies

Daniel Edward Callies is a Research Fellow and PhD candidate in philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt and heads A-ID’s research cluster on “Energy and the Environment.” Previously, he was a Predoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School in the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program (2016-2017), and the Bernheim Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Responsibility at the Université catholique de Louvain (2017). His research generally focuses on normative and applied ethics, global justice, and climate justice. His dissertation addressed moral and political concerns surrounding climate change — specifically, climate engineering technologies. Before coming to Europe, he studied philosophy at San Diego State University where he was awarded his BA in 2008 and his MA in 2012. When not engaged in research, he can be found surfing the many beaches on offer in Southern California.

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