Effective climate action requires empathy rooted in basic social justice

By Carlos M. Duarte | September 27, 2021

The 6th assessment of the IPCC left no room for speculation: the time for decisive climate action is now.  As we prepare to win the Race to Zero, I wish to emphasize that raising the ambition in our actions cannot only be about national emission reductions, but about working together to reach our goal — an imperative if we want to avoid failure.

2021 started with renewed efforts to boost global unity around the Paris Agreement, as nations prepare to confirm their commitments at the decisive COP26. The hope is that we leave behind a turbulent period, reminiscent of the past, and focus on how can we best work together to achieve our goals.

However, this summer’s G20 meeting showed a divide between nations in their ambition of climate action — and the recent UNFCCC NDC Synthesis report showed the world has not made anything like enough progress to tackle the climate crisis.

A number of books and media reports use such divisions to perpetuate the tactics of spurring controversy between climate villains and heroines that the media used to grab attention. Whereas these tactics may have reflected the climate change debate over past decades, in a world still polarized by climate change, it is disconnected from reality.

As a scientist focused on collaborative solutions to address climate change, I argue here for the need to grow out of simplistic, divisive politics that split nations, political parties, and citizens within them, into climate villains or heroes. Such classifications impairs, rather than propels climate action.

The new mindset should seek to build common ground among and within societies and celebrate the diversity and dynamic nature of societies as a strength, not a weakness to deliver climate action activating the full range of available options.

After decades of failed attempts, the world celebrated the ratification of the Paris Agreement by 190 states and the European Union as evidence that an overwhelming majority of nations are in the same camp of the climate war. We should find strength in the fact that the world is finally united in confronting the true villain in the climate emergency: the legacy and ongoing pollution of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases.

Finding common ground on climate action is critical, for I argue that climate action is too important, and the need for action too urgent, for it to be narrowed down by all-fashioned media tactics to a Hollywood script of shootouts between white and black hatted cowboys. This only distracts from the efforts to build a unified position that dissipates the risk that political swings grounded in domestic divides poses in a world racing against a rapidly closing window of opportunity to meet ambitious climate goals.

Domestic divides need be healed where they remain, such as in nations where climate change polarizes political views and lead to voters of different parties being at odds over the causes of climate change and the efforts required to address it.

The threat of such divides in society is that swings in power in the next four or eight years may reverse, once again, the progress made, particularly if top emitters are included among swinging nations. Clearly, those currently in power need reach to opposition leaders and voters to find paths to deliver on climate action that can be embraced by all and be resilient to government shifts.

Ultimately, effective climate action requires empathy rooted in basic social justice. This is not served by classifying nations, their citizens or their scientists, into simplified roles. This involves acknowledging the distinct responsibility of developed nations and colonialism on the resulting legacy of GHG emissions, and delivering on the agreed, but never materialized, climate adaptation for developed nations, those responsible for most of the legacy GHGs accumulated in the atmosphere, to help developing nations adapt and reduce their own emissions.

It requires ensuring that climate action promotes equitable access to affordable and reliable energy, water and food, and supports the aspiration for biodiversity conservation and recovery as fundamental goals in the context of the UN Sustainably Development Goals, free of trade-offs.

It requires acknowledging geographical differences in access to food sources and energy, both fossil or renewable, and working collaboratively to balance these differences through fair trade.

It also requires valuing and respecting all efforts and approaches that contribute to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gasses, and avoiding oversimplified, divisive arguments dismissing one’s contribution to climate action, such as nature based solutions or carbon capture technologies, because of another’s preference of another option, renewable energy, for example. Voltaire cautioned against making the perfect the enemy of good.

In the sprint to COP26, I wish world leaders success in their climate actions to set the world on track to meet our most ambitious goal. Achieving our shared climate goals demands an all-hands of deck collaborative effort supported by unifying, not divisive, politics.

I, therefore, urge them to show leadership by working empathically to understand the perspectives of those that face challenges to do their part, and spare no efforts to bring them on board through generous collaboration.

Ultimately, the success of the human race has been linked to our role as reciprocators, and it is our capacity to reciprocate in delivering climate actions, domestically and internationally, that will dictate our future. The challenge is of such an existential dimension that only empathically working together we can prevail.

Carlos M. Duarte is a member of Extreme E’s Scientific Committee and a Distinguished Professor of Marine Science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.




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