Unequal Exposure: How the Collective Response to Climate Change Fails the Developing World

Kathryn Morrison

“For Honduras, climate change is a matter of life and death. The figures don’t add up … we are not all equally responsible”. This statement by President Hernandez of Honduras at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit, encapsulates the profound inequities at the heart of international climate change mitigation. It is a matter of scientific consensus that rapid, anthropogenic temperature rises have elevated ecological concerns into an immediate existential threat for large swathes of the world. This threat is asymmetrically levied at the most vulnerable states in the international order, primarily due to their underdevelopment and disempowerment. Furthermore, the way in which the international community has constructed climate change mitigation policies and organisations directly reflects the interests of the most powerful members of the international community, leaving vulnerable states to grapple with the burden of disproportionate impacts and responsibility for the environmental crisis.

Like all states, developing countries will experience an array of physical harms from climate change, including more extreme and life threatening climatic events, a decline in arable, agricultural, and water resources, territory loss through sea level rises or environmental hostility, and exacerbation of underlying security concerns such as migration and community competition. An immitigable factor contributing to increased vulnerability of developing states to climate change is that of intractable geographical realities; developing countries are overrepresented in regions that are low lying, arid, experience pre-existing resource stress, and prone to dramatic fluctuations in temperature and weather. These geographical realities have manifested in asymmetric exposure of developing regions to climate change impacts, with the Asia Pacific experiencing sea level rises of double the global average, and Africa, Southeast, and Central Asia subject to increasing temperatures that have resulted in regular life-threatening droughts and heatwaves.

In addition to physical vulnerabilities, climate change disproportionately impacts developing states due to their diminished responsive capacity. Responsiveness and adaptability to climatic threats are determined by political stability, financial capacity, access to technological and information resources, and resilient managerial and physical infrastructure. States that have attained higher levels of development are supported by more advanced infrastructure and technology which enables them to be better prepared to respond to and mitigate climatic threats. Within developing states however, pre-existing barriers to effective governance limit responsive capacity; developing states exhibit deficits in economic, political, social development. The global south is characterised by lower levels of economic development, particularly in terms of individual income and economic strength, and fragile, contested, or authoritarian governments that face challenges to exercising control or are disconnected from the needs of the populace. In the most extreme cases, insurgency, social violence, and civil war disrupt distribution channels and prevent proper access to all communities. Even in more stable states, limited financial capacity curtails the reach and effectiveness of prevention or mitigation programs. This context creates reduced governance capacity to act pre-emptively and responsively to environmental security challenges, placing developing states at greater, protracted risk than their Western counterparts. Therefore, climate change threats disproportionately impact less developed states that occupy the lowest rungs of global power hierarchies.

Developing states also face economic exposure to threats, based on historical and contemporary systems of marginalisation and exploitation. Neo-colonial understandings of international development, particularly regarding the role of powerful nations in creating a system that coerced colonised economies into prescribed Western models of development, explain the enhanced economic vulnerability of developing states. The process of colonisation constructed developing states in accordance with neo-liberal development paradigms that favour processes of industrialisation and urbanisation, and the integration of economic sectors into the competitive global economy. The result is that many developing economies are now oriented around fossil fuel dependent industrial processes with limited alternatives for development. Developing economies also tend to be more reliant on primary production industries, such as agriculture, which are far more vulnerable to climatic stress than the higher value industries that underpin Western economies. In light of the climate change threat and the accelerating impact of CO2 emissions, developing states are now expected to compromise their limited avenues for economic and social development by curbing the industrial processes initially prescribed to them by the West, resulting in asymmetric economic detriment.

Climate change is a concern for Western states, however for developing nations it is an immediate threat to survival. Not only do they face greater detriment due to geographical and economic exposure, they lack the resources and expertise to appropriately mitigate and respond to environmental threats. However, this vulnerability extends beyond financial, governance, and geographical deficits. It is compounded by the construction and operation of international climate change response treaties and organisations. International climate regimes are shaped by the same hierarchies of power that underpin the broader international system, therefore policy and responses are reflective of dominant interests and perspectives. The disadvantage of developing countries in climate change regimes can be attributed to inequality in the principles that shape climate change mitigation, the procedures and structures that facilitate formation of policy, and the expectations and obligations set.

International climate change responses have been curtailed by an ongoing dispute over a unifying principle of fairness to determine the contributions, expectations, and obligations of states. Developing nations appeal to the greater culpability and capacity of the developed world, and point to the historical and contemporary structural inequalities that disadvantage the developing world, while the developed world has vehemently eschewed a higher burden of culpability, stressing the need for common effort from all parties. This latter view is prioritised in climate change regimes; statements made by world leaders for the Paris Arrangement stressed the importance of parity, and the US rejection of Kyoto was largely due to obligation exemptions for developing economies.

However, historical culpability underpins demands for differentiated responsibility in climate change regimes. The most immediate facet of this is the attribution of the majority of emissions to developed nations during their historical and ongoing industrialisation processes. This culpability is persistent; the contemporary emissions of developing nations are substantially less significant to climate change than the accrued contributions by the Western world. A further aspect of this heightened responsibility is that the fossil fuel resources developed states consumed as part of their industrialisation were overwhelmingly extracted from underdeveloped economies during processes of colonialisation. Developed states were able to profit off the resources of underdeveloped states for their own benefit, and now attempt to exclude other states from engaging in that very process.

The failure of climate change regimes to implement and enforce differentiated obligations that acknowledge the disparity in emissions and the roots of developing state disadvantage means that the responses to climate change overburden developing economies which at best leverage unfair burdens on developing states, and at worst perversely constitute an immediate challenge to development security in the developing world.

Divergent understandings of culpability and responsibility are exacerbated by the procedural inequalities that prioritise the interests of the most powerful members of climate change security regimes. Self-interested tendencies of the most powerful states are facilitated by the reduced negotiation and representative capacity of developing states, technological and scientific knowledge asymmetries, and limited influence and authority within institutions. Additionally, developing states face a weaker bargaining position due to their enhanced vulnerability, putting greater pressure on them to reach an agreement than their Western counterparts and undermining their ability to hold out for better terms.

The majority of climate change institutions employ the mechanism of consensus decision making which prevents developing countries from being able to collectivise their voting power. Instead they are subject to the coercive and diplomatic power of stronger states. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that developing states often lack the resources to send delegations of scale to international forums. This creates profound disadvantage in negotiations, limiting the representation of developing states which in turn yields greater opportunity for Western powers to dominate proceedings and influence securitisation policy.

Principled and procedural inequities are actualised and compounded in the resultant policies. Power asymmetry in negotiation processes results in outcomes that are either inadequate or unfair to developing states, increasing their vulnerability to threats from climate change and entrenching underdevelopment. Policy inequity emerges in three ways. Firstly, in the setting of targets that do not reflect the threats to developing states and therefore fail to properly mitigate them. For example, the 2°C target set by the Cancun COP in 2010 was vehemently critiqued by island states who stressed that this would be insufficient to save their territories from predicted sea level rises. Additionally, climate change policy has been predominantly concerned with creating short term targets, rather than establishing mechanisms or funds to assist with long term climate stabilisation or adaptation. Even the most recent iteration of climate change policy, the Paris Agreement, has been criticised for lacking a clear mechanism or actionable commitments to achieve its goal of keeping warming below 1.5°C. These vague and short-term rhetorical commitments will be insufficient to prevent the extreme damage to developing states predicted by current climate change trends; however, the West continues to resist the necessary and radical adaptations needed to prevent this outcome.

The second manifestation of policy inequity is in the disproportionate burden on developing states, which jeopardises their economic and social development, without compensation, in order to meet obligations. Within the Kyoto Protocol, emission targets were set based on a percentage of total emissions, rather than based on the emissions per capita, which benefited major Western polluters. This burden has not been alleviated by the development of capacity building programs; climate change regimes have largely eschewed discussion of adaptation assistance, with existing programs woefully underfunded.

Thirdly, the success of policy hinges almost entirely on the participation of key developed states, particularly the US. For example, the withdrawal of the US from the Kyoto Protocol substantially delayed its entry into force. Even in light of consensus scientific warnings about the imminent threat of climate change, the US and other key states such as Australia have demonstrated consistent apathy and inaction on climate change, preventing limitation of their damaging emissions. Powerful states wield more influence over climate change response regimes, which dilutes the efficacy of policy; less exposure to the worst impacts of climate change mean developed states do not have incentives to push for the same urgency of climate change action, and leads them to obstruct or disengage with mitigation attempts. This shifts the burden on developing states, who have far less ability to avoid the impacts of climate change, and undermines the ability of response regimes to adequately mitigate the threat of global warming and ongoing anthropogenic environmental distortion.

The severity of environmental impacts overwhelmingly correlates to the power hierarchy of the international system. States which are underdeveloped lack the capacity to mitigate the tangible impacts of environmental distortion, experiencing asymmetric risks from climate change. Much of this exposure can be attributed to historic and contemporary influence of Western powers, who shaped the construction of developing economies and continue to shift the burdens of climate change mitigation to the most vulnerable states. Additionally, securitisation of climate change predominantly occurs on the international level, adopting procedures and policies that reflect and perpetuate international hierarchies and undermining the security of vulnerable states. Through direct impacts and the international response, climate change exerts a disproportionate threat to developing states, reflecting international hierarchies.

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