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A Conundrum Haunts Climate Debate

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNovember 28, 2014 8:05 PM


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This tweet caught my eye:

Prof Joachim Schellnhuber, at @PIK_climate: "Stabilizing the climate and combating poverty is largely the same thing" #COP20Lima — Damian Carrington (@dpcarrington) November 28, 2014

A greater elaboration on this statement by Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, can be read here. It starts out this way:

Two great challenges define the 21st century--the threat of catastrophic climate change and the maddening gap between global rich and poor. These biggest challenges to worldwide peace are closely interlinked.

No question that climate change looms large, but is economic inequality--"the maddening gap between the global rich and poor"--really entwined in the manner suggested here? Please understand: I'm not questioning the inequality gap. It is distressingly real. Rather, it's the premise of the statement that I'm questioning. For I thought that the big challenge coupled with climate change is increasing access to energy for the world's 1.3 billion people that don't have it--without dangerously heating up the planet. A few sentences later, Shellnhuber says:

Without enhancing global equity, climate change cannot be contained; and without reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, fairness cannot be realized. Stabilizing the climate and combating poverty is largely the same thing.

Really? The same thing? Maybe to well-fed, well-housed Westerners, who take indoor plumbing and three square meals a day for granted. But for the billions without electricity, being poor isn't about how rich the rest of the world is; what's unfair is not having the opportunity to live like you and me. So this is the challenge:

Modern energy services are crucial to human well-being and to a country’s economic development. Access to modern energy is essential for the provision of clean water, sanitation and healthcare and for the provision of reliable and efficient lighting, heating, cooking, mechanical power, transport and telecommunications services.

The truth is that enhancing this kind of global equity means that climate change may not be contained. A smart explanation of this conundrum was recently laid out by Mark Lynas. He concludes:

We’re all in this together as a planet and as a species – but the need for fairness is one of our most universal and deeply-held values.

Go read his post to see what he means.

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