Rethinking Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Why It’s Time for a Paradigm Shift

By Nigel James & Fabio Saini

The latest Special Report on Global Warming was recently released at the Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland. It depicts an exacerbated negative impact on health, livelihoods, human security, and economic growth as global warming continues to rise. The negotiations in Katowice mobilized pledges and commitments to the Adaptation Fund in excess of $100 million, but will a neoliberal-centric conceptualization and implementation of mitigation and adaptation to climate change be enough for a course correction? We believe it’s high time for a paradigm shift.

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, speaking at the Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland- December 2018.

Human activity across the globe releases greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere causing detrimental climate change effects, and the rate at which this is occurring continues to increase. Although everyone is affected by the impact, the burden disproportionately falls on those who are poor, marginalized and or vulnerable. Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, reminded the world in 2018 that the window of opportunity for action is approaching the cut-off point to reduce emissions and stay below a 2°C global temperature rise. Scientists have warned that “ climate change is a direct existential threat to the survival of our species.

The Current State of Mitigation and Adaptation

While scholars, development programmers, and policymakers may have various working definitions for mitigation and adaptation, all seem to converge on the understanding that mitigation is about measures for curbing greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation is about making individuals and communities more resilient in the face of climate change impacts. Several mitigation and adaptation strategies have been developed and supported, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which relies on Intended Nationally Defined Contributions (INDCs) to cut emissions. Thus in this framework, mitigation and adaptation are contingent upon what each country decides to do.

In this economic neoliberal era — in which we have been taught that economic growth equals development — decisions such as INDCs impact the position of relative power and stability of country parties. The biggest emitters feel they have the most to lose by decarbonizing.

Photo credit: Google images

Inevitably, mitigation and adaptation have become hostages to the political will of big economic powerhouses, and transformative progress is stalled by “absolute tension” between short-term profitability and influence, and the urgent need to reduce emissions. In some instances, this tension is contributing to maintaining inequities. For example, countries like Bangladesh are finding it increasingly difficult to get international bank loans for development because they are seen as at high risk of climate change impacts.

On the other hand, mitigation strategies — such as carbon credits — are generating massive profits for some private investors. Between 2008 and 2011, a London based organization raised profits of nearly $218 million from institutions and carbon credit investments.

As long as mitigation and adaptation are constructed to serve the existing carbon economy paradigm, they may contribute to what some have called “disaster capitalism,” in which a threat like climate change is turned into an opportunity for profit at the expense of global health, human security, and a sustainable Earth.

The Problem with the Dominant Paradigm

In this paradigm, the neo-economic liberal agenda has increasingly become a global governance model shaping the geopolitical and socioeconomic environment within which climate change is occurring. It is also directing the development of mitigation and adaptation strategies. For several years in the 1980s, big oil companies such as Exxon Mobil funded climate change denial research in a quest to maintain and expand the influence of oil conglomerates, despite the knowledge of how carbon emissions were exacerbating climate change. Corporations often have appeared to be only interested in environmental impacts to the extent that they affect profits.

Current data shows the inadequacy of this governance model.In a recent Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) report, it was noted that more than half of global industrial emissions since the recognition of human-induced climate change can be traced to just 25 corporate and state companies. This market-driven governance model tends to place responsibility for mitigation and adaptation at the individual level by emphasizing behavioral strategies such as reduce-reuse-recycle, thereby relinquishing governments and corporations from their social duties.

Ascribing poor health outcomes and ecosystem damages primarily to individuals reinforces the notion that health and well-being are separate from social determinants, participation and representation in governance, and accountability of economic and financial sectors. As noted by Glenn Feldman, this economic neoliberal paradigm is increasing vulnerability and reducing the resilience of individuals and communities in relation to climate change adaptation.

In the current short term and profit-centric model,governance itself has become a commodity and citizens’ participation and voices — secondary to ensuring economic growth and stability. Rather than focusing on environmental, economic, and social justice, which strengthen community resilience to climate change, the approach reinforces the distortion of power dynamics. Communities that lack control of economic resources inevitably have little or no say in how mitigation and adaptation strategies are being designed, funded, implemented, and evaluated. Without structural mechanisms to ensure the corporate sectors’ accountability for climate change impacts, these entities will continue to have free reign in commodifying natural assets essential for human life and turn governance and public policy into private goods.

Call for a Paradigm Shift

It is time to shift the current understanding of mitigation and adaptation from market-oriented to people-centric. We need a paradigm of democratic governance underscored by human rights and capabilities for health and well-being. Unless these fundamental freedoms become central components of mitigation and adaptation strategy, adaptive capabilities of individuals and communities will be seriously undermined, leading to increased inequities.

A human rights-centric approach to climate change underscores equality and non-discrimination. Ensuring the essential liberties of communities places mitigation and adaptation firmly within a human rights framework –empowering citizens to act rather than being subservient to economic and geopolitical forces. Promoting the whole spectrum of human rights, not just civil and political rights, is paramount to building community self-reliance and adaptive capacity.

Illustration by Claus Andersen-

In the 2015 court case Urgenda Foundation v. Government of the Netherlands, the government was sued on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens for contributing to the devastating effects of climate change. The Dutch District Court (The Hague) ruled in favor of the citizens, stating that the government’s climate change policies failed to ensure a duty of care, and instructed the government to cut greenhouse emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020. This historic ruling demonstrates that the human rights paradigm can be used to ensure greater accountability of climate change governance and sustainable development while empowering communities.

Making mitigation and adaptation function within a human rights framework is necessary to revert the power distortions between global economic-financial conglomerates and people. Reckoning with these power distortions is what can ultimately lead us to a brighter future with a strong natural ecosystem, accountable and inclusive governance, and equity and justice for all.

Nigel James is a 2018–2019 Global Health Corps fellow in the U.S.

Fabio Saini is a lecturer in the Global Health Master Program, Faculty of Public Health, Thammasat University, Thailand.

Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. To learn more, visit our website and connect with us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.