Economic Development vs. Climate Action: Rebutting Deniers and Wafflers

President Trump, probably telling President Xi Jinping of China that he was totally kidding about climate change being a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Photo by Thomas Peter, Courtesy of Reuters

As negotiators meet in Bonn, Germany, to put together a deal to implement the Paris Agreement, John Holdren, a professor of environmental policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, stressed that economic development and climate change mitigation and adaptation are not “either/or” but must be pursued together.

Addressing science journalists a week before the Bonn climate talks, Professor Holdren said that among climate change skeptics, “wafflers are the most dangerous, because their arguments to postpone aggressive climate action now in favour of economic progress have the potential to increasingly influence debate and government policy.”

According to Professor Holdren, the wafflers claim to favor research and development into better technologies so that emissions reductions can be made more cheaply in the future while also arguing for accelerating economic progress in developing countries as the best way to reduce the vulnerability of these countries.

However, it is ironic, he said, that the current U.S. administration, “with climate deniers and wafflers occupying top positions,” is cutting support for the same approaches they propose.

“Of course, the deniers and wafflers in the top positions in the Trump administration are, with surpassing cynicism, busy cutting support for all of these approaches,” he said, referencing the numerous reversals that the Trump administration has made even to the “win-win” adaptation-preparedness resilience measures adopted under Obama.

Apart from drastic domestic spending cuts to climate-related programs, President Trump earlier this year decided to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement altogether, a move that has left the global community wondering what’s next.

Africa’s Dismay

Despite its negligent contribution to global emissions, Africa is one region most vulnerable to climate change. It is already suffering from droughts and floods that have affected its predominantly rain-fed agricultural productivity and production. Professor Holdren’s address, titled “Why the Wafflers are Wrong: Addressing Climate Change is Urgent—and a Bargain,” which he delivered to the 10th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ2017) in San Francisco, California, on Oct. 26–30, 2017, is music to the ears of the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) who have been pushing for urgent climate action at the UNFCCC negotiating table.

According to Professor Seth Osafo of AGN, “The slow progress by developed countries toward reaching the US$100 billion goal of joint annual mobilization by 2020 is not in Africa’s interest.”

And in the words of Emphraim Mwepya Shitima, chief environmental and natural resources officer of Zambia’s Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, the developing country community needs financial resources now more than ever. “We are at a critical stage where we need all the financial resources we can get to effectively implement our NDC, which is off course now, in sync with the recently launched Seventh National Development Plan running up to 2021,” he told delegates at a COP23 preparatory meeting.

With the U.S. pull-out meaning the loss of a major financial contributor, there are fears that the resource mobilization process might slow down even more. Mithika Mwenda, secretary general of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), a consortium of African civil society organizations, is also concerned and is pushing for industrialized nations to set more ambitious goals in terms of their emission cuts.

“Coming from the region that suffers the most due to climate change, we have watched with utter dismay President Trump’s continued efforts at dismantling the former President Barack Obama’s climate legacy, and we wish to reiterate that this is the time to classify the global community into two: those for the people and planet, and those for Trump and profit,” said Mwenda.

He questioned the presence of the official U.S. delegation, saying it may have a bad influence on other states that are already reluctant to take serious action on climate change. “The U.S. withdraws from the Paris Agreement, yet they still want to show that they can negotiate the implementation framework,” complained Mwenda. “That’s why we are calling delegates here to sign our petition to kick Trump and his government out of these negotiations…”

Scientifically, climate change is a serious and complex issue. It requires well-developed research systems, especially research on how climate change impacts different sectors of development, or, in the spirit of the WCSJ2017 theme, research that bridges science and societies. Unfortunately, compared to the developed world, Africa’s scientific research and development still lags behind. More often than not, it relies on the developed world for data, a concern that South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor raised during a session called “Who Will Do Science?” at the WCSJ2017.

Pandor believes that the private companies that drive scientific innovations in the developed world must stop seeing the developing world as a mass clientele—where research and development is done just for corporate interests and not for the benefit of the people.

“A number of private companies only have commercial relationships but do not have innovation relationships with the developing world; so the nature of partnerships between my continent Africa and other parts of the developing world must change,” she said. “If we are to do science in the 21st century… the way we perceive Africa and scientists in Africa has to fundamentally alter.”

She further lamented the sidelining of women in science, who she said are doing a lot of tremendous work, and her plea is for Africa to embrace and give space to women scientists amid the challenge of climate change in a continent that contributes less than 4 percent to global emissions. “The next generation of scientists must be women—and black people have to be a part of that.”

The High Cost of Inaction

Agreeing that research and development are important steps in tackling climate change, Professor Holdren, who is a former science-and-technology assistant to President Obama, argued that even if implemented, the wafflers’ favoured economic approaches would be grossly inadequate because, while clean energy is essential to provide options for the next stage of deep emissions reductions, the global community needs to make reductions now with all the technologies available.

He said that climate change is already causing serious harm around the world, with increases in floods, drought, wildfires, heatwaves and coral bleaching, among others, all of which are “plausibly linked to climate change by theory, models and observed ‘fingerprints,’ most growing faster than projected.”

The global community has three options: mitigation, adaptation—or suffering. Therefore, minimizing the amount of suffering can only be achieved by doing a lot of mitigation and a lot of adaptation.

“Mitigation alone won’t work because climate change is already occurring and can’t be stopped quickly. And adaptation alone won’t work because adaptation gets costlier and less effective as climate change grows. We need enough mitigation to avoid the unmanageable, enough adaptation to manage the unavoidable,” he added.

In arguing for adaptation specifically, Professor Holdren believes that many adaptation measures would make economic sense even if the climate were not changing because there have always been heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires, powerful storms, crop pests and outbreaks of vector-born disease, and society has always suffered from being underprepared.

Additionally, he said, virtually all reputable studies suggest that the economic damages from not adequately addressing climate change would far exceed the costs of adequately addressing it.

“The idea that society cannot afford to address climate change is wildly wrong,” he said, calling for urgent climate action now and not later.

COP22 produced the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, which called for all countries to go further and faster in delivering climate action before 2020. The global community now eagerly awaits the COP23 Bonn declaration.

Courtesy of Inter Press Service /


Leave a Reply