climate change human rights

Mitigation, adaptation and suffering

In doing some research this week, I came across this quote that I’d forgotten about. It’s from John Holdren, Harvard energy expert and climate adviser to Barack Obama. Back in 2007, at the launch of the fourth IPCC report, he said this about climate change:

“We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”

It’s a striking statement because it names what so often goes unspoken – the fact of climate suffering. That includes natural disasters such as the wildfires California is currently experiencing, or the drought in Australia, or floods across Somalia, Cameroun and Nigeria.

It will involve displacement or loss of ancestral homelands – as a low lying coral atoll nation, the Marshall Islands recently declared a national climate crisis. It may involve new diseases. A recent study suggests that climate change will widen the area exposed to the Ebola virus. It could be loss of cultural traditions, such as the growing risks to the Hajj.

It includes animal suffering, such as the elephants starving to death in drought-struck national parks in Zimbabwe.

And here’s an important factor that can be easily glossed over when Holdren says ‘we’ are going to do some of each. Some parts of the world are better prepared than others. Some have more resources to adapt, to protect themselves, and to rebuild afterwards. The suffering will not be evenly distributed, and the choices that we make affect others.

When the richest nations of the world fail to mitigate their carbon emissions, it is the poorest that suffer first. That’s the essence of climate justice, and one of several reasons why reducing emissions matters in developed countries.


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