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How sustainability to climate change may foster human development

Lamia Mohsin and Sirazoom Munira | January 14, 2020 00:00:00

How does climate change, an often intangible condition, affect lives of people who are not part of the consumption or production cycle contributing to rise in global temperatures? Human development today stands on a critical threshold, as social and political tectonic plates undergo continuous shifts due to changes in global dynamics. Gendered context of climate change comes to the forefront when these socio-political debates come into play. However, in an increasingly fragmented 21st century world, it has become incredibly hard to conceive the dystopic paradox called 'global village', an omnipresent buzzword allegedly disillusioning thousands of people across nations. Unarguably, we have moved far beyond the superficial hype surrounding greater connectivity, integrated nation states and geographically mobile human resource. Now, our struggles are against existential crisis like climate change, rendering us extremely vulnerable to the caprice of natural calamities. The ramifications are not limited to disasters we are incapable to pre-empt collectively, as global warfare and conflict continues to proliferate exponentially, to the point where it has unleashed itself as a juggernaut force seeking to obliterate global peace. The common man seems to have finally debunked the utopian picture of globalisation perpetually enshrouding our vision, thus making us oblivious to the formidable reality of an unequal and unjust world fraught with contradictions.

MAKING THE TRANSITION: From the dependency approach in early 50s, neo-liberalism in early 70s, grassroots in the 90s and sustainability in 21st century, development trajectories have undergone radical changes over decades, as newer and more complex challenges emerge amidst changing socio-economic and geopolitical contexts. Inequalities today are not just about addressing economic deprivations or gaps in basic standards of living. Poverty and hunger no longer remain at the forefront of agenda, rather unequal access to opportunities which further entrenches social and economic disparities is the major concern for policy makers and politicians. Disparities in a VUCA (vulnerable, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world are multidimensional, transcending the demands for commodities which were once known as 'basic needs'. Major drivers of inequality are no longer restricted to differences in monetary endowments, as indicators like technological gaps, differing degrees of climate change vulnerability and status of gender equality determine human wellbeing in the true sense. What earlier used to be luxury in terms of accessibilities are now becoming basics: making an all-inclusive pathway towards gauging a country's growth, which is beyond economic development or growth alone. The necessities to thrive in a competitive world is constantly obstructed by a new generation of inequalities around these issues, widening the disparity between the rich and poor and eventually giving rise to a 'new great divergence'. The price of complacent inaction resulting in compounding impacts over time is further widening the gap in inequality, making retrofitting of such problems increasingly difficult. Coupled with deep imbalances in power, inequalities are consequences of embedded factors within societies, economies and political structures.

INEQUALITY IN A VULNERABLE WORLD: PERILS OF CLIMATE CHANGE: When the Industrial Revolution took place in the 1700s in the United Kingdom (UK), it spread to North Western Europe and the rest of the world and so did the discovery and use of coal, oil, gas etc. The poor countries were not into the fossil-burning scene while Europe and the rich nations continued to emit carbon until the 1960s and the top emitters were all rich industrialised countries. China and Russia joined the group of industrialised countries in the mid-20th century.

Today, it requires more than just adapting since some countries lack policy freedom and proper institutions and infrastructure to help overcome and invest in adaptation for climate change. These countries which have done the least to cause climate change and reap the benefits of carbon-heavy industries, are the least capable of adapting to it. However, it is generally accepted that industrialised countries bear a certain responsibility for adaptation to climate change in developing countries, and should bear part of the cost. Although a diversity of mechanisms, approaches and rules for funding adaptation in developing countries has been adopted by implementing agencies and governments, adaptation is generally considered to be an underdeveloped part of the climate regime.

Climate crisis and inequality continue to remain intricately intertwined, an issue that can be drawn back to a triple inequality in the process: unequal vulnerability, unequal responsibility and unequal mitigation and adaptation costs. A fourth inequality can be added to the least: those who are condemned to suffer most have the least capacity to adapt on their own. In fact, arguments about environmental justice that began back in the 1970s and 1980s in the industrial world gradually expanded and crystalised into the debate over climate change impacts few years back. Climate change and its intricate relationship with human rights have long been intertwined in history. The issues of impact of climate change, capacity to adapt and responsibility to tackle it have not yet been well-delineated. Policies which address the twin issues of expansion and allocation of income and capabilities are important to redress climate change-induced inequalities on a long-term basis.

ADDRESSING NEW DIMENSIONS: It is vital that global perspectives of inequality incorporate components that go beyond traditional measures of inequality. The 2019 Human Development Report titled 'Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century' disseminates 5 (five) key messages, one of which stresses on the perpetual nature of human deprivations and how current generations are facing divergence in enhanced capacities such as access to quality education, healthcare and economic opportunities. Pre-birth inequalities in the form of intergenerational poverty contribute to consistent periods of deprivation in forthcoming years including youth, coupled with vulnerabilities triggered by climate change. Resilience and adaptation therefore should be key areas of focus to address inequalities of a new generation. Micro-level inequalities are reflected in gender prejudices within households, below par quality of tertiary education, prevalence of rent-seeking behaviour among social elites and many other social norms are rooted in systemic inefficiencies. Inefficient allocation of scarce resources and resource concentration create unequal power dynamics between different classes of people, especially among women who are supposedly economically empowered but lack the agency, voice and dignity to make independent decisions. It is crucial that problems are addressed keeping in mind the scope of structural reform in various sectors and social contexts.

Aristotle described justice as: "The just is lawful and the just is fair" which is in consonance with distributive justice embracing economic dimensions of social justice. However, problem arises at the point in defining what is fair or equitable. One may argue that just like beauty, fairness lies in the eyes of the beholder and traces the etymological root of fari-faeger which refers to something beautiful or pleasing. This root meaning in fact conveys the sense that any deal based on justice and fairness must be really pleasing and beautiful.

A world where everyone has equal opportunities is just as beautiful, because no one is left behind.

Lamia Mohsin is currently pursuing her post-graduate (Masters) studies at the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka. She is also working as an intern at the Resilience and Inclusive Growth Cluster, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Sirazoom Munira is working as a consultant at the Resilience and Inclusive Growth Cluster at UNDP and is a part-time lecturer at the Department of Environmental Science and Management, North South University.

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