Climate Change Analyses: Precautionary? Principled?

By Des Gasper - 13 November 2015
Climate Change and Human Rights: Precautionary? Principled?

This column by Des Gasper is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The 2015 Paris Conference and the Task of Protecting People on a Warming Planet’, edited by Marcello Di Paola and Daanika Kamal. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in November 2015. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter using #GPclimatechange.

Vulnerable poor people are commonly marginalized or even ignored in climate change analyses, in various ways. I will note seven of these ways, which overlap but deserve separate attention.

First: climate change as a discipline has been dominated by natural sciences, and climate scientists are not primarily concerned with discussing human deaths or particular population groups, for example children. This is seen again in the Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report, in which children and death are hardly mentioned. Yet, with reference to the better-studied climate-health linkages, according to a 2002 WHO report, 150,000 deaths were attributable to climate change in the year 2000 alone; and an estimated eighty-six percent of these deaths were of babies and children below five, primarily amongst poorer families in poorer countries.

Since 2000, climate change and its impacts have increased substantially. Children, especially small children, make up the bulk of those most vulnerable to climate change and the associated extreme weather events and health hazards. Yet children received no special attention in AR5. The 13,000 word Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) of Working Group II, the AR5 report on impacts, talks of ‘human systems’ and hardly ever of ‘people’, and it never mentions children.

Second: in many cases, certain groups of people are excluded from the field of vision as the result of insistence on a specific type of data. For example, lesser-studied health effects, that is the diseases of the poor, are excluded from the estimates of health impacts because no agreed numerical estimation is available. The WHO 2002 estimate excluded health impacts of many infectious diseases (e.g., chikungunya), agricultural pests and pathogens, air-pollutants, spores and pollens, salination, changed water availability, conflict, and the longer-term effects of the destruction caused by weather disasters. The researchers did warn that the excluded health consequences were probably larger than those they had estimated; yet later work has regularly cited the 150,000 deaths per year as if it were a complete estimate.

A 2014 WHO update study similarly considers only some of the expected health effects: it includes mortality but not morbidity impacts, and only deaths due to some diseases and some causal paths. It excluded extra mortality due to coastal flooding because it could not put a model-based figure on it; and it similarly excluded all ‘the effects of economic damage, major heatwave events, river flooding and water scarcity [; and] …the impacts of climate change on human security, for example through increases in migration’ (pp. 1-2).

The third element in our list is precisely the relatively low attention accorded to extreme weather events, also resulting from specific quantitative modelling requirements. Extremes of temperature, wind and precipitation as in heat-waves, hurricanes and droughts are ‘outlier’ events that we know are happening with increasing frequency but find little mention of them in our ‘core’ predictions figures. Most of the health impacts of extreme climate events are not included even in the 2014 WHO assessment.

Fourth: there is very limited inclusion of very-low-probability(in any one year)-but-very-high-damage shifts: not episodic but long-run ‘outlier’ possibilities of huge importance that can happen, though we do not know when and how fast, or whether they will be counteracted by other forces. These possibilities include melting of the permafrost that will release methane and substantially accelerate global warming, or destabilization of the West Antarctica ice-cap. More generally, we can expect disproportionately increasing harm as various ecological and social thresholds are crossed, taking us beyond the bounds to which the existing systems are well-adapted. However, in the absence of a widely accepted quantification of what that disproportionate impact might be, these possibilities are omitted. The concept of ‘tipping-point’ is virtually absent from the AR5 SPMs. In the absence of a confident quantification of Antarctic ice-cap melt, IPCC reports leave it out. The WHO studies on health impacts assume not only that there will not be climate tipping points but also no other ecological or social crises that could affect coping capacity. However, inability to confidently make a quantitative assessment does not justify ignoring a phenomenon or assuming a zero figure. Zero is the least likely impact.

Fifth: in some cases, downgrading or excluding vulnerable groups comes via the choice of specific quantification methods and techniques. Aggregative monetized evaluations were emphasized in the Stern Review of 2007 and the World Development Report on Climate Change of 2010. Such an approach gives low weight to effects on poor people (since the money value of their earnings and assets, and that which is assigned to their comfort and convenience, are low), and allows gains for the rich to outweigh losses for the poor (now, and for poor people in the future). Further, it underplays non-monetized effects such as political instability. The common practice of discounting the future downgrades the interests of future generations, and assumes that lives lost in the future can be treated just like foregone money and traded-off against other monetized values. We should instead, as Shue argued, reject policy options that cause deaths and drive ourselves to find or create other options.

Sixth: many exclusions arise through a compartmentalized perspective that separately estimates impacts within sectors, based on models that assume closed sectors in order to allow precise calculations and underplay how insecurity in people’s lives is produced by the local intersections of multiple forces that cross sectors, as well as disciplinary and national boundaries. The Stern Review, for example, looked separately at the economic costs of climate change per sector, in both rich and poor countries. This underemphasised the interactions between sectors, such as the impacts of political instability, and the cross-over impacts on rich countries due to instability in poor countries.

Seventh: in estimates of climate-change impacts on persons, especially health impacts, we repeatedly find ‘conservative’ estimates. Each of the four main reports prepared by IPCC since 1990 have later been seen to underplay the intensity of global warming and its impacts. Stage-by-stage ‘conservatism’ permeates the whole process of projecting futures and estimating impacts, not only in the matters we already referred to. For example, ‘conservative’ estimates are made with respect to the length of time that CO2 will remain in the atmosphere; and the volume of emissions attributed to rich country consumers frequently excludes the emissions related to their consumption of imported products. ‘Conservative’ here means low, often demonstrably too low – in order to ‘play safe’ and avoid criticism from financially and politically powerful devotees of fossil-fuelled economic growth. The cumulative impact of such conservatism is not just additive; it can exponentially diminish some of the overall estimates.

Climate change is especially dangerous for babies and small children in low-income families and in the tropics. But this reality becomes marginalized by patterns of analysis that are ‘conservative’. We need to consider exactly what is being conserved here – certainly not the interests and lives of the populations who face higher risks.

The burden of proof in climate change politics is frequently placed entirely on the side of those who warn of dangers. This constitutes an inversion of the precautionary principle—the principle of taking precautions against major possible threats even when they are not precisely known risks—in order to use it to instead protect the interests of privileged high-income consumers. The factors that we mentioned earlier all contribute to this inversion: the ‘impersonal gaze’ of natural sciences that tend not to focus on particular population groups; the insistence on model-based quantification; monetized assessments; and assumptions of closed sectors. But in addition, the inversion reflects a self-preoccupation by the affluent. More than just a failure to apply a precautionary principle for the poorest groups, the inversion of the principle ultimately means that its application is used to take precautions against causing disturbances to already privileged high-volume greenhouse gas emitters.

In engineering designs in rich countries, being conservative means including high safety margins, covering for even very low probability cases. Typically, a constituency exists of politically and culturally empowered high-income citizens whose life-risks must be taken seriously by the engineers and officials who commission or monitor them. In climate change analyses, by contrast, the main risks arising from high-income-citizens’ consumption-and-production patterns fall on low-income people far away in space and time. Being ‘conservative’, in this case, comes too frequently to mean leaving out what are considered low-probability high-risk cases, and excluding all aspects for which confident quantification is not yet possible.

Many of the impacts with biggest human significance are the least precisely predictable, such as when climate change will contribute to physical tipping points or trigger major conflict. These impacts are largely excluded from IPCC estimates in order to present only the estimated effects for which there are high consensus. Priority seems to be given to avoiding the ‘risk’ of not being precise in estimates, above the risk of major life-damage to weaker groups.

The procedure is justifiable in a particular sense, but for reasons which reflect a prioritization of the interests of already rich groups. The purpose of the procedure is to test whether, even when using the most ‘conservative’ set of assumptions, the harmful effects that are identified as consequences of human activity have the magnitude and ethical importance to demand changes in the patterns of activity that generate them. If the answer is yes, then major policy implications arise despite the disagreements surrounding how much greater and precise the harmful effects are likely to be. Here, the purpose of using so-called ‘conservative’ assumptions is to prevent postponement of agreement on action until there is a resolution of the disagreements, a resolution which could take decades.

Unfortunately the minimalist estimates made for that purpose, such as those that arguably occur in some IPCC work, are liable to become interpreted in policy debates as being the maximalist claims of climate-change alarmists. Minimalist proposed policy implications become treated as being ambitious maxima, rhetorical ideals that so-called political realists may honour in words but never expect to actualize. Thus, in practice, even the minimalist targets (like that of a supposedly still-just-about safe 2 degrees C level of global warming) are traded-away for the sake of politicians’ shorter-term goals. In the absence of near-certainty, more evidence is demanded to avoid the ‘risk’ that emissions might be unnecessarily reduced, while the risks of major damage to the lives of vulnerable people who are remote in space, time and political centrality, are tolerated.


Des Gasper is Professor of Human Development, Development Ethics and Public Policy, at the International Institute of Social Studies (at The Hague) of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

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