Beyond a Politics of the Possible? South-North Relations and Climate Justice

By Mickelson, Karin | Melbourne Journal of International Law, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond a Politics of the Possible? South-North Relations and Climate Justice


Mickelson, Karin, Melbourne Journal of International Law


This symposium's issue on 'Climate Justice and International Environmental Law: Rethinking the North-South Divide" asks contributors 'to explore the intersection between law and emerging ideas of climate justice, and how international environmental law is shaped by and in turn reshapes (or fixates, or interrogates) our understandings of the North-South divide '. In relation to the former, I posit that there appears to be a profound disconnect between the law and the polities of climate change, one that reflects a broader disconnect between those who view the challenge posed by climate change through an ethical lens, and those who see it in pragmatic terms. In relation to the latter, I consider the various arguments as to why we need to rethink North-South relations, and explain why many of those arguments need to be critically evaluated in terms of their embedded assumptions. I conclude by arguing that climate change requires us to move beyond a 'politics of the possible' to a 'polities of the improbable '.

CONTENTS

  I Introduction
 II A New Era of Climate Change?
III A New Era of South-North Relations?
 IV A New Kind of Climate Change Polities

Politics is the art of the possible.

Otto von Bismarck (l)

Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

J K Galbraith (2)

I INTRODUCTION

The Editors have posed a challenging set of questions to be addressed in this symposium issue on 'Climate Justice and International Environmental Law: Rethinking the North-South Divide'. As I have pondered these questions, I have joined thousands of others throughout the world who are doing much the same thing this year. The year 2009 has become critically important in the minds of those who follow the climate change negotiations, with the deadline for achieving a post-Kyoto consensus looming at the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December. On the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ('UNFCCC') website, a 'Countdown to Copenhagen' appears in a prominent position, with the days, hours, minutes and seconds all ticking away. When I first saw it, I could not help thinking of the famous 'Doomsday Clock', (3) which has long been used to illustrate how close we are to catastrophic destruction. The analogy was heightened when I learned that the organisation that maintains the 'Doomsday Clock', now monitors climate-changing technologies as one of the means by which humanity could obliterate itself. (4)

As awareness of the potentially calamitous impacts of climate change has grown and spread, the recognition of how profoundly those impacts will affect the most vulnerable and marginalised has also increased. While an understanding of the ethical dimensions of climate change is by no means a recent phenomenon, (5) notions of 'climate justice' are gaining increasing visibility in the current discourse regarding climate change. In 2002, representatives from a wide range of social and environmental justice organisations met in Bali to proclaim the 'Bali Principles of Climate Justice', in which they resolved 'to begin to build an international movement of all peoples for Climate Justice'. (6) Since then, civil society groups and movements from all over the world have taken up that challenge with enormous dedication and enthusiasm. (7) From Durban (8) to Bangkok, (9) Brussels (10) to Belem, (11) meetings on climate justice have been held on every continent. The resulting declarations and documents have always insisted upon the need to foreground equity in the climate change negotiations, and often called for a fundamental shift in our political and economic systems and thinking. Furthermore, governments have also invoked the language of climate justice. For example, speaking at a 'Technical Briefing on Historical Responsibility as a Guide to Future Action to Address Climate Change', on 4 June 2009, (12) Bolivian Ambassador Angelica Navarro emphasised her state's particular vulnerability to climate change, before going on to deliver an impassioned plea that historical responsibility must be seen as the basis for an enormous and unpaid 'carbon debt' that is part of a broader ecological debt owed by developed countries to developing countries. …

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