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Copenhagen is an opportunity for International Development too

2 December 2009

The problem with climate change is that it and its consequences are still somewhat esoteric. But, for the developing world the consequences will come sooner and cause hardship beyond belief, the effects of which will also hit the developed world. There’s a lot at stake at Copenhagen for the developing world and it is this factor that provides a uniquely human angle to the, as yet, academic debate around climate change.

There is welcome news of a $10 billion fund to support countries to develop their capacities to deal with climate change and it is vital that this fund becomes properly entrenched in the climate change regime. But why do we need it? Why do we, in the West, have to bail out ‘third world’ countries when we are struggling to meet the challenge ourselves?

The problems that developing countries will face are well documented: rising sea levels, desertification, and extreme weather will all cause disproportionate hardship in the developing world. Industrialisation in many developing countries is dispossessing traditional communities, eradicating swathes of forest land, and destroying the biodiversity of complex ecosystems.

But, to put it frankly, why should we do anything now?

The first point to note that climate change is a commons issue: emissions do not respect national boundaries. Therefore, if China, India, Brazil or any other industrialising country pump out tonnes of carbon using older, non-environmentally friendly technology, it still hurts us and the rest of the world. But carbon-intensive production methods are still the cheapest. Clearly, if we are to save the atmosphere we all share, we need to support developing countries in adopting environmentally friendly methods.

The other main factor is the extreme societal breakdown that would occur. Thomas Homer Dixon creates a vivid picture of the global disruption that would follow from environmental breakdown. Not for the faint-hearted, The Upside of Down describes a world where energy-scarcity provokes war, food-shortages cause mass migration and famine, growing poverty provokes insurrection and unstable violent regimes seize power. The threats to peace and security are obvious. As developing economies collapse, trade will suffer and the markets that the global North imports from and exports to will cease to provide custom.

To put it succinctly, if we do nothing to help the developing world, cataclysm is a very real possibility. Initially, our suffering will be nothing compared to that of the developing world. People living in countries without a developed social safety net will suffer disproportionately as their developing industry bases are heavily hit by extreme weather, nor will those economies be able to fund redevelopment. This is the beginning of a downward spiral that only ends in global unrest and, yes, that includes us. But it does not have to be this way: if we support developing economies in an environmentally sustainable way, the future can be much brighter.

Copenhagen may not be the only chance to secure the proper support for developing countries and their citizens, but it is most certainly the best. Minds are now targeted on climate change and its effects and can provide funding on a scale that will not be easily achieved through bilateral or private industry arrangements. As Douglas Alexander said on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, “In terms of the affordability of dealing with climate change, Nicholas Stern’s own work – the most definitive work on the economics of climate change- begs the question can we afford not to take this action?” This question underlines everything that will go on at Copenhagen, which is no less true for developing economies.

And don’t forget, if you haven’t already, to show your support for the Government’s actions at Copenhagen: sign up to Ed’s Pledge.

by Tim Nicholls

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