All posts by Erin Nash

Erin is a Research Assistant to Professor Ian Gough at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a consultant researcher for the International Institute for Environment and Development. She has a ten years of experience in sustainable development and holds a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Hons) and a Masters in Philosophy and Public Policy from the LSE. She is particularly interested the ethical dimensions of climate change and sustainable development. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinJNash

Climate change is the biggest risk to progress in global development. Here’s what you need to know

The most comprehensive assessment to date of the social, economic and ecological consequences of human-induced climate change was released by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Japan today.

The IPCC, a collective of hundreds of scientists and other experts from around the world, provides a stark illustration of the likely consequences of climate change if we continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions and destroy forests and other carbon sinks at current rates.

The report warns that without the adequate mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and the implementation of suitable adaptation strategies, the changes to Earth’s climate system under ‘business as usual’ scenarios pose very real risks to undermining growth, progress and human welfare. In short, undoing decades of progress made in international development.


This is turn, the report cautions, presents a greater risk of violent conflicts, such as civil wars, by augmenting evidenced ‘drivers’ such as poverty, natural resource scarcity, and economic instability. The report also states that climate change will increase the risk of the unplanned displacement of people and lead to changes in migration patterns.

It may be some decades until we start seeing the worst impacts of climate change manifest. And, whilst there is definitely still time to curb our emissions and reduce the intensity and frequency of the impacts we will see, the negative effects of climate change are already being felt across the world.

The Government of Kirabati, for example, claims that its freshwater supplies have already been affected by the intrusion of salt water due to sea level rise caused by anthropogenic climate change. Indigenous Alaskans know they must relocate due to erosion of their village by rising sea levels, but they do not have the $130 million required to migrate. It’s not clear who exactly is responsible for financing such adaptation solutions.

Over in Panama, scientists from the Smithsonian Research Institute estimate that the indigenous Kuna people, who have been living on the islands of the San Blas archipelago for thousands of years, will be inevitably displaced within the next 20-30 years. Even in the United Kingdom and Australia, aspects of recent flooding and bushfire events can be attributed to climate change.

Importantly, the groups and populations likely to be most harmed by climate change are developing countries and the poorer citizens of nations that are the least responsible for emissions, and who have the least resources to cope with its consequences. Climate change, therefore, represents a “double injustice”, making it one of the most pressing concerns for global development.

Required reading

Read the IPCC’s ‘Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: Summary for Policy-Makers’ and the full report, including chapters on the implications of climate change for ‘Livelihoods and Poverty’, ‘Human Health’ and ‘Human Security’.

To get up to speed with climate science, climate change and its impacts, and to help you to understand how it might affect your sector and assist you in considering  how you might mainstream adaptation and mitigation activities through your own work program, you might want to try one of the following  *free* e-learning courses:

Climate change and epistemic injustice

“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance” – Socrates

Whilst I don’t agree entirely with Socrates that these are the only good and evil in our world, I certainly agree with him in relation to the broad substance and force of both knowledge and ignorance within our society. I’ve recently become interested in knowledge and its importance in helping to secure social justice and awareness of climate change. The distributional and discriminatory injustices associated with knowledge are known as ‘epistemic injustices’. The word epistemic simply refers to knowledge or knowing. Whilst there has been much commentary around other fairness-related issues inherent to climate change, this seems to be a bit of an overlooked issue. I thought about this as I sat on the bare wooden floor of a stilted hut on the banks of the Mekong in a remote part of Cambodia.

I’m originally from Australia. We have one of the highest per capita rates of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and rank 15th out of 196 countries overall in terms of total emissions. In stark contrast, my hosts, indigenous Khmai, have some of the lowest emissions on the planet and are the 121st ranked country in terms of total emissions. The average Australian burns 61 times more CO2 than the average Cambodian, and as a whole, emits 87 times more than Cambodia. Despite this, Cambodians will be some of the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, whilst in comparison, I will likely be ‘okay’ even though I have had a greater contribution to the creating the problem.

You might be surprised that despite scientific consensus regarding human activity as the predominant causal factor of climate change, more than half of my fellow Australians don’t believe that climate change is happening, or that humans are to blame. Come September, we might even have a climate-change denier as our Prime Minister, who has committed to abolishing Australia’s carbon price if elected. I have become increasingly disappointed by the attitudes and politics prevalent within my country in respect to climate change, especially because on top of being responsible for this problem in a big way, we may even hold the key to solving it, but continue to squander opportunities. Australia is being a laggard, when it could be a leader. People I meet have the perception that Australians are ‘progressive’, care deeply about their ‘natural wonders’, and give everybody a ‘fair go’. In our response to climate change, are we being ‘un-Australian’?

But you might be more shocked to discover that although more than 80% of Cambodians have heard of climate change, 67% do not link climate change to global greenhouse gas emissions, instead erroneously believing that deforestation within Cambodia is solely to blame.

Confronted with these realities, eye-to-eye with the climate change victims who will suffer the most, I felt sobered, and in some ways, quite uncomfortable as a guest in their village and the beneficiary of their generous hospitality.

It quickly became evident that there’s no direct translation for the term ‘climate change’ in Khmer (the language of Cambodia). It translates as ‘Kar PreProul Akas Theat’, or ‘weather changes’, because the words for ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ are very similar in Khmer (‘akas theat’ and ‘theat akas’). This is important because as we understand in English, weather and climate, although related, are not the same thing. I understand that Khmer is not the only language for which this is the case.

I wondered whether this missing nuance could partly explain why most of Cambodia’s citizens do not understand what is happening to them and who is to blame? Was this akin to Orwell’s ‘newspeak’? Perhaps it might be Whorfianism, the idea that a language influences the way a speaker thinks about their world, in action?

Or maybe the more powerful causal factor was the existing background injustice of an unfair distribution of information, education and knowledge?

Similarly, I questioned why more than half of the population of one of the countries most at fault were seemingly so ignorant of the consequences of their actions, and the harms and wrongs they are, and will be, responsible for causing to others?

What most concerns me though, is that this might not be merely a case of bad luck: we could potentially have what the philosopher Miranda Fricker, calls ‘hermeneutical injustice’, on our hands. The word ‘hermeneutic’ means interpretation. It comes under the umbrella of epistemic injustices, and occurs when people are unfairly prevented from accessing the conceptual resources required to make sense of their social experiences. They are the result of existing inequalities, such as the disparities in resources and education. A group is ‘hermeneutically marginalised’ when their hermeneutical participation with respect to significant areas of social experience is unequal to that of other groups, and that inequality redounds to this group’s disadvantage.

Fricker uses the example of women previously not understanding that under certain circumstances they were being ‘wronged’ before the concept of ‘sexual harassment’ was understood, developed and integrated into our culture. This knowledge has vital importance to us because as Fricker notes, the liberal ideal of freedom requires contestation, and contestation requires epistemic justice.

Can analogies be drawn between these examples, and what is happening in relation to climate change? Perhaps the answer to this question is not clear, because it cannot be answered until more people are become aware of the truth about the source of climate change… or in the case of some, stop denying it. We cannot continue to act as if how we’re currently responding to climate change is morally permissible. At best, we’re moving at a snail’s pace, despite an increasing urgency to act radically.  At worst, we may have already crossed a tipping point and have no option than to hand over a tragically impoverished future to posterity.

Looking back over history, you can see that this phenomenon, so entwined with the operation of social power, was prevalent during many of what are now considered our greatest moral failures: the domination of South Africans of colour under Apartheid, the silence and cooperation of the German public during Hitler’s regime, and the once-normality of slavery in the U.S. Whilst we continue to go down the current path of our emissions-fueled, resource-intensive lifestyles, imposing quality of life reductions on the already disadvantaged and yet to exist, one may possibly be correct to label this as a form of domination, oppression, racism, and marginalisation, albeit a subtler variety.

I believe what appears to be a void in our collective moral understanding and practices is currently one of the biggest barriers to genuine and effective action on climate change.

Whilst it would be naive to think that the provision of more information will be the only thing to help us steer a more ethical course, information containing the truth could be one the most important resources for Cambodians and Australians alike. As one Cambodian council leader noted: “I do not know what resources I need because I do not understand about [climate change]. I think the best [resource] is knowledge.”

This is a cross post from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research website, reproduced with permission from the author.

Sachs on sustainable development and the ‘SDGs’

Whilst excitement for many is getting to see their favourite Hollywood star in the flesh, you know you’re a development junkie when your equivalent is sitting in a lecture theatre listening to one of the world’s most renowned economists speak on sustainable development.

Though he probably needs no introduction to WhyDev readers, Jeffrey Sachs is special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, as well as Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Most well known for his role in the Millennium Project, he’s now a key player in the post-2015 development agenda, and was in London to promote sustainable development and the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs).

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Sachs emphasised that globalisation has lead to rapid economic growth in developing countries, which has no doubt contributed to successfully meeting three of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and for raised living standards in many parts of the world.

However, this development presents a paradox, as simultaneously, it is also responsible for us fast approaching (if not already exceeding) our planetary boundaries. This collision has the potential to undermine decades of international development efforts and create a raft of new challenges for a sector already struggling to meet it’s strategic objectives.

Sachs believes that the issue of planetary boundaries, the critical limits we must learn to live within, is the most pertinent challenge of our generation. He essentially places much of the blame for our unsustainable habits on the failures of free market economics, which once excluded primary resources from growth models, consistently demonstrates a blind and insensitive attitude towards negative externalities, and has not yet demonstrated that it can deal effectively with issues of global and intergenerational justice.

However, as Sachs pointed out, markets are not alone there: our moral systems, with our evolved psychological biases for those closest to us, and political structures which are designed around short-term gains within sovereign borders, also fail dismally in responding effectively and efficiently to these issues.

So what’s the solution? How can we ensure that our efforts are sustainable? How can we help people understand that environmental protection and development are not mutually exclusive projects? It’s clear that there’s (too) much at stake if these agendas do not converge. As Sachs pointed out “We actually don’t have a choice.”

At Rio+20 last year, governments decided that one of the key steps is to create a set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’.

Whilst Sachs didn’t go into detail about the SDGs in this public lecture, I’m aware that he’s advocating that these goals be structured around four key pillars:

  • Ending extreme poverty
  • Social inclusion
  • Environmental agenda
  • Governance

Sach’s categories are very similar to those being put forward by a coalition of international development think tanks being led by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

But it’s not clear at this stage whether the SDGs will replace, or sit alongside and complement the MDGs in the post-2015 development agenda. It seems that there’s a number of questions we need to be asking as these goals are developed:

  • What’s missing from the MDGs and the international development policy agenda? For example, resource scarcity, energy access, ecosystem degradation and climate change were all lacunas in the original set of MDGs developed in 2000.
  • Will the goals be global in scope, or confined to developing nations, as the MDGs were?
  • To what extent should reducing inequalities be an explicit goal? This seems like a critical consideration in relation to the development-environment nexus, both in terms of the unequal distribution of the impacts of climate change between developed and developing countries, and also the opportunity for economic growth, which developed countries have already been privileged with.
  • What are the pros and cons of having just one set of integrated goals?
  • Is there scope within the goals to build in the intrinsic value of the environment, and if so, then what weight ought it be given?

I’d be interested to hear WhyDev readers’ views on these questions.

But Sachs’s messages were clear. Unfortunately there’s a ticking clock on this task, and the transformations that need to occur need to occur much quicker. “This isn’t a game… we must take climate predications morally seriously. The ultimate change agent in the world is knowledge, but time is short.”

The full recording of the public lecture can be accessed here.


Love in a cold climate…change?

By Erin Nash and Brendan Rigby

Last week, we conducted an online survey to get a feel for the dating and love landscape in the aid sector. Over 115 people responded. The findings will shock you; well, not really, but they are revealing nonetheless. First, some highlights:

  • 78% of ‘Love in the Field’ survey respondents were women, and 22% men. As we suspected, this highlights the gender-segregation of international development alongside careers such as primary school teaching and social work (where women make up 80 and 81 percent of those fields respectively). Or, perhaps it could be representative of women’s attraction to filling out surveys. However, this result is also consistent with the ratio of women to men in WhyDev’s new Peer Coaching Pilot Program.

  • Approximately 88% of survey respondents were straight and around 12% identified as being part of the LGBTIQ community – that’s 2.5 times more than the average general population representation in western communities#. That makes the per capita ‘queerness’ of the international development sector on par with some of the world’s most sexuality-diverse cities like Seattle or Boston in the USA or Brighton in the UK (but still 3% away from the likes of San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro).

  • If you’re a woman in international development, you’re twice as likely to be single as a man, which strikes us as a little bit unfair.

  • 80% of women said they had no preference when it came to dating from within or outside the aid sector, which was roughly equivalent to the preferences of men (76%). But, almost twice as many women said it was essential that they dated another aid worker, whereas more than twice as many men said that they’d prefer to date someone who is not an aid worker….whoops, it looks like there’s a potentially irreconcilable difference between the genders there.

And, perhaps the most ego-destroying/-boosting finding –  how do the sexes rate the ‘fish in the sea’ in their current locations? This is where the story gets interesting.

  • Women, on average, rated the ‘fish’ 4 out of 10. And although women rated better, men gave women, on average, just 6 out of 10.

What’s going on here? Are these surprisingly low evaluations confined to the aid sector, or is it a phenomenon currently sweeping the entire world? Last week, this image to the right was the front cover of a magazine freely available at London Tube stations summarising the findings of a recent census of more than 9000 women in the UK.

According to the ‘Fair and Balanced’ media outlet, Fox News, in a recent article titled “The war on men”, the ‘battle of the sexes’ is alive and well, with women perceiving a scarcity of ‘good’ men in society. The article attributes this to ‘women not being women’ anymore.

Women have changed (and this goes beyond having a degree and watching porn). In many places, they are no longer being defined by men. The feminist project over the last several decades has empowered women to demand holistic equality with their male counterparts and women now have more freedom to characterise their gender, socio-economic roles,  sexuality and relations in society through their own eyes.

The flow-on effects of such moves perhaps lay beyond imagination – as Hanna Rosin wrote in “The End of Men”, as women have ascended higher, men have been falling behind. Relative to women, men have been rapidly declining — in income, educational attainment, and future employment prospects.  Women hold 51.4% of all managerial and professional positions, up from 26% in 1980. Today they outnumber men not only in university, but also in graduate school; women earned 60% of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in 2010, and men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma. Earlier this year, Time reported that women are on track to surpass men when it comes to making money.

How are these social changes affecting the ‘love market’? Post-liberation, what is it that women want romantically and sexually? This seems to be the million dollar question, and perhaps one that women are still figuring out for themselves, according to psychology professor Meredith Chivers, who researches female sexuality. Chivers is concerned that the data she collects on women’s desires represents only the creation of culture, not an underlying truth, due to thousands of years of oppression and regulation of the female eros, which has left women’s lust “…dampened, distorted and inaccessible to understanding”.

And let’s not forget that despite much progress in gender equality within some societies, this oppression is still entrenched in communities across the world in both obvious and subtle ways, through female gential mutilation, domestic violence, rape, heteronormativity, and lack of access to education.

Fortunately, Suzanne Vencker, author of the Fox News article “The war on men”, has a solution:

“There is good news: women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs. If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.”

Obviously, the only desire men have in a relationship is marriage. They want to marry a woman who is ‘natural’, ‘feminine’, still wears a corset and cannot vote. Clearly, men are not afraid of commitment; it’s just that there are not enough marriageable women these days. There are plenty of marriageable men, even in the aid sector despite a 4/10; they are just hiding behind wood. If women continue to change, as Vencker warns, irreversible damage could occur to the evolutionary process (if only most Fox News reporters, writers and presenters believed in evolution; paradox?). It seems that Alan Jones is not alone in voicing his concern that women are ‘destroying the joint’.

But, what exactly is it to be a woman, or be a man? Cootz may have an answer of sorts to this question in the Myth of the Male Decline:

“…one thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood”.

Mattel, makers of Barbie, will release a new model that comes with a toolbelt and a Swedish toy catalogue depicts boys playing with dolls and girls shooting toy guns. Maybe we are on the cusp of a new era of opportunity for gender equality and social relations? Only time will tell.

Although 40% of you (both men and women) indicated that you’d consider leaving your current location to find a romantic partner, we hope that if you decide to move on, that that isn’t your primary motivation. Not only have we tried to show you that your luck might not be better elsewhere, we intuitively agree with Nora Ephron (screenwriter of classics such as ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘When Harry Met Sally’) when she says, “You can’t meet someone until you’ve become what you’re becoming” – which may in fact be in some random field location in a newly formed country. You just never know.


Love actually…is all around the aid world

By Erin Nash and Brendan Rigby

Love in the humanitarian field is a tough game – at least according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) news service in a recent post entitled, ‘Fifty Shades of Aid’. Having worked/currently working in the sector ourselves, we tend to agree with their observations; that finding that ‘special someone’ can be a bit trickier for aid workers. We know that there are at least 52 reasons to date an aid worker, but where are they and how can you find them? Is it hard or just bruised egos? Perhaps you might find them through WhyDev’s Peer Coaching Pilot Program or online dating over at AidSource?

Anecdotally, we hear objections about the lack of prospective partners in the field mostly from women; straight men in international development seem to have it made, with high rates of quality and low rates of competition. The offspring of these couples, a post-2015 generation, will be better placed genetically to end global poverty. Multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-intelligent – they will blow all other Generations before them away. It is never too early to dub them ‘Generation xXx’ (like the Vin Diesel movie, pronounced ‘triple x’). In fact, we are sure many aid workers could relate, or have delusions of grandeur similar, to the storyline of Vin’s xXx:

“Xander Cage is your standard adrenaline junkie with no fear and a lousy attitude. When the US Government ‘recruits’ him to go on a mission, he’s not exactly thrilled. His mission: to gather information on an organization that may just be planning the destruction of the world, led by the nihilistic Yorgi” (IMDB).

Substitute the ‘nihilistic Yorgi’ for ‘Global Poverty’, and Xander Cage could be an aid worker.

If this is the story on the heterosexual-front, what’s happening on the LGBTIQ scene? And where are the best locations to be based, if you do happen to be in the market?

We’d like to get to the bottom of these questions at WhyDev, and to enable us to do that, we need as many people as possible globally to fill in a quick survey below. We’ll share the results with you in a post next week. But, before we launch into that, we’re also asking, as might you be wondering at this stage, ‘What’s love got to do with it’?

Love. That incredibly powerful word that means so many different things, to different people. The diversity of these conceptions, combined with the complexity of the emotions involved, means that there is no universal definition of love (although Hollywood and Carrie Bradshaw try). But despite this, it certainly seems to be something that all humans intuitively understand the essence of, and could perhaps be, humanity’s uniting force.

But, when compelled by one type of love to take a field-based position to assist in the fight for various egalitarian ideals, are we exposing ourselves to an inequality and disadvantage in life? Of finding that most prized and sought after type of love which makes the world go round – romance?

What is romance? What is romance between humanitarian workers? What is romance in the field? Carrie Bradshaw might actually be instructive here (and we’re sorry if her voice is suddenly narrating this post like a Sex and The City episode):

“When men attempt bold gestures, generally it’s considered romantic. When women do it, it’s often considered desperate or psycho”.

Romantic love lights up areas of the brain linked to the reward system, and releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine that lead to pleasure ‘highs’. It’s no wonder that there are reports of aid workers leaving the field in search of a partner when you learn that it is the release of these same hormones and stimulation of the same regions of the brain that produces the euphoria people feel when people take drugs like cocaine.

However, intoxication and addiction aren’t enough for a sustainable love. Although vital in the process, this intense period is programmed not to last. So, not only do you have to find someone that passionately rocks the caudate nuclei and ventral tegmental areas of your brain, but you also have to find someone who will provoke the release of the ‘cuddle’ hormone, oxytocin, and vasopressin, which promotes bonding and leads to attachment, and a mellower, but longer-lasting love.

You’re looking for a chemical cocktail, which like all good cocktails, has precisely the right proportions of each ingredient. This is a difficult task, one that can be challenging enough in your ‘default world’ of speed dating, The Bachelorette and waiting more than three days for him to call you. Therefore, the odds are looking tougher for the aid worker who’s looking for their life partner while fighting power cuts, poor Internet connections and waiting more than three days for the water to be turned back on.

The importance of picking the ‘right’ life partner for yourself can not be underestimated either. There is perhaps no other decision that has a larger influence on shaping your life, than your choice of partner.

But when you are in the ‘right’ relationship, this love is expansive, and society also reaps the flow on effects of your blissful flourishing. It trickles down. When in love, you’re reported to have higher productivity, attention, and goal-oriented behavior. And, through the release of endorphins, a greater sense of well-being and security.

Surging dopamine can also leave those love-struck taking exquisite delight in the smallest things, and people with higher levels of oxytocin, the ‘moral molecule’, have been found to be more trusting and empathetic, and behave more generously. Imagine what a greater proportion of enamored aid workers could do for the sector (and are hopefully practicing what they preach in terms of safe sex behaviours).

So, if the lack of partner availability turns out to be a real, not perceived, issue, it could have important implications for international development. We may need to recommend to donors that to achieve better outcomes in the field, they may have to direct funding towards recruitment campaigns to bolster the quantity of potential partners for aid workers in the field; particularly of men. It could be considered a gender mainstreaming activity. At the very least, we could hold UN Speed Dating Coordination Nights (UNSDCN) and host a dating reality TV show called ‘Beneficiary of Love‘.

Until then, fill in our survey, and we’ll get back to you on which locations you could strategically place yourself  in to give yourself the best chance if you’re an aid worker looking for love.

Love in the Field Survey

Climate Change and migration: what we need to be doing right now

It is scientific fact that human’s emissions of greenhouse gases, together with the destruction of carbon sinks (e.g. forests), are causing changes in our climate. It should therefore should not be a matter of ‘debate’, in the same way that we understand that there is a relationship between smoking and cancer. I find myself perplexed by sections of the general public who still listen to and internalise the views of media and industry personalities who have an ‘opinion’ on Climate Change science, without appropriate qualifications.  I’m extremely concerned by the findings in the latest Lowy Institute Poll which shows a severe decline over the past six years in the number of Australians who think Climate Change is a serious and pressing problem which should be acted on now (down to 36% in 2012 from 68% in 2006 – see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Australians views on addressing climate change/global warming: A tracking question that presents Australians with three options for dealing with global warming reveals for the first time that those favouring an intermediate approach to the problem now outnumber Australians favouring the most aggressive form of action. Only a third (36%) of Australians now support the most aggressive form of action, down from two-thirds (68%) back in 2006 who said ‘global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.’ Source: The Lowy Institute Poll 2012.

The world’s most qualified and experienced climate scientists, like James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the most honored climate commentators, such as Bill McKibben, continue to warn us that Climate Change is here, and that it’s worse than expected. Scientific projections have already been exceeded, and we’re hurtling towards a number of irreversible tipping points, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity.

The socio-economic impacts of Climate Change are enormous and the implications for human well-being are frightening. However, there’s a stark disconnect between those countries who are causing the problem, and those countries which will be hardest hit. As you can see highlighted in the map below (Figure 2), the countries facing extreme risks under Climate Change scenarios are predominantly poor developing nations in Asia and Africa, whilst those countries facing low risks are predominantly the wealthy developed nations who are largely responsible for anthropogenic Climate Change, through greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 3) and driving the market demands which have lead to forest (carbon sink) loss.

Figure 2: Global Climate Change vulnerability index. Source: Maplecroft 2011


Figure 3: Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions: The following graphs present the total and per capita carbon dioxide emissions for the top 16 countries identified as most vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, the 11 countries identified as least vulnerable to climate change in figure 2, and four important economies and/or emitters (China, Australia, U.K and U.S.A) for comparison. Note that emissions data is only that of carbon dioxide from energy consumption and does not include the emission of carbon dioxide from other sources, or the emissions other greenhouse gases, which have up to 32 000 times more warming potential compared to carbon dioxide. Source: Data generated using data from International Energy Statistics via The Guardian.


Despite James Hansen’s calls earlier this year highlighting Climate Change as a ‘moral issue on par with slavery’, it’s still failed to spark the moral outrage one might expect of it. In an enlightening piece by Markowitz and Sherrif in Nature (but more accessible in article by David Roberts in Grist) the authors explain why it hasn’t, but how it could. Although they point to the abstractness and cognitive complexity of Climate Change as one of the factors, I think that the authors missed a crucial, finer element in their analysis, which is that many of the people who will be hit hardest by Climate Change, still don’t even have a word for ‘Climate Change’ in their languages (such as in Khmer in Cambodia). Maybe the fact that the ‘victims’ do not understand Climate Change, ‘where it’s coming from’ and who’s responsible is key as to why Climate Change has not yet become the moral issue it could.

In these countries, Climate Change will lead to increased frequencies and intensities of drought, flooding, coastal inundation and erosion, storms and other weather-related disasters.  These hazards will have a number of direct and indirect effects on people and communities, including reduced availability of and access to land and natural resources, threatening food and water security, and therefore livelihoods and mortality. Individuals, families and communities will attempt to adapt to changing environmental conditions, but many will be forced to use mobility as a last resort adaptation strategy, leaving their homes in order to survive. This has the potential to trigger conflicts with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources. A recent study by UNHCR in the Horn of Africa found that that cross-border movement hardly ever occurs as a direct reaction to climatic stress. However, this is under today’s climate conditions, and we understand future stresses to be of magnitudes never experienced by humans before, which could affect whole countries and regions. However, the report also stated that UNHCR has also observed that environmental considerations are increasingly affecting the movement of refugees and internally displaced persons in the East and Horn of Africa.

The same study found that violent conflicts, and state failure and repression, reduced the capacity of communities exposed to extreme weather events to cope with and adapt to these climate-related hazards, resulting in an increased vulnerability to other more severe political factors, which lead to their forced migration. The interaction between Climate Change and conflict was acknowledged by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2007 and awareness of climate change as a threat to issues of peace and national and international security is building. Late last year, the United States Department of Defense released a report on ‘Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security’.

There is a growing body of empirical evidence on the links between Climate Change and human mobility. Although there are no agreed definitions, academic literature uses terms such as environmental or climate change migration, environmentally induced or forced migration, ecological or environmental refugees, and climate change refugees. The lack of clear definitions relates to two issues:

  1. The difficulty of isolating environmental or climate-related factors from other drivers of migration.
  2. Debate as to whether environmental/climate related migration is forced or voluntary. Many commentators argue that it should be considered along a continuum.

At this point in time, UNHCR has rejected the concept of environmental or climate refugee, stating that the 1951 Refugee Convention protects those escaping from Climate Change-induced events only under specific circumstances which can be interpreted as “persecution” on one of five grounds set out in the Convention. Is it time then, to review this convention? Or develop a new convention to sit alongside it, to ensure that future climate refugees’ human rights are protected and provided for? The inaction of governments on an international scale to address Climate Change could be considered covert global tyranny on already poverty-stricken and vulnerable societies. We have a collective responsibility to protect and aide these people, particularly considering that we are the ones who have caused this issue in the first place.

How many climate refugees there will be in the future is a controversial topic. One of the most cited figures is Oxford University’s Norman Myer’s estimation of 150-200 million extra displaced people due to Climate Change, by 2050.

To understand the magnitude of this figure, the current number of displaced people globally is 42.5 million people – only one-third to one-quarter of Myer’s estimation (Asylum Seeker Resource Centre). This includes:

  • 15.2 million refugees (10.4 million under UNHCR mandate and 4.8 million Palestinians under UNRWA mandate)
  • 895, 285 asylum seekers
  • 26.4 million internally displaced persons

Two of the most important questions regarding future climate refugees are:

  1. Where will they go?
  2. Who will pay?

Perhaps those responsible for creating the problems (ie. Climate Change) that result in the ‘forced’ displacement of people from their homes should either provide relocation for these people within their own countries, and/or finance the costs associated with Climate Change adaptation (including internal relocation) and disaster relief and restoration?

How would the number of refugees required to be accepted, or the amount of funding to be provided, be determined? Perhaps it could be determined via calculations of historical/cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, as this measure indicates the extent of individuals and society’s collective responsibility for Climate Change and the hazards it causes. It is also indicative of the quality of life citizens have been ‘lucky enough’ to have enjoyed for so long, despite it being at the expense of other people’s (future) quality of life. This would be a fair approach, and perhaps one not too unlikely to be advocated for under international law by those affected?

I often wonder whether Climate Change could one day lead to developing countries filing a negligence case (or equivalent) against developed countries? Because developed countries are currently not exercising reasonable care or taking into account the potential harm they are foreseeably causing to other people. Victims would be able to prove:

  1. That greenhouse gas emissions released by human activity caused accelerated global climate change far above and beyond the ‘natural’ background changes;
  2. That governments had known that greenhouse gases caused human-induced global climate change since the mid-late 1800s. The United Nations held its first conference on Climate Change in 1979;
  3. That these governments were aware of the potential impacts of human-induced global Climate Change since at least 1979, with scientific projections becoming more refined over time;
  4. That these governments had consciously chosen not to take appropriate action to avoid or mitigate Climate Change and its impacts, through not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, for example;
  5. That citizens of these countries had been responsible for emitting ‘X’ amount of greenhouse gases.

Despite calculations of statistics regarding climate refugees being problematic, and international frameworks for climate refugees not yet being in existence, it would be wise for the world to plan on dealing with a sizable increase in the number of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless people in the future, with more people affected the more the climate, and consequentially the environment which underpins societies and economies, changes.

With this in mind, it would be in everyone’s best interests to take action on climate change now, to avoid or reduce the future social, economic and ecological costs associated with it, in both developing and developed countries.

It is also essential that governments improve policies and processes in relation to refugees and asylum seekers now, as these systems will undoubtedly be handling much higher numbers of people and therefore be under much more pressure, within coming decades.

I also hope, that the UNHCR and related organisations continue to explore and clarify terminology around this topic, and make progress on putting in place frameworks to ensure appropriate protection and assistance is provided to ‘climate change refugees’ in the future. Doing so may also have the benefit of driving greater efforts on the climate change mitigation and adaptation fronts, which will act to delay and/or reduce the scale of climate-related impacts on communities, and in some cases will help avoid their forced migration.


Sustainable development and poverty eradication through the prism of a Green Economy

In my last two posts on sustainable development in the lead up to Rio+20, I explored the concept of sustainable development, and wondered whether it was an oxymoron, as it now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. I emphasised that it is not ‘progress’ to continue on in this way, and that at this point in history, we need a paradigm shift, and that responsibility for that shift needs to be taken at both macro- and micro- scales.

I believe that once there is this ‘will’ that once people do take responsibility at all scales and are enabled to, that it is indeed physically possible to change direction, from one where a minority of people are (temporarily) benefiting at the expense of the majority, to one in which we can all flourish, and more fully enjoy life, permanently.

I believe the mechanism to align with, and implement, this paradigm shift is the ‘green economy’ – one of Rio+20’s two themes.

An economy consists of the labour, capital, land resources, manufacturing, production, trade, distribution and consumption of good and services, within a given area. It is therefore essentially a system, with inputs (labour, resources), which go through a process (manufacturing, refining), to produce outputs (food, water, computers, clothes, waste).

The only difference between traditional economies and the proposed ‘green economy’ is that for the first time, the world would acknowledge that this system is closed and finite. There are certain resources within the system that are not renewable (such as oil), and others that are renewable but exist in finite amounts (like water – there will always be the same amount of water molecules on Earth). Additionally, we only have so much surface area on Earth, of which the carrying capacity and suitability for uses varies greatly. We would also be acknowledging that some system outputs, such as carbon dioxide, have an impact on other potential system inputs, processes, and outputs.

For the first time, we would acknowledge that our current economic systems are counter-intuitive to development and human progress, and even, ironically, in conflict with the fundamental goal of capitalism, which is to add value to commodities such that products can be purchased by an entity, transformed into more valuable products, and resold at higher prices, thus paying for all steps along the way and adding profit, indefinitely. But I have already demonstrated how our current capitalist-based market economy has failed to operate in a manner in which it will be able to exist indefinitely.

For the first time, we would also acknowledge within our economies that we need to ensure the integrity of our natural asset base, which supports and gives rise to all socio-economic values we enjoy. It needs to be maintained, and improved from it’s current degraded state, to re-balance a system that now needs to support 7 billion people (and 9 billion people by 2050).

As my sister who is a personal trainer tells me, if you want to lose weight, you have to have a negative energy balance – more energy must be output than input, therefore, diet and exercise work in tandem to achieve this balance, resulting in a net weight loss. Similarly, if we want to ‘wind back’ the Earth into balance (a condition in which it only takes one year to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans, not 1.5 years), or better, give ourselves and future generations some ‘savings’, then we need to reduce consumption and production, whilst simultaneously improving the quality and quantity of our natural asset base.

The following diagram shows that in 2012, there is no country on Earth currently living within its ecological footprint, which also meets UNDP criteria for a high quality of life. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to, and as you can see, many countries are already close, and getting closer.

The Ecological Footprint for each country (in 2008) versus the Inequality-adjusted Human Develop­ment Index (in 2011): Source: Living Planet Report – WWF 2012

The Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI) ac­counts for inequality in each of the three dimensions of the HDI – education, life expectancy and income per capita – by “dis­counting” the average value of each one ac­cording to its level of inequality. Therefore, although the general shape of this graph is the same as in Figure 11a, many countries have moved to the left. Countries with less human development tend to have greater inequality in more dimensions – and thus see larger losses in their HDI value. Note: The development thresholds are the same in both this figure and Figure 11a to make it easier to compare the two of them. The IHDI values shown here are from 2011 – for more information see UNDP, 2011 (Global Footprint Network, 2011).

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines a green economy as one that ‘…results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’. In its simplest expression, a green economy can be thought of as one which is low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive.

UNEP’s Green Economy report – Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication (2011) – indicates that a green economy has the following components:

  • Maintains and restores natural capital
  • Renewable energy and low carbon technologies replace fossil fuels
  • Promotes enhanced natural resource and energy efficiency
  • More sustainable urban living and low-carbon mobility

It also summarises a number of key enabling conditions that have proven successful in promoting a green economic transition:

  • Establishing sound regulatory frameworks
  • Prioritising investment and spending in areas that stimulate the greening of economic sectors
  • Limit spending in areas that deplete natural capital
  • Employ taxes and market-based instruments to promote green investment and innovation
  • Invest in capacity building, training, and education
  • Strengthen international governance

It does not, as many people have been concerned, replace ‘sustainable development’, but recognises that achieving sustainability rests almost entirely on getting the economy right.

It does also not, as I’m sure many people are afraid, mean the end of ‘capitalism’…I think there are both positive and negative aspects to capitalist principles and to bring about these changes quickly (as is imperative), people are going to have to know that there is money to make and jobs to be had. Indeed, I believe transiting to a green economy has the potential to offer much in this regard.

The world is still recovering from a global financial crisis, and the Eurozone situation continues to escalate. Instead of recognising the ‘root’ of these issues and seeing Rio+20 as the biggest opportunity to make progress in a number of these areas, important world leaders, like Obama and David Cameron, have shunned Rio+20 – a disappointing and shameful lack of leadership on the most pressing issues of our world today, and of a chance to be on the right side of history.

The purpose of this post is not to go into any of the above in detail, or to outline my views on how all this can be achieved practically, or get into a debate on population, or whether the developed or developing world or the BRICS countries have more responsibility for bringing about change, or whether Australian tax payers should be funding ‘billionaire welfare’ through $9.4 billion worth of fuel tax subsidies for the mining sector whilst simultaneously slashing the foreign aid budget by $2.9 billion, but to call out to my fellow development professionals to help people understand what sustainable development and the green economy are, and to gain your support and advocacy for them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt during my year on a youth ambassador development program in Bangkok surrounded by an amazing bunch of intelligent, compassionate, and passionate people, it’s that all the issues we’re working on in development are inter-linked, and influence progress in one another. So if migration, peace and conflict, education, HIV/AIDs, gender equality, LGBT rights, child trafficking, food, water and energy security, or animal conservation is your ‘thing’, I hope that you join me in talking about sustainable development, Rio+20 and the green economy with everyone you know, to change the current ‘climate’ within society in relation to the environment and development issues. Because in essence, they’re one and the same issue.


The Author wishes to emphasise that sustainable development and planetary boundaries are not new concepts. Below are but a few links to some important material on the matter for interested readers:

1. Thomas Malthus (1798): An Essay on the Principle of Population

2. Club of Rome (1972): The Limits to Growth

3. Graham Turner, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (2008): A Comparison of the Limits to Growth With 30 Years of Reality

4. Oxfam International (2012): Introducing ‘The Doughnut’ of social and planetary boundaries for development

5. Simon L Lewis, Nature (2012): We must set planetary boundaries wisely

The paradigm shift that needs to be made for sustainable development – who needs to make it?

This past week, I’ve been delayed in writing the next blog in this series as I was distracted making a personal paradigm shift, which required me to open up my mind and think about the world in a completely different way, and to challenge and change the way that I defined my personal success in life. I found this incredibly hard to do, but also liberating and enlightening at the same time. It also made me realise how many of the indicators of success and goals I’d previously made for myself in life were based on (most likely subconsciously) the status quo and what I was ‘told’ I was meant to do in my life…by family, friends, media, politicians, and society at large, without it necessarily coming entirely from ‘within’ me, or being based on anything to do with a rational ‘good’ for the world.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels in this moment in my personal life and development in the week leading up to Rio+20, with the ‘moment’ in the world’s evolution that will be provided by this conference, and the paradigm shift that needs to be made there, in order to change our current trajectory, develop sustainably, and increase human well-being.

So, a global paradigm shift – who needs to make it?

The first thing I realised is because the macro-level (eg. international delegations, governments at all scales, etc.) is made up of collective micro-level components (eg. communities, families, individual people), and because these micro-level components are influenced by the macro-level, this paradigm shift needs to occur simultaneously at all scales, through a combination of top-down and bottom-up action.

Beyond an economic, social or environmental issue, sustainable development is an ethical issue. And an interdependent world requires global ethics. I often reflect on the distressing irony that here, in the Greater Mekong region, peoples’ lives are – and will be – hardest hit by the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, despite having had limited contributions to creating these problems. The World Bank ranks Vietnam as the second, fourth, and 10th most vulnerable country in the world to sea-level rise, storms and flooding respectively. Cambodia, Laos and Thailand are fourth, sixth and ninth most vulnerable countries to flooding, under climate change. However, with human development indices of 139 and 138, gross national income per capita annually of $1848 and $2242, and carbon emissions of 0.02% and 0.01% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, respectively, citizens of countries like Cambodia and Laos hardly created these issues for themselves.

Human rights, the “inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”, are recognised by the majority of countries, and are conceived as universal (applicable everywhere) and non-discriminatory (the same for everyone).

However, the effective enjoyment and implementation of human rights and fundamental freedoms are inseparable from the assumption of duties and responsibilities inherent in those rights. To be the citizen of a community is not to claim rights from it without having any responsibility to it, and conversely, neither is it to be required to assume responsibilities (e.g. by paying taxes) without having rights in return.

Yes, it is your ‘right’ to use electricity sourced from coal-fired power stations, but it is your responsibility to ensure that it does no ‘net’ damage to any other person or life-sustaining form. Yes, it is your ‘right’ to live in a large house and commute an hour and a half into work in your four-wheel drive, alone, but it is your responsibility to ‘offset’ the externalities of these possessions and activities, and if it is not able to be physically ‘offset’, or there’s a net disadvantage to society, then I think we need to think about whether allowing it altogether is ‘right’.

When we will need two Earths to sustain life in 2030, as outlined in my last post, it is clear that indefinite pursuit of current lifestyles and development, together with a trend to limit one’s responsibilities, is incompatible with harmony amongst societies, with preservation of the integrity of the planet, and with safekeeping the interests of future generations.

Rio+20 is the perfect, if not critical, opportunity to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves, what ‘success’ looks like, and to acknowledge that it is illogical, unethical, and selfish to continue along the path we have been. The current path has done wonders for humanity in many ways…but the current trajectory will not (can not) lead to any of us further prospering. We need to personally accept our responsibility to the Earth and others, and we need our leaders, who represent us collectively on macro scales, to accept collective responsibility on our behalf. If I am able to achieve such a huge change in the way I think, feel and act on an individual level, then I believe the world can do this on a global scale too.

I am, as you all are, a tiny portion of the solution and have a big responsibility to do my part (unless your name is Julia Gillard, David Cameron, or Barack Obama, for example…then you may be a bigger part of the solution, and have a bigger responsibility to do your part!).

The thing that makes us human is self-reflective awareness, which gives us the ability to feel emotion, the essence of life – let’s not stumble backwards into the relatively primitive consciousness of the algae we evolved from.

But, even if we are ready to make changes in our lives, we need to be enabled and incentivised to. Tomorrow, I will blog about how this ‘paradigm shift’ may be implemented in a practical sense, through a ‘green economy’.


Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

[Ed. note: Leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, we will be featuring a series of three posts on sustainable development. This first one examines whether the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction.]

On June 20, 180 world leaders and 50,000 people from the development and environment sectors will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to participate in what is expected to be the largest conference in world history – the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as “Rio+20.”

In the lead-up to this conference, I couldn’t help but wonder – is “sustainable development” an oxymoron?

A term coined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development” is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is the simultaneous pursuit of the inter-related goals of ecological integrity, social equity, and economic welfare. It recognizes that all life is underpinned by the goods and services provided by nature, and acknowledges the moral obligation of contemporary society to the well-being of both present and future populations.

This is important as environment degradation prevents poverty reduction. As stated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The degradation of ecosystem services is harming many of the world’s poorest people and is sometimes the principal factor causing poverty.” Their survival is impacted by the poor management of the natural resources they depend upon, with use out-stripping supply, trapping them in endless cycles of poverty. If ecosystems and their services continue to be degraded, it will be impossible to find a path to long-term poverty reduction.

At Rio+20, the goal will be to secure political commitment to global sustainable development…once again. In 1992 Rio de Janeiro also hosted the “Earth Summit,” where sustainable development was first identified as a top priority on the agenda of the United Nations and the international community. It concluded with 172 signatories to a number of important documents including the Rio Declaration for Environment and Development, containing 27 principals intended to guide future sustainable development, and Agenda 21, the comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken by the UN, governments, and major groups in the 21st century. It also resulted in the opening of two legally binding international agreements – the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol. The Earth Summit set a precedent and an agenda.

But 20 years later, our environment is getting worse, not better, as highlighted in the table below. Alarmingly, many of these changes have accelerated in the past two decades, despite the abundance of international conventions signed during this time.

Over the same 20-year period, this environmental degradation has coincided with a period of sustained progress across a range of measures of human development. Over the two decades to 2010, world gross domestic product (GDP) rose by 300%, with incomes rising faster than populations, shown by a 222% increase in GDP per capita[i]. Improvements in life expectancy, school enrolment, literacy and income are all reflected within an 18% increase in the world’s average Human Development Index (HDI) since 1990[ii].

While rising inequalities and pockets of entrenched poverty continue to consume development efforts, there is no doubt that average material human wellbeing is better than ever before.

Figure 1 below illustrates humans’ interaction with Earth’s natural capital, and how three causal factors – population, consumption, and resource (in)efficiency – are driving the degradation of the “hand that feeds them”… something my parents taught me to never bite.

Figure 1: Linking biodiversity, ecosystems services and people – the causal factors, drivers, and direct pressures contributing to the degradation of global biodiversity and the ecosystems services provided by it. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

The latest Living Planet Report estimates that since 1996, the global demand for natural resources has doubled. It now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. This means that we are eating into our natural capital, instead of living off its interest, and therefore creating ecological debt. Humanity’s demands are greater than our planet’s ability to sustain us. We are asking for more than we have.

Figure 2: Global Ecological Footprint by component, 1961 – 2008. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Measuring “Ecological Footprint’” tracks humanity’s demands on the biosphere by comparing humanity’s consumption against Earth’s regenerative capacity (biocapacity). Astoundingly, on average, the footprint of high-income countries is five times greater than that of low-income countries. If everybody on Earth lived like an average Indonesian, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be utilised, while if everyone lived like an average person from the U.S.A, not less than four Earths would be required to regener­ate humanity’s annual demand on nature! Modest UN scenarios estimate that by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us if current population and resource consumption trends persist. Obviously, we only have one.

Figure 2 shows the growth of the world’s average Ecological Footprint over time. As you can see, the dominant component of Ecological Footprint is carbon emissions, which accounts for 55% of the footprint.

Figure 3 outlines Ecological Footprint by region, and the growth in population as well as per capita footprint in each region between 1961 and 2008. It also highlights the almost halving of the biocapacity available to each person over the same period. So despite less resources being available to us, we are consuming more.

Figure 3: Ecological Footprint by region, 1961-2008, highlighting the change in average footprint per person and population change. Biocapacity represented by horizontal bar. Source: WWF Living Planet Report 2012.

Is “sustainable development” an oxymoron then? Are we able to increase human wellbeing and quality of life, without using more resources than the Earth can produce for us?

Or is “sustainable development” actually about having more fulfilling development– an opportunity to ask ourselves what true prosperity and fulfillment really is, and to redefine the way we think about what it is to live, and what the evolution and progression of humanity we should be striving for involves?

Science points to the tipping points we are fast approaching. I believe Rio+20 will be a critical moment in history where the fate of everyone, present and future, will be determined, for better or for worse.

But I believe humanity possesses the collective intelligence and resourcefulness needed to solve the problems it faces and move forward sustainably, whilst also alleviating poverty. I will investigate ways in which this can be achieved through the prism of a “green economy” in my next post.

Additionally, as sustainable development is essentially an issue of global ethics, I will also explore the question of responsibility and institutional frameworks for sustainable development on macro- and micro-scales, in a third post in this series.


The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Kate Glazebrook for her words and ideas in relation to the human development aspects of this post.


[i] Data generated through use of World Bank Databank, 2012.