A protest sign asking for climate justice
A protest for climate justice. (Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

Climate justice is one of the themes emerging from the Climate Summit in Egypt. Delta spoke to TU Delft ethicist Udo Pesch about compensation for climate damage.

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The Climate Summit in Egypt is almost over. One of the most important subjects the last weeks was climate justice: the compensation of low-income countries for damage caused by climate change largely caused by higher-income countries. Compensation is a difficult issue as richer countries are reluctant to make pledges for fear of large claims. Will climate justice happen?

Delta spoke to Associate Professor and Technology Ethicist Udo Pesch. Part of his work involves looking into energy justice and sustainable innovations. He has much to do with climate policy in his work. Pesch is following the Summit, that ends on 18 November, for Delta.

Did anything stand out for you about the first week of the Summit?
“I see little attention for the Summit in the media. That might have to do with the midterm elections in the United States. If anything is mentioned at all, it is mostly about how unfortunate the circumstances are of a climate conference in Egypt. A lot of people have to fly there and there are a lot of air conditioners running full steam.
It is not ideal to carry out negotiations that mostly cover dealing with poorer and weaker entities in the world in a largely undemocratic regime. Especially as democracy is the only system in which the weaker and the stronger can be kept in check.”

This Climate Summit is the first time that climate justice is discussed seriously. Why has it taken so long?
“Climate science has known for 30 or 40 years that things are going wrong in terms of climate change. But whether climate change is really happening or not has been debated in politics for a very long time. This has diverted attention from what really matters and that is that climate change is a problem that people will experience themselves. Subjects are simply not addressed quickly politically if they do not affect people. Only if there is something newsworthy is an issue tabled.”

‘A new treaty will definitely not be ideal’

Will there finally be climate justice in this Summit?
“That is hard to say. The problem is that poor countries do not have economic or military power. They cannot say that they have a right to compensation for circumstances caused by others. They always have to create goodwill among other governments and foster a feeling of guilt. This is complicated as rich countries are very diverse.
There are European countries such as Germany, who consider compensation important and are trying to persuade other rich countries like the United States to comply. You then have to just hope that there will be a treaty. A treaty may not be perfect, but it will be a step in the right direction. You may not be able to hold countries to the treaty, but you can at least address them. You see this with the Treaty of Paris, for example.
It is also hard to evaluate the real impact of climate summits in general. I remember that the Summit in Kyoto in 1997 was seen as a disappointment as countries did too little. Twenty years later, you could say that it was the beginning of change that ultimately resulted in the Paris Summit. Real agreements were made there.”

The Climate Summit is mostly about countries and governments. Can you also hold companies responsible for the climate damage that they have caused?
“This is a good but tricky point. The excuse used by many large corporations is that they are simply doing what the market wants. Their rationale is that if people want to drive cars, it is not their fault that this releases a lot of CO2. This makes it really hard to make companies liable, unless they themselves produce a lot of emissions or do not work on reducing their own emissions.
It is crucial that governments pass regulations and enforce them, should companies not follow them. Governments must then be in line with each other to avoid companies moving to other countries with less strict regulations. As long as you don’t have regulations there will always be companies that try to avoid taking their corporate social responsibility.”