Interview with J. Timmons Roberts on Climate Change and Justice


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

In this supplement to our special issue on Changing Climates, Simon Dawes interviews J. Timmons Roberts, whose co-authored article, ‘Climate Change, Social Theory and Justice’ features in the issue.


Simon Dawes: In your article (co-authored with Bradley C. Parks), you discuss the north-south divide in climate change negotiations, and the role of global inequalities in hindering agreements and commitments. Could you give an example of how inequalities and contrasting worldviews pose a problem for global negotiations between nation states?

J. Timmons Roberts: Sure. It is widely believed that people only can care about protecting their environment after they’ve protected their most basic needs like food, water, housing, education, and health. In fact this is only partly true, as several surveys have shown that poor people are far more “environmentalist” in their views than many of the world’s wealthy. The part that is true is that the governments representing the majority of the world’s population that has not secured these basic needs has to try to advance their efforts to do so in every venue they can. So the issue of inequality “bleeds over” into climate negotiations, which many “bio-environmentalists” believe should be a scientific debate about how to “rationally” manage the problem. Climate negotiations offer poorer nations some leverage, since they’re key to a global solution, so they use it.

SD: You limit your analyses in the article to those negotiations between nation states. How effective do you think negotiations at other levels can be, and is the north-south divide still relevant beyond the nation state?

JTR: This is a complex and fascinating issue where we have received some push-back from some readers. Important things are happening at other levels, like cities, firms, universities, and others taking on voluntary limits on their carbon emissions, for example. Carbon trading systems have been set up at the sub-national level in the USA, for example. But at the global level, where this issue must finally be addressed, the only actors with the ability to make BINDING commitments are national states. This is why we focus on that level when we conduct our “global” analyses. Admittedly some other layers are lost, but at the risk of offending some readers, besides in pushing national leaders to finally act, I personally don’t see how the other levels of negotiation add up to a real solution to this massive problem.

SD: Could you tell us about the climate justice debate and some of the hybrid justice approaches referred to in your article?

JTR: Climate justice is the idea that everyone has an equal right to the services of the atmosphere, and that those who have used more than their fair share owe a debt to those who have not. There is a similar injustice in the fact that those countries and (poor) people who did not cause this problem are the ones suffering worst and first from climate disasters.

There are a lot of ways to divide up the global “atmospheric space,” and we think a climate justice approach is fundamental to doing so. However even this principle leaves many options on how to do so. The problem we see is that the Kyoto Protocol is based on terrible “grandfathering” of emissions based on pollution levels in 1990, not any equity principles. The other problem is that simple “per capita” emissions rights schemes have not been able to gain acceptance from the world’s rich and powerful nations so far. We think there should be a division of “pollution rights” at a global level based on atmospheric space, and payments from those over-using, to those below the global sustainable average. These payments can assist real diversification and social development. The best overall scheme we’ve seen is the Greenhouse Development Rights framework, from This takes revenues generated in driving down emissions (by tax or trading) and shifts them to countries based on need to adapt to climate change. There are other “hybrid” schemes that mix different methods of gauging need and capacity of nations to try to find a compromise solution that could be more broadly acceptable.

SD: Could you give us your account of the Copenhagen Climate Summit? Why do you think it failed? What should be done now for the next summit to be a success?

JTR: Copenhagen was probably doomed to fail. The UN process broke down because there was too much disagreement, even in drafts up to Tuesday of the second week. It was exceedingly risky for the world leaders to show up with no clear path to agreement, and so the effort by the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and the USA to hammer out the Copenhagen Accord was probably just a face-saving effort. The Danish Presidency really botched the job and made it worse in the final days. The accord is exceedingly weak and insufficient for solving the problem of climate change–it sets us up for very dangerous temperature increases. One more promising side of it was a promise for $30 billion for developing countries in the next three years, and up to $100 billion a year by 2020. But even that promise is full of wiggle language that makes it almost meaningless. We’ve written a lot on that, in two briefings with the International Institute for Environment and Development. Making those promises concrete and meeting them, and re-starting the UN process with seriousness and a spirit of compromise, will be critical this year for Cancun to be a success.

J. Timmons Roberts is Director of the Center for Environmental Studies and Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at Brown University, USA. He is the author of over sixty articles and chapters, and six books, including Greening Aid? (Oxford 2008) and A Climate of Injustice (MIT 2007). His research is currently focused on international justice and mechanisms to finance development and adaptation to climate change in developing countries.

Simon Dawes is the Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

The article ‘Climate Change, Social Theory and Justice’ by Parks and Roberts, and the rest of the TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates (TCS 27.2/3, May 2010, edited by Bronislaw Szerszynski and John Urry) is available here. The issue will be available for free until 31st July 2010.

To find out more about climate change, browse our Changing Climates extra material page.

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