Critical Analysis: Reframing Climate Change

In November of 2014, The Group of Twenty (G20) met in Brisbane Australia to discuss the state of the global economy.  Global growth, climate change, and tax avoidance were among the major issues discussed.  The Australian delegation contested the inclusion of a statement on the climate which is reflective of the recent repeal of their own national carbon tax.  The current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stated that “we can’t pursue environmental improvements at the expense of economic progress.”  Prime Minister Abbott’s statement reflects a major obstacle to climate change mitigation worldwide.

While public statements may purport otherwise, many policymakers treat carbon taxes, carbon markets, and regulatory regimes as obstacles to economic development.  Framing the issue in this binary fashion reflects the shortsighted attitude that has been pervasive for decades.  The world’s economic leaders need to adopt a radically different perspective and re-conceptualize climate change as an impending environmental disaster.

North America Soil Moisture Projection Graphic
Photo Credit:

The international dialogue on climate change began in the late 1980’s and arguably took a foothold at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.  While international efforts like the Kyoto Protocol have received widespread support, implementation of climate reforms have not done enough to mitigate climate change.

At a press conference on November 2nd, 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon urged leaders to act, otherwise the opportunity to meet the international target of 2º C “will slip away within the next decade.”  The temperature target of 2°C represents what many consider to be the tipping point for global climate change.  First set as a target by the European Union in 1996, the 2°C target was adopted in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.

The issue of climate change cannot be confined to environmental impacts.  In 2006 the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change asserted, “climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.”   In 2013, speaking at the world economic forum in Davos, Lord Stern indicated that his 2006 predictions may have been underestimated with “some of the effects . . . coming through more quickly than we thought.”

The unaccounted cost of carbon emissions are predicted to have a dramatic impact on the environment, economy, and development.  A recent study by NASA suggests that if emissions continue at their current trajectory, the North American continent will very likely experience a ‘megadrought’ that could last up to 40 years.  The human and economic impacts of such a severe, sustained drought would be catastrophic.

While some leaders, like Prime Minister Abbott, view environmental impact as a secondary concern to economic development (if at all), the economic consequences of not altering the current carbon trajectory will be far worse than investing in change now.  Governments need to remove climate change from the back burner, do away with rhetoric, and illusory research and development projects.  Climate change needs to be treated like any other natural disaster should be – swiftly and decisively.

Jordan Edmondson is a 3L law student at University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.