This is a guest essay by Saleemul Huq, head of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This essay is part of a series on climate equity.

Saleemul HuqPerceptions of climate change — and what must be done to tackle the problem — have evolved over time. With concerns about justice and equity now rising to the surface, it is time for a new era of global citizenry in which people around the world come together to both take and demand effective action.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s climate change was seen as an environmental problem, a form of pollution caused by emission of greenhouse gases, mainly in the rich countries. The perceived solution was limited to "mitigation," taking action to reduce those emissions through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol, for instance.

By the start of this century, though, perceptions had shifted. It was accepted that climate change would bring unavoidable impacts, which the planet (and especially poor countries and communities) would have to deal with-through "adaptation." Climate change was no longer purely an environmental problem. It had a human face.

This recognition of additional problems and solutions led to new bridges being built between the scientific, environmental, and development communities — and it brought in a much larger constituency of people in developing countries. This led, in the UNFCCC process, to several new funds being created to help developing countries to adapt to impacts of climate change.

Current discussions about the future of global climate-change policy focus on what the world needs to be doing to address climate change when the Kyoto Protocol’s first period of commitments ends in 2012.

One of the expected outcomes of December’s meeting of the UNFCCC in Bali is a timetable for negotiating this post-2012 regime. But to have a chance of entering into force as soon as Kyoto expires, it will need to be agreed by Dec. 2009 when the parties to the UNFCCC meet in Copenhagen, Denmark.

But as global policy debates and negotiations proceed, they still approach the problem as one of national responsibilities. The result is much jockeying by some countries on how much action they would accept for themselves in any global agreement.

It is perhaps time to stop viewing the climate change problem as primarily to do with nation states and national policy, and more to do with humanity as a whole versus the climate. In this perception, every single human being on the planet, regardless of their nationality, is responsible for a certain amount of emissions (his or her "carbon footprint”) by virtue of eating, working, traveling, etc.

Individuals’ carbon footprints vary considerably across the globe. The carbon footprint of a poor pastoralist in Africa is a fraction of the global average while that of most people living in rich countries is several times greater. Likewise, rich people in poor countries such as India and China also have individual carbon footprints greater than the global average. Meanwhile, the richest people on the planet have carbon footprints many hundreds of times the global average.

It is time for all people — especially those of us whose carbon footprints are bigger than the global average — to take responsibility for the damage we are causing to the planet and to take action.

We can do this at three levels:

  • by calculating our own carbon footprint and taking all possible measures to reduce it;
  • by trying to "offset" our individual emissions (as we cannot reduce them to zero) and compensating those who will suffer the impacts of climate change (e.g. through contributing to adaptation funds for poor communities); and
  • by becoming active citizens and demanding of our leaders that they take strong action at the global and national level (and this includes a truly strong post-2012 climate change agreement).

The time has come for each of us to see the problem not through the lens of our nation-state but in terms of our individual actions and our individual responsibilities.