The World Bank's shock therapy on climate change

The World Bank has just released a major new report on climate change, and it's designed to be startling. The report tries to understand what a world that is 4 degrees Celsius warmer would look like, and it sketches a grim picture:

Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100....

A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today.

In his introduction to the report, Bank president Jim Kim writes, "[i]t is my hope that this report shocks us into action." It's well timed in that respect. The Bank report (which was mostly researched and written by the Potsdam Institute) comes at a moment when climate change has new momentum in the United States and just days before the next session of the UN-sponsored climate change negotiations.

This latest iteration of that long-running process takes place in Doha and will focus on streamlining what has become a byzantine negotiating process and pushing states to comply with committments already made. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN body overseeing the negotiations, described the broad challenge to me recently this way:

A lot of the work of Doha is to take the issues that have been under design or negotiation and put them into implementation. Governments are completely aware of the fact that they are behind schedule, that science demands speedy and scaled-up action and not what we have right now.

The Bank report appears to be a very deliberate attempt to infuse those sluggish negotiations with a greater sense of urgency.

The Multilateralist

Are human rights too political for the World Bank?

Human Rights Watch's Jessica Evans argues here that the World Bank needs to insist that recipients of its loans respect basic human rights:

[New World Bank president Jim] Kim should lead the World Bank to work tenaciously to open space for civil society and the media, and to promote government accountability.The Bank seemed to start down this path last April when Robert Zoellick, the outgoing president, reflected on the Arab Spring in a landmark speech that affirmed the importance of civic participation and social accountability in development. But despite ripples at the most senior levels of its Washington headquarters, Bank staff did not seem to learn the lesson. When Human Rights Watch warned Bank staff that the military government was closing space for civil society in Egypt this year, we were told that this issue was too political for the World Bank to touch.

This is particularly troubling as the Bank has also announced that it wants to increasingly fund civil society. But it is difficult to see how this would work if the Bank is not willing to speak out to make sure civil society can operate in countries where the Bank works. How would the Bank do this in Ethiopia, where authorities have used intimidation, laws, and violence to silence independent groups? The Bank needs to tell governments consistently not to intimidate or silence civil society if it wants its new program to work.

The World Bank's conception of what is "political"--and therefore beyond its remit--has changed significantly over time. For much of its existence, the Bank deemed corruption too political; that has now changed. In theory, there's no reason human rights couldn't make a similar migration. But there are powerful political and institutional obstacles. The Bank and the IMF are in the process of giving greater voting power and institutional influence to emerging powers--several of whom have no desire to see the Bank meddling on rights issues.