Tackling Climate Change: Distinguishing the Capacity and Responsibility of Stakeholders in Limited and Interlinked Systems

(This ASTER image shows the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest in the middle of the Yangtze River in China, Image credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team)

(Post-debate article for the Course: Seminar on Sustainability Science and Climate Change
Hosting Professors: Gil Penha-Lopes, Ricardo Aguiar and Tim O ‘Riordan)

Author: Jieling Liu

Date Published: 2 April 2017

Debate summary

Warming of the climate is an undeniable fact. It is probably the most profound problem that we, the human beings and the planet Earth, are facing in the 21st century. Physical changes in the climate system, such as warming atmosphere and ocean, diminishing snow and ice, rising sea levels and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, have been observed for decades and the situation is deteriorating (IPCC, 2013). Actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change are urgently needed. Previously, we addressed both the public and private sector’s capacity and responsibility for climate change actions. The topic was explored in the form of a debate between two groups of PhD students at the Social Science Institute, the University of Lisbon in November 2016. The team representing the public sector, namely governments & their international organisations, is referred in this article as GIO. The team representing the private sector – businesses, NGOs and common people, is referred as BNCP.

In this debate, GIO argued that current country development patterns mainly focus on material progress; therefore, governments are the one accountable for the side effects of economic growth – boost in GHG emissions and climatic anomalies. Environmental catastrophes, e.g., the oil spill in the gulf of Mexico and the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, were all manmade disasters due to deregulation and corporate greed. Facing climate change consequences, governments hold the responsibility to protect their territory and guarantee a safe environment for their people. Governments can inherit collective wisdom and keep the good practice going. Good governance can lead to sustainable solutions – Germany, China and Portugal for example, are countries that are lead in good directions towards low carbon future. The consequences of climate change are global. By creating opportunities for governments to collaborate, international organisations are able to collect the good practices and to provide more effective solutions. Multilateral financial and inter-governmental cooperations, e.g., the World Bank, the EU, the IPCC and the UNFCCC gather diverse resources and strong capacities for intervention in different areas, be it GHG emission curb, resilience building or scientific knowledge support.

By questioning the implementation quality and fairness of the public sector, team BNCP, on the other hand, argued that companies, NGOs and common people are more capable of solving the problems. They defended that businesses have better resources, knowledge and power to innovate and create changes. Furthermore, due to their profit-driven nature, companies are more likely to adopt sustainable (or green image) approaches voluntarily to keep themselves favoured in the market. Common people have grown to better understand the human-nature relationship and to become more powerful in making great impacts with the tool of social media. NGOs hold great potentials in engaging communities by including local knowledge and local motivation. The fact that government solutions usually contain low inclusivity makes them not sustainable.

The two-hour debate/seminar only knocked at a small tip of the topic. There is a general consensus – governments and international organisations are more capable of climate mitigation; whereas adaptation work relies more on collective actions by businesses, NGOs and common people. The debate did distinguish the capacity and responsibility of each accountable; however, it did not detail the ethical and legal nor past and future responsibilities. The short debate also did not explore concepts such as consumerism, enforced or participatory actions.

Personal views

From the writer’s point of view, since the climate system is public and we are living with increasingly scarce resources, all stakeholders hold responsibility for the climate change consequences we are facing today. Effective actions to ameliorate the situation rely on in-depth collaborations of both the public and private sectors as they are interlinked. In general, there is an increasing trend of making agreements and progress with bottom-up approaches. This happened in both public and private sectors and in both mitigation and adaptation work. When we think in terms of states, climate change mitigation and adaptation are not only matters of scientific efforts but also diplomatic responses in between global political powers. Historical and future emissions are inevitable when we discuss state responsibilities. The Kyoto protocol followed the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), but it failed to incorporate big affluent emitters such as the United States and Canada. In the Paris COP 21, governments evolved and collaborated in a voluntary fashion with the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). Although many experts questioned the commitment and future success of this agreement, it was considered “historical” because of its coverage and the INDCs. The public sector connects itself to the private sector through policy enforcement. Individuals also manifest a bottom-up trend by 1) making green consumption choices in an increasingly autonomous manner and 2) participating in community decision-making projects or social movements such as permaculture and eco-villages.

To further distinguish climate responsibility and capacity, we should address our current socio-economic system with an emphasis on resource scarcity. Climate change will exacerbate the unequal distribution of scarce resources and challenge the livelihood of those most vulnerable people. By 2025, 1.4 billion people across 36 countries will face crop or water scarcities. Counting solely on the INDCs for mitigation work will not solve climate change problems. Only by acknowledging the limit and scarcity of the Nature system, governments, individuals and businesses would stand on the same side and share the same responsibility. Future solutions must respect that the global living space and that resources are limited; we should redistribute and make natural wealth shared by everyone. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030 clearly picture what our future would look like if we succeed in managing our climate. Our common destination should be free of poverty, accessible in safe food, clean water, renewable energy, health care and education; economic growth should be evaluated with more integrated methods taking into account gender equality and people’s well-being.

Distinguishing public and private sectors’ actions on climate change requires comprehensive thinking – human intervention in the climate system is linked from one actor to another. Companies shifted to become cooperations to include the participation of common people; NGOs seek professional knowledge support from companies; international organisations work directly with local communities to ensure the inclusivity of local people and the best local expertise; innovative R&D activities and technology transfers are often hosted by governments… In today’s world where liberal consensus is disappearing and uncertainties are striking, understanding the interconnectedness of all stakeholders in the system is the key to maximising climate change action capacity.


Climatic changes caused by human intervention affect the whole earth system from the atmosphere, biosphere to the hydrosphere and lithosphere. The socio-economic system too, different actors – governments, international organisations, common people, NGOs and companies are all interconnected by their functions. Therefore, all stakeholders hold responsibility for the deteriorating climate performance. Since the Earth resources are limited and the world population is still growing, we are facing increasing scarcity challenges. For this reason, sustainable and effective climate actions should integrate endeavours of both the public and private sectors to reach maximal mitigation and adaptation capacity. Actions on climate change should robustly integrate science and policy and be empowered with ethical values and social justice. They should be carefully planned based on the best science to secure people’s livelihood and to widen their options, respecting the boundaries of nature and culture and cultivating virtuous climate governance.


1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2013. The CLIMATE CHANGE 2013
– The Physical Science Basis (Working Group 1 Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
2. Project team of development research center of the State Council of China. Greenhouse gas emissions reduction: a theoretical framework and global solution.
3. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Kyoto Protocol. Available at: http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php
4. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Paris Agreement. http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php
5. Bernice Lee, Felix Preston, Jaakko Kooroshy, Rob Bailey and Glada Lahn. December 2012. Resources Futures. A Chatham House Report.
6. United Nations. Sustainable development goals – 17 goals to transform our world. Available at: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

Copyright © Jieling Liu. All rights reserved.

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