Climate change: an existential threat
The much hyped about agreement between the US and China in Beijing towards the end of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is frankly too little too late. Under the agreement, the world’s two biggest polluters, accounting for 42 percent of the carbon emissions in the atmosphere, will undertake to control/limit their emissions. China is looking to peak its emissions by 2030 while the US is undertaking to reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. In other words, even if the two countries match their commitments/targets, pollution will still continue to grow exponentially. After 2030, only 20 percent of China’s energy mix will be from renewable sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear, while 80 percent will come from fossil fuels. In the US, with the recent mid-term elections delivering control of both houses of Congress to the Republicans, Obama’s deal is unlikely to be ratified. The deal is more symbolic to spur action by other countries at the late 2015 Paris summit.
Let us face it: climate change is easily the most dangerous existential crisis for humanity and we are still not seized of it, as we should be. The vast body of scientific literature and the periodic reports of the UN’s panel on climate change, including the latest one, has warned that without effective action to slow down, at the very least, the rise in carbon emissions, the world is inexorably heading towards an unimaginable disaster for the only planet that is known to support life. It is feared that any rise in global warming beyond two percent Celsius will hit the danger button. But the projections that it might reach four degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century will be catastrophic. As one leading climate change scientist, John Schellnhuber, reportedly said, “The difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.”
What would that mean? As Paul Kingsnorth, reviewing two books on climate change in the London Review of Books, writes, “Four degrees (of warming) guarantees the total melting of the Greenland ice sheet and probably the western Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise sea levels by more than 30 feet.” Furthermore: “Two-thirds of the world’s major cities would end up under water.” And it will, even before it reaches the four degrees level, create waves of environmental refugees moving all over the world to find safe places to live. The movement of people everywhere and the struggle for scarce and depleting resources will create national security scenarios all over the world. It is an unimaginable and incomprehensible situation, which is probably one reason why people cannot get their heads around it.”
In his book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall writes, “Scientists, who are, as a group, extremely wary of exaggeration, nonetheless keep using the same word: catastrophe.” Without a sense of urgency about a prospective calamity, we simply are not prepared for a global action plan that might mitigate the situation. But, at the same time, as Marshall puts it, “The science around four degrees (of warming) keeps moving usually in the direction of greater pessimism.” And he would not be wrong considering that not much progress has been made since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where the need for some action to deal with climate change was first canvassed. The way things are, next year’s Paris Summit might not prove any more productive than previous efforts like the Kyoto Conference in 1997 and the more recent (2009) Copenhagen Conclave.
Problems exist on two levels. First, in the developed, rich countries, their internal politics and ideological orientation stands in the way. Marshall illustrates this with reference to the US. He writes (as quoted in the London Review of Books), “Attitudes on climate change have become a social cue like gun control: a shorthand for figuring out who is in our group and cares about us.” Such ideological and ‘cultural coding’ has put much of the Republican Party against any significant move to curb carbon emissions. Here, in Australia, the ruling conservative coalition won an election promising to abolish carbon tax, which they duly did after forming the government. Indeed, Tony Abbot, before he became prime minister, called global warming “c***”, simply denying the science around it. Recently, at the opening of a coalmine, he pronounced that coal “is good for humanity”. And this from the prime minister of a country that has the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world!
Canada is, more or less, in the same league. The worst thing is that some of the governing elites in these countries, who should know better, even deny that climate change is happening. On another level, some of the rich countries, even though keen about cutting carbon emissions, do not want any fundamental change that will affect their economic growth and lifestyles. At the same time, developing countries are being urged to commit to reducing carbon emissions to set targets.
The main reason why the world is in such a mess is due to the economic growth model that has been followed since the Industrial Revolution. That model is simply unsustainable, as the planet has almost reached its limit to accommodate the voracious demand on its capacity. While rich countries continue to pillage the earth’s resources due to their insatiable consumer demand, many developing countries cannot even feed their people. To expect them to cut their use of fossil fuels when there are no alternatives that they can access and afford is to commit them to a permanent state of poverty. There is no effective international mechanism for developing countries to access technology and capital for transition to renewable energy sources.
For any effective action on global warming, there is a need for a coordinated global response with proportionate contribution based on the economic conditions of respective countries. Another important way will be to overhaul the economic model that requires continuous and rising growth.
Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus The Climate, tries to explore this approach based on global activism, like “mass movements of regular people” against corporate interests. At the same time, it will require people in rich countries to get over a culture of consumerism that has no limits. While it is important to transition rapidly to a low carbon economy, without concurrent and corresponding action on reorienting the global economy, any real progress is unlikely.
Are we then hurtling towards the eventual destruction of our world as we know it? With real and sustained action on global warming hard to come by, it is hard to be an optimist.