Being Human: We too are the ‘enemy’ in the climate crisis

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THE latest report of the United Nations (UN) expert panel on climate change released at the beginning of the month has generated some rather paradoxical reactions.

Most poignant of these perhaps is one that suggests that there should be no more international reports on climate science.

In it, Slate columnist Eric Holthaus argues that there is nothing further for climate scientists to add to the message of the newly-released 5th synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Not just that, the latest report, which is described as the culmination of the most comprehensive study ever assembled on global warming, shows no indication that it changes the basics that were known about climate change as stated in its 1990 report.

This just shows that the real issue is not about the science behind climate change, since, in Holthaus’ acerbic words: “There have been huge advances in the past quarter-century in eliminating the remaining shreds of uncertainty in just how fast we are screwing ourselves over”.

In a similar vein, climate action campaigner Bill McKibben writes in The Guardian that the UN’s climate change scientists must be feeling that it’s time to trade in their highly sophisticated tools and mathematical models for a thesaurus — to help find the words that will prompt the world’s leaders to act.

McKibben notes that the IPCC’s description of climate change’s effects as “severe, widespread and irreversible” was as extreme as scientists, conservative by nature, would allow themselves to use.

Ironically, he observes, the latest report almost certainly underestimates the actual severity of the situation, in particular, concerning sea level rise, as the current document does not even include the finding in May that the great Antarctic ice sheets have begun to melt. (It was past the cut-off date for the report.)

Moving beyond scenarios, then, we are confronted by the obstinate refusal of governments to take collective responsibility for advancing climate change mitigation and adaption with the aim of averting this unprecedented civilisational crisis.

Underscoring the political dimension of the looming environmental fallouts, UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon warned at the launching of the report: “Science has spoken, there is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act, time is not on our side.”

Yet, the world is not optimistic that governments will rise above narrow self-interest to cooperate on this pivotal survival issue. The assessment of Emily Gosden, writing in The Telegraph, UK, on the chances of a meaningful consensus at the milestone UN climate summit in Paris next year, reflects this dire likelihood.

Gosden notes that “despite the IPCC’s stark warnings, there is widespread agreement from climate change activists, sceptics and, privately, UK government officials, that the summit in Paris is unlikely to achieve a legally-binding deal that will curb warming to the 2C level”, referring to the severe disruptions that are expected to occur if global temperatures rise beyond two degrees of pre-industrial levels.

Looking back at history for similar disastrous consequences of political inertia, the mistakes of the Allies that led to the outbreak of World War II (WWII) come to mind.

Beginning with Adolf Hitler’s rearmament of Germany in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles without active interference from the Allies and former associated powers, it was the failure of governments to act in time that gave Hilter the room to nurture his ambitions of world domination.

This paralysis was to continue even when Hitler occupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria and attacked Czechoslovakia. When the Allies finally woke up to the threat posed by Hitler’s military campaign, it was too late to avert the disaster that was WWII.

For sure, the unfolding climate crisis is of such an enormous scale that the chaos and suffering caused by the imperial ambitions of the Axis powers of WWII appear to pale in comparison.

A further crucial difference is that in the current catastrophe, the “enemy” is none other than we, in the sense that the vast majority of us are contributing through our lifestyle choices to the rising emissions from burning fossil fuels.

So, while the international community clashes over who should bear more responsibility for cutting emissions, pay for historical emissions and whether the right to develop economies should come before environmental concerns, consumers must grapple with the question of how large an impact their carbon footprint is leaving on the environment.

Inquiring into the ethical dimension of consumption leads us in the end to question whether we can continue to assume that the current consumer culture that drives our economies can be pursued limitlessly, or that the price it exacts out of natural resources is too high for it to be sustainable.

Underscoring this point is an earlier UN report that rising global consumption of meat and dairy products is proving to be unsustainable and a significant contributor to climate change. The 2010 report by UN Environment Programme’s International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management had advised that as global population surges, the impact of growing consumption of animal products would increase significantly.

A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a worldwide diet change away from animal products, the report said.

Ernst von Weizsäcker, an environmental scientist who co-chaired the panel, said: “Rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products — livestock now consumes much of the world’s crops and by inference a great deal of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides.”

Both energy and agriculture need to be “decoupled” from economic growth because environmental impacts rise roughly 80% with a doubling of income, the report found.

So, the discussion comes full circle to our consumption choices. It is no doubt important to generate momentum for change through public expressions of concern, such as the People’s Climate March in September that drew 300,000 citizens to the streets of New York City to demand that their governments act on climate change now.

But such actions will only gain traction when translated into ecologically sound values, resulting in responsible behaviour towards people and the planet.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 10 - 16, 2014.