In 2019, the largest rainforest in the world—responsible for producing over 20 percent of the world’s oxygen—almost burnt to the ground. As the G-7 leaders went into an emergency huddle during their summit in France, it is estimated that 2 million acres of pristine Amazon rainforest was lost to a series of 40,000 forest fires, left unchecked at the hands of governmental apathy and overriding business interests of companies that have become ‘too big to jail.’ Scalding temperatures were recorded all over Europe and Asia while the accelerating thaw of the Arctic permafrost continued to release greenhouse gases. These extreme weather events did not transpire by chance. Humanity is answerable to itself.
The remarkable rise of youth activism has raised consciousness of the demand for public and political action. Greta Thunberg was recently awarded the Right to Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel) ‘for inspiring and amplifying political demands for urgent climate action reflecting scientific facts.’ This 16-year-old Swedish student is on the frontlines of the global climate crisis, her words symbolic of the moral and legal lapses in the current strategy for global climate protection. The current scenario can be characterised in terms of three ‘Urgencies’—three imperatives to climate action.
First, the Urgency of Equality – From sinking islands to the drought ridden plains of Asia and Africa, women and children bear the brunt of the global-warming crisis, primarily due to gender inequality in the Global South. The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of those who have been displaced by climate change are women. They form the majority of a newly recognised class of ‘climate refugees’. Women and youth are at the frontiers of climate change mitigation and are therefore uniquely situated agents of change. Thunberg is both—a woman and young. She characterises the disparity in environmental consciousness brought about by the curse of inequality when she states, “We are not destroying the biosphere because we are selfish, we are doing it simply because we are unaware.”
Extending opportunities for education and spreading awareness translate into greater environmental consciousness. The adoption referred to as the “equal rights approach to sustainable development” commits signatories to the Sustainable Development Goals while reducing inequality. The recent Climate Action Summit 2019 failed to do justice for the want of discussion on the role of discrimination. According to the Secretary General of the U.N., António Guterres, “The goal of reducing inequality (…) is inextricably linked with all other Goals”. Today, youth activists urge the global leadership to take steps to alleviate the consciousness gap and instil a feeling of shared environmental responsibility.
Second, the Urgency of Accountability – The U.N. treats all 193 member countries as equals. So does our climate. The wrath of climate change is not selective. The climate responds to the overall level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not a single country’s contribution to it. However, in the race for global economic supremacy, the low hanging fruit is quickly plucked. The current state of international environment laws and conventions is marred by non-egalitarian principles of responsibility sharing for emission reduction.
According to the Paris climate agreement, member countries are expected to commit to more combative climate plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions by 2020. At the Climate Summit 2019, the Secretary General hoped for substantial commitments from the three big contributors to climate change – China, U.S.A. and India – but these countries barely budged. The Secretary General announced that 70 countries, now, had plans of implementing tougher N.D.Cs. by 2020. However, these countries represent a mere 6.8 percent of global emissions. In contrast, at a rate of nearly 2.5 times more than that of 2010, European Union countries collectively spent US$87 billion subsidising the cost of fossil fuels this past decade. Youth activists like Thunberg voice their support for greater accountability and enforcement of climate protection laws – “We are striking because we have done our homework. They have not.”
And third, the Urgency of Change – This call for accountability must be met with appropriate political will. The forces of climate change are built into the very bedrock of world economy and geo-politics. To decarbonise an entire economy is not simple math.
The planet has already warmed by 1°C, since the 19th century. The Paris climate agreement hopes to limit this to 2°C. But what happens between 1°C and 2°C is the problem. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, capping global warming temperatures at 1.5 °C rather than 2°C will expose almost half a billion fewer people to climate change. Between1.5°C and 2°C global warming, about one in twenty insect and vertebrate species will disappear from half of the area they currently inhabit, as will around one in ten plants. Entire eco-systems and global economies that depend on them are on the verge of collapse.
So what are we to do? Should nations cease to develop? No, incentivise the companies to wean off conventional sources of energy and adopt greener forms of renewable energy to cause a gradual shift. In the words of renowned scientist James Lovelock, “It is much too late for sustainable development, what we need is a sustainable retreat.” With adequate political will, the human mind can innovate its way out of climate change and provide unto itself a safer, greener and collective future.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.