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Climate Change & Environment

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A global awareness of environmental degradation and the threat of climate change reached new heights by the end of 2007.  First, the worldwide pop concerts for Live Earth initiated a three-year campaign to combat climate change.  Al Gore was then awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with the United Nations for their work in raising awareness of the man-made "climate crisis".  Lastly, at the end of the year, an international consensus was sought at a major UN conference in Bali for a road map on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Despite this growing attentiveness to the environment, the central cause of the sustainability conundrum is unaddressed by mass public campaigns, and far less heeded by government leaders or policymakers.  The problem was outlined as far back as the early 1970s, foremost in a report called Limits to Growth and the work of E. F. Schumacher, which both challenged the crux of orthodox thinking on economic development.  The planet has limited resources and a finite carrying capacity, it was argued, while the demands placed upon it by a growth-dependent economy and the grossly materialistic lifestyles it engenders are insatiable.  Continuous economic growth and global development therefore cannot be achieved without an immense overuse of resources, a fierce assault on nature, a high degree of pollution, and a threat to the planets ability to sustain life. 

The Extent of the Crisis

This message, although often muddied by multinational corporations, has become unavoidable over the past 30 years of economic globalisation. Out of 40,000 living species studied, more than 16,000 are now in danger of extinction.  One out of four mammals is under threat.  Eighty percent of the world's coral reefs have been bleached, several small islands have disappeared under the rising sea, and desertification in Africa is already causing widespread famine.  Rainforests, which once covered 14% of the earth's land surface compared to a mere 6% today, will be completely consumed in less than 40 years if current trends continue. 

During the last 200 years of industrial development, a massive 30 percent increase in carbon emissions has contributed to harrowing changes in climate.  Of the last 1,000 years, 2005 was the hottest.  And with 2007 hailed as witnessing the most extreme weather events on record (characterised by a six-fold increase in floods since 1980, a quadrupling of natural disasters, and the recent collapse of the Arctic ice cap), dire forecasts for the near future are being released in scores of eminent studies.  Unless a drastic reduction in carbon emissions is achieved, more than a million plants and animals could be extinct by 2050, accompanied by widespread hunger, catastrophic flooding, and higher deaths from heat-waves.

The heaviest burden will inevitably be felt in the poorest and most vulnerable nations, with some smaller countries potentially facing an agricultural productivity collapse in coming decades.  A decrease in food security due to climate change is not only likely to vastly exacerbate malnutrition in developing countries, but forced migration could affect 1 billion people by 2050.  As argued by UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, climate change already threatens the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and the elimination of widespread poverty.  If those countries that have done the least to contribute to global warming are going to pay the highest price, the most important issue clearly involves a moral responsibility on behalf of industrialised nations to redress the ‘carbon debt' owed to developing countries.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The final reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released throughout 2007, have revealed how climate change could soon become one of the greatest threats to human life.  Concluding that carbon dioxide and other atmospheric polluting gases must be reduced by 50 to 85 percent before 2050 to head off potential cataclysmic changes, the report calculated that a drastic reworking is required of industrial processes, transportation systems and agricultural practices.  In the meantime, rich countries are rapidly increasing the pollution that causes global warming to record levels - despite the solemn pledges to reduce it.  Total emissions of greenhouse gases by the world's 40 industrial nations have risen to an all-time high, demand for fossil fuels is ever-increasing, and the limits of natural resources are further threatened by emerging giant economies like China and India.

The result is an underlying conflict of interest in world priorities between the relentless opening of a country's barriers to international competition and the unrestrained movement of goods and services, versus the need to cooperatively manage the global economy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.  The state of the environment shows how both approaches are incompatible; neoliberal policies of trade liberalisation and continuous economic growth are in effect rules that force countries on a high emissions pathway, leading to environmental degradation in the blind pursuit of corporate profits and increased Gross National Product. 

More Justice, Less Consumption

Although ‘climate justice' is often used as an umbrella term to include the questions of individual responsibility for the environment and collective First World accountability, the issue is driven by the same interlinked questions of unsustainable consumption, ever-increasing commercialisation and social justice.  If countries of the Global North are to achieve the necessary reduction in carbon emissions, a transformation is required in the way we manage the world economy, coupled with an extensive reduction in consumption levels by the richest nations and greater equity in resource usage between nations.

It is at this level of international policy that there is a clear parallel with the other key issue of our time - poverty and hunger. Ending poverty will initially require a greater sharing of the world's finite natural and productive resources, and this in turn will entail living more simply in rich countries so that others ‘may simply live'. All this must be coordinated internationally, in line with widely accepted models of contraction and convergence which present the only truly equitable solution to the climate change conundrum. The prospect of saving the environment is not without great hope and optimism, however, as evidenced in the emergent formation of a global mass movement that must decisively influence the necessary change in direction.