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Climate change : Environmental Breakdown  and Democratic Leadership

The Institute for Public Policy Research published this month a realistic and well researched report entitled «  Facing up to the age of Environmental Breakdown ». 

Political and policy debates have failed to understand « that human impacts on the environment have reached, a critical stage, potentially eroding the conditions upon which socio economic stability is possible » warns the report. This is shared by the Secretary General of the United Nations : « If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all natural systems that sustain us (December 2018) ». D. Attenborough, usually a moderate, is now more alarmed : « If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilization and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon (December 2018) ».

Time is not on our side particularly as there are tepid attempts to change course. The facts are now undeniable.Even American president Donald Trump who was a climate change sceptic is being told by his closest advisers to change course. We quote some findings of the report by IPPR for the benefit of readers :

  • ‘Since 1950, the number of flood areas across the world has increased by 15 times, extreme temperature events by 20 times and world fires sevenfold.
  • Extinction rates have increased to between 100-1000 times.
  • 95 % of the Earth’s land areas could become degraded by 2050.
  • More than 40 % of insects or a third of species are declining.
  • The poorest half of the global population are responsible for around 14 % of yearly global greenhouse emissions with half of emissions attributed to the richest 10 % of people.
  • Climate change is estimated to cause up to 4 000,000 deaths yearly mainly linked to hunger and communicable diseases, a figure that could rise by 700,000 by 2050.
  • 100 Companies are responsible for the emission of 70 % of industrial greenhouse gases since 1988.
  • Ocean acidity has increased by 26 % since the industrial revolution due to increased in atmospheric CO2.
  • 15 billion trees are cut yearly and the number of trees globally have halved since the agricultural revolution.
  • Production of some plastics increased from around 2 metric tons (mt) yearly in 1950 to 380 mt in 2015.

We have not selected dark statistics to give a pessimistic outlook. Indeed there are more damning facts like the rising sea levels, the melting of a third of Himalayan ice by 2100 and structural constraints to feed and develop 10 bn people soon. Perhaps the most worrying trend is that the present north-south divide will persist and only a handful of countries have managed to challenge the industrial supremacy of countries in the north and achieve similar living standards. The worse forecast is that many do not have the capacity to move up in the development ladder according to Asian Development Bank in a report published this month on the Industrial Strategy of Indonesia 2020-2024. If developing countries cannot invest on climate change, and developed countries broadly continue with old fashioned policies and ignore climate change, the global outlook will worsen significantly sooner than earlier envisaged.

Solutions are well known : massive reforestation, greater shift to renewable energy, reducing use of plastics, changing economic models based on overconsumption and waste, greater shift to vegetarianism, deeper use of artificial Intelligence to cut cost and improve productivity, more climate resilient infrastructure,  significantlymore global investment on Green policies and agreed core environmental standards, etc. The truth  is that we are  very late  and there are no sign of reversing the negative trends via boundary pushing policies.

The cost of extreme weather events in 2017 was estimated to be 4.5 bn Rands, by IPPR, and is expected to increase with some irreversible damages without repurposing of business to tackle epic mistakes.

It is unwise to expect any leadership from the present president of the U.S. as he has already left the Paris Agreement and is naughtily leading us towards a precipice. The good news is the U.S. election in 2020 and the possibility that a democrat will be elected. Bernie Sanders has announced that he will be a candidate. Even if he does not win, his proposal for an ambitious Green Deal project is now shared by most influential persons and candidates in the Democratic Party who have realized that financial and environmental goals are two sides of the same coin.

Time has nearly run out as most countries are not on track to meet  agreed decarbonisation targets due to lack of policies, commitment, funding and runaway corporate powers  not seriously planning  model changes. Economics came from moral philosophy and more economists must restore ethics to economics.

We may be mildly optimistic with millenials taking climate change more seriously and more in business slowly waking up to the dangers of compromised decision making on the environment and with a climate change friendly president in the U.S. next year.Obviously there are negative trends particularly the rise of populism from Brazil to Europe. A.Gore in 2017 said that « climate change is the single most important moral choice in the history of humanity » and populists may be swept aside by a new wave as more realize the wickedness of the problem facing us. G. Jacobson, in a must read article in the Times Literary Supplement, The Age of Anxiety ‘ (14 February 2019) warned that « liberal  orthodoxies have fallen into radical doubt ».

This is why Bernie Sanders and others in the Democratic Party who are already arguing against the suicidal strategies, must succeed.

Vasan Appanah