Climate change choices: Mutual action or Mutual assured destruction

June, 10/2017 - 09:00

The world should not waste more time lamenting about US President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris accord, in which international community pledges to keep the increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celcius over pre-industrial levels.

A dried up reservoir lake in the Ia Grai District in the Central Highlands Province of Gia Lai late last year, causing the death of 2,500 hectares of rice and adversely affecting another 13,000 hectares of crops. — VNA/VNS Photo Hoài Nam
Viet Nam News

By Trọng Kiên

Too little, too late.

How often have we heard this said of a political response to a grave crisis – national, regional or international? So often that it has become standard modus operandi; one that, unfortunately, is accepted and tolerated.

By many scientists’ accounts, this pithy analysis applies to both international responses to the gravest threat facing the earth, and therefore humankind, today: climate change. The two international responses: Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

Both were pitifully inadequate in meeting the real scale of the problem, but when the second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world pulled out of this already anaemic effort, it was the prophetic words of Marx that came to mind: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”   

Since farce is no excuse for inaction, the world should not waste more time lamenting about US President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris accord.

The Paris deal, in which international community pledges to keep the increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celcius over pre-industrial levels, is not a silver bullet, but we have to make a start somewhere.

That said, it should be noted that the so-called developed countries only reached their exalted status after centuries of over-exploitation of their own natural resources and that of other countries through outright plunder (colonialism and imperialism) and worse. So the greater onus for fighting climate change, including funding thereof, is on them.

All in all, in the name of progress, uncountable tonnes of harmful gases have been released into the atmosphere, driving up the greenhouse effect. The phenomenon itself is life-giving; it is what keeps the Earth from turning into a dead, cold lump of rock. But by exponentially accelerating the process, fossil fuel based industrialisation has perverted this natural and positive phenomenon into one that could destroy life as we know it.

Basically, our lifestyle, the way we produce the food we eat, the drinks we consume, the modern conveniences we enjoy - the latest gadget in your hands, the computer I’m writing this piece on, the air-conditioner in sweltering heat, and so on, are made at the detriment of life on this planet. This human-generated phenomenon is referred to as the anthropogenic greenhouse effect.

Is this lifestyle sustainable? This question has to be answered by the individual, the family, the neighbourhood, the locality, the country and the comity of nations. And at all levels, it involves tough choices.

As remarked earlier, developed countries must own up to their actions and take the responsibility to ‘compensate’ for damages, to generously assist developing countries that have suffered the harshest consequences thus far, and are most vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change.

Skewed priorities

I said earlier that we not waste time lamenting the US’s pullout from the Paris Accord, but its actions and motivations should be placed in perspective.

The 59 Tomahawk missiles that were rained on Syria on a single night last April cost nearly a US$1 million each, and restocking the pile would require $60 million or more. Recent wars launched by the US, all of them unjustified, have cost more than a trillion dollars and counting.

But somehow, to American conservatives, a relatively paltry $1 billion (of a $3 billion package that former President Obama pledged to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund as part of the Paris deal) that would help increase the chances for a few centuries of sustainable development is ‘unfair’ to the US.

Do they know, or wilfully ignore, the fact that even if the full $3 billion were transferred, the per capita contribution to the GCF by the superpower US would still be much lower than other “first world” countries like Sweden, Norway or Japan?

Particularly hard hit

Developing countries, while right to expect climate change assistance from economically richer countries, need to make their own tough choices, too.

Việt Nam, with its 3,200km coastline, is witnessing first-hand the annihilating impacts of rising sea levels. It is estimated that 60,000 houses are claimed by the sea every year. A single storm and flood can wipe out a whole year worth of crops, and 60 per cent of rice farms in Mekong Delta are facing salt intrusion. People here have little doubt about climate change, because it is constantly staring them in the face.

But what are the specific policy choices that Việt Nam is making?

Is it doing anything to curb the growth of industries that are primary culprits in greenhouse gas emissions? The auto and livestock industries, for instance? Or are we promoting them, merely paying lip service to protecting the environment and adapting to climate change? Are we trying to reverse overexploiting of rapidly depleting resources like fertile soil and groundwater, or stepping it up through large-scale farming and other initiatives? Have we done anything serious to counter air and noise pollution?

While the leadership has clearly said that the environment will not be sacrificed at any cost, anywhere we look, it is business as usual. Which does not augur well for the effectiveness of our climate change response.

We should remember this: “By 2025 – that’s is less than 8 years from today – 1.8 billion people will experience absolute water scarcity, and two thirds of the world will be living under water-stressed conditions. Now it is feared that advancing drought and deserts, growing water scarcity and decreasing food security may provoke a huge ’tsunami’ of climate refugees and migrants.” (IPS, June 2017)

All in it together

In the final analysis, climate change knows no border and one country cannot do it. But, like Bhutan, which has articulated a clear policy and made some tough lifestyle choices, a country can make a huge difference. We need to look beyond developed countries for answers, while holding their proverbial hand to the fire.

While fossil fuel is relatively cheap and easy at the moment, and most would like it to remain that way, it’s a finite resource, and green energy should take its place. Solar energy, geothermal and wind energy are all environmentally sounder alternatives.

Germany is the leading example of wind energy development and a commitment to renewables in general.

The electricity cost from renewables is more expensive for individual consumers (second highest in Europe) but an overwhelming 92 per cent of the German public is in favour of its long-term environmental benefits, so saying people are not willing to make tough choices is not a valid excuse.

While Washington may step down, Germany may step up, and EU can get an unlikely ally in China, which has apparently realised the exorbitant costs of trading the environment for development at breakneck speed for the past decades. It’s good news to know that ‘rogue state’ of Hawaii have exercised their muscles, defying Trump, to continue with climate change mitigation efforts, and it’s likely New York and other liberal states will follow its examples.

Some experts have said that in the current context, US companies involved in green energy might move their research and development centres to countries in Asia, which will support developing countries like Việt Nam in reaching renewable goals.

In return, the ‘manufacturers for the world’ in the region might be used to make environmental-friendly and commercially viable products at relatively lower costs.

We have to persevere through the initial Luddites’ fear. After all, computers and hand-held phones were affordable to a select few when they were first produced, now they are virtually everywhere.

Not much time left

Scientists believe that it might be too late to stop the Antartica glaciers from melting, that rising seas could soon eat up coastal regions that are home to hundreds of millions of people, and that the warmer weather means more communicable diseases for crops, livestock and people. 

With human population rising steadily towards an estimated 11 billion by 2020, the extreme weather phenomena, disease outbreaks, rising food and energy prices can also bring out extreme behaviour in people.

Several studies have linked climate change to increasing violence in the world. The formula is simple: more people fighting for scarcer resources.

Scientific and technological advances, now and in the future, can help, but cannot cover the sheer expanse of the spiralling crisis that we face.

On available evidence, we are virtually living on borrowed time. — VNS