The Climate Crisis: Why the Public Must Lead the Way

Governments and big business have proven woefully unable to translate calls for action into action. It’s up to us

Yosef Gotlieb
Yosef Gotlieb
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A man looks at giant waves brought by typhoon Mindulle crashing onto the shore, Tuesday, June 29, 2004, in the south eastern city of Taitung, Taiwan
Seen in Taiwan: Storms are growing fiercer with global warming and governments won't save usCredit: AP
Yosef Gotlieb
Yosef Gotlieb

The world is in crisis, the inevitable result of an unsustainable economic system.

The patterns of production, consumption and ever-increasing waste that characterize modern life have badly overdrawn the limited resources of our small planet. Our land, air and water have been seriously compromised by human activity since the Industrial Revolution and increasingly since World War II, that is, in a geological wink of an eye.

To counteract these trends, multiple engines of change have to be enlisted globally, nationally and locally. Achieving “carbon-zero” – the much vaunted and indeed critical goal of stopping greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, which many people assume will lay the crises to rest – is simply not enough.

As essential resources become scarcer, our priorities have to emphasize meeting basic needs for all, including clean water and air, nutritious food, public health and adequate shelter, and infrastructure capable of withstanding future shocks. We are far from achieving these development goals

But with soil loss widespread, parched lands becoming a commonplace, water sources running dry, coastal areas being battered by storm surges, and wildfires and extreme temperatures taking an increasing toll on communities and wildlife, securing the basic needs for the population in a way that regenerates resources rather than depletes them is critical to stabilizing our planetary life-support system for ourselves and our descendants.

International agreements, changes in national policies and better corporate practices have a role to play in crafting the new order, but we would be misguided to hope that salvation will come from above. The most important changes will be catalyzed at the grassroots where societal and economic life is forged. We, individuals, communities and institutions must view ourselves as proactive agents of the transition to a new order.

This becomes glaringly clear when the abysmal track record of intergovernmental and corporate progress on climate, biodiversity and planetary health is considered.

Achieving nothing in Paris

The most spotlighted sphere of activities addressing the planetary crises are efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The much-awaited 26th Conference of Parties (COP-26) dealing with climate change, scheduled for October 31 to November 12, 2021 in Glasgow is viewed as a watershed moment, but so was the preceding conference, in Paris.

COP-26’s aim is to halt greenhouse gas emissions so mean global temperatures do not surpass a 1.5-2 degree C rise over pre-industrial levels, the dangers of which are spelled out in the August 2021 Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Another equally acute area of concern is biodiversity loss. Species are being taken off endangered lists because they have already gone extinct. The loss of global biological resources and the environmental services associated with them that has taken place over the past five decades now exceeds that of the past 10,000 years. This was addressed by a separate UN-led international panel of experts which met in Kunming, China earlier in October and is slated to reconvene in April.

As important as these international meetings are, their resolutions and targets are, in the end, declaratory: It is up to the individual signatory states to implement the conventions, as there are no enforcement mechanisms.

Fire at Lake Tahoe, California: We cannot stand by as the world burnsCredit: Jae C. Hong,AP

Since the previous climate change conference, COP25, in 2015, GHG emissions from fossil fuel use and land-use changes have continued to rise, and the Nationally-Determined Contributions that states have set for reducing their share of fossil fuel emissions have proven woefully inadequate.

Similarly, of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets formulated in 2010 at the Tenth Convention on Biodiversity and which were to be reached by 2020, none have been met.

To date, then, the international authorities have failed to take the necessary action necessary to rein in the global crises. A lack of political will and stonewalling by vested economic interests partially account for this situation, but unanticipated challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions also divert attention.

The pandemic response itself has proven how tragically inept the international community is when engaging a common threat, even one that is so obviously clear and present. Vaccine nationalism and distribution that grossly favors hard cash over epidemiological common sense has led to the emergence of new variants in places where weak health systems and poverty provide ample breeding grounds. Such short-sightedness dismally illustrates the limits of international cooperation today.

Nonetheless, it is the obligation of the global, national and local officials to work in concert in order to curtail the drivers of climate change, biodiversity loss and planetary health threats. That will only happen if people everywhere, as global and national citizens, ratchet-up pressure on their governments to not only meet, but exceed, the Paris and Aichi targets.

The paradox of ‘caring’ Big Business

As governments fiddle, corporations are being hailed as movers and shakers with power and influence that often rivals that of governments. What role these entities can genuinely play in the transition to a sustainable economy is, then, an important question.

Big business has begun to recognize that modifying its practices and greening their supply-chains is unavoidable if only for reasons of self-interest, and some companies seem genuine in their intentions. Microsoft, for example, has committed itself to a net-zero carbon regime and has apparently been making considerable strides in that direction, including the use of carbon-capture technologies at the world’s largest direct air C02 capture plant, which recently opened in Iceland. The feasibility and energy efficiency of this technology is subject to debate, but such efforts suggests that some corporations are more readily complying with climate targets than are many governments.

Lake Mead, Arizona: The light-colored bathtub ring shows the high water mark Credit: John Locher/AP

Under the rubric Race to Zero, a UN campaign, 3,067 big businesses and 173 of the biggest investors across the world have committed to lower their emissions to meet the goal of a 50 percent reduction of fossil fuel use by 2030.

Reportedly, however, many are setting the bar too low, or not stating goals at all.

Also relevant is the economic system: Industries running the gamut from energy and minerals, food and apparel, to construction and telecommunications are largely responsible for the extravagantly resource-extractive, environmentally-degrading and wasteful economy that has resulted in the planetary crisis. Their business models, based on profit-maximization for their investors, relies on creating rising demand and expanding markets.

Whatever enlightened motives some of these corporations may express, they cannot be expected to be the kinds of change agents that are required to create robust and healthful societies. Market economics gauges progress in terms of profitability and growth and has little appetite for constraint and balance. Under these terms, this economic model is incompatible with sustainability.

And that leaves you

Governments and big business have demonstrated, so far, deplorable inability to provide more than lip service. The transformational activities needed to reorientate society to a sustainable future will be undertaken by farmers and fishers, consumers, scientists – yes, and business leaders, and others who can conceive of and implement new frameworks for progress.

The entire range of human economic functions will have to be reconceived and refashioned. The gluttonous resource extraction, land-use conversion, profligate consumption and bounteous waste that characterized the existing system will have to be abandoned. Based on the science alone, the ecosphere simply cannot tolerate these tendencies.

The public’s demand for action on the planetary crises must be demonstrated urgently and unrelentingly. It has to be applied without let up and should be broadly-based among all sectors.

But protests alone will not suffice. new economy and grassroot initiatives by businesses, civil organizations, communities and individuals will be essential to a sustainable new order.

That order is in the process of being erected by innovators, activists, educators and entrepreneurs — people with vision who are busy weaving new and better communities and societies.

This article is part of a series by Dr. Yosef Gotlieb describing the origins of climate change and the planetary crisis, its economic roots, new approaches for dealing with these threats, and initiatives to build a sustainable new order.

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