We are all cli­mate refugees now

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - By Jef­frey D. Sachs

This sum­mer's fires, droughts, and record-high tem­per­a­tures should serve as a wake-up call. The longer a nar­row and ig­no­rant elite con­demns Amer­i­cans and the rest of hu­man­ity to wander aim­lessly in the po­lit­i­cal desert, the more likely it is that we will all end up in a waste­land.

Mod­ern hu­mans, born into one cli­mate era, called the Holocene, have crossed the border into an­other, the An­thro­pocene. But in­stead of a Moses guid­ing hu­man­ity in this new and dan­ger­ous wilder­ness, a gang of science de­niers and pol­luters cur­rently mis­guides hu­man­ity to ever-greater dan­ger. We are all cli­mate refugees now and must chart a path to safety.

The Holocene was the ge­o­log­i­cal age that started more than 10,000 years ago, with fa­vor­able cli­mate con­di­tions that sup­ported hu­man civ­i­liza­tion as we know it. The An­thro­pocene is a new ge­o­log­i­cal era with en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions that hu­man­ity has never be­fore ex­pe­ri­enced. Omi­nously, the Earth’s tem­per­a­ture is now higher than dur­ing the Holocene, ow­ing to the car­bon diox­ide that hu­man­ity has emit­ted into the at­mos­phere by burn­ing coal, oil, and gas, and by in­dis­crim­i­nately turn­ing the world’s forests and grass­lands into farms and pas­tures.

Peo­ple are suf­fer­ing and dy­ing in the new en­vi­ron­ment, with much worse to come. Hur­ri­cane Maria is es­ti­mated to have taken more than 4,000 lives in Puerto Rico last Septem­ber. High­in­ten­sity hur­ri­canes are be­com­ing more fre­quent, and ma­jor storms are caus­ing more flood­ing, be­cause of the in­creased heat trans­fer from the warm­ing wa­ters of the oceans, the greater mois­ture in warmer air, and the rise in sea lev­els – all made more ex­treme by hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change.

Just last month, more than 90 peo­ple per­ished in the suburbs of Athens from a dev­as­tat­ing for­est fire stoked by drought and high tem­per­a­tures. Huge for­est fires are sim­i­larly rag­ing this sum­mer in other hot and newly dry locales, in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia, Swe­den, Bri­tain, and Aus­tralia. Last year, Por­tu­gal was dev­as­tated. Many record-high tem­per­a­tures are be­ing reached around the world this sum­mer.

How ut­terly reck­less of hu­man­ity to have rushed past the Holocene bound­ary, ig­nor­ing – like a char­ac­ter in a hor­ror movie – all of the ob­vi­ous warn­ing signs. In 1972, the world’s gov­ern­ments as­sem­bled in Stock­holm to ad­dress the grow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal threats. In the lead-up to the con­fer­ence, the Club of Rome pub­lished The Lim­its to Growth, which first in­tro­duced the idea of a “sus­tain­able” growth tra­jec­tory and the risks of en­vi­ron­men­tal over­shoot­ing. Twenty years later, the warn­ing signs flashed brightly in Rio de Janeiro, where United Na­tions mem­ber states as­sem­bled at the Earth Sum­mit to adopt the con­cept of “sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment” and to sign three ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal treaties to halt hu­man-in­duced global warm­ing, pro­tect bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity, and stop land degra­da­tion and de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Af­ter 1992, the United States, the world’s most pow­er­ful coun­try, os­ten­ta­tiously ig­nored the three new treaties, sig­nalling to other coun­tries that they could slacken their ef­forts as well. The US Se­nate rat­i­fied the cli­mate and de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion treaties but did noth­ing to im­ple­ment them. And it re­fused even to rat­ify the treaty to pro­tect bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity, in part be­cause western-state Repub­li­cans in­sisted that landown­ers have the right to do what they want with their property with­out in­ter­na­tional med­dling.

More re­cently, the world adopted the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals in

Septem­ber 2015 and the Paris cli­mate agree­ment in De­cem­ber 2015. Yet, once again, the US govern­ment has wil­fully ig­nored the SDGs, rank­ing last among the G20 coun­tries in terms of govern­ment im­ple­men­ta­tion ef­forts. And Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has de­clared his in­ten­tion to pull the US out of the Paris cli­mate agree­ment at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble mo­ment, 2020, four years af­ter the ac­cord en­tered into force.

Worse is to come. The hu­man-caused rise in CO2 hasn’t yet reached its full warm­ing ef­fect, ow­ing to the con­sid­er­able lag in its im­pact on ocean tem­per­a­tures. There is still an­other 0.5º Cel­sius or so of warm­ing to oc­cur over the com­ing decades based on the cur­rent con­cen­tra­tion of CO2 (408 parts per mil­lion) in the at­mos­phere, and far more warm­ing be­yond that if CO2 con­cen­tra­tions con­tinue to soar with the busi­ness-as-usual burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els. To achieve the Paris agree­ment’s goal of lim­it­ing warm­ing to “well below 2ºC” rel­a­tive to the pre-in­dus­trial level, the world needs to shift de­ci­sively from coal, oil, and gas to re­new­able en­ergy by around 2050, and from de­for­esta­tion to re­for­esta­tion and restora­tion of de­graded lands.

So why does hu­man­ity keep plung­ing dumbly ahead, to­ward cer­tain tragedy?

The main rea­son is that our po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and gi­ant cor­po­ra­tions wil­fully ig­nore the rising dan­gers and dam­age. Pol­i­tics is about ob­tain­ing and hold­ing power and the perks of of­fice, not about solv­ing prob­lems, even life-and-death en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. Man­ag­ing a ma­jor com­pany is about max­i­miz­ing share­holder value, not about telling the truth or avoid­ing great harm to the planet. Profit-seek­ing in­vestors own the ma­jor me­dia, or at least in­flu­ence it through their ad­ver­tis­ing pur­chases. Thus, a small yet very pow­er­ful group main­tains the fos­sil-fuel-based en­ergy sys­tem at grow­ing peril to the rest of hu­man­ity to­day and in the fu­ture.

Trump is the lat­est use­ful fool do­ing the pol­luters’ bid­ding, abet­ted by con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans who fi­nance their elec­tion campaigns with con­tri­bu­tions from en­vi­ron­men­tal cul­prits such as Koch In­dus­tries. Trump has filled the US govern­ment with in­dus­try lob­by­ists who are sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­man­tling every en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion they can reach. Most re­cently, Trump has nom­i­nated a for­mer lawyer for mega-pol­luter Dow Chem­i­cal to lead the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s Su­per­fund toxic cleanup pro­gram. You can’t make this stuff up.

We need a new kind of pol­i­tics that starts with a clear global goal: en­vi­ron­men­tal safety for the planet’s peo­ple, by ful­fill­ing the Paris cli­mate agree­ment, pro­tect­ing bio­di­ver­sity, and cut­ting pol­lu­tion, which kills mil­lions each year. The new pol­i­tics will lis­ten to sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal ex­perts, not self-in­ter­ested busi­ness lead­ers and nar­cis­sis­tic politi­cians. Cli­ma­tol­o­gists en­able us to gauge the rising dan­gers. En­gi­neers in­form us how to make the rapid tran­si­tion, by 2050, to zero-car­bon en­ergy. Ecol­o­gists and agron­o­mists show us how to grow more and bet­ter crops on less land while end­ing de­for­esta­tion and restor­ing pre­vi­ously de­graded land.

Such a pol­i­tics is pos­si­ble. In fact, the pub­lic yearns for it. A large ma­jor­ity of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, for ex­am­ple, want to fight global warm­ing, stay in the Paris cli­mate agree­ment, and em­brace re­new­able en­ergy. Yet, as long as a nar­row and ig­no­rant elite con­demn Amer­i­cans and the rest of hu­man­ity to wander aim­lessly in the po­lit­i­cal desert, the more likely it is that we will all end up in a waste­land from which there will be no es­cape.

Worse is to come. The hu­man-caused rise in CO2 hasn’t yet reached its full warm­ing ef­fect, ow­ing to the con­sid­er­able lag in its im­pact on ocean tem­per­a­tures.

Jef­frey Sachs

A scene of wild fire in Cal­i­for­nia, United States

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