An Inconvenient Truth: 11 Years on
With climate change not being prioritised in either of the two main parties’ manifestos in the upcoming UK General Election, and an American President who wishes to scrap all US commitments to tackle the issue, just what progress, if any, is being made?
“What we take for granted might not be here for our children”. Al Gore, the man defeated in the closest Presidential election in US history in 2000, sums it up perfectly. When the former Vice President appeared in An Inconvenient Truth way back in 2006, produced by Davis Guggenheim, it was a watershed moment in politics, people watching it began to wake up to the biggest threat that humanity faced on Earth.
No, it wasn’t terrorism, nuclear war or epidemics. It was nature; the sun we bathe in, the water we swim in, the air we breathe. One of the old adages always said after either a tsunami, such as the tragedy of 2004, or tropical storms that batter coastlines around the world, is that we should never underestimate Mother Nature. The inconvenient truth is that we have fallen victim to just that. Despite the ground-breaking scientific evidence to prove otherwise, governments around the world still take pleasure in plugging their ears and ignoring a danger that has not yet matured into something much, much greater.
Yet the rise of the Green parties and Green Socialism all over the Western world provides only minor relief, if any, to our path that ultimately leads to a cliff edge. A few seats, if any, are held in the different array of parliaments in Europe, whilst the picture looks even bleaker outside of Europe. More astoundingly and unbelievably we now have a US President, arguably the most powerful position in the world, who has labelled climate change a hoax that was conjured up by the Chinese “in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”!
Unfortunately climate change is no easy problem to tackle: the one-size-fits-all solution of pumping even more money into Green schemes simply doesn’t cut it. Whilst we are all so obsessed and indulged in politics, whether it is Brexit, the elections or a conflict in the Middle East, we are dangerously ignoring the biggest problem that has ever faced the Earth and its inhabitants.
Anyone with a basic understanding of how the climate and Earth works knows the importance of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere, and how too much of it causes the planet to heat up, raising temperatures around the globe. The graph above shows just how far we have strayed from the typical cycles that our planet has grown accustomed to over its 4.5-billion-year long lifetime. If we continue unrestrictedly emitting pollutants at the same rate as we are now, the current line would go off the graph. The implications towards the Northern and Southern poles would be huge, and it has a vicious knock-on effect for the rest of the planet.
The most obvious concern is the rising sea level. Built across the world on all coastlines are major cities that are home to a vast proportion of the world’s population. Cities like London, New York, Tokyo spring to mind, but the real worries come for those in much poorer and much more populated areas of the world like Jakarta, Lagos and Mumbai. Take Bangladesh; lying on the world’s largest delta — the Ganges Delta — and home to 161 million people, it is the most densely populated country on the planet (excluding small city-states). The country routinely experiences severe flooding, killing 5000 people each year. In fact, 80% of the country is a floodplain, including its capital of 15 million, and in 1998 burst riverbanks and rising sea levels submerged 75% of the country below water, rendering 30 million people homeless (about the size of Venezuela). If Greenland’s ice were to all melt, sea levels would rise by 7m, easily submerging the entire country and its inhabitants under water.
Similar stories around the world are becoming ever more frequent, from the imminent danger to small Pacific nations such as Tuvalu, which is no more than 2m above sea level, to huge urban areas in both the developed and underdeveloped world. However, rising sea levels don’t tell the whole story, as more extreme weather conditions become the norm and a lack of resources overtakes political differences as the primary source of conflict (see: Lake Chad). If you thought that the refugee crisis was bad enough, wait until people are fleeing areas they simply cannot live in, not because of war, which is reversible, but because of something completely impossible to reverse.
Food insecurity has developed from an economic and political problem into a rather environmental problem. Paradoxically the only way to relieve its effects is politics. Whilst the West continues to feed itself well, those in the Third World struggle enough with widespread political instability, let alone a failure of harvests, to put food into their mouths and those of their children.
As deserts around the world become drier, literal islands of plastic form in the oceans, and sea levels force vast swathes of countries to reconsider their priorities, what has been done to put an end to humanity’s most recent crisis?
Major world summits have successfully reunified once-sworn enemies in attempting to tackle climate change and greenhouse gases, usually led by the United Nations. The 2005 Kyoto Protocol, extending the work done by 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), gathered 84 signatories, and put into effect two targets starting in 2008 and 2012. More recently the Paris Agreement in 2015 marked an “historic turning point” in the world’s attitude towards reducing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Optimism was rife amongst the scientific community after the Paris Agreement, and rightly so with 196 signatories — almost every nation in the world — of which 146 have ratified the accords. The agreement is understandably ambitious; aiming to limit the temperature increase to 1.5–2 Degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (before temperatures started to abnormally rise in line with industrialisation). The agreement marked the world’s first ever comprehensive climate agreement, and it seemed to us as if governments had finally opened their eyes to the danger staring right at them.
Unfortunately for some of the wildlife native to our planet, their existence as a species has come to an abrupt end. Parts of the Great Barrier Reef are now considered “dead” and environmental catastrophe’s such as the 2010 Deep Horizon Oil Spill have caused death in its millions amongst those residing in our oceans. Many animals are on the brink of extinction thanks to human activities such as deforestation: just look at overhead images of the Amazon rainforest from 1970 onwards.
However, after we reveled in the success of the Paris Agreement, which for the first time brought the entire global community together, dreams were quietly shattered a year later. Trump’s journey to American Presidency killed the optimism cold and dead, along with the recent populist movements focusing solely on nationalist agendas as opposed to the actual land these movements claim to represent. Trump could well ‘cancel’ the US commitment to the Paris Agreement, leading Europe and the rest of the world wondering if it is now necessary to progress without American contributions.
We know the biggest polluter in the world is by far China, with the USA and the EU lagging behind in second and third place. Furthermore, free-market industrialisation has become such a formidable force that foreign ventures of governments actually have more to do with oil and gas resources than regime change. Indeed oil prices and supply have such a huge impact on the world financial markets that it dictates many foreign policies and diplomatic disputes, as it currently powers almost all civilian and military infrastructure. Oil did not get its name as black gold for nothing.
Nevertheless, a complete switch to renewable energies will rid the world of conflicts over oil or gas supplies, let alone over water and arable land, whilst vastly reducing the impact of global temperature rises and encroaching sea levels. The predicted impacts of the rising sea level should the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or Greenland collapse is immense, and Al Gore demonstrates this in his compelling hour-and-a-half documentary. He cleverly compares climate change to smoking, asking why someone would continue to smoke after comprehending the harmful impacts it has on the body. Strangely, images of smoke bellowing into the sky from power stations and factories around the world paint exactly the same picture.
Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC secretary, once said, “Climate change increasingly poses one of the biggest long-term threats to investments”. In a world of unhindered capitalism, perhaps for once we need to reassess our priorities as a species and put money and greed to one side. Easier said than done that is to be said, but to finish on a quote from yet another world figurehead:
“Climate change does not respect borders; it does not respect who you are — rich and poor, small and big. Therefore this what we call ‘global challenges,’ which require global solidarity” — Ban Ki-Moon