A climate of denial and deceit

Storms, droughts, floods, landslides, forest fires have far outstripped the worst predictions this year. Can the world turn the wheel on the galloping climate crisis?

Plumes of smoke billow out of a power station hit by a Russian missile on Oct. 10, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Plumes of smoke billow out of a power station hit by a Russian missile on Oct. 10, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Bharat Dogra

The ongoing UN Climate Conference at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt (COP27 or the 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) between November 6 and 18 has already witnessed its share of hope and despair, even if there is a growing realisation that it can no longer be business as usual. The latest Global Climate Report, brought out by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), reveals that the level of three leading greenhouse gases (GHGs)—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—increased to record levels in 2021, and that the rate of increase of methane, a GHG gas many times more harmful than carbon dioxide was also at a record level.

The rate of sea level rise during 2010-20 was nearly double what was seen during the 1990s. In 2020-22 this rose higher. The goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius is widely believed to have slipped out of control. WMO Chief Petteri Taalas grimly confessed: “The melting (of ice) game we have lost, and also the sea level rise.” The UN Secretary General Antonio Guteress conceded that “the latest State of the Global Climate Report is a chronicle of climate chaos.”

Climate change, however, is only one among several serious, life-threatening environmental problems. Scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have identified nine critical areas where crossing critical thresholds can endanger life on earth.

The nine areas include stratospheric ozone, land-use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading (air pollution) and chemical pollution.

The scientists noted that ‘three of these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been transgressed’ and warned that crossing the threshold in one may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe limits in others. In 2022, the situation has worsened as the Ukraine war and escalating big power rivalries have changed geopolitical priorities, further marginalising environmental issues. International agreements to reduce emissions are best reached in conditions of peace and stability and not in the middle of warmongering. In view of the ongoing war and sanctions, several countries have gone back to more polluting options of energy like coal.

Accumulated evidence also tells us that wars, war preparations, the arms race and the military-industrial complex together constitute the biggest source of pollution and GHG emissions. It is now recognised that use of 5 per cent of the total stock (about 13,000) of nuclear weapons can cause more damage in a matter of days than caused by climate change over a period of several years.

While stopping armed conflicts, reducing possibilities of war, restraining the arms race and elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction are integral to checking climate change, climate disruptions and disasters, not enough attention or effort is being directed towards restraining the powerful arms lobby.

A 2019 study indicated that the US military machine emitted more greenhouse gases than 140 countries put together. The fuel required to keep the war machines going and keeping them primed at all times is humongous. While most militaries are aware of the consequences of rising sea levels, global warming and pollution, little has been done to highlight the effects of these war machines on climate change.

In a study titled The Great Climate Robbery, international organisation GRAIN reported that ‘The expansion of unsustainable agricultural practices over the past century has led to the destruction of 30-75 per cent of organic matter on arable lands, and 50 per cent organic matter on pastures and prairies.’

This massive loss of organic matter is responsible for 25-40 per cent of the current excess carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. Use of chemical fertilisers also releases nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, a gas that is almost 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide as a GHG, in addition to being one of the most significant sources of ozone depletion.

On the plus side, this study points out, ‘if the right policies and incentives were in place worldwide, soil organic matter contents could be restored to pre-industrial levels within a period of 50 years… This would offset 24-30 per cent of all current global GHG emissions’.

Despite this potential, the overwhelming worldwide trend has been to increase the grip of food trading, seed, agrochemicals and GM crop, which use ecologically harmful and disruptive technologies but are promoted by multinational companies.

In India, GM crop lobbyists are active to somehow introduce GM food crops, starting with GM mustard, despite overwhelming evidence of serious environmental and health impacts of GM crops and agrochemicals used by them. These issues are ignored at climate change negotiations, including the COP summits.

Another neglected aspect is of justice and equality. If production of goods is limited by environmental space and carbon space, it makes sense to reduce ‘sin’ goods, wasteful goods and hazardous goods so that the more basic needs of mankind can be met, but ‘sin’ goods by far dominate production.

The failure of rich countries to mobilise the modest $100 billion a year for a climate fund to help the Global South in climate change adaptation and mitigation is also striking. Although this idea first emerged in 2009 and commitments were reiterated year after year, till as late as 2020, the grants but not loans from the richer countries amounted to barely 16 per cent of the target.

Similarly, a proper provision for loss and damage has not been made yet, though this year the demand for this has picked up following devastating floods in Pakistan and perhaps even higher damage from a prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa region.

In regions like the Horn of Africa, people who are suffering the worst impacts of climate change are the ones who are the least responsible for it. At earlier COPs and other climate negotiations, there was more understanding of this historic injustice and there was support for the suggestion that the Global North or the rich countries help the poorer Global South to cope with climate change. The rich countries, however, have somehow wriggled out of this commitment to provide financial and technological support, compensation and reparation.

The reluctance to mobilise the modest target of $100 billion a year, to be donated by all rich countries together, for the Global South can be seen in the context of the USA’s annual expenditure on alcoholic beverages of $252 billion and its annual military expenditure of around $778 billion, not counting hidden components.

While the rich countries need to share their responsibility as major polluters, and deliberations at COP27 so far indicate some kind of ‘loss and damage’ emerging, it can scarcely draw attention away from local failures. There is a tendency to blame climate change for failures of various kinds.

In Pakistan, climate change was certainly a factor behind the excessive rainfall earlier this year, but the sharp and steady decline in forest cover was also a very important aggravating factor. The timber mafia and officials who allowed them to flourish cannot really escape their share of the blame.

In South Asia and in several other parts of world, cities have been devastated by floods in recent years due to abnormally high rains, but the abysmal failure of urban planning, encroachment of wetlands and water bodies and neglect of drainage systems also aggravated the situation.

Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) record alarmingly high air pollution every year, causing deaths, severe health emergencies and longer-term health damage. However, despite a plethora of plans and platitudes and considerable expenditure to control industrial and vehicular pollution, besides crop stubble burning, real solutions remain elusive. The tendency to hide local failures, by citing climate change as the cause, is perverse. Nobody can deny that avoidable mistakes and policy failures have been contributing to floods, droughts, coastal erosion and landslides.

While poorer countries are justified in demanding reparation and compensation from the polluting and richer countries, it is also their responsibility to ensure that the benefits reach the poorest. Unfortunately, the evidence is that corporate interests have gained the most from emerging new areas of climate action. So, justice is needed not just at the international level but also within the countries of the Global South.

It is common at international climate change conferences, including COP summits, to see some of the worst polluters trying to emerge as climate crusaders. Instead of reducing their polluting activities, these polluters are seen advancing various dubious proposals and practices such as carbon trading to correct anomalies.

To give an example, a polluting unit may claim to offset its emissions by agreeing to plant trees. This unit then tries to gain control of land that poorer communities used for grazing or other community purposes. Polluting inputs and methods are often used to create a monoculture plantation, which does not have the same ecological benefits that a natural forest has. In other words, what is being done in the name of offsetting emissions is not serving the stated purpose.

Poor governance, civil strife and political turmoil have badly hit efforts to cope with climate change and provide relief to victims. In Tigray region of Ethiopia, half the population are on the verge of starvation following a severe drought. But efforts by the World Food Program (WFP) to distribute food in remote areas were hampered by the largescale theft of fuel in connivance with powerful local authorities. Pakistan, which faced devastating floods in May, continues to be politically unstable. Victims of cyclones in Myanmar are deprived of a helping hand because of the civil war between the military junta and local militias.

It is time to make a new beginning. An agenda to avoid war, the arms race and to eliminate weapons of mass destruction must be integrated into the plan of climate action. Moving towards agroecology and reduction in the production of wasteful, hazardous, luxury and sin goods should also reduce GHG emissions. There should be no room for deceptive ‘solutions’ offered by powerful lobbies

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