Climate Change: Endless Words, Where’s the Action?

There is virtually no time left. Many believe we are already too late to do much to arrest climate change and the destruction of the natural world. Even climate scientists are stunned by the pace at which the climatic conditions of planet Earth are being altered, disrupted by the ignorance and deep-rooted selfishness of humanity; well, a relatively small percentage of humanity actually.

Every day, complacency – politically, individually and commercially – greed and political short-termism continue, the environmental crisis intensifies, moving systems closer to tipping points, when nothing can arrest the destruction, nothing can stop the demise. Some of the vandalism inflicted on the planet is already judged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be irreversible.

The most recent reports from the IPCC (made up of the world’s leading climate/environmental scientists) are, like many before them, exasperated, infuriated calls for action – radical urgent action. And yet despite the warnings and pleas, made by scientists, activists, concerned citizens, over decades, little of substance is happening and still ‘the environment’ is not the top priority for governments. Yes, awareness is growing and some changes are underway: Dozens of countries have committed to achieving Net-Zero (not actual zero) greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2050, or 2060 as with China. But there is a gaping chasm between political rhetoric and policies/action to meet their commitments – the ‘Implementation Gap’ is huge. As Antonio Guterres put it, “Government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another.  Simply put, they are lying.” The US has just passed a major climate change bill – inadequate by most assessments, but better than nothing, so too has Australia’s new government, which seems keen to throw off the country’s reputation as an environmental liability, – also totally inadequate, but like the US step, better than nothing.

Solar panels are booming – China leads the world in installation and manufacture – and hundreds of wind farms are being planted again China is the vanguard, erecting more than three times those of any other country in 2020. Energy efficiency has advanced, but because of humanity’s insatiable appetite for stimulation of all kinds, energy use keeps rising, and with it GHG emissions; sales of electric vehicles are booming and renewables are now far cheaper than fossil fuels. Despite this fact the percentage of electricity (not total energy) being generated by renewables, is only around 10% of the global total; and ‘Green’ ideas, initiatives and concerns are talked about in a way not seen before.

Positive, but in the face of the challenges, such measures, including hundreds of local community-led schemes, are little more than gestures, a paper fan against a 40°C heat wave. GHG emissions are still growing year on year, investment in fossil fuels continues, rain forests continue to be felled, habitats crushed, waters polluted, air contaminated, soil eroded, and the “long drawn out tragedy of unprecedented scale”, as Extinction Rebellion Co-Founder, Claire Ferrers,  put it, goes on, as does human brutality – to one another and the natural world.

An atlas of human suffering

Set up in 1986, when climate change was first openly talked about, the IPCC is the United Nations (UN) body that assesses the science around climate change. Free from ideological/political bias or influence, it “provides a framework for governments, scientists and IPCC staff to work together to deliver the world’s most authoritative scientific assessments on climate change.” This year two reports (of three) from the agency have so far been published, AR5 and AR6. They make crystal clear the dire situation the planet, humanity and all other forms of life are in as a result of human behavior, behavior that has set in motion a series of interconnected environmental catastrophes: Climate change, species extinction, air and water pollution, soil erosion and deforestation. With every major area of impact comes a series of sub-sections, localized issues affecting ecosystems/wildlife/habitat, food production, indigenous peoples, displacement of persons/migration, mental health and so on. These in turn trigger further echoes of destruction and disruption – complex environmental and social problems – destructive ripples expanding and multiplying, revealing unforeseen consequences; unforeseen because corporate decisions, government policies, individual human activity, proceed, in the main, from a conditioned foundation of ignorance, of false assumptions and wrong conclusions about ourselves and the nature of life.

We understand little about our nature and the laws that underpin life, but arrogant and self-centred, believe we are planetary custodians; we cannot even live peacefully together in community, let alone be responsible for the planet and the unbelievable abundance of life that exists within its orbit. Humility, the quality most lacking within the race – totally absent within politicians/leaders and big business, is essential if we are to begin to live gracefully as one interconnected family, forming part of a global life, which in truth we are.

The IPCC AR5 is “an atlas of human suffering… the facts are undeniable.” And pointing the finger of blame directly at politicians and corporate bosses:  “This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home.” Comments made not by Extinction Rebellion or Greenpeace, but the UN Secretary General (who stands tall among the current collection of backward looking inept world ‘leaders’), António Guterres.

We have caused an environmental catastrophe, and by we, I mean the rich developed nations of the world, because it’s the behavior of this relatively small percentage of humanity that is the major culprit. The environmental catastrophe was not, and is not, being fueled by over-population, although there are certainly too many people in the world, it is the result of over-consumption by wealthy societies. It is not the hundreds of millions in sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan or China who are responsible, or the billion desperately poor Indians that are behind it, nor is it fed by the inhabitants of South-Sea Islands, many of which will probably disappear. It is the western lifestyle of unrestrained irresponsible consumption, including diets centered on animal produce. And within these industrialized wealthy (more or less) societies, that are obsessed with with stuff – most of which is totally unnecessary, it is the richest one percent that are overwhelmingly to blame.

Oxfam’s shocking report, ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality,’ published in 2020, revealed that, “between 1990 and 2015 – 25 years when humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere…..The richest 10 percent accounted for over half (52 percent) of the emissions added to the atmosphere, [and] the richest one percent were responsible for 15 percent of emissions…..more than twice that of the poorest half of humanity.”And as inequality grows the disproportionate impact this tiny group has will increase. By 2030, Oxfam estimates that the GHG emissions of the world’s richest 1% will be 30 times higher than a level compatible with 1.5°C increase in global temperature.

But, while people everywhere are beginning to feel the impact of climate change and environmental degradation, it’s populations in the poorest nations that are being most severely battered; and despite repeated promises from western politicians, they are receiving pennies to assist with so called ‘adaptation’ plans. It is nothing less than an act of war, perpetrated by rich countries against the poorest most vulnerable people on the planet.

Fantasy 1.5°C

The fabled target of 1.5°C (above pre industrial levels) of global warming agreed at COP 21 in Paris in 2015, and held up as tolerable, is a fantasy at the moment. Governments have signed up to Nationally Determined Commitments (NDC’s). But even if these are honored, and there is little or no sign they will be (they are non-binding), warming is still estimated to pass 1.5°C; because the NDC’s do not go far enough, because governments are still placing short term economic gain and the perpetuation of a socio-economic model, which has done enormous harm, both to the planet and humanity, first. Antonio Guterres makes clear that, “Governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames.They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security and greater price stability.” The level of complacency is beyond belief.

Currently the global ground temperature increase is around 1.3°C, and looking at the climatic chaos being experienced, imagine what 1.5 would be like – total disaster, let alone a rise of 3 – 4°C , which is the present trajectory. Oxfam states that if 1.5°C is to be realized, “the per capita emissions of the richest 10 percent will need to be around 10 times lower by 2030 – this is equivalent to cutting global annual emissions by a third.” But even 1.5 °C, described as “a physical threshold or boundary for the planet’s climate” will create an unknown world; a world that, according to a recent study, would be too warm “for the ecosystems on the frontline of climate change,” including coral reefs, many of which are forecast to disappear under such conditions.

A file of shame

China, which is leading the world on renewable energy, energy storage and electric vehicles (in 2019 more electric cars were sold in China than the rest of the world combined) also has the highest total GHG emissions in the world, but the per-capita figure is relatively low, around half those of the US e.g. The high levels of overall GHG emissions are due in large measure to the fact that the country has become the world’s manufacturing hub, producing goods that are sold in the West as well as throughout developing countries.

Rich nations have, in varying degrees, exported their GHG emissions to China and other Asian states. The UK, for example, has reduced gross GHG emissions by about 44% since 1990, but that is largely because virtually all large scale manufacturing has closed down, rather than any successful national transition away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. In fact, the UK government continues to invest in fossil fuels, and Liz Truss, who looks likely to become the leader of the Conservatives and therefore the new Prime-Minister (just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse), is glibly talking about freeing up gas from the North Sea and investing in Shale Gas to combat rising fuels prices. Investing in fossil fuels is madness (from 2016 – 2020 countries and banks around the world are estimated to have invested 3.8 US Trillion in fossil fuels), and should be made illegal. At the same time Truss is threatening to essentially outlaw peaceful protest by groups like Extinction Rebellion, who are heroes and should be listened to and admired for their efforts to alert people to the depth of the emergency and the level of government and corporate inaction.

The environmental assault is mass vandalism on a global scale, and despite the calls for action and change, apathy reigns.  In his response in April, Antonio Guterres said the IPCC report was “a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.” An “unlivable world”: Major cities under water.  Unprecedented heatwaves.  Terrifying storms.  Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration.  It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies,” he screamed. Those current policies and the way we are now living will result, scientists estimate, in at least 3°C warming, possibly higher.

It is impossible to overstate the severity of the situation, or the level of indifference  and complacency within governments, most businesses, and among many people, the majority perhaps. Governments must lead the way, but when they don’t and currently they are not, the people must take up the challenge. Some are doing this – Extinction Rebellion, the Schools Strike for Climate, Indigenous People’s groups and many civil society organisations, and they should be given unconditional public support. For the environmental impacts to be limited and planetary healing to begin, fundamental systemic change is needed as well as a major shift in collective attitudes and behavior; a shift away from selfishness and excess to social and environmental responsibility; a move away from lifestyles driven by consumption to lives rooted in awareness and sufficiency.

No gadget is going to save the planet. There is no magical tool on the horizon that will suck GHG emissions out of the atmosphere. Belief in such ‘Unicorn Technology’ as Extinction Rebellion describes it, is simply another convenient excuse by ambitious politicians and greedy corporations to continue with the destructive, unjust Ideology of Greed, that is crucifying the planet and suffocating society.

Globally the switch from fossil fuels to renewables must be intensified. This requires, as Antonio Guterres makes clear, transferring subsidies in fossil fuels to renewables.  “Now. It means Governments ending the funding of coal, not just abroad, but at home.” It means working collectively, breaking down national barriers. ‘The World First’, should be our collective slogan/mantra. The key factor, the essential factor in facing the environmental catastrophe is unity; no matter where we happen to be born or live we have but one home, and we all have an equal and total responsibility for its well-being.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.