Climate change a disaster of our own making

Kevin Rafferty says our collective failure to slow global warming will send us over a tipping point

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 3:36am

We are all stewards of this beautiful but fragile planet but far too few of us understand, let alone accept, the responsibilities of how to protect it, to make it a continuing treasure for our children and grandchildren.

We must be increasingly worried that the combination of distortions in the driving force of modern capitalism, added to indifference or apathy on the part of the masses of peoples and the arrogant greed of the rich and powerful, will push the earth beyond a tipping point where it will become uninhabitable.

Most people are too preoccupied by the business of keeping a job and staying healthy even to think about the grand problems of the survival of the planet, while the rich and the powerful cash in on their advantages.

Climate change is just one example where greed is pushing the earth too close to the edge

This was all too evident last month when US President Barack Obama gave a stirring speech, which suggested that he had at last got religion over the issue of climate change. He promised "a co-ordinated assault" against the damage being done by climate change, using a variety of green weapons, from small things, like better insulation of buildings, to big tasks such as massive promotion of green energy projects.

Yet, immediately, Republican Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the senate, lambasted the president, claiming he was declaring war against coal and against jobs. It was instantly clear that whatever Obama might promise, the Republicans in Congress would do their darnedest to deny him.

When you examine Obama's plans in detail, without congressional backing, most are more hot air and rhetoric than practical plans that will do much to control dangerous emissions of greenhouse gases. Obama will have to show more guts and determination to get his way than he has hitherto displayed.

Climate change is just one example where ignorance and greed are pushing the earth too close to the edge.

On May 10, readings at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had exceeded 400 parts per million on a daily basis for the first time since readings began, and in three to five million years, some scientists believe.

Environmental scientist James Hansen warned in 2008 that, "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed and to which life on Earth is adapted… carbon dioxide will need to be reduced … to at most 350ppm."

Most distressing was perhaps the fact that most of the world's popular newspapers ignored the milestone, although every day the tabloid press publishes trivia like the latest exchange rates and a detailed record of the rise and fall of stock markets, along with celebrity gossip.

When will a newspaper be brave enough to publish regular readings of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere alongside the weather forecasts of sunshine and showers, together with a reminder that we may be heading for a global rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius in the earth's temperatures and sea levels between five and 40 metres higher than today?

The climate change debate is depressing because it divides doomsayers from optimists with no real analysis and no real action. You might think it would be prudent to actively clean up and at least to make the air healthier and less polluted. Hong Kong people would certainly say "yes" to that.

But Obama cannot get his proposals through Congress, not least because Big Oil is one of the four tribes controlling US politics. Equally important, there is no meeting of minds between the US and China and India and Europe. All the leaders, even when they may have a clear vision and authority to act, are waiting for the first steps to be taken by other leaders.

Climate change is not the only question. On issues of world trade, financial regulation, global governance, defence and economic development, not only is there no meeting of minds, but politicians see things through narrow national and nationalistic spectacles.

Meanwhile, capitalism is running out of control, with big corporations and powerful individuals gaming the system.

There are two difficult dimensions to troubling questions, especially that of climate change. Groucho Marx posed one of them when he said: "Why should I worry about future generations? What have they ever done for me?"

Thinking beyond today is difficult for most people. Thinking beyond the next election is impossible for most politicians. Yet actions taken today will have repercussions for future generations.

The other problem is to put aside narrow national perspectives and understand that we all breathe the same air and will suffer the fallout from political, economic or physical catastrophe.

If a butterfly flaps its wings in the deepest Amazon jungle, weeks later a hurricane devastates America; but in too many capitals, a hurricane happens, and months later a butterfly twitches.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University