Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Confucius would have been a climate activist

  • The ancient sage and many science fiction writers would agree that the way we live now has doomed the Earth

Perhaps I should qualify and say instead that Confucius would likely have been such an activist. I make this claim because lately, I have been experimenting and asking myself what so-and-so would do in such a situation.

Since I am no longer a Christian, it doesn’t seem right to ask that of Jesus. So, instead, I now try: what would Confucius do, in this case, about climate change?
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), starting on Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, has been billed as our last chance to save the world. Hopefully, it’s hyperbole, otherwise we are all doomed.
To educate myself, I have been trying to digest the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in August. It’s almost 4,000 pages long and it’s full of technical jargon and charts that I can barely make heads or tails of.
A wind-driven wildfire burns in Sylmar, California in October 2019. Photo: Reuters

Still, some numbers, explanations and warnings stand out from the report, and they are scary. A good deal of the problems stem from the way we have behaved – or been encouraged to behave – as modern consumers.

According to Confucius, behaviour determines our character, not the other way around. And the ancient sage would not have condoned modern consumerism, its indulgence and hedonism; the ethical discipline he demanded would likely have been friendly to the environment.

But, if you are uninterested in talking about the ancients, let’s try science fiction instead. Many writers have predicted humanity will need to colonise another planet or live aboard a space-travelling Noah’s Ark – or more than one ark – as Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Now, consider this number from the IPCC report: 1.7. That’s the number of Earths we now need to sustain the current level of consumption of natural resources. Yes, we are way past that point – back in 1970 – when Earth could still recover on its own; now we are irreversibly depleting its resources.

Scientists don’t deal with certainty, but probability. Climate change deniers notwithstanding, we are responsible for global warming.

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More specifically, there is a high degree of statistical confidence that we are directly responsible for almost all of the 1.1 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures observed since the Industrial Revolution – natural factors played only a negligible role – leading to the loss of sea ice, rising temperatures, and acidity in the oceans.

Extreme weather with catastrophic consequences will become more frequent and widespread.

Interestingly, we have largely to thank the three winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for the high scientific confidence displayed in the many claims and warnings made in the IPCC report. Is it really just a coincidence that the trio – Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi – won in the same year that the report was released and the COP26 conference held?

They are pioneers in the study of what scientists call complex systems, of which the weather is a prime example. Manabe and Hasselmann won the prize “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”, while Giorgio Parisi was acknowledged for discovering “the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales”.


COP26 Glasgow, the UN Climate Change Conference: last chance to save the planet?

COP26 Glasgow, the UN Climate Change Conference: last chance to save the planet?

The previous IPCC report in 2013 projected that temperatures could rise by 1.5 degrees in the 2040s. The latest prediction, alarmingly, has pushed forward that prediction by a decade, to the early 2030s. Even if world governments, miraculously, managed to cut emissions to the lowest possible scenario, we would still likely breach that temperature threshold by the early 2040s.

The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires are destroying forests and turning them into emitters of greenhouse gases, rather than absorbers, as it’s already happening in the Amazon.

It’s estimated that to reverse course and save the planet, we collectively need to invest US$1.6 trillion a year from now till 2050 in the energy and tech sectors alone. Currently, we are only spending a fifth of that amount per year. How likely are we to come up with that financial commitment consistently over three decades, instead of spending on weapons to blow each other up? As a student of history, I would venture to guess that the latter is the much more likely outcome.

Our whole civilisational way of life – and that goes way beyond “the clash of civilisations” – would need to be overhauled, in agriculture, transport, manufacturing, energy and construction. That’s because all these economic sectors have been carried out in the same or similar ways, whether your society is Islamic, American, European, Asian or Chinese; and whether your government is democratic or authoritarian.

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Does recycling work? No, we are way past that point now; there is, for a short answer, just too much plastic already. We need a system’s response, not just individuals’. Will American capitalism, European collective responsibility, Asian societal discipline, Chinese-style communism and/or Western-style democracy come up with a systematic solution to save the planet?

I am pessimistic. It might not have been so bad. My wife and I are in our mid-50s and all our pets are getting on. It’s unlikely we will live long enough to see the end of time. But our two children are still in college. I hate to think they and their friends will inherit a planet on fire.

Just for that, we will have to take responsibility. The IPCC report recommends reducing each individual carbon footprint by eating less meat, driving and flying less and using less plastic. We can do that. Why not?

During the Warring Period, Confucius thought an entire state or civilisation could be saved by the whole people collectively changing their behaviour and living according to virtue. Maybe it’s still possible for our collective civilisation to change the way we live, if not virtuously, at least environmentally. Who knows?