Back to the drawing board on the environment
After having been imprisoned for two years by a virus that travels fast and wide, leaving so much loss and suffering in its wake, we are still in a daze, trying to get to grips with reality. Unfortunately, the reality we are waking up to is harsh, with a brutal war in Ukraine stopping us in our tracks, while a freight train larger than any we have ever seen before is about to hit us head-on. That train is the destruction we have exacted on our environment.
Mother Nature is the greatest of all superpowers and we have foolishly been attacking her for decades. She has already begun to fight back, but few realize the implications of the freight train that is heading rapidly toward us. We must all begin to take stock of how far our daily habits and actions contribute to the destruction of our planet and we must change our ways — fast.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body of experts convened by the UN — on Monday issued its Sixth Assessment Report, “Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change,” with a stark warning that we are falling far short of the greenhouse gas emissions targets we had set in Paris as a 1.5 degrees Celsius Rubicon we cannot afford to cross. The IPCC’s report states that this goal will already be out of our reach by the end of this decade and the damage we are doing will only get worse. We are facing ever more devastating droughts, wildfires, ecosystem collapses, water scarcity and malnutrition. Let us not forget that, in the US last year alone, weather disasters cost about $145 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which stated that this trend is one it believes will only strengthen over the coming years.
From our history classes, we all know that dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago, but how many of us realize they had already roamed the Earth for 165 million years? We humans appeared only 200,000 years ago and are already facing the possibility that our actions might result in us wiping ourselves out of existence within 100 years if we do not make immediate radical changes to our lives and behavior.
We think humans have all the smarts and all the technology, that we can deal with whatever lies ahead, but what if we are tragically mistaken? Until now, such dreams of technology have only contributed to the damage we have done and helped us ignore it for longer. Few are those who, over the past decades, have clearly seen the extent of the damage we are doing and the scope of what we must change.
One such person, however, last week had an op-ed about the seemingly clear-cut topic of drought in California published in The New York Times. Dr. Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist and station manager at the University of California, Berkeley, Central Sierra Snow Lab, demonstrated that California’s ongoing droughts can be quantified, predicted and even mitigated, but only if we start to look at the facts instead of practicing wishful thinking.
There are thousands of scientists around the world working on aspects of climate change and the environment who understand the issues at stake and recognize the steps we must take to mitigate the effects, but unfortunately our policymakers do not listen to them. Meanwhile, the rest of us are targeted by relentless misinformation, mostly at the hands of the industries trying to sweep the terrifying but lucrative consequences of their actions under the carpet. The photographer Ansel Adams realized this a century ago already, when he said: “It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”
There are thousands of scientists who recognize the steps we must take, but unfortunately our policymakers do not listen to them.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin
Last week, during this holy month of Ramadan, I found myself a guest at a dinner where the subject of the environment became one of the evening’s highlights. We took stock of the dire situation our planet finds itself in and one guest perfectly illustrated the extent of the thinking we need to bring to bear on our daily actions and the environment by showing us how the fashion industry is one of the greatest polluters. It produces 10 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions — more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined — while being the second-largest consumer of water in the world.
For most of us, fashion is about beauty, creativity and the human spirit; little did we realize that it is such a major contributor to environmental destruction. With the rise of fast fashion in particular, not only are we buying almost twice as many garments as we were 20 years ago, but 85 percent of textiles that are thrown away end up in landfill. Microfibers and microplastics from washing our clothes fill the oceans and can even be found in Arctic sediment.
Every pair of jeans requires 7,500 liters of water due to the cotton they are made of, while their blue color and aged look require hundreds of kilograms of petrol, chemicals and solvents to finish. The fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of all industrial water pollution worldwide, while the main contributor to the drying up of the Aral Sea was Uzbekistan’s intensive cotton plantations that serve the fashion industry.
The power of this example is to make us realize that even an act as seemingly ordinary as buying a new pair of jeans has tremendous implications for the future of our planet and, by extension, the survival of humanity. And you can bet that almost every financially viable industry is actively trying to keep quiet the damaging effects their actions are having on the environment.
We are being drugged left, right and center in order to make us feel good, consume more and ignore the all-too-real consequences of our actions. That is why we need to listen to the scientists and researchers who bring such facts to the fore, while offering us clear solutions that our policymakers are too afraid of or too overpowered by influential industries to apply.
We are talking about a decade in which we must act; this is not about changes taking place over the next century. Soon, we will be looking at tickers showing us the amount of water or oxygen left for us to live on rather than the performance of stocks and shares.
As we wake up in a daze from the pandemic, we must quickly return to the drawing board regarding the environment and begin implementing, without fear, the necessary measures to prevent this nightmare of an environmental train wreck from destroying our very existence. What will it take for us to start listening to the right people, to take honest stock of the situation and to wake up and actually do something?
Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned that “a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” The dinosaurs had more than 150 million years to roam this planet, but our time is running out much, much faster. Our blindness and unpreparedness have landed us in a tricky and ever-worsening situation, as the scientists and experts who contributed to the IPCC’s latest report have clearly outlined. Perhaps it is time we all began to listen.
Our dinner came to the conclusion that it is our duty to start teaching our children the facts, as well as how to cut waste and how to live more sustainably. To achieve this, we must all start to focus on a myriad small actions that we can take, while bringing pressure to bear on industry and government. Perhaps we do not need a new pair of jeans and maybe we can turn this lightbulb off and take a quicker shower. Let us bring back some hope for the young generation of today and maybe even leave behind a cleaner and healthier planet.
- Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Ofﬁce in Washington from 1972 to 1981 and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.