World afraid to ask the difficult questions on climate change
Last weekend, unprecedented wildfires raged across the US, Europe and Australia, 28 people lost their lives in flash floods in Kentucky, and Riyadh experienced rarely seen summer flooding of extreme intensity.
Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, has just published a book titled “Hothouse Earth,” in which he contends that we have already passed the point of no return on climate change. According to McGuire, “a mix of ignorance, inertia, poor governance, and obfuscation and lies by climate change deniers” is to blame for our lack of any adequate response and our failure to admit that, due to our own actions and inaction, the Earth’s climate is already spinning out of control. The answers to our questions about the environment are truly terrifying, but the reality we will face if we do not try to ask them will be far worse than what we can imagine.
I have previously written a number of articles trying to take stock of the dramatic changes that our planet is already experiencing in terms of the loss of arable land, water, biodiversity and the overexploitation of resources. We need not retread this ground, but I wanted to bring up some other environmental issues I have been discussing with friends and experts recently.
We have just experienced a coronavirus pandemic that locked most of us in our own homes for more than a year. Today, we must consider the many other viruses waiting to jump over to humans from animals that have lost much of their habitat, but we realize at the same time that we also risk unleashing millions of years-worth of bacteria and viruses from the permafrost and polar ice caps. Not unlike leaving a refrigerator unplugged for a time, the rapid planetary heating and subsequent dramatic loss of the ice caps and glaciers are leading to the likely proliferation of bacteria and viruses that were no longer in existence until we unplugged our planetary refrigerator. This scenario has scientists and other experts extremely worried, for we have no idea what kind of viruses and bacteria could reemerge from a million-year sleep in the ice.
The pandemic has also left us economically exposed, as tens of trillions of dollars of stimulus packages have dug tremendous holes in the national budgets of developed countries, which were already heavily indebted. Inflation and interest rates are soaring and the world’s largest economy is technically in a recession after two quarters of gross domestic product decline. The cost of the pandemic is almost unfathomable when we combine economic losses, loss of life, accumulated debt and the many lives and careers broken.
Vanderbilt University economist W. Kip Viscusi used a metric called “the value of a statistical life,” whereby the almost 6 million lives officially lost to COVID-19 by the end of 2021 would amount to a cost of some $38 trillion. Using The Economist’s latest and more realistic estimate of about 20 million lives lost to COVID-19, that cost rises to an inconceivable $134 trillion. Even economic experts have no idea how all this will work out over the longer term.
In her collective book “Our House is on Fire,” the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg describes the year 2017 as the year in which 9 million people died due to pollution, the year in which 75 percent to 80 percent of insects had already disappeared and the year in which 42 people had more money than half of the world’s population combined. There are many more terrifying statistics we could cite, but I would just like to mention a 2017 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature that reminds us of a little-known fact. Many of us forget that the tires on our cars are largely made up of synthetic rubber and that, as our tires wear, much of the resulting material ends up in our oceans. This report states that almost a third of the deadly microplastics polluting our oceans originate in the synthetic rubber that is worn off our car tires. This is just one additional data point that should be scaring us straight into action and, believe me, there are many, many more.
One could say, as McGuire suggests, that we are burying the truth without even trying to assess it. We do not want to ask the important questions because we are terrified of what the answers will imply for us going forward. The Paris Agreement of 2015 set the goal of keeping global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. We already live today in a world 1 C warmer than pre-industrial levels and the consequences are proving calamitous.
McGuire points out that, instead of the 45 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions needed by 2030 to achieve that goal, we are currently heading toward a 14 percent increase. A rise of 1.5 C would mean “a world plagued by intense summer heat, extreme drought, devastating floods, reduced crop yields, rapidly melting ice sheets and surging sea levels,” according to McGuire, with a rise of 2 C or more threatening the very stability of global society. Today, we are on track for a terrifying rise of between 2.4 C and 3 C.
We already find ourselves inside a deep hole and, rather than look around and admit it, we have decided to keep on digging.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin
Suffice it to say, we already find ourselves inside a deep hole and, rather than look around and admit it, we have decided to keep on digging. The measures taken by our politicians and governments are patently insufficient, little more than glorified sticking plasters to mask our inaction. As McGuire notes: “The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.” That is why we need to start asking the necessary questions and facing the terrifying answers. Only then can we hope to address the existential problem that humanity is facing — quite literally a matter of life and death.
My suggestion of a form of small Tobin tax on every financial transaction or shipment of goods across the planet would fund the necessary measures for the preservation of our environment and human life many times over.
It is time for us to wake up and finally meet the tremendous challenges our planet faces with clarity and urgency. Across the planet, some of our worst fears are already becoming all too real — the calamity has already arrived. We must come together as one humanity, with every single human on the planet actively participating in the solution, if we are to preserve any hope whatsoever for the next generation.
- 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.