Our generation is leaving a scorched Earth behind it

Our generation is leaving a scorched Earth behind it

Last year, global warming for the first time exceeded 1.5 C across an entire year (File/AFP)
Last year, global warming for the first time exceeded 1.5 C across an entire year (File/AFP)
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It was not that long ago that a wave of optimism that climate change could be stopped engulfed many parts of the world. Much of this agenda change was advanced by young people taking to the streets and protesting that governments were compromising their future by not tackling global warming. But it was also supported by those politicians who understood the gravity of the situation and the need to react quickly and decisively; and, to an extent, by those in the business community who saw the value in transitioning to a green economy.

All of a sudden, the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise limit looked achievable and within reach. Unfortunately, a pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, war in Ukraine and the coming to power of leaders who either do not believe in climate change or do not see it as a priority has left those who are tirelessly trying to safeguard the planet from environmental cataclysm to fight a rearguard battle.

A recent survey by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper asked 380 top climate scientists what they feel about the future. Most of them expect global temperatures to rise to at least 2.5 C above preindustrial levels this century, leaving the universally agreed 1.5 C target of the Paris 2015 climate agreement as no more than a pipe dream. This is shocking news. The catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change for humanity and the planet are already clear and beginning to affect hundreds of millions of people across the globe. It leaves us all with the distressing possibility that we have collectively and recklessly abandoned the battle to contain climate change just as its consequences start to manifest themselves.

There is something about climate change that leaves too many of us complacent, indifferent or even resigned to our calamitous fate

Yossi Mekelberg

Those surveyed are from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body regarded as the most authoritative on the issue. I went back to their first report from 1992 — yes, more than 30 years ago — and, even then, the IPCC scientists were warning that emissions resulting from human activities were substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. They concluded that “evidence from the modeling studies, from observations and the sensitivity analyses indicate that the sensitivity of global mean surface temperature to doubling carbon dioxide would range from 1.5 C to 4.5 C.” This forecast was made at a time when computer modeling was not as sophisticated as it is today.

In the current survey, nearly 80 percent of respondents foresee global temperatures rising to at least 2.5 C, while almost 50 percent anticipate a minimum 3 C increase. This should be more than enough evidence to spur a global mobilization of all forces in order to reverse this development.

There is something about climate change that leaves too many of us complacent, indifferent or even resigned to our calamitous fate. Unlike wars or natural disasters, where the links between cause and effect are impossible to ignore, in the case of climate change, the direct correlation between individual and collective harmful behavior and its disastrous consequences is easier to ignore and even deny. Yet, even an increase of 1.5 C could drive up the global mean sea level by roughly 48 cm, while a 2.5 C increase would raise it by an estimated 58 cm. This means that, in some coastal areas, floods will hit communities on a biblical scale.

There was a time when the link between the scientific evidence for climate change and our day-to-day experience was not as obvious, or at least not on a scale to arouse sufficient concern among enough of us. However, by now, the scientific evidence of global warming due to human activity and its impact on our natural environment, our economies and our societies is staring us in the face; yet our response still lags behind the magnitude of the challenge.

To begin with, last year, global warming for the first time exceeded 1.5 C across an entire year, with a predicted trajectory that rises well beyond this figure. Already, different parts of the world are experiencing extreme weather conditions and with varying impacts. A new study suggests that our overheating planet is the most likely reason why, in April this year, the UAE, Oman, Libya and some parts of East Africa experienced more frequent events of heavy rainfall. It is the increase in average temperatures that leads to the atmosphere holding more moisture, which results in more droplets and heavier rainfall that is sometimes concentrated on a smaller area.

We are faced with a very real threat to our short-term well-being, as well as to the very existence of future generations

Yossi Mekelberg

Both droughts and wildfires, which are making more and more places uninhabitable for lack of water and are deleterious to agriculture, are evident in many parts of the world. Scientists have also found clear evidence for the impact of climate change on some brain conditions, especially stroke and infections of the nervous system. The ultimate conclusion is that there is an urgent need for swift action to cut carbon emissions because progress is currently too slow and unconvincing.

The problem facing attempts to counter climate change, as is the case with preventing or ending wars and other disasters caused by human activity, is that our governing bodies, whether domestic or international, lack both institutionally and perceptually the capacity to develop implementable policies for major issues on this scale. And because of this, we are faced with a very real threat to our short-term well-being, as well as to the very existence of the next generation and those to come.

The manner in which we approach climate change reflects a mentality of refusing to confront major challenges that require personal and collective sacrifice and courageous leadership that will tell people the inconvenient truth. But there is also a lack of trust in our politicians and in each other to drive such a massive transition toward a green economy.

Another aspect of the absence of direction and leadership on climate change is that, although we are all in it together, the world’s high-income countries are giving insufficient support to poorer countries when it comes to developing climate change resilience and the transition toward a world that is not reliant on fossil fuels.

We must change the ingrained mindset that supporting other countries is charity and not foreign policy that serves the national interest of the donor countries as much as the receiving ones; this is a major obstacle. Climate change recognizes no political borders and is therefore bound to fail in the absence of a global cooperative effort that also recognizes the mutual global responsibility of peoples and nations and the necessary asymmetry required in contributing to this effort.

In politics, urgency trumps importance, but the need to confront global warming effectively is both urgent and important, and we are currently losing this battle. Our options are either to face the challenge head-on or to take a last-days-of-Pompeii approach, which will mean that future generations will be in no position to forgive us because they will not survive to do so.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
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