Apathy is the inclination to postpone what you can do today, to freeze your own will, and to abandon one´s essence as a dynamic human being with a sense of the common good. No word is more appropriate to describe our present collective response to climate change.
Plenty has already been said about climate change. Ad nauseam . It has become an omnipresent topic at schools, in families, on television, and on social media. Millions of people worldwide now can easily articulate and even experience some of the most terrifying consequences scientists have predicted. These outcomes such as increasing temperatures, sea level rise, most devastating hurricanes, and fires. Climate Armageddon is becoming water cooler chat. Considering the overwhelming evidence, why we have let politicians off the hook for so long, to take the steps to protect us from these grave dangers?
Science and statistics don´t lie, well, not if you use them correctly. Thanks to a U.N.-sponsored assemblage of first-class independent international experts , the U.S. Government-backed “ Our Changing Planet ” report, the American Meteorological Society´s State of the Climate , and countless other studies by thousands of scientists around the world, we know some frightening facts. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, rose 72% over the last 100 years with 2017 being the record. Average global air surface temperatures increased by almost 1°C over the last 115 years with 2016 being the warmest, and the time between 1983–2012 was the hottest period in 1400 years. Global average sea level rose over three inches between 1993 and 2017. In 2016, CO2 atmospheric concentration surpassed, for the first time, the peak during which our now-extinct fellow hominids, the australopithecines, walked the Earth some three million years ago. We are shattering all the records.
Every cause has its effect. Some of the worst forest fires that California, Russia, Greece, and Australia ever experienced took place this year, claiming hundreds of lives ravaging thousands of acres and homes. Heavy rainfalls and floods have wreaked havoc and death in Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Somalia, Kenya, and Madagascar. Cyclones in India, tsunamis in Indonesia, and typhoons in the Philippines and Japan killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands, and now threaten the food and water security of millions of the poorest people. These events have fueled hundreds of thousands of new migrants seeking refugee status around the world.
In the last year alone, Hurricane Maria claimed three thousand lives in Puerto Rico. Over the last three decades, 16 deadly hurricanes—from Gilbert and Mitch in 1988, Katrina and Wilma in 2005, to Irma and Harvey in 2017—battered the Caribbean islands, Central America, Mexico, and the U.S. They left a devastating path of 12,000 dead, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, and billions of dollars in damage. According to the World Bank, increasing sea levels will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030 . The number of climate refugees could soon be in the hundreds of millions.
Every bad effect has its perpetrator. In 2017, Brenda Ekwurzel from the Union of Concerned Scientists and her co-workers published a list of global CO2 emissions from 90 private and state corporations . Since 1982, those companies together have been responsible for increases of 43% of atmospheric CO2, a third of the increase in global temperatures, and a seventh of Earth’s sea level rise. The companies primarily responsible are all in the fossil fuel business: Chevron, ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Peabody Energy, Total, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil Company, Petróleos Mexicanos, Petróleos de Venezuela, Coal India, and Kuwait Petroleum.
What about so-called climate justice? What about the historic, gargantuan gap in greenhouse gas emissions that allowed industrialized countries to build stronger economies and wealthier societies in comparison to developing countries? Typically, poor nations, relying on small-scale farming, don’t consume much energy. In 2011, 900 million people (13% of the global population) in the poorest 50 countries emitted only 0.8% of global CO2 , but were, nevertheless, those suffering the most insidious impacts of climate change. If rich and poor nations continue on their current trajectories and same development models, energy consumption—the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions—will only continue to grow. It´s indisputable.
Wealth, nevertheless, offers at least some buffer. Wealthier nations have more room to breathe when it comes to financing the transition to low-emission, climate-resistant societies. Fortunately, their stronger economies and institutions act as a bulwark against the material impact of climate change. Sooner or later, however, as demonstrated by the tragic wildfires in California and the typhoons in Japan, rich and poor countries alike will suffer if average global temperatures continue to rise above that crucial and already dangerous marker of 1.5ºC. In fact, a report released in November by the U.S. Government, Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States, concluded that “Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”
At the Paris UN climate change conference (COP 21), three years ago, I advocated for greater global solidarity and many praised the collective action from countries all around the world—from the 150+ countries that submitted emission reduction pledges, to the rejection of the U.S.-Canada Keystone XL pipeline project by then President Obama. As a critical component of the Paris Accord, signed by 195 countries, wealthy nations pledged much-needed funding to support climate adaptation in the most vulnerable countries. A reality check, however, reveals no meaningful progress. Hopefully, the COP 24, which last week began in Poland, will amend the current state of affairs.
There are, however, a few elephants in the room for delegates traveling to the mid-18th-century city of Katowice, Poland—a village that developed into a city upon the discovery of rich coal reserves. Last year President Trump fulfilled his campaign promise to pull out the U.S.—the second biggest greenhouse gas emitter after China—from the Paris Accord. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said. Besides, he doesn’t believe climate change is caused by humans. In fact, when recently asked about the impacts of continued growth in emissions and projected annual losses of hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. economy by the end of the century—a key finding of its own government report—his answer was, “I don’t believe it.” Meanwhile, thousands of miles south, after hinting during his campaign that he would pull his country out of the Paris Accord, last week President-elect Bolsonaro withdrew Brazil´s candidacy to host COP 25, citing “budgetary issues.”
Apathy always finds excuses. In this case, however, indifference and inaction are nothing but denial, owing to a myopic focus on short-term economic interests and possibly to re-election politics. The climate Convention, the Paris Accord, and the Kyoto Protocol, whose emission reduction pledges come to an end in 2020, have had almost universal support among nations, except Nicaragua, Syria, and the U.S. Are you, President Bolsonaro, seriously so anxious to join such a circle of dubious friends?
As leaders engage this week in Poland’s crucial climate change summit, they should remember who they represent and what they are working toward. The stakes have never been higher. Because it doesn’t matter if you are a citizen from a rich or a poor nation: adaptation to climate change must without compromise become a basic human right.
Scientist and environmentalist Omar Vidal