Updated: November 17, 2021 7:20:08 am
Science has crossed a frontier this year. Private citizens can fly away from Earth’s problems into space, if they can afford to. On Earth, heads of nations gathered in Glasgow, in their 26th meeting since the first in Rio in 1992, to agree on a solution to prevent damages to Earth by human activity. They failed again.
It has not been easy to accept that technological advances, and more consumption and economic growth are the causes of the problem. And that economically richer nations must take more responsibility for solving a global problem that they have caused. The ethical implication — that they must reduce their consumption levels while poorer nations’ citizens must use more energy and consume more to lift their standards of living in the meantime — is the principal sticking point for an equitable solution.
Greta Thunberg challenged global leaders in the UN in 2019. “How dare you turn to us, (young people, for solutions)”, she said. Many young people say that Greta had innocently got it wrong. She was asking the very people, who could not find a solution, to now come up with one. As Einstein had said, to work harder to find a solution with the same approach that has created the problem is insanity. The solutions the world needs will not come from the same science-industrial-economic system that has created the problem. New solutions are more likely to come from people who have been protesting for long about the conversion of their lands, their knowledge, and even their bodies, into property for a colonial industrial machine. Many have struggled to maintain nature-friendly lifestyles while being dismissed as anti-progress and anti-science by an industrial growth machine for whom nature is just a source of resources for itself.
While people in rich countries talk about saving the planet for their grandchildren, people in poorer countries need the planet’s resources here and now to save their own lives. In fact, they have been aware of the consequences of environmental degradation long before rich people could afford technological solutions to protect their lifestyles, with bottled water and air purifiers, and by outsourcing the production of the stuff they need to low-cost factories in poorer countries, while they maintained a pristine environment in their own lands.
Climate change has been impacting everyone on the planet, albeit differently. As it accelerates, the impacts on economically poorer nations, and on the poor in all nations, will be much more than on the rich. The story of climate change must be seen through a broader lens of equity and resilience rather than a narrow lens of mitigation and carbon reduction. For the rich, achieving “net zero carbon” is required to save lives in the future. The poor cannot afford to lose any more lives now by implementing solutions for net zero that the rich demand all must adopt. The solutions must be equitable and just, not merely technologically innovative.
COP26 in Glasgow was another cop out, Thunberg declared. “All blah blah” she said. Meanwhile, hundreds of people from poorer countries, and climate activists from rich ones too, were shut out of official discussions. It was the worst managed COP meeting ever, many said. The powerful people talked to each other and did not even listen to those who had experience on the ground who, waiting outside to be heard, could only protest, once again, at the exclusionary process. Einstein had warned us: Until those presently in power listen to the people outside, neither will there be justice, nor, tragically, will there be a new solution.
The solutions to save the planet from more carbon in the atmosphere must ensure all round well-being of humans everywhere. Their livelihoods must be protected. The response to the Covid crisis has taught us that a single goal agenda of preventing people from getting infected and dying from the virus, has caused more premature deaths due to loss of incomes, and more deaths from other treatable causes because resources were diverted to Covid alone. The numbers of deaths due to Covid came down, while deaths due to other causes went up. The future lives of children have been affected, even in rich countries, by the shutting down of schools to save them from the virus.
Complex problems, like climate change and human well-being, require whole systems solutions. All things must be considered, not just the medical or technical problem that presents itself for a solution. Otherwise, the side-effects of the medicine may kill the patient before the disease does.
The SDGs list 17 goals, covering the wide range of environmental, social, and economic problems which must be solved simultaneously to save the planet and people. All countries have these problems to different degrees and in different shapes. The solutions to preserving the environment will have to be local. “One size” solutions will not fit all: Solutions will have to be found and implemented within countries, and within cities and districts. They must be found and cooperatively implemented locally by stakeholders everywhere.
Power is monopolised by those in power. The UN Security Council, the WTO, the World Bank and IMF, and the COP summits are controlled by the most powerful nations. They have set the agenda and have framed the rules of the game so far. A more equitable and more sustainable world needs new institutional arrangements for its governance. The voice of nature and the voices of people outside the fortress of the powerful must be heard. The locals must have the freedom to find good solutions. They must coordinate with each other laterally as partners in global progress.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 16, 2021 under the title ‘The Glasgow cop-out’. The writer is the author of A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-pandemic World
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