Climate change: An existential threat that demands action

France and Spain have recorded high temperatures as a heatwave blankets Europe, both countries going above 40C. Half a dozen people have died.

Jul 05, 2019

By Anil Netto
France and Spain have recorded high temperatures as a heatwave blankets Europe, both countries going above 40C. Half a dozen people have died.

Closer to home, the whole state of Tamil Naidu – and not just Chennai – in India is suffering from a shortage of water.

According to the state government, the crisis follows the failure of the monsoon for two straight years. Already Tamil Nadu has made plans to obtain some water from the nearby Kaveri River. But the river is the subject of a dispute with neighbouring Karnataka state, which is also grappling with water supply scarcity.

These problems are real. They show us that the problems created by climate change will not just be felt in some distant unknown future. Climate change is happening now and it is striking harder and faster than we expected.
What we are faced with is an existential threat.

Globally, this year is already shaping up to be the hottest so far. Similarly, the period 2015-2019 is on track to become the five warmest years ever, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). So far, the global temperature has crept up by almost 1°C above the pre-industrial period, it said in a statement on the state of the global climate in 2018.

“Time is running out to achieve commitments under the Paris agreement to keep the temperature increase by the end of the century to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit it even further to 1.5°C.” The plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to zero net emissions by 2050.

But that is easier said than done when governments are more concerned about economic growth – in a way that increasingly concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

Most people wouldn’t know all this if they relied on news portal headlines or TV news, which tends to focus on the immediate and the sensational.

You have to wonder why climate change is not frontpage news across the world, every single day.

News about our economy and corporate performance is normally highlighted by month, by quarter and by year. Ruling party politicians are gauged by their performance over a five-year period and that too a large part from their performance in managing the economy. Similarly, the country is guided by five-year Malaysia plans. State and local authority planning documents hardly talk about building climate resilience. With the focus on all these, no wonder climate change doesn’t figure very high on the agenda.

Apart from global warming and climate change, we have to contend with a litany of environmental problems of our own.

From plastic waste dumpsites to toxic gas fumes in Johor, from roads on hill slopes to landslides, from a construction frenzy to land reclamation that destroys fishing grounds and erodes food security, we are faced with mounting ecological challenges.

What should we do?

One way out would be to reshape the economy so that it becomes more stable and less corrosive towards the ecology.

But this inevitably conflicts with traditional economics which assumes that natural resources are infinite, when the reality is that they are fast depleting and polluting the world.

The main problem with traditional economics is that it does not measure the costs of ecological harm. Profits are privatised while costs/losses (social and environmental) are borne by the public and the natural world.

Many Catholics are not even familiar with the encyclical Laudato Si’ on the ecology and care for God’s creation:

“Many things have to change course but, it is we human beings, above all, who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.

“This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal” (#202).

So we have to work hard to create the awareness that the world is in peril. We need more people to take a stand so that they can inspire others to make a change in our world. Our awareness should beyond plastic straws and recycling.

I bumped into Sr Gertrude Tan IJ recently and she cited a quotation from Eugene Bell Jr, author of What are You Waiting For? which could not be more relevant.

“Aspire to Inspire before we Expire,” said Bell.

Sr Gertrude adds, we need to “perspire” too. In other words, we need to make an effort to create awareness and inspire more people to action to transform the world.

If we don’t make a change here and now, global warming could make us “perspire” more than we bargained for — and a lot more could “expire” than just our individual lives.

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