Are our options limited to preparation and mitigation of the effects?
It’s been thirteen years since Al Gore presented his summary of global scientific aggregated data on climate change. He called his film An Inconvenient truth -- criticizing industrialists and politicians who profit from polluting the environment. It was so inconvenient in fact, that in the late 1990s governments felt the need to substitute the term “global warming” -- which at the time implied human error, to “climate change,” which could be a natural process.
It has been much longer since environmental scientists realized that Darwin’s work on the survival of species needed revision. By the 1960s it was understood that the relevant “unit of survival” was not individual species but instead “species and its environment,” recognizing co-dependence of all life forms of the eco-system. This signified a shift in thinking on the subject, and our contemporary understanding of the term “sustainability” owes much to interdisciplinary scientists of the era.
Ironically, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for climate change action (SDG 13) fails to acknowledge the premise of “sustainability.” It contains no targets for reducing CO2 emissions or other greenhouse gases (GHGs), and in doing so ignores scientific evidence pointing to the effects upon on average global temperatures since 1960. Nor does it adequately deal with the need to prepare for dramatic, discontinuous change within our lifetime, as projected by most climate change experts today. Why not?
In the past year, young activist Greta Thunberg has done much to intensify global debate. Relentlessly she questions political inaction and forces statesmen to react in public, at the UN General Assembly. Her approach is to shame world leaders into admitting their double-talk, which incidentally, is the only strategy left to the signatories of the Paris Accords.
The Kyoto agreements failed over the issue of levying penalties for nations that exceeded their CO2 emission quotas. In Paris, commitments to reduce emissions were made voluntary - in effect meaningless.
‘Inconvenient Truths’ revisited
Still, world leaders remain divided on the question of whether climate change is a natural or man-made phenomena.
According to Dr Saleemul Huq (director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development) and one of our nation’s foremost experts on the subject, “advocates who say we face a man-made disaster are swimming against the tide.”
He explains that when the SDGs were envisioned in 2012, lobbying for the inclusion of a separate goal devoted to climate change was a hard fought battle in itself. He confirms that the topic is still inconvenient exemplified in that questions of penalties and compensation for exceeding CO2 quotas are taboo subjects at world forums.
Here, we may briefly pause to consider the fundamental arguments of the camps divided.
In the one camp, global meta-data assembled since the 1960s indicate that we are certainly the cause of global warming. The rate of change has occurred more rapidly than predicted twenty years ago (eg melting polar ice). Current models have now been revised, predicting far greater impacts, far sooner than expected. A new global metric has emerged as a focal point of global debate. There is growing speculation surrounding dangerous thresholds when global average temperatures are raised by two degrees Celsius.
In the other camp are those who doubt climate changes are man-made. They argue that such have occurred in the past. How can this be denied? The Ice Age of preindustrial times is a testimony to this. The eruption of the volcano at Krakatoa in 1883 changed average temperatures of the northern hemisphere by a whole degree Celsius.
So, where does the debate leave us? Temperatures are rising, and this can’t be ignored. Does the way forward depend on the above understanding of cause and effect? Regardless of which camp is correct, is there any harm in going green?
On the contrary, if we embraced “public-private” partnerships towards solar, wind, and water-based power as (opposed to coal, oil and nuclear) we would be creating much-needed jobs. We would be less dependent on exports to obtain petrodollars for fuel. This would lead to more freedom to manoeuvre, from a socio-economic planning perspective. Bangladesh could then express the sovereign will to develop independently.
SDGs, geo-politics, and the ‘national interest’
Our concern is that the SDGs for 2030 provide a false sense of security, in the belief that nations are united and really committed to the goals.
UN indicators (2018) for SDG-13 track the proportion of deaths in relation to climate change and to what extend nations formulates policy towards adaption. This is too superficial an approach to deal with a problem of such magnitude. In contrast, goals for economic growth contain specific GDP targets for 2030; the chapter on climate change considers only proportions of people affected and vague recommendations for enacting policies for preparedness.
A common sense global perspective demands that, time-bound targets for reducing CO2 emissions worldwide be monitored. Policy guidelines should explicitly highlight the connection made between CO2 emissions and preservation of forestland and biodiversity.
As to the question posed in the title (Why no CO2 targets?), we may find an answer for inaction in the “real politics” perspective. For example, if all developing nations would choose to go green, would the super-powers object? And did the US and Canada (in 2011) really withdraw from Kyoto and Paris on account of bad science and the ethics of the quota system for CO2 emission?
Standing armies, navies, and air forces of the world still rely on fossil fuels. Global commerce depends on global political stability, and the maintenance of a balance of power. The countries of NATO have a great interest in preserving the status quo, why would they give that up?
Finally, what leverage does the UN have compared to the military and commercial interests of the world’s super-powers? The petrodollar is a primary source of revenue for many oil-exporting members of OPEC, as well as other oil exporters in the Middle East, Norway, and Russia.
Oil producing MNCs account for about 30% of the world’s carbon emissions. Allegedly, as seen in the current Exxon Mobile scandal, they have been using revenues to lobby against man-made global warming. At the same time they are accused of burying the evidence of the same, since 1970.
For Bangladesh, SDG 13 has little to offer in terms of guidance. We are faced with a) the expectation of significant sea water rise and consequent salination of arable land threatening the livelihoods of millions b) extreme air and water pollution in the cites causing respiratory illness, c) prospects of urban flooding when we landfill natural wetlands that in the past absorbed the excesses of monsoon rain, d) rapid depletion of aquifers for drinking water and finally e) projected increasing demands for energy.
Unable to change the rate of climate change, our options are limited to preparation and mitigation of the effects. The way forward for Bangladesh is to look beyond SDG-13, and to tailor-make national goals for adaptation.
We can adapt and will adapt, according to Meteorologist Dr Jonas Nycander of Stockholm University, who predicts, change will come in incrementally and not as sudden as some would have us believe.
Jens Stanislawski is Senior Researcher, Social Resources Management (SRM). This is the third article in the ‘SDG Reality Check’ series.