How To Effectively Talk About Climate Change

If we can connect the dots between the global phenomenon of climate change and local impacts, sustainable transformations can happen

Do we BELIEVE climate change is real? I am convinced beyond belief that climate change is the largest and most serious challenge that humanity faces today.

Vidya Soundarajan addressing guests at an ACT event. Photo Courtesy: Vidya Soundarajan

The world is in the middle of what is likely to be the warmest 10 years since records began in 1850, according to the Met office UK. It has forecasted that the temperatures for each of the next five years are likely to be at or above 1 to 1.50 C compared to pre-industrial levels. Temperatures are, however, only part of the story. According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) Secretary General Patteri Taalas, extreme and high impact weather affected many countries and millions of people in 2018, with devastating repercussions for economies and ecosystems. Many of the extreme weather events are consistent with what we expect from a changing climate. This scientifically proven reality continues to pose grave threats to people’s lives and livelihoods across the world, and it is a reality we need to face.

Over the years, leading environmentalists and many influential individuals have increasingly gotten involved in the campaign to mobilise action against environmental degradation. According to Taalas, greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate adaptation measures should be a top priority. There is no task more urgent, more compelling and more sacred than that of protecting the climate of the planet for our children and grand children, stated the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) executive secretary, Patricia Espinosa. Al Gore, Leonardo Di Caprio, and even the Pope, along with several other world leaders and influencers, are again and again bringing the urgency of addressing climate change to the world. However, this has only amounted to rhetoric, rhetoric and more rhetoric, not leading to enough and timely action, primarily because of the intricate geo-politics around it.

Excessive industrial emissions, massive human consumption and unsustainable extraction of natural resources have led to the state that we are in today, and the rhetoric for action demands industrial leaders and world leaders to make compromises, mostly very inconvenient compromises, that the shareholders and the vote bank will not take very kindly. Countries and industries with high emission levels continue to function at those levels, even as poor and vulnerable countries have to pay the price of development through heavy restrictions on their own industrial sectors.

Here is where the power play lies; where the phenomenon called ‘business as usual’ helps maintain the status quo and perpetuate the avoidance of change. To deny climate change is the easiest way to maintain business as usual – why should anything be done to address a challenge that does not even exist? The rhetoric is controlled by the few that need to make the compromise and so business as usual continues, even as islands drown, farms fail, rivers dry up, coasts erode, air gets increasingly toxic and millions die and are rendered homeless by extreme weather events.

Charity on the other hand is a great way to maintain this status quo. Carbon offsets, some energy efficiency here and some there, a few renewable energy projects on the margins and some small amounts of funds allocated to help the poor countries and poor people act as small showcase activities on the fringe, and are neither enough nor focused.

In 1992, the United Nations came up with a framework convention to address climate change called UNFCCC, and since then several pacts have been signed by countries. Developed countries with historic emissions signed the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and curb the temperature raising more than 20 C. However, in the last decade, the issue has become more complicated with several countries on a fast development trajectory. The pace at which the greenhouse gas was being curbed did not match the pace at which newer industries and countries were increasing their emissions and UNFCCC had to go to the drawing board again to calculate the emission reduction targets. After years of research and deliberations, in 2015 an agreement was agreed upon by 195 countries and formally signed by 185, which would set national standards to follow the guidance offered by The Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation, and finance, starting in the year 2020. The Paris Agreement’s long-term goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels; and to limit the increase to 1.5° C, since this would substantially reduce the risks and effects of climate change. Under the Paris Agreement, each country must determine, plan, and regularly report on the contribution that it undertakes to mitigate global warming, and there is no mechanism to legally bind the country. Its heartening to note that, having signed the pact, 185 countries have declared nationally determined emission targets and have also started allocating funds to accomplish the targets. Paris agreement also advocates infusion of more money to mitigate climate change and bring private sector forces to help the governments in achieving the targets. While world leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump announcing his intention to withdraw his country from the agreement is a big dampener to the momentum, under the agreement, the earliest effective date of withdrawal for the U.S. is November 2020. This is shortly before the end of President Trump’s current term, so the climate change activist in me hopes that the changes in United States policy that are contrary to the Paris Agreement have not already been put in place.

But its not just emission reduction/mitigation as we call it that is important, but alsoadapting to the impact of climate change that has already happened. Climate change by its very nature impacts every aspect of human life on the planet. It impacts the development paradigm, growth, prosperity and well-being of the human race. A recent World Bank Study estimated the value of global financial assets at risk from climate change at USD 2.5 trillion, whereas the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates it closer to USD 4.2 trillion. As an immediate example Kerala, a coastal state in India, is assessed to have incurred direct losses over USD 1.6 billion in the ravaging floods in August 2018. The loss to crops, life, livelihoods, health and socio-economic impact of the scary, ravaging, disastrous flood has not even been estimated yet. This damage would take the people of Kerala, the Government, the private sector, and the financial industry at least a decade to recover from completely.

On the other hand, the probability of such extreme disasters is rising rapidly from the previous rate of 1 in 100-year events, to 1 in every 10 years now for many cities. If this happens, the extent of monetary and economic losses could multiply multifold from what we have seen recently. The rural poor faces these costs on a much more routine and regular basis, in diverse ways, through the loss of lives, livelihoods, savings, capital assets, jobs and incomes. That’s a social catastrophe of major consequence, and it is already happening.

It’s a matter of a change in belief systems that can lead to change in actions. As the voice to address climate change gets louder the pressures from some world leaders and some nations gets louder. Some positive change is happening. Even small countries and sub national governments in many countries are making ground level changes. If we can connect the dots and establish the link between the global phenomenon of climate change with local impacts, sustainable and effective transformations can happen.

The views and opinions included in this article belong to their author and do not represent the views and opinions of Action on Climate Today.

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