In 1989, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was just about to leave our solar system, but before it did, the renowned scientist, Carl Sagan, urged NASA to get the spacecraft’s camera to take one last shot of earth before it disappeared from view entirely. Sagan’s request was accepted and the resulting image has become an iconic part of history. In Sagan’s book, ‘Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,’ the renowned scientist reflected on the image: “Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
The course of humanity on this “pale blue dot” is now at a turning point because of a historic rise in global warming. The insanity of our situation is that we are the drivers of this destructive episode of our planet’s epic saga. The burning of copious amounts of fossil fuels and the mass-production of livestock is contributing to a significant increase in greenhouse gasses caught in our atmosphere – trapping more heat on our planet. The consequences of climate change are being felt in all regions and the repercussions can be catastrophic. This is the single greatest issue of our time.
The warming of water has caused glaciers and polar ice caps to melt, leading to a rise in sea levels, which has already resulted in severe flooding and the submergence of coastal areas. Some nations are at risk of large sections of their homeland disappearing beneath the waves. For the small Pacific country of Kiribati, this is dreadfully tangible. Rising sea levels have forced the government into the heart-breaking position of planning for the eventual loss of their country. The government has been urging its citizens to move to Fiji and other nearby countries for refuge. For poor countries like Kiribati, the available adaptation options are sparse and inadequately funded. The ultimate injustice is that poor countries emit the least emissions, but are among the greatest victims of climate change. This injustice extends to disadvantaged countries where human-fuelled climate change has aided the conditions that divide societies and instigate conflict.
A conflict threat multiplier
The effects of climate change, particularly heat waves and droughts, are exacerbating conflict. A Colombian University study, ‘Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,’ posits that the 2007-2010 drought in Syria contributed to the country’s lethal spiral into civil war. The drought caused massive crop failure and pushed farmers into urban centres that were already strained from population growth. This aggravated political unrest by increasing unemployment and inequality. While the drought was not the sole reason for the explosion of civil war in Syria, it tore at the seams of a weak government unable to cope with diminishing resources and mass urban migration. These types of droughts are projected to become a more regular occurrence in a world where many governments don’t have the capability to adequately adapt.
A study titled ‘Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalized counties’ found a statistical link between severe weather events and conflict between 1980 and 2010. The research established that one in four conflicts, in countries that are ethnically divided, commence during an extreme weather event. The paper suggests that parts of Africa and Central Asia, which are among the most fractionalized countries in the world, are at an extreme risk of conflict transpiring because of global warming. These potential future conflicts would likely contribute to increasing migrant flows and further aggravate prevailing societal tensions. This would further destabilize the world’s conflict hotspots.
The challenges are considerable but hope remains
In an attempt to tackle climate change, the UN negotiated an international agreement in Paris on 12 December 2015. The agreement commits all 196 countries to work together towards a unitary goal of keeping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, with the aspirational goal of keeping temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The agreement is crucial, as it provides a way forward for countries to reduce their emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. This potential turning point in the world’s approach towards this global problem is now facing a major challenge from the new U.S. administration.
The victory of Donald Trump in November’s election came as a shock to the environmental movement. Years of progress fought for through intense bargaining, diplomacy, and pressure, are now at risk. The new leader of the most powerful country on earth and one of the largest fossil fuel emitters is a climate change denier who has complete disregard for scientific evidence and wants the U.S. to exit the Paris agreement. The Trump administration recently announced the scrapping of numerous regulations designed to protect the environment and reduce U.S. emissions, as well as the drastic defunding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the prevention of research on climate change related issues. These measures will make it impossible for the U.S. to live up to its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – submitted to the UN under the Obama administration.
The dire situation in the U.S. does not signal the end of the global effort to combat climate change. There is still hope. Trump’s anti-environmental policies may have the effect of mobilizing the environmental movement. It is when people’s very existence is at threat that they fight the hardest. Trump’s abandonment of environmental protections does not mean that the US will forever avoid tackling climate change. In fact, states like California are directly challenging Tump’s direction by pushing for the expansion of climate-related regulations. Politicians in states like Washington and Oregon are feeling the pressure from their democratic constituents to push back against the White House’s agenda and pursue progressive energy policies.
There is also the rest of the world, with many states continuing to implement policies aimed at emissions reductions, despite the withdrawal of U.S. leadership. For instance, China, the world’s greatest net polluter, is taking immense action to decrease its levels of emissions, largely because of the toxic air that its citizens have been exposed to and the potential growth of the renewable energy industry. The decreasing costs of clean energy sources, such as solar and wind, means that a continuing shift towards renewables is virtually inevitable. This combined with increasingly grim scientific reports on intensifying temperatures and climate-related disasters has brought greater attention to the environmental cause.
The world needs to stand strong. The election of Trump has set the world back, but we need to keep fighting. Failure is simply not an option. Carl Sagan concisely summarized the human race’s situation: “there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere, to save us from ourselves.” It is up to each and every one of us to demand that our governments work together to ensure a prosperous and peaceful world for future generations.
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