Rising global temperatures are causing many lakes and rivers to dry up around the world. On October 19, German media reported that Germany’s historic Rhine river hit record lows after months of hot weather. Likewise, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that Africa’s largest source of fresh water and important resource for fishing and irrigation, Lake Chad, is now one-twentieth of the size it was 35 years ago. Similarly, Bolivia’s second largest lake, Lake Poopó, was an important source of subsistence for indigenous communities however those communities were forced to leave as the lake disappeared. Climate change does not affect everyone equally and so may seem like a distant problem for many. The National Geographic reported that based on the findings of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “an estimated 23.5 million people fled their homes in 2016 because of storms, floods, wildfires, extreme temperatures, and other weather-related disasters”.
According to NASA, the sun’s energy passes through the Earth’s atmosphere keeping the surface warm and then that heat is radiated back into space. During that process some of the outgoing heat is trapped by greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, warming the Earth to a hospitable average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). However, human activity causing higher greenhouse gas emissions has increased the Earth’s average surface temperature by about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century. Consequently, global warming is occurring much faster. The New York Times reported that carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.4% globally in 2017 due to the use of coal, oil, and natural gas. An estimated two-thirds of last year’s emissions increase came from Asia.
To combat alarming levels of greenhouse gas emissions the international community drafted the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The agreement has met staunch criticism primarily because it lacks enforcement mechanisms. The Guardian reported that James Hansen, a former NASA scientist and climate change expert considered the agreement’s promises useless as it has no across the board taxation on carbon dioxide emissions. The agreement is not legally binding so states who violate its terms cannot be penalized. The treaty is celebrated as a monumental effort since states finally came together on an agreement, although symbolic. The treaty has no provisions regarding states who do not comply, and so lacks accountability.
The inability to effectively address environmental problems on a global scale is partly due to the unequal distribution of environmental consequences. Communities in developed countries have the power to affect change but are typically less vulnerable to immediate environmental devastations. For example, Tomas Bruner explained in his article “Sinking Islands” and the UNSC: Five modalities of mobilising science, that coastal communities, such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, and the Maldives, face higher sea levels making their regions inhospitable because of flooding and storms. These do not equally affect Western countries, nor much of the emerging global South. The first step to address climate change would entail informing everyone on how climate change impacts them. For instance, Aaron Bernstein, an Acting Associate Director of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, outlined the consequences of climate change—rising sea levels and rising temperatures— which will negatively impact everyone. For example, rising sea levels cause salt water to seep into groundwater tables contaminating drinking water. Similarly, heat waves due to rising temperatures will lead to thousands of heat-related deaths, decreases in crop yields, droughts, and conditions suitable for wildfires. Canada’s National Observer reported that “British Columbia experienced two record-breaking fire seasons back to back. The 2018 season was the worst, with more than […] 3.2 million acres of land scorched.” Similarly, CBC news reported that at least 70 people died in Quebec because of heat-related complications during this year’s heat wave. Climate change may not be an immediate existential threat for some people like it is for those in many island communities. However, if people realize how it affects them, it could motivate them to pressure those in power to address the issue. We need to change the discourse around climate change and accept that it is an immediate concern for everyone.
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