Climate change: The price of development

‘Solving the critical environmental problems of global warming, water scarcity, pollution, and biodiversity loss are perhaps the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Will we rise to meet them?’

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Whenever the issue of climate change is brought up my mind goes back to an article I had read years ago, which was written by the renowned French geneticist late Albert Jacquard in Le Monde Diplomatique and was titled ‘Les effets pervers de la science’. I do not remember the exact contents, but they could be summed up as referring to the unintended consequences of scientific discoveries. For example, side effects associated with drugs such as antibiotics – which are inevitable, but they can be managed by their proper use in the recommended doses and duration and with any other precautions advised by the doctor prescribing them.

The example of antibiotics is apt because any misuse, overuse or abuse either by the prescriber or the user (the patient) can result in serious problems. Perhaps the most critical of them is antibiotic resistance. It is now a worldwide concern not only because of the thousands of deaths associated with it but also because if not controlled it presages a catastrophic future where we will be overwhelmed by untreatable infections, and therefore even more deaths – which could have been avoided.

Recent developments in other domains provide more examples of Albert Jacquard’s apprehension: think of Facebook, Google and the resulting genesis of Big Data which has been exploited harmfully by companies such as Cambridge Analytica in elections. Invasion of privacy and confidentiality of information is another major concern. Ditto with Artificial Intelligence which scientists fear may develop a degree of autonomy that humans will not be able to control, and no one knows which direction(s) this may take. Thus, when does security morph into surveillance that can be exploited to harm individuals, not only political adversaries but even ordinary citizens?

To my mind, we face a comparable scenario as regards climate change, which can be considered as the perverse effect of development. Development itself has come about to cater to the needs of the growing world population, which in earlier times was subjected to the ‘natural’ restraints of war, famine and disease. But then advances in science, agriculture and medicine that led to greater agricultural productivity, improved sanitation and hygiene, the prevention of formerly deadly infections by vaccination and effective antibiotics and improvements in general welfare have resulted in an accelerated growth of population, especially since the turn of the 20th century. The increase has been exponential, and despite attempts on a global scale by the United Nations agencies to curb what has been termed the population explosion, it has nevertheless come about. In fact, the world’s population is projected to reach 11 billion by 2050.

Thus, even more development is needed! But although development is uneven across regions and countries, the total effect is that, as the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has definitively established, the human activities associated with development – often unbridled – have been associated with the emission of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, that are responsible for global warming. And global warming is causing climate change.

As has been noted, ‘Human action has triggered a vast cascade of environmental problems that now threaten the continued ability of both natural and human systems to flourish. Solving the critical environmental problems of global warming, water scarcity, pollution, and biodiversity loss are perhaps the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Will we rise to meet them?’

Will we? Because if we don’t, our very survival as humans is at stake – though any number of serious thinkers will wonder today whether humans are worth saving anyway!

Nevertheless, at a global level concern about the impact of human activities on our environment and on our own survival dates back to the time of Malthus, an Englishman in the 18th century who propounded what came to be known as the Malthusian theory – that continuing increase in population will eventually outstrip our capacity and resources to produce enough food to feed the people, who would therefore die massively because of famine. This did not come to be because of the advances mentioned above. But then again, in 1971 an entity known as the Club of Rome came up with a document which predicted a similar doomsday scenario for mankind by the end of the century – and that also did not happen.

Before it could, though, in 1992 the Rio Conference held an Earth Summit which, among other things, came up with the ‘United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or Global Warming Convention, a binding treaty that requires nations to reduce their emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and other “greenhouse” gases thought to be responsible for global warming; the treaty stopped short of setting binding targets for emission reductions, however. Such targets were eventually established in an amendment to the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol (1997), which was superseded by the Paris Agreement on climate change (2015)’.

However, ‘the Earth Summit was hampered by disputes between the wealthy industrialized nations of the North (i.e., western Europe and North America) and the poorer developing countries of the South (i.e., Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and parts of Asia). In general, the countries of the South were reluctant to hamper their economic growth with the environmental restrictions urged upon them by the North unless they received increased Northern financial aid, which they claimed would help make environmentally sound growth possible’.

Meanwhile, according to the latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report published a few days ago, ‘the world is further off course than ever from meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement and averting climate catastrophe as the divide between countries’ pledges and actions continues to grow’. ‘Gap’ refers to the difference between what countries have committed to do to limit climate change and what they actually need to do to meet greenhouse gas targets. Countries are therefore meeting next month in Madrid, Spain, at the next UN climate meeting, called COP25. There, they will have to cement the details of how they plan to meet their targets under the Paris climate agreement and sort out contentious issues like how to account for emissions reductions, what obligations poorer countries face, and how to create an international carbon trading mechanism.

Where do we come in all this? Well, no part of the world is spared from the impact of climate change that is taking place at the global level. If anything, as a small island state we are perhaps even more vulnerable in this interconnected world. There can be no denying that in recent years we have been witnessing climatic and weather phenomena never seen before here. There have been flash floods, torrential rains at unusual periods, extremes of heat in particular – as we are indeed suffering from currently – droughts and water scarcity, even a couple of tremors on our coasts. While it may not be possible to relate these events causally to any local greenhouse effect(s), we must not forget that we form part of the global ecosystem and potentially therefore any disturbance in it can well impact us.

It is true that we must not ‘stop the train of development’, but we must be even more careful about ensuring that such development is sustainable in the sense of being environmentally friendly and ecologically sound. We are all in it together, and what we must remember is that we will sink or swim together. A rise in sea levels that will impact coastal areas is a real possibility, and all of us have to put our act together if we want our future to be assured.

Government must lead, and we must as individuals and as communities play our role too. The experts think that we may still avert catastrophe. Provided we prepare ourselves for it.

* Published in print edition on 29 November 2019

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