Paul Gillespie: Dangers of climate change are getting more attention
‘Nineteen per cent of the world’s richest populations is responsible for 73 per cent of carbon output’
Michael D Higgins: “We need to confront the hegemonic ethic of individualism and insatiable consumption at the roots of our behaviour and replace it with a new thinking”. The President was speaking at the Consciouness Summit in Paris. Photograph: EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT
Two news items about climate change illustrate how public opinion is becoming more aware of the dangers in a year of major choices about how to mitigate its effects on humanity.
Prominent scientist James Hansen has published a discussion paper with 15 others arguing that the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps are now melting, making a minimum 10-foot rise in sea levels likely by 2050.
Even the two degree increase in global warming over pre-industrial temperatures used as a benchmark for the United Nations conference this year is too much without radical change in the carbon output responsible for climate change. It’s a choice between a bad outcome and a catastrophic one, they say.
A Gallup survey of public opinion about climate change in 119 countries shows a “very high” awareness of the subject in Europe, North America and Japan and a “high” awareness in Latin America and other parts of Asia. However, it also shows two-thirds of people in Egypt, Bangladesh and Nigeria have not heard of it.
Education is the best predictor of awareness, except in the US, where partisan loyalty and levels of civic engagement affect attitudes. The authors argue that, to be effective, communications strategies about risk must be tailored to local contexts.
The Hansen-led paper attracted media attention in the US, where many coastal communities would soon be gravely threatened if it proves accurate. Two scientific debates on how to measure and assess climate change are informing public debate there and elsewhere on its impact and what should be done.
That is important given the difficulty politicians say they encounter in making the radical changes in behaviour and consumption patterns required to deliver on UN targets.
New thinkingMichael D Higgins
Crafting the tools for that could be the most exciting intellectual opportunity of our time. We cannot assume any longer, as many do, that “we can live on this planet as if we have another one to go to”, in the words of US ecological activist Terri Swearingen.
One way of measuring the existing consumption ethic is offered by the Global Footprint Network which measures the ecological impact of human behaviour in terms of sustainable resources. It is an accounting tool that measures “how much nature we have, how much we use and who uses what”. It produces a metric showing that humanity currently overshoots by nearly 50 per cent on available sustainable resources, behaving as if we had 1½ worlds and not just one.
Were all the Earth’s people to live as the average person in the US does, we would need nearly five. Compared with that, the figures for Chad, Afghanistan and Cambodia are less than one. Ireland’s footprint overshoot is well up there at four worlds.
The new epoch is driven by a radical change in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth’s systems so that global-scale social and economic processes are now becoming significant features of its geological functioning.
The power to shape planetary outcomes, including climate, passes from nature to humans. Debates rage about when to time the transition, from the Industrial Revolution based on fossil fuels to more recent economic history.
Critics of these two approaches say they generalise too much from national or global averages in measuring how humanity affects climate change. Questions of power and the distribution of wealth between different social groups and classes within and between states are thereby disguised.
Since 19 per cent of the world’s richest populations are responsible for 73 per cent of carbon output since 1850 and the poorest 7 per cent responsible for 45 per cent, climate justice demands that this be recognised in burden-sharing. However, within the US, for example, most responsibility lies with the richest 5 per cent of the population who have been enormously empowered by the growing inequalities driven by its neoliberal capitalism since the 1980s.
These debates become much more relevant as the scientific evidence of major climate change accumulates so rapidly and existentially for all of us.