Societal values and climate change

13 Oct 2019


The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.
The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.

WE tend to always think of climate change in the context of food, water and energy security or natural disasters and health, livelihood and productivity. Acknowledging that these will have a direct impact on our daily lives, it is, however, time to take a broader view of this phenomenon as it will alter the way people relate to each other and the environment.

A century ago, the world was a more plentiful place with enough to go around for everybody. There was poverty but the wealth and income divide was not as stark as now, and the difference between the rich and poor was more a result of governance models and practices driven by conquest, acquisition and exploitation.

Living in the age of democracy with a burgeoning population and a shrinking resource base has changed perspectives that will pose challenges of a new kind. These approaches will pit vested interest groups against each other for the grabbing of critical resources, resulting in demographic shifts and societal strife eventually leading to violent conflicts.

Adversity brings out the best and worst in human nature but when life is at stake and the instinct for survival takes over, then even the noblest among us can respond in ways that may seem unimaginable at the present time. The world that is shaping up is not going to have enough to take care of the needs of the 9.5 billion projected population. Nothing at the moment gives confidence that we are taking this threat as real and imminent. Pledges and commitments by themselves are not enough; they need to produce results, and thus far no measurable signs are visible.

It is time to start preparing society for dealing with scarcity and deprivation in ways that are compassionate and empathetic.

The carbon concentration in the atmosphere has gone up from 399.4 parts per million in 2015 to 412 PPM in 2019 and the remaining carbon budget has dipped from 420 gigatons to 350. A warming planet where 74 per cent of the population will not be able to work outside for 20 days in a year and where the lives of 800m people will be at risk in the South Asian region is the world that we will leave behind for our future generations.

It is time to acknowledge that some of the damage is irreversible and many hardships inevitable and that it is time to start preparing society for dealing with scarcity and deprivation in ways that are compassionate and empathetic. The values that we practise today and the ones that we teach our children should be built on the principles of social, ecological and democratic equity.

Failing to prepare ourselves morally and ethically will plunge us into a world of social chaos, economic meltdown and all the other associated risks from a collapsing ecosystem. In order to minimise hardships, there are four key issues on which the world needs to focus as part of building the adaptive resilience of society in a rapidly changing world.

Urgency: We need to step up action and act fast and act now. Delay is no longer an option.

Protection of species: We need to protect species and all life systems and should think about conducting a human impact assessment study, something along the lines of an environmental impact assessment for development actions to ensure that all species have an equal chance and enabling environment for survival.

Social values: Practise and promote values that shine the light on human goodness and the greater benefits of sharing and caring over mindless materialism.

Governance and quality of leadership: Make governance more inclusive and participatory. Politics, politicians and policies will determine the future quality of life on Planet Earth. Policies and approaches that are not only about social and economic indicators but linked to survival must be co-created and have collective ownership from stakeholders.

In plotting the future trajectory of the life cycle on earth some of the things on which we need to reflect are: the survival of democracy, the emergence of a new political world order with populist leadership driving an exclusive agenda, the role and status of women in society, peace and stability within societies and across borders and the right of all species to exist. All these decisions will be influenced by societal values and choices that we make about our fundamental approaches to life.

When the history of the world is written 100 years from now, historians and researchers will not focus as much on the impacts of climate change as on how humanity responded to this challenge. We are already 30 years late in taking action and need to make up now for reckless development agendas and the consequent delay in keeping temperature increase to within the safe threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius. In order to do that now, society must make an effort to understand climate science and use its voice and numbers to demand change not just in policies but in attitudes and behaviour too.

The shift in our stream of consciousness from ‘me first’ to taking everyone along will mark a turning point in the history of climate change. The sixth extinction is staring us in the face and it is almost ironic that we humans who consider ourselves the most intelligent of species are also knowingly working towards our own destruction and the annihilation of other life systems.

We have not yet reached the point of no return and still retain the option of mid-course correction to avert catastrophic effects, but values more than policies will make the bigger difference.

The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2019