2019 was a record-breaking year for natural disasters. There were deadly heat waves in India, Japan and Europe. There were fires in Australia, the Amazon, and California. And there were tropical storms, cyclones, hurricanes and flooding in nearly every continent.
The increase in frequency and intensity in these events is caused by climate change and the urgency to address the ecological crisis will only grow. In September 2020, a massive climate clock was unveiled in Manhattan that counts down to the deadline to achieve net zero emissions, otherwise the effects of climate change will become irreversible. The idea of climate “tipping points” (small changes in temperature or ice sheets that alter the fate of the system) have been around for the past 20 years, but since the introduction of the concept at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the deadline has slowly crept closer- and the window to make change before the tipping point is triggered has become smaller. A crucial tipping point is the rise in global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius. If regulatory policies fail to limit the rise in temperature, there will be more extreme weather and more persistent natural disasters. New York’s Climate Clock estimates a window of seven years to the tipping point, and other experts argue that we have much less.
Climate change is (almost) everything
Climate change might very well be the most significant challenge for the international community to face: it affects food security, poverty, regional conflict, public health, and the economy. Yet it seems to be a problem that is impossible to solve – at least under the current framework. After all, there have been 40 years of international climate conferences that have not really been able to do much to change “business as usual”. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement might have been the most ambitious plan to tackle climate change ever put forward, but that’s not saying much, considering that it ignores the most glaring roadblocks to addressing climate change. Most importantly, those most affected by pollution, climate change, and natural disasters often have the least political power. Conversely, political systems are biased against environmental reform through intensive lobbying by fossil fuel companies, vested interests in said companies, or the common thinking that environmental policy will always be negative for the economy (which shouldn’t be taken for granted). This barrier makes it quite unlikely that countries like the United States, China, Brazil, Southeastern Asian nations, MENA countries, and others will pass laws to regulate and reign in the polluting of fossil fuel corporations. It should be acknowledged, that the Paris agreement established National Determined Contributions (NDCs) that put larger responsibilities onto developed nations like the United States, Europe, and China in order to not interfere with sustainable development. It still remains though, that 100 companies have been the source of 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, and the lobbying power of these companies has been successful at preventing regulation.
The US factor, among others…
The role of the United States might seem exaggerated, but it isn´t. Fossil fuels have expanded, and regulations have slashed under the Trump administration, which directly shortens the amount of time left to become fully carbon neutral. Before President Trump took office, the United States committed to halving emissions by 2030, which equated to a 5% reduction each year for 10 years. As it stands, the US now needs to reduce emissions by 7.5% per year to reach the same goal, and any further delay in reductions would become economically implausible. On top of that, the United States pulling out of the climate agreements made it easier for other countries like Brazil and Saudi Arabia to follow. Apart from political aspect, the US drives climate change through excessive consumption and consumer demand. If the level of US consumption existed around the world, four times the amount of land on Earth would be needed.
Apart from the United States, the EU and China are the largest global players in climate change. The EU is the world’s leader in lowering emissions (in December 2019, the Commission pledged to be climate neutral by 2050) and in investing green technologies like batteries for solar and wind. China is the world’s largest emitter- in 2018, they were responsible for 28% of global emissions, a statistic that is complicated by global supply chains and industrial exports. In a report by the Carbon Trust, among emissions by China’s apparel sector, 72% are the responsibility of companies overseas. Even so, China is the world’s largest consumer of coal and second largest consumer of oil. It is also unclear the position that the central government takes towards future emissions. In September 2020, President Xi Jinping committed to Chinese carbon neutrality by 2060, with a peak in emissions by 2030. China has the potential to not only greatly reduce global emissions and consumption of fossil fuels, but also drive down the cost of clean energy which will enable decarbonization around the globe. However, China also has plans to expand coal-fired power plants and to boost emission heavy industries abroad with their Belt and Road Initiative. Time will tell if China’s commitments will be realized or if they are geopolitical moves to position themselves closer to the European Union.
Climate change, as we think about it now, feels insurmountable and unsolvable. The term “ecoanxiety” was coined in 2011 by researcher Glenn Albrecht and it describes the feeling of chronic fear of an environmental disaster which is fostered by the feeling that there is no way out of this problem, that there is no way to prevent global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees. However, climate change and its effects on global temperature aren’t the problem. They are the symptom. Perhaps naming climate change as the problem, is what has kept us in forty years of unproductive climate negotiations. Instead of thinking about climate change as a problem that needs to be solved, it must be seen as a symptom of generations of unsustainable consumption practices, a symptom of reliance on fossil fuels, of unsustainable agricultural systems and of deforestation. These are the real problems. Climate change is merely an aggregate of symptoms like the intensification of natural disasters, desertification, more frequent droughts, melting glaciers. Any effective policy must be oriented towards the causes of climate change which requires a major reorganization of thinking, anything else is simply a distraction.
Veronica Rose Chancy is a Master’s student at the department of Political Science and International Relations of Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: Veronica Rose Chancy (2020),“Climate Change is not the Problem: it is the Symptom.” https://crisesobservatory.es/climate-change-is-not-the-problem-it-is-the-symptom/