Climate change is an issue that no one can ever seem to agree on.
If you listen to some reports, you will hear the somewhat distressing news that large areas of our planet could soon be unable to support life – possibly even within the next two decades. Others claim that we should start planning for life away from Earth entirely and expect us to depart from our home planet in the next few centuries.
Then there are those on the other side of the coin, those who says that global warming doesn’t exist at all; that climate change is merely a plot dreamt up to push through green policies and impose unfair levies on large businesses.
The reality, however, is that our planet really does face some pretty difficult times ahead and global warming appears to be just the tip of the iceberg – so to speak. Air pollution, acid rain, ozone depletion, and toxic waste in our rivers and oceans; our environment is being destroyed and it’s being destroyed in the name of profit.
The reason for this is clear. Generally speaking, it costs less for a business to dump pollutants or ignore emission levels than it does to invest in new technologies or equipment that would help to conserve our natural resources. In broad terms, this means that socially harmful decisions are often made because in one way or another, they suit the financial needs of the businesses making them.
These are conscious decisions born out of the kind of short-termism that modern markets thrive upon. A report from the UN in 2010 found that the world’s 3,000 largest companies cause around $2.2 trillion (around £1.4 trillion) of environmental damage every year. The same report also found that if firms were forced to pay for the damage they cause, they would lose around a third of their overall profits.
However the true cost is far greater than anything that can be quantified in pounds or pence. How can you truly put a price on the resources upon which a civilization depends? Surely the protection of these essential commodities is literally priceless.
Despite this, we continue to constantly cross boundaries that put our future at risk. ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,’ a paper published in Nature by an international group of renowned environmental scientists, identified nine key boundaries for the biological systems upon which we, as a species, depend. They found that we had already crossed three of those boundaries and are very close to doing the same with several others.
Businesses have a legal obligation to protect their shareholders,
not the environment
So what can really be done to turn it around before it is too late? How can we make people care again and reach out to groups beyond the usual cartel of tree-huggers and save-the-whale enthusiasts? The answer has to lie in personal and collective responsibility and looking beyond the immediate benefits of our individual actions.
Regardless of where people stand on the debate, the current trend is to look at issues from a local standpoint and suggest simple remedies to the problems we face. Politicians and lobby groups are probably the best example of this. They like to ask communities how policies will affect them as individuals, how green taxes, for example, will affect ‘your’ wallet.
The uncomfortable reality, though, is that this is not a local issue at all. Small tax changes, green initiatives or sanctions imposed on maleficent businesses will not be enough to win this fight alone. We can tinker away at the fringes of the issue all day long but we simply cannot sustain Earth’s intricate ecosystems with the current economic model.
What we require is a massive social change, a total re-imagining of how we conduct our lives and how our actions impact on the world around us. Capitalism, as an idea – in its truest form at least – is simply not sustainable given the raw materials we have. The very nature of capitalism is predicated on infinitely expanding growth and that is an idea that just cannot work on a planet of finite resources.
We tend to cherish most the things that we see as having value in our current economic model. Given that there is little market value in clean air or fresh water, we tend to forget that these are invariably our most precious commodities and we do so very much at our own peril.
The evidence of it can be seen all around us. 13 of the 14 warmest years on record occurred this century and 2013 saw some of the most extreme weather events in recent history. This, according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation’s Secretary-general Michel Jarraud, is “consistent with what we would expect as a result of human-induced climate change” and provides good evidence that our actions are having an incredibly damaging effect.
Unless this trend is reversed, the consequences will be disastrous. As Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows and Donella Meadows put it in their book, The Limits to Growth:
“… humanity has largely squandered the past thirty years in futile debates and well-intentioned, but half-hearted responses to the global ecological challenge. We do not have another thirty years to dither. Much will have to change if the on-going overshoot is not to be followed by collapse during the twenty-first century.”
The fabric of this planet is in rapid decline. That decline is clear in many different areas of our day to day lives and the problems are only going to get worse if we carry on along our current trajectory. The root cause is a combination of over-population, exploitation of the poor, inadequate policy making and perhaps most of all, corporate greed. At a fundamental level, however, the problem spurns from a disconnect between human society and nature.
If we really want to address the environmental issues that threaten our ways of life, we first have to address our approach to the planet we live on. We have to start looking at it as our home, our greatest asset, and realising once and for all that a bit of spring cleaning might really be in order.