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February 15, 2020

Our house is on fire

Opinion

February 15, 2020

In the summer of 1996 in the Harvard Institute of Development, a professor was recounting the great material achievements of the capitalist system before the international participants in the class.

I had the temerity to ask him: ‘how much was enough in capitalism?’ The professor snapped back saying that such questions were not asked under the system. Today the world is ringing with this question. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg put it forcefully before the UN: “People are dying! All you talk about is money and fairy tales of economic growth. How dare you!”

By the mid-20th century, humans were slowly waking up to the fact that something was amiss in their home, the earth. The climate was changing and the earth was heating up -- not through natural causes but through human actions. The first conclave on climate change was held in Geneva in 1979. Ever since, there is greater realization and more scientific evidence that the earth is dying but the deluge continues.

The planetary response to the ozone layer depletion was successful when the world came into action, with industry on board, with the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning CFCs. The hole above the Antarctic in the earth’s protective layer was amended. But that was simple compared to the challenge that the world is facing today.

Climate change is the long-term alteration of temperature and normal weather patterns in a place. It is currently occurring throughout the world. It is frightening and requires a paradigm change in our lifestyles.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro at what is known as the Earth Summit to “stabilize greenhouse gases at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.” The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 when the teenager activist Thunberg was a toddler. Six main greenhouse gases were identified. It aimed to set internationally binding emission reduction targets. The next milestone was the Paris Agreement, 2015. The agreement envisages limiting temperature increase to well below 2 degree celsius above the pre-industrial age, while pursuing effort to limit the increase to 1.5 celsius by 2030. The agreement was signed by 154 countries, including the US. President Trump, however, withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Till 2019 there have been 25 UN conferences, known as COPs, on the issue.

The world is, however, stuck in the plexus of the capitalist system. If earth is to be saved, the capitalist system has to be reformed. Is the rich Western world ready to do that? Consumerism is on a rampage. When consumption rises, GDP increases. That is the capitalist logic.

Take a tour of any Western mall. At any given time any good, durable or perishable, produced anywhere in the world is stocked fresh. There are other malls where a person of above middle-income level feels badly out of place and embarrassed. It has been estimated that if everyone on earth consumed the same amount as the average US citizen, four planet earths would be needed to sustain us.

If all wealthier countries are taken into account, an estimated 5.4 planet earths will be needed to sustain us if we all lived at the same standard. The cost is unpredictable weather, floods, fires, rising sea levels, desertification, large-scale human displacement, extinction of many types of flora and fauna, melting of glaciers leading to water crisis, agriculture emergency and agonizing poverty.

Greed is a recognized deadly sin. The capitalist system recognizes individual greed which it says will result in the greater good of society by producing goods, services and employment. It does not ask if those goods were needed.

All transport vessels release CO2 and other greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming and ocean acidification. The aviation industry emitted 900 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2018. According to the Essential Daily Briefing, “It has been estimated that one of the container ships of the size of six football pitches produce the same amount of pollutants as 50 million cars.” Should Western malls have fruits, vegetables, milk, beef, mutton and luxury goods transported from the four corners of the world through all seasons?

Climate change will proceed on its inexorable pace till our lifestyles change. Again Thunberg, the Joan of Arc of today, got it right, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to be pessimistic. I want you to act like your house is on fire, because it is.”

The writer is a former civil servant and minister.

Email: [email protected]ail.com