Weight of the world

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

The concept of balance is an important part of our idea of justice. It’s why justice is typically depicted as a set of scales. While deciding on the proper course of action isn’t always a simple matter of arithmetic, the idea of equal shares is a fundamental part of how we learn about fairness when we are children.

We learn that taking more for ourselves means less for others, and that this isn’t the way to act when it comes to things that are meant to be shared. This applies to pies, to homes, to cities… and to the Earth itself. In fact, it’s probably more appropriate to say that this applies to our planet most of all, because as it’s been repeatedly said: There is no Planet B. There is nowhere else for us to go.

The gravity of the issue of climate change seems at odds with the lack of influence it has on the day-to-day concerns of many people in the world. This is particularly true during the pandemic, where a great many things have taken a distant second place to the need to control COVID-19. But while there can be no mistaking the more immediate threat to humanity, there should also be no doubt as to which threat is the most all-encompassing: There can be no isolating from a planet too warm to support human life, there will be no surviving it, no vaccinating against it.

But how the world has battled COVID-19, both what has been done right and what has not, can give us a lot of insight into how it must battle the threat of climate change. Foremost amongst these is the primacy that must be given to science and experts in the field. Even when faced with this new threat, doctors and medical scientists were rapidly able to device guidelines to help prevent the spread of the virus, and with the resources of the world made available to them, they were able to create and test vaccines at an unprecedented rate.

If anything, the consensus amongst scientists regarding climate change and what must be done to avert it is stronger than that which has guided the response to COVID-19 – hardly surprising as scientists have been studying in earnest since at least the middle of the twentieth century. Approximately 97 percent of publishing climate scientists agree on the existence and cause of climate change.

Here’s what most climate scientists agree on: The Earth is warming as a result of human activity, primarily the emission of greenhouse gases. The average global temperature has increased by more than a degree Celsius over the past century, which is a rate of increase way higher than any in the Earth’s history. A degree Celsius difference in climate (not just day to day weather) is a major change, because many things that we take for granted as part of the order of the world – from fragile ecosystems to the strength of storms – depend on climate remaining in a very specific zone, with relatively little leeway. A degree of change is enough to alter the migratory patterns of animals, to destroy forests and melt glaciers and polar ice. This last contributes to the rise in sea level that has a huge impact on coastal areas, and because living near the sea has historically been an advantage, a good 58 percent of the world’s population lives at or near endangered coastal areas.

As an archipelago, much of the country could be classified as a coastal area, and this means that many of the most immediate dangers posed by climate change will hit us first and hit us hard. Data already show that the sea level in the Manila Bay area is rising at four times the global average, partly due to water extraction and siltation due to pollution.

Other places are even worse off – in Bangladesh, an area of land larger than Manhattan washes away every year and the seawater rise has contaminated agricultural lands with salt water. If left unchecked, the number of people in Bangladesh displaced by the effects of climate change could be more than 13 million within the next three decades.

In her book, “The Story of More,” Hope Jahren points out: “The people of Bangladesh produced far less than one percent of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere during the last 50 years, yet they are poised to pay the highest price incurred by its effects. This is a common trend: The people benefiting from the use of fossil fuels are not the people who suffer the most from its excess.”

At the beginning of this column, I spoke of balance and of the lessons we can learn from the world’s COVID-19 response. The inequities between rich and poor nations that have reared their heads in the procurement and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines must be rectified in our response to climate change. This is all the more true because much of the emissions that brought about climate change stem from the history of the developed nations.

This isn’t about assigning blame, but a matter of balance, and an expression of both responsibility and capacity. It’s what Greta Thunberg has referred to as climate justice: where the richer nations must drive their emissions down to zero so people in poorer countries can heighten their standard of living through building the infrastructure developed nations already have.

Last week saw the second celebration of Earth Day during the pandemic, and there were positive signs. At last week’s Leaders Summit on Climate, governments representing over 60 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are now committed to net-zero emissions goals, the majority by 2050. Despite the tension between the two nations, the United States and China committed to working together to combat climate change.

But smaller countries such as our own cannot allow ourselves to take a backseat when it comes to setting a climate agenda, or when it becomes time to turn commitments into actions. As I’ve mentioned before, because of the rich biodiversity in our archipelago, our nation has a unique responsibility towards maintaining a sustainable environment. And to do that we must both do what we can within our borders and speak out on the global stage in the name of climate justice.

It’s time to act as if we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders… because we do. The world and all of us who depend on it, now and for generations to come.

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