Can we change?

Wildfires raged, icecaps melted, and severe droughts ravaged nations. Yet in an annum where everything changed, our approach to tackling the climate crisis did not.

— 8 minute read — By Joe Clark, Maggie Gannon and Will Jones

Part One – Context

A bushfire rages in Bilpin, NSW, Australia. Photo by David Gray for Getty Images.

By Joe Clark

The sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, described climate change activists as ‘prophets of doom’ and argued that ‘the concept of global warming was created by the Chinese’ – in an apparent attempt to hinder US manufacturing. The current Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, also showed extreme reluctance to even accept that climate change could have been a factor in the wildfires that ravaged his country between late 2019 and early 2020. He openly, and willingly, contradicted the science which suggests that changes to the climate can result in such natural disasters.

You would not be foolish to assume that as two leaders of more economically developed countries, Trump and Morrison would have the resources necessary to educate themselves on the realities of the problems that our world is facing today. With climate change, at least, they seem to have been unable to.

Before one can understand the impact of human activity on the Earth’s temperature, it is important to recognize some further context about the history of our planet’s climate, to understand how we have found ourselves in this situation. Firstly, some key definitions: climate change is defined as any change in global or regional climate patterns; global warming is the gradual increase in the overall temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere, with this rise mainly being attributed to human activity.

The Earth’s climate has fluctuated for the last 2.5 billion years, yet in the last century, the planet’s temperature has risen at an alarmingly high rate. Ever since the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, there has been a notable increase in the number of power plants and factories that have burnt fossil fuels such as oil and coal. These subsequently release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which trap the Earth’s energy within the atmosphere. The consequence? A global rise in temperature.

Scientists around the world are adamant that to reduce the greenhouse effect and prevent the accelerated rise in Earth’s temperature, there needs to be a significant reduction in the amount of fossil fuels that are burned.

There are some truly staggering statistics that support the notion that there is a global climate crisis occurring. The average rate of increase in global temperature since 1981 has been more than double the value of the average rate of increase that was seen in the previous century. This shows just how momentous and pressing the climate emergency has become in recent times. Human activity in the 20th century played some part in causing this rise, with the burning of fossil fuels producing twenty times as much carbon dioxide in the year 2000 than in 1900.

It is worryingly blatant that despite the global pandemic that the world has faced this year, the issues will still be prevalent when reflecting on the figures related to climate change in 2020. In an annum when everything changed, our approach to tackling the climate crisis did not. 2020 is set to be one of the three warmest years on record.

Polar Ice Caps - Climate Change Kids
Polar ice caps are melting at a rate six times faster than in the 1990s. Photo by N/A on the Telegraph Multimedia Archive.

The list of reasons to support the argument that there is a climate emergency is as exhaustive as the list of reasons why climate change is detrimental to human life – and for the planet. If air quality is poor it can damage people’s lungs; the melting of polar icecaps is set to cause widespread global flooding; the intensification of the water cycle causes more drought and flooding, worsening water insecurity in certain areas; and extreme weather generated by climate change can affect agriculture as droughts lead to a lack of water for crops. Such extreme weather can also affect the economy as countries have to spend resources on combating temperature-related events such heat waves and wildfires. It’s time that the shockingly devastating impacts that climate change will have on our planet become common knowledge.

If you were to quote the statistics or facts above, you would not be fabricating a problem of your own volition for the purpose of dragging others down, but instead facing up to the rather depressing reality of an anthropogenic problem that needs to be urgently addressed. As some world leaders seem to be intent on spreading ‘fake news’, it is vital that in an age of misinformation, we share the truth regarding the problems that we must all face together.

Part Two – Action

Where are the Extinction Rebellion London protests and how long should they  last?
Extinction Rebellion are at the forefront of climate crisis activism. Photo by Reuters.

By Maggie Gannon

Although climate change has been described by the United Nations as ‘the defining crisis of our times’, there are – fortunately – many organisations and campaigns that aim to obstruct new laws and encourage those who feel passionately about the issue to take action.

Despite this, there has been an enormous amount of debate within the media that has stemmed mainly from political conflicts. Many deem a variety of these institutions to solely represent the far-left with large scale campaigns that vast swathes of the population do not consider practical or peaceful. Mainstream media coverage continues to paint these organisations in a relatively negative light – frequently depicting them as ‘cult-like’ with a hidden left-wing agenda. Perhaps the problem is that many people understand the pressing issue at hand but wouldn’t go as far as to align themselves with these organisations and their socially divisive, often disruptive protest methods.

The organisations in question, mainly those such as Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace, have made some significant moves in 2020 – despite the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, which soon prohibited mass gatherings and protests. When looking at the Greenpeace’s annual report for 2019, it is clear that the charity’s mission focuses on continued non-violent campaigning which confronts those who hold power in order to ‘protect biodiversity’, ‘prevent pollution’ and put an ‘end to all nuclear threats’.

The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Year 2019, ‘climate emergency’, also reflected a year of successful campaigning – and one that has become extensively difficult to follow. The report focuses largely on the impact of youth campaigns and the success of these. Unsurprisingly, activist Greta Thunberg was mentioned for her ‘School Strike for Climate’ – perhaps one of the most defining movements of 2019.

2020 was a year of drastic change for so many, but this did not stop Greenpeace volunteers from shedding light on some of the biggest climate emergencies of the year. Whether this was photographing and reporting on the Australian bushfires, capturing the rapidly dwindling icecaps in the Arctic and Antarctic, deforestation in the Amazon, or global flooding, we still had sight on the climate crisis – even if it was often averted in favour of other pressing issues.

Our Ships - Greenpeace New Zealand
Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise documents the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice. Photo by Greenpeace NZ.

Smaller campaigns have also continued throughout the year. Downsized groups still gathered at a social distance to protest against climate-related issues. The not-for-profit organisation’s promotional videos evoke numerous powerful emotions, whether that be anger, a sense of hope, or numbness – but as with all institutions, uncertainty in its leadership leads to questions over how trustworthy the organisation actually is. Reports discussing one of the founding members of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, leaving, have left many with a cold feeling.

When moving away from Greenpeace, you’ve most definitely probably heard of environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR). Founded in 2018, the controversial organisation has made several major headlines as they aim to bring light to many of the pressing climate issues. Their mission closely follows that of Greenpeace’s, in that they both aim to push governments into declaring a climate emergency. XR were keen to tackle corporation-focused issues this year, targeting specific projects such as HS2, media conglomerates and fossil fuel energy corporations.

One of their largest protests of 2020 was conducted in opposition to the right-wing press, as protestors blocked roads outside the printing presses of a variety of British national newspapers. Using lorries and bamboo structures, XR activists prevented the circulation of the Daily Mail and the Sun. The Free The Truth campaign worked to highlight how the British right-wing media is accountable for downplaying the climate crisis. Conservative MPs suggested XR could be deemed an “organised crime group” and the Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, regarded the demonstration as an attack on democracy and the free press. Incidents like these leave many people feeling torn as to whether to support these organisations. The debate continues to remain sour and highly political, jeopardising any hope of tackling the crisis in unity.

When looking at actions taken by specific governments, in December, New Zealand became one of few countries globally to declare a climate emergency. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, labelled it as “one of the greatest challenges of our time”. The country is now striving for a carbon-neutral government by 2025. Ardern aims to lead the way by implementing electric and hybrid government vehicles while phasing out coal-fired boilers in official buildings, in the hope that the country will follow.

New Zealand is also one of the first countries to implement a zero emissions goal into national legislation. As the five year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement looms, perhaps targeted approaches like those taken by Ardern will bring us closer to a climate resolution. The agreement, which once brought a sense of togetherness and hope for many, now leaves the world wondering whether countries who promised so much will continue to back up claims with action.

Part Three – Easier said than done

UN Climate Change Conference
UN Climate Change Conference 2017. Photo by UNEP.

By Will Jones

A multitude of mundane daily tasks can be met with the sentiment “easier said than done”. Thus, it comes as no surprise that one of the most complex global issues can be responded to with the same stark statement. It is remarkably easy to formulate a projection of a perfect world in which the environment is cared for and we solely rely on sustainable resources. The reality of it, however, is considerably more difficult to attain.

Substantial inequalities between nations are still prevalent, despite the rapidly globalising world. The luxury of a green economy is one that only highly developed countries can consider – let alone afford. With roots in colonialism, powerful countries are still able to evoke considerable cultural and political power over less powerful countries. In 2019, the 5 highest grossing films worldwide were all produced by American companies:

  1. Avengers: Endgame (Walt Disney)
  2. The Lion King (Walt Disney)
  3. Frozen II (Walt Disney)
  4. Spider-Man: Far From Home (Sony Pictures)
  5. Captain Marvel (Walt Disney)

Many culturally vulnerable nations have also adopted the American neo-liberal ideas of capitalism, individualism and democracy – as well as the media and culture produced by these countries. However, there comes a point when the Western mandate cannot be executed. Despite incorporating various American and European values and policies, developing countries seem to be unable to commit to the Western plea for sustainability and environmental protection.

A problem of this scale needs breaking down in financial terms. A key part of Joe Biden’s environment plan involves an investment of $2 trillion in clean energy with the hope of creating carbon-free electricity by 2035. The US president-elect is in the fortunate position of having the financial means in his treasury to achieve this. The story is vastly different elsewhere.

One must look at countries with a GDP below $2 trillion:

Italy: $1.944 trillion

Canada: $1.647 trillion

Russia: $1.578 trillion

All three of these nations are hugely developed, yet they would still (in theory) not have the monetary means to pursue such an extensive approach to tackling the climate crisis – an approach that many left-wing Democrats said did not go far enough. Whilst the level of spending needed to implement a green scheme is dependent on the country in question (Italy is a smaller country, so their scheme would not have to be as expensive as the US’s), it does serve to demonstrate the scale of a national environmental project. Understandably then, it is near impossible for us to expect developing countries to be able to commit to the same goals set out by the US and Europe.

It remains imperative that we don’t merely interpret this inequality issue as developing countries holding back the rest of the world. Our consumer habits have largely moulded environmental issues that we currently face – developing countries just happen to be the entities that are meeting the demand.

HSBC triggers investigation into palm oil company over deforestation  allegations | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian
Palm oil plantations are destroying vast swathes of Indonesian forest. Photo by Yudhi Mahendra for Mighty.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces 60 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt – a mineral which is extensively used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. These batteries breathe power into electric cars and give life to our laptops and smartphones. The environmental cost is much greater than the already high financial cost of these products. The electricity consumption and blasting technique associated with cobalt mining is intensely damaging to the environment and the process produces the highest levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide from any form of mineral extraction.

Cobalt is worryingly far from the only Western-used product that results in profound environmental damage. Palm oil is used in a vast array of popular goods: crisps, shampoo, chocolate, ice cream, make up – a list that merely scrapes the surface. Grazing through an article enthusiastically titled “Top 10 Facts You NEED to Know about Palm Oil” (you know the type of rabbit hole I was down here), I soon encountered some unnerving facts:

  • “Up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every HOUR to make room for palm plantations.”
  • “Clearing one hectare of peat forest can release 6,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.” 

The blame cannot be shifted to Indonesia (the main producer of palm oil). In the most basic sense, they are purely – or rather impurely – satisfying the West’s incessant yearning for products that contain it. Perhaps it is time that we shift the focus back onto our own habits. Whilst many of us are privileged enough to live in a country that has the monetary and structural resources to unveil and execute a radical climate plan, it will not be successful until we personally change our consumerist ways and allow other countries to build comparable environmental approaches.

The ironic fact that I am currently typing this piece on a MacBook whilst intermittently checking Twitter on my iPhone is not lost on me. Self-awareness is hopefully the first step to collectively altering our lifestyles in order to create a planet that is maintainable – for our sakes and the sakes of our children, grandchildren and the many generations that will lie even further into an uncertain future.