Christmas may seem like a distant memory but the environmental effect of the annual consumer frenzy, over-indulgence and extravagance is lasting damage. And year on year the cost to the planet grows.
For the best part of a week in early January the street in which I live in London was littered with mountains of rubbish and discarded Christmas trees, real and fake. The use of both live and artificial trees as decorative emblems of Christmas is ecologically damaging and, like many aspects of this materialistic pantomime, needs to be consigned to a bygone era and replaced with either a naked corner, or a rented potted tree from a garden center, which can be returned to the growers afterwards.
In Europe an estimated 60 million live trees are bought, decorated and dumped; it’s around 30 million in America.The majority of real trees are grown specifically for Christmas so forests are not being depleted, but after the festivities most real trees are thrown away andas they decompose, methane (a greenhouse gas) is produced. Artificial trees leave their own carbon footprint due to their production and transportation. Most are made in China and amass a great many polluting air miles on route to their Western destination, and when discarded also end up in landfill sites. In order to make up for the amount of energy used in its production, accordingto The Woodland Trust, a plastic tree would need to be reused every Christmas for twenty years. Under the tree of course is to be found the Festive Icons – the presents. Worldwide, adults are said to spend on average $475 on gifts, half of which are unwanted,but in this throwaway world of ours, instead of returning them, most of these rejected trinkets are dumped in the rubbish bin and end up in a landfill site.
Christmas and rubbish are synonymous terms in more ways than one. It’s the time of year when the largest amount of consumer waste is produced and the overwhelming bulk it ends up in a hole in the ground. Over 114,000 tons of plastic waste is estimated to have been produced in Britain over Christmas and not recycled, together with “more than 88,000,000 Sq. m of wrapping paper and 300,000 tonnes of card packaging”, The Times relates. In the Capital of Consumerism, America a colossal $10 million is spent on wrapping paper, most of which is not recyclable, and the number of Christmas cards sold requires 300,000 trees to be cut down.
Then there’s the unbridled cruelty reserved for the animals that are raised for the festive table; around 10 million turkeys are eaten in Britain; its closer to 25 million in America, where the major turkey cull is Thanksgiving. The vast majority of birds stuffed and roasted are factory farmed. Their short lives are spent in appalling conditions and end when they are plunged head first into electrified stunning baths, after which they have their throats cut in the slaughterhouse. The industrial farming of turkeys is not just barbaric, like all animal agriculture it produces huge amounts of the greenhouse gases which fuel man-made climate change. Add in Christmas travel by road and air and the enormous environmental impact of Christmas begins to become clear: from 15th December to 4th January a record 52 million people in America took to the air and 97 million hit the highways. In Britain over thirteen million vehicles clogged the roads in the days leading up to the Big Day, and both Heathrow and Gatwick airports had their busiest days on record: around four million people in total, with record numbers taking long-haul flights. Aviation is a major source of greenhouse gases, and the further one flies the greater the environmental damage.
Simplicity and Sufficiency
Whilst the festive period allows much needed time for rest, and for some, warm family gatherings (tense misery for others), in its current form it is little more than an exercise inmass consumerism. The ‘Christmas Spirit’, which suggests peace, brotherhood and ‘goodwill to all men’, is widely absent, replaced by an exaggerated version of how life is conducted the rest of the year; contemporary values(which are not values at all of course) of greed and selfishness are relentlessly encouraged and to a large degree, prevail.
The ‘consumer culture’, of which Christmas is the pinnacle expression,is an essential part of the Neo-liberal economic system under which we live. It is maintained by insatiable desire and the false notion that happiness is to be found within the Christmas wrapping paper, the Black Friday Deals or Saturday shopping outings, in ‘success’andsensory pleasure. However, far from creating the conditions in which contentment and joy can flower, discontent and conflict is maintained,and an atmosphere created for anxiety and depression to grow. As it is currently constituted, Christmas perpetuates and strengthens thismaterialistic and highly damaging approach to life – for humanity and the planet. Like much of contemporary living it needs to be simplified and re-defined, not necessarily in a way that corresponds to Christian doctrine, but in a manner rooted in what we might more broadly call ‘spiritual’, or simply human values: sharing, social/environmental responsibility, tolerance and kindness to one another and, crucially, the Earth itself.
A treeless, gift-free Christmas, where little or no travel is involved, and money usually spent on gifts is donated to an environmental charity, would be the ideal. If you can’t face Christmas without presents, then environmental considerations should be paramount when choosing what to ‘give’ –not necessarily what to ‘buy’. If we are to overcome the environmental catastrophe and reverse the colossal ecological damage, greed, selfishness and excess must come to an end, replaced by Simplicity and Sufficiency – and a new environmental consciousness urgently cultivated, at Christmas and throughout the year.
Pollution has become an everyday affair; a murderous way of life which, according to a published in The Lancet (19th October 2017), is responsible for the deaths of at least nine million people every year. The air we breathe is poisoned, the streams, rivers, lakes and oceans are filthy, — some more, some less — the land littered with waste, the soil toxic. Neglect, complacency and exploitation characterize the attitude of governments, corporations and far too many individualstowards the life of the planet,and itsrich interwoven ecological systems.
The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, which is yet another cry for urgent collective action, found that pollution is responsible for a range of diseases that “kill one in every six people around the world”. This figure, while shocking, is probably a good deal higher because “the impact of many pollutants is poorly understood.” The landmark study states that we have reached the point when “deaths attributed to pollution are triple those from Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.”
Our selfish materialistic way of life is having a devastating impact on all forms of life; unless there is a major shift in attitudes the numbers of people dying as a result of toxic levels of pollution will rise; contamination of the oceans will increase, deforestation and desertification will continue, and the steady destruction of all that is beautiful and naturally given will intensify. Until one day in paradise all colour, diversity and light will be eradicated from this glorious world of ours, and it will be too late.
Plastic oceans, poisoned air
Even the most hardened climate change denier cannot blame natural climatic cycles for the plastic islands that litter the oceans, or the poisoned water and contaminated air. Pollution is caused by human activity; it “endangers the stability of the Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.” A sense of intense, life-threateningurgency needs to be engendered, particularly amongst the governments and populations of those countries that are, and have historically been, the major polluters — the industrialized nations of the World. Although China has now overtaken the USA in producing the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as the New York Times (1st June 2017) reported, America (which has 5% of the world’s population but produces 30% of the world’s waste), “with its love of big cars, big houses and blasting air-conditioners, has contributed more than any other country to the atmospheric carbon dioxide that is scorching the planet….In cumulative terms, we [the US] certainly own this problem more than anybody else does,” said David G. Victor, a longtime scholar of climate politics at the University of California.
Russia and India follow the USA as emitters of the most greenhouse gases; then comes Japan, Germany, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which the World Economic Forum (9thFebruary 2017) relates, has “on a per-country average, the most toxic air in the world.” Australia, Canada and Brazil should also be included amongst the principle polluters; as Brazil’s economy has grown so have the quantities of poisonous gas emissions, their effect made worse by deforestation of vast areas of the Amazon rain forests.
Indonesia, too, warrants our attention. This small country (3% of the global population) in the middle of the South Seas is a major polluter: It has the third largest expanse of tropical forest after the Amazon and Congo, and is cutting down trees at the highest rate on the planet; it produces approximately 5% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, is the second-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution after China and has some of the dirtiest water in south east Asia, – only a third of the population having access to clean drinking water.
China also has a problem with polluted water; International Business Times (22nd March 2017) report the Chinese Government’s own analysis “found that more than 80% of the water from its wells was not safe to drink…while about 60% of its groundwater overall was of poor or extremely poor quality.” Water pollution has reached serious levels in America as well: according to Water Benefits Health, 32% of bays, 40% of the country’s rivers and 46% of its lakes are “too polluted for fishing, swimming or aquatic life.” The Mississippi River, which is amongst the most polluted rivers in the world, “carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. The resulting pollution is the cause of a coastal dead zone the size of Massachusetts every summer.”
Polluted streams and rivers result in contaminated oceans; chemical fertilizers, detergents, oil, sewage, pesticides and plastic waste flow into the sea from inland waterways. Recent research has identified 10 rivers as the source of 90% of the plastics in the oceans. Deutsche Welle (30th November 2017) reportedthat all of them run through densely populated areas where waste collection or recycling infrastructure is inadequate. Three of these filthy tributaries are in China, four more run through China, two — the Nile and the Niger (regularly the scene of oil spills) — are in Africa. The list is completed by the Holy Ganges in India, which serves as rubbish dump (almost 80% of urban waste is thrown into the river), utility room, bathroom, burial chamber and sacred temple.
Some pollutants sit on the surface of the ocean, many collect on the seabed where they are ingested by small marine organisms and introduced into the global food chain, (see The Guardian 14thFebruary 2017). The shocking condition of the seas was highlighted recently in the BBC production Blue Planet II. In a sequence that moved many to tears, an Albatross, having been at sea for weeks looking for food, was filmed feeding its chicks with bits of plastic collected from the surface of the ocean.
Plastic waste is produced everywhere, but five Asian countries produce 60% of the global total, currently 300 million tons (only 10% is recycled): China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. If nothing changes it’s predicted that by 2025, plastic consumption in Asia alone could increase by 80 percent to over 200 million tons, and global consumption could reach 400 million tons. Greenpeace estimate that roughly 10%, or 12.7 million tons (that’s a lorry load of rubbish a minute) of all plastic ends up in the Oceans of the world, where it is thought to kill over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals.
The statistics around pollution are numerous, shocking and all too depressing. Here’s a taste:
5,000 people die every day through drinking unclean water.
About 80% of landfill items could be recycled.
65% of deaths in Asia and 25% of deaths in India are due to air pollution.
Chronic obstructive respiratory disease (caused by burning fossil fuels indoors) is responsible for the death of more than 1 million people annually.
Over 3 million children under five die annually from environmental factors.
Worldwide, 13,000-15,000 pieces of plastic are dumped into the ocean every day.
At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks suffer from plastic ingestion
For every 1 million tons of oil shipped, approximately 1 ton is wasted through spillage.
A million plastic bottles are sold worldwide every minute; forecast to increase by 20% by 2021.
Around 1,000 children die in India annually due to diseases caused by polluted water.
There are more than 500 million cars in the world; there could be 1 billion by 2030.
Shoppers worldwide use approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags annually.This translates to about a million bags every minute and the number is rising.
Pollution and the environmental catastrophe more broadly is the result of insatiable consumerism, selfishness and individual and collective irresponsibility. It flows from a materialistic approach to living, rooted in desire and an unjust economic system that demands unbridled consumerism for its survival. Excess and greed is encouraged, sufficiency dismissed. Corporate Governments imprisoned in nationalism and obsessed with short-term economic growth feed the system, and the most important issue of the time is relegated to an afterthought, rarely spoken about by irresponsible, ambitious politicians who seem to believe that limitless development and mass consumerism is of greater importance than the health of the planet.
Designing policies that will clean up the air, the seas and rivers, and will preserve forests and farmland, should be the number one priority for all governments around the world, particularly the industrialized nations, who have been responsible for producing the majority of the filth and for cultivating the consumer culture that is perpetuating the crisis. But whilst governments need to take a leading role to stop pollution, individuals, all of us, need to change the way we think and how we live. It is imperative we consume less and that decisions regarding purchases should be made firstly with environmental considerations in mind. Sufficiency and simplicity of living need to replace abundance, complacency and indulgence.
This demands a major shift in attitudes, not in 25 years, not in a year, but now. As Pope Francis rightly states in his groundbreaking papal letter ‘Care for Our Common Home’, (published 24th May 2014),“Our efforts at [environmental] education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.” The ‘market’ aided by the media, is not concerned by such liberal considerations as the welfare of the planet and the health of human beings it is a blind monster set loose by the mother of division and social injustice – Neoliberalism, a socio-economic model that lies at the heart of not only the environmental problem, but many of our interrelated crises. If the ecological networks within which we live are to be purified, and healing is to take place, this unjust ideology and the so-called values it promotes, need to be rejected totally and a new way of thinking inculcated. Selfishness and greed need to give way to inclusive, socially/environmentally responsible behavior based on the recognition that the natural world is not separate from us, and that we all have a duty to care for it. We are all responsible for the world in which we live, its up to us, each and every one of us, to consciously live in an environmentally responsible manner – no matter the cost or inconvenience, and to begin to repair the terrible damage we have done and continue to do to the natural world.
Man-made climate change, and the interconnected environmental catastrophe more broadly constitute the most urgent crisis facing humanity. It has come about as the result of a certain way of life, a materialistic approach to living in which greed and excessive consumption has been championed.
Voracious consumerism and values based on individual material success, competition and division lie at the very heart of the crisis, and if global warming, desertification, pollution, and the destruction of ecological systems are to be arrested, a fundamental change in attitudes and behaviour is needed. Without this, little of substance can be achieved – technological advances whilst crucial in breaking the dependency on fossil fuels, are not on their own enough. It’s a way of life – principally a developed world way of life – that needs to drastically change, as the Cloudburst Foundation states: “Balancing the carbon cycle requires much more than technological solutions. It requires a paradigm shift in how we approach economic growth and development”: A shift away from excess, socio-economic injustice and environmental vandalism to sustainability, social-environmental responsibility and sharing.
A new Approach
Together with deforestation, burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to meet humanity’s insatiable appetite for energy, most of which feeds industry, is the major source of the greenhouse gases that are generating climate change. Whilst nations production of these noxious elements vary, global emission’s overall are reducing, and despite some developing countries increasing their output, emission levels appear to have finally peaked; the task now before us is to drastically reduce them. Central to this work is the need to inculcate a new approach to how we live: to change the values that determine our actions and to alter the relationship we have with one another and the natural environment.
The most noxious greenhouse gases are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4) and Nitrous oxide (N2O). Of these CO2 is the biggest culprit, making up almost 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. It enters the atmosphere, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains, “Through burning fossil fuels, solid waste, trees and wood products, and as a result of certain chemical reactions (e.g., manufacture of cement),” and is extracted or ‘sequestered’ (from the atmosphere) when it’s absorbed by plants.
Of the total amount of CO2 cast into Earth’s atmosphere from fossil fuels in 2015, Carbon Brief relates that, “41% came from coal, 34% from oil, 19% from gas, 5.6% from cement production and 0.7% from flaring.” Almost half of all CO2 emissions remained in the atmosphere; a third was absorbed by plants and 26% by the oceans. The burning of coal, natural gas, and oil to meet the demand for electricity and heat is the sector responsible for the largest amount of global greenhouse gas emissions, making up 25%. This is followed, the EPA says by agriculture (crops and livestock) and deforestation. Coming in a close third is industry with 21% of all greenhouse gas emissions, then transportation at 14%.
China emits almost a third of all greenhouse gas emissions and is the world’s biggest polluter, followed by America with around 15%, then the European Union (28 countries) with 11%. Europe has made substantial reductions in emissions and in 2015 they were down 22% compared with 1990 . India, with a fifth of the World’s population and global business ambitions is pouring greenhouse gases out at an alarming rate; in 2015 emissions were up 5.2% on the previous year, to 6.3% of the global total.
If we are to halt climate change, and begin to heal the natural environment, we must stop burning fossil fuels and turn to alternative sources of energy (solar and wind e.g.) for the majority of our energy needs. This process is well underway in certain countries: According to the Climate Reality Project, Germany, which produces 21% of the EU’s greenhouse gases is meeting 78% of its electricity demand from renewable sources; In 2015, Sweden proposed a plan to eliminate all fossil fuel usage in the country and immediately increased investment in solar, wind, energy storage, transport and smart grids; Costa Rica met 99% of its electricity needs from renewables in 2015. Denmark drew 42% of its energy from wind turbines in the same year and aims to be fossil fuel free by 2050; Nicaragua supplied 54% of all electricity production from renewables in 2015 and is aiming for 90% by 2020. America, which has the second highest wind energy capacity in the world (after China) is generating only 13% of its electricity from renewables, but an optimistic study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the US “could reduce emissions by nearly 80% in 15 years.”
While these and other examples offer hope, renewables currently only account for 2.4% of global energy consumption and 4.7% of electricity generation. If the Paris Agreement of limiting the increase in global temperatures to 2˚C, or 1.5˚C (above pre-industrial levels) has any hope of being achieved a massive increase in renewables is needed, coupled with a reduction in the overall energy demand. A study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) shows that for net emissions to peak by 2022, renewable sources of energy would need to increase by around 5% per year. In order to achieve this target a move away from lifestyles and economies built around consumerism and excess is essential. This necessitates a shift in attitudes from selfishness and greed, abundance and endless consumption, to sufficiency, sharing and environmental responsibility. It also demands a radically different economic system, one that is sustainable and just. As the Cloudburst Foundation puts it, “To truly reverse global warming we must overturn the current economic and development systems at play, and work to create alternatives that benefit not just some but all.”
At the heart of such alternatives must be sharing, cooperation and a profound sense of group responsibility. Such principles arise quite naturally from the realization that humanity is one, a fact that is strengthened when we express such qualities. We are brothers and sisters of one-humanity, and we have a duty of care for one another and the Earth itself.
The current economic system is fed by endless consumerism, so too is climate change. It is our constant demand for stuff, much of which is made in the factories of the developing world — where workers are poorly treated, have no or few rights and are badly paid — that is perpetuating the industrial demand for energy, which is met by burning fossil fuels.
If we are to halt global warming, reverse the destructive effects of climate change and allow the planet to heal, our approach to how and what we consume needs to fundamentally change and the materialistic value system, which promotes competition, selfishness and greed, rejected. Simplicity, sufficiency and responsible consumption need to be inculcated and encouraged, in place of expediency, waste and ignorance.
Systemic change to alter the socio-economic conditions in which we all live is desperately needed, but more importantly a shift in thinking, a change in consciousness is imperative, and this is taking place within large numbers of people, particularly young people who in many areas lead the charge. Governments have a duty to listen and act, to introduce policies based on environmental considerations; to produce electricity from clean sources (not fossil fuels and certainly not nuclear) to provide efficient and cheap public transport systems run on renewable energy; to promote environmental awareness campaigns to educate and inform the public; to incentivize the use of renewable energy sources and to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. And individuals have a responsibility to elect politicians that prioritize environmental issues, to act in an environmentally positive manner, to consume responsibly and to reduce consumption. After the economic crash in 2008/9 there was a sharp drop in the production of greenhouse gases in Europe as a result of reduced industrial activity — people felt uncertain and were buying less stuff, which is what is required.
The impact on the environment should be the first factor for consideration when making any and all purchasing decisions, including food, services and utilities: Find an electricity/gas supplier that is fed from renewable sources, a bank that invests in environmentally sensitive companies and projects; Be serious, be responsible. Research the choices available, look into the ethos of the company making the product, find out how the item is manufactured or grown and the environmental (and human) impact of production, how long will it last — the longer the better, — what resources does it use and were employed in its manufacture and development, cultivation, etc., etc. Buy secondhand, reuse and recycle whenever possible, become a conscious consumer. Transportation is responsible for 14% of all greenhouse gases; this is made up of airline travel, rail and cars/vans/lorries, etc. If you’re buying a vehicle, go electric. If you have a diesel car or van — the most polluting type of vehicle — sell it immediately (preferably scrap it) and replace it with either a hybrid or an all-electric model, in fact don’t buy a vehicle unless there is really no other option. If you’re travelling – holiday or work – go by train or bus, don’t fly unless it’s absolutely essential; use public transport, walk or cycle as much as possible.
The responsibility for halting climate change rests firmly with each and every one of us. Our individual actions can either inflame the crisis or strengthen the collective fight to heal the natural environment in which we live and usher in a new day in which humanity lives in harmony with the planet.
The Paris Agreement on climate change, signed in November 2016, was the first time all the world’s nations (except Nicaragua and Syria) committed to reduce emissions and cap man-made global warming.
Amongst a number of positive pledges made by governments a key agreement was the goal to limit the increase in the average global temperature to well below 2°C (above pre-industrial levels) and to aim for 1.5°C. The probability is that neither of these goals will be met; in fact a recent study conducted by the University of Washington, estimates there is a mere 5% chance of meeting the 2°C target, and states that, “The likely range of global temperature increase [up to 2100] is 2.0–4.9 °C.”
Another Trump Mistake
An important part of the Paris Agreement was a commitment to assist developing countries as they try to prepare for and mitigate the impact of rising global temperatures caused by greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere by industrialized countries.
In a somewhat optimistic statement after the Paris accord, UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa and Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said, “Humanity will look back on November 4, 2016, as the day that countries of the world shut the door on inevitable climate disaster.” They went on to say that: “The Agreement is undoubtedly a turning point in the history of common human endeavor, capturing the combined political, economic and social will of governments, cities, regions, citizens, business and investors to overcome the existential threat of unchecked climate change.”
A step of huge significance then, not just in our approach to climate change, but in the development of a global sense of unity. And whilst little of substance has been done since the accord, it represented a major shift away from isolationism, nationalism and ideology towards collective responsibility and cooperative action.
The decision by President Trump not to implement the Paris Agreement violates this unifying act and is a massive mistake, one of many. It reveals how out of touch his administration and certain sections of US business are with the mood of the times and the majority of people around the world. His violent, irresponsible and ignorant action further isolates the US, and reinforces international feelings of anger and dismay at successive US government’s approach to global affairs and the destructive values espoused and exported by the Neo-Liberal ideologues that determine American government policy.
Michael Brune, from the US environmental group the Sierra Club expressed the view of many when he said that: “Donald Trump has made a historic mistake which our grandchildren will look back on with stunned dismay at how a world leader could be so divorced from reality and morality.” Trump has “shamelessly disregarded the safety of our families just to let the fossil fuel industry eke out a few more dollars in profits.” America is a significant source of financial and technological support for developing countries: this is also jeopardized by the decision to withdraw. The ambitions of many countries to reduce emissions are dependent on receiving international support, and lack of funds will impact on their ability to meet agreed targets.
By this decision the US, which is responsible for 15% of all carbon emissions, has made it more difficult to reach the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement and intensified the risks resulting from climate change. The results could well be devastating for the whole World (including America), in particular those countries in the front line of climate change, many of which constitute the poorest nations on Earth, are not the principle polluters, have little or no resources – socially, technologically or financially – to cope with the impact of increases in global temperatures and need the support of wealthier countries.
A World Bank report (Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty) states that climate change “threatens the objective of sustainably eradicating poverty”, and unless substantial worldwide efforts are made, more than 100 million people could be pushed back into poverty by 2030. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, home to the poorest of the poor, are the regions that will be hit the hardest. Studies by the Bank show that climate change in these regions will result in increased agricultural prices and could threaten food security: it’s the same old story, the poor always suffer most, no matter what the threat is.
Over the next ten years, according to The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) “it is predicted that billions of people, particularly those in developing countries, [will] face shortages of water and food and greater risks to health and life as a result of climate change.” Concerted global action – not withdrawal from international agreements – is needed they state: “To enable developing countries to adapt to the effects of climate change that are happening now and will worsen in the future.”
The poor live in a state of perpetual uncertainty; one natural disaster can take away what little they have, destroying homes and livestock, bringing death and disease. Based on three reports, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast that a global temperature increase within the lowest targets agreed at Paris, of between 1.5ºC and 2ºC will have a devastating impact: reduced crop yields in tropical areas fuelling hunger, the spread of malaria and diarrhoea, and the risk of extinction of 20 – 30 per cent of all plant and animal species. By 2020, “Up to 250 million people in Africa could be exposed to greater risk of water stress,” and over the course of the century millions of people around the Himalayas and Andes will be at risk of bouts of flooding and drought as glaciers retreat or disappear.
Migration and agricultural degradation
Environmental changes have always fed global migration, but the impact of climate change on communities in developing countries could lead to the displacement of unprecedented numbers of people. This will impact on countries in neighbouring regions and the wider world and in turn affect the surrounding ecosystems.
The key cause of mass displacement due to climate change will come from sea-level rises — a rise of 17 – 19 cm in the next 40 years is likely, with many scientists projecting a one meter rise by the end of the century. In addition to small island states, Egypt, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India and China are countries most at risk, all have large populations and productive agricultural land in low-lying coastal areas. Higher temperatures (affecting agriculture), disruption of water cycles and increased intensity of storms are the other key factors that are set to drive people from their homes.
The Global Military Advisory Council on climate change states, somewhat alarmingly, that climate change could trigger a refugee crisis of “unimaginable scale”, and that mass migration will become the “new normal”. Major General Munir Muniruzzaman, a former general in the Bangladesh army and chairman of the military Council has told The Guardian that, “one meter of sea level rise will flood 20% of his nation. “We’re going to see refugee problems on an unimaginable scale, potentially above 30 million people.” This view was echoed by former US Secretary of State John Kerry when, in 2015 (and nothing has changed since then) he warned that with increased food insecurity and shortages of water, violent conflicts between tribal groups fighting for survival would erupt and mass migration would follow. Far from being fantastical or apocalyptic, the early signs of this vision are upon us: In Pakistan for example, – one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, floods during 2010 destroyed crops and forced 14 million people from their homes. But according to research conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute floods are not the biggest threat, it’s hot weather, ‘heat stress’, as it’s called, that drive more people from their homes, as it severely impacts on crop yields.
Climate change is upon us, is increasingly affecting weather patterns around the world, and if the World Bank report is correct, in the short-term – between now and 2030, there is little that can be done to reduce them; the only option for developing countries over the next 15 years or so they say, is to “reduce vulnerability through both targeted adaptation investments and improved socioeconomic conditions.”
There is an alternative way to ‘reduce vulnerability’ for the poorest people in the world, and that is by the rich nations sharing what they have, and what the Earth provides more equitably amongst everyone. Building sharing into the socio-economic model that determines peoples lives; sharing the food and water, the knowledge, skills, information and materials, technology and ideas, so that those with nothing do not suffer the most as a result of our collective poisoning of the world; contamination by the industrialized nations of the world, which has caused the greatest crisis humanity has faced and is already tearing at the lives of millions of the most disadvantaged.
In the early 1900s when the idea that industrialisation could potentially result in global warming was first posited, the consensus was that it was unlikely, and in any case, an increase in temperature was to be welcomed. What possible harm could it do?
Well, we are now witnessing the widespread consequences of climate change. Destructive, life-threatening effects, which demand a fundamental shift in the way we are living if we are to preserve the integrity of the planet, and protect the rich abundance of life on Earth.
Warmer year on year
The industrial revolution, beginning in Britain in the late 17th century, then Europe and later America and Japan, is the birthplace of man-made climate change, previously known simply as Global Warming. All the power required to feed the new factories, light the streets and heat the homes was generated through burning fossil fuel. It was thought by some scientists at the time that the consequential increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would indeed result in the Earth’s temperature rising. Others disagreed; the evidence was slim, the science new and the impacts comparatively slight.
Today however, the evidence that anthropogenic (man-made) climate change is a reality is overwhelming: data from all manner of scientific institutions shows the clear, and one would imagine, unquestionable link, between rising global temperatures, climate change with its myriad impacts, and endemic human activity. Despite this, many people including blinkered, duplicitous politicians deny the fact and continue to live life in the same exploitative, complacent manner.
Since 1880 the global ground temperature has increased by 0.9˚C (1.4˚F); two-thirds of which, NASA says, “has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.” An increase of less than one degree C sounds tiny, irrelevant, but as NASA points out, in the distant past “a one or two degree drop in global temperature resulted in a minor Ice Age.”
Steadily increasing emissions of greenhouse gases – particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) – has meant that the last 10 years have been the warmest on record. Every year trumps the previous one, setting new record highs, resulting in more extreme weather patterns than had previously been experienced; intense heat and driving cold, tremendous storms, forest fires and life-threatening droughts, seasonal shifts causing changes in wildlife activity and disruptions to ecosystems.
In 2016 hundreds died in India as temperatures hit 51˚C (123.8˚ F); terrible flooding swept through Myanmar, Argentina, Indonesia, Spain and Egypt, and in December the Arctic experienced a heat wave, the second in the same year. Recorded temperatures were 15˚C above normal – whatever that is now – at -7˚C. This in turn impacts on wildlife, sea levels and weather patterns further south: all is interconnected.
Bizarre weather patterns like these examples occur everywhere and have become commonplace: destructive, extreme and forecast to increase and intensify. Set in motion by mankind’s continued burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas. Reckless, irresponsible human activity driven by rabid consumerism and the ongoing obsession with material goods to satisfy a deep yet unfulfilled longing for joy and contentment.
A 2˚C World picture
Global climate change is the greatest crisis facing humanity, but politicians and the corporations that pull their political strings, continue to place short-term economic interests before the integrity of the planet, the survival of wildlife and the health of the human population. International agreements and national emission targets are often postponed or totally ignored.
In such an environment, euphoric rhetoric, the like of which we heard at the close of the pivotal 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit (COP21), becomes little more than meaningless theatrics.
The accord reached in Paris was tailored to be the climate template for governments around the world up to and beyond 2050. It was hailed as historic, a collective triumph of responsible good sense over ignorance and apathy. But whilst it achieved – on paper at least – more than seemed possible, as George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, put it days after the summit, “by comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”
Described by the EU as “a bridge between today’s policies and climate-neutrality before the end of the century”, a year on little of substance has been done to change behavior that could eventually lead to realization of the Parisian aims.
Government delegates from 197 countries agreed “on the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible [an acceptably vague term to elicit official signatures], recognizing that this will take longer for developing countries”; and, most significantly, shook hands on a proposal to limit “the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C.”
Such a target, they stated, is dependent on global emissions of greenhouse gases being ‘net neutral in the second half of this century’. Bearing in mind greenhouse gases are still increasing, even these targets, which many believe are too high anyway, are probably un-achievable.
Leading up to Paris, each country submitted a climate plan, the ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ (NDC). It detailed how respective governments were planning to reduce emissions and stay below the warming target. Well, interestingly, analysis of these national Statements of Intent, by The United Nations Environment Programme, reveals that even if “all the Paris pledges were implemented in full, global temperatures would rise between 2.9C and 3.4C by the end of this century.”
Such a rise would be catastrophic; even if warming could be limited to 2˚C the consequences, scientists predict, will be widespread and life-changing, affecting tens of millions of people, devastating ecosystems, killing off wildlife and further poisoning the air we breathe.
With higher global temperatures come melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Since 1870 the mean sea level has risen by eight inches, almost half of which occurred between 1993 and 2003, according to a report from the National Research Council. Should the level rise a further 12 inches large parts of the world’s surface would become less habitable, and coastal flooding could threaten up to 200 million people, they state – this would create an unprecedented refugee crisis. Back in 2009 at the COP15 gathering in Copenhagen, a number of Caribbean states decried the prospects of a 1.5˚C increase even – and now the hope is to restrict it to 2˚C – saying, it “would undermine the survival of their communities… and threaten the continued existence of small island states.”
A 2˚C increase would endanger low-lying islands and coastal cities, where population growth is largely concentrated, resulting in huge numbers of people being displaced. The populations of the worst affected areas, George Monbiot relates, “are likely to face wilder extremes: worse droughts in some places, worse floods in others, greater storms and, potentially, grave impacts on food supply.” With Arctic ice melting, the poisoning of the seas and the destruction of coral reefs, “entire marine food chains could collapse…mass extinction [of wildlife] is likely to be the hallmark of our era.”
Many of the cities in greatest danger are situated in developing countries, where, generally speaking people remain uninformed about climate change. Having produced less of the pollutants that cause the problems, they are the greatest victims of this man-made catastrophe: Manila in the Philippines, Jakarta in Indonesia, Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, Kolkata in India and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia – where drought in 2016 triggered a ‘minor’ famine.
Such is the potential 2˚C world picture, the temperature increase being aimed at and hailed as a major achievement a little over a year ago in the French capital. It is an alarming image, which should motivate all to act; but apathy, duplicity and greed all too often hold sway.
Ignorance or arrogance
In addition to the temperature target, one of the key agreements in Paris was funding for The Green Climate Fund, established in 2010 to “assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change”. Swept up in the excitement of the day the US generously pledged $3 billion to the fund – a third of the total, but to date has only given $500 million. This is symptomatic of the discrepancy that often exists between many governments’ rhetoric, good intentions and actions, which are commonly inadequate at best, criminal at worse.
Saving Our Planet is not, it seems, terribly important for the men of power – the politicians and corporations; the priority is national economic growth and the exploitation of everyone and everything through the cancer of commercialization and rabid consumerism. Every natural resource, every tranquil valley and peaceful forest, every waterway and mountain range; everything drained of all inherent goodness, in the pursuit of financial profit and market dominance.
And with the imminent arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, the chances of the life threatening environmental crisis being further side-lined, or completely ignored, loom large.
In a depressing sign of the ‘Trump Times’, Scott Pruitt, a proud ‘climate change skeptic’, is to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, and it is reported that the President-elect intends to “remove the budget for climate change science currently used by NASA and other US federal agencies [as well as many international groups] for projects such as examining Arctic changes, and to spend it instead on space exploration.”
If carried out this would be the first of what threatens to be many catastrophic climate mistakes, based either on ignorance or dishonesty, and one is a bad as the other. Such irresponsible, reckless behavior adds grist to the mill of those both inside America and throughout the world, people content to bury their heads in the sands of denial and continue to carry out actions, and live lives, which are causing far-reaching, perhaps irreparable damage to the Earth, its diverse ecosystems and to humanity itself.
Commercialisation has poisoned all areas of contemporary life, and together with its partner in crime, consumerism, is the principle cause of man-made climate change.
Operating under the suffocating shadow of neo-liberalism, the market forces of commercialisation act blindly and indiscriminately. The presiding deity is money; the goal of endeavour quick profit and limitless growth – no matter what the human or environmental costs may be. And the consequences to both are great, long-term and far-reaching: global climate change, with its numerous effects, and the wholesale destruction of the natural environment being the most significant.
The Earth is our home, ‘our sister’, as Pope Francis calls it in his ground-breaking Encyclical letter, ‘On Care For Our Common Home’. And we are poisoning and raping her; polluting the rivers and oceans, destroying the rainforests, coral reefs and natural habitats; the treasures she has given us to care for.
It is unchecked human behaviour that is lighting the various fires of destruction, and unless there is a change in the unsustainable, overindulgent way we are living – ‘we’ in developed countries largely but not exclusively, – the prospects for the planet and the ‘human experiment’ are bleak.
The interrelated environmental catastrophes are the greatest threat to human and sub-human life, and are not separate from the economic and social crises facing humanity. This integral ecology, a term employed by a range of groups from Pope Francis to the Occupy movement, highlights the interrelation of the unprecedented issues facing humanity and the need for a new imagination to meet such challenges.
Our abuse of the Earth, together with what many believe to be a growing threat of nuclear confrontation, has, as Noam Chomsky makes clear, brought about the most serious crisis in human history: A crisis which has motivated millions of concerned people throughout the world to unite against government apathy and destructive actions, but which is being met with complacency and arrogance by ideologically driven politicians and the corrupt corporations, who, to a greater or lesser extent, determine policy.
Pope Francis expresses the view of many when he says that, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He goes on to point out that “we may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” resulting from the wide-ranging effects of climate change and global warming.
Whilst anthropogenic (man-made) climate change, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels is due to various factors, a lifestyle based on rapacious desire for all things material is the key underlying cause. This is made clear in a University College London (UCL) research paper, which states that, “although population and demographics are considerable factors in carbon emissions and consequent global warming, consumption patterns remain the most significant factor………consumers, rather than people, cause climate change,” although in the world of big business and amongst some governments, these appear to be synonymous terms.
After examining the issue in great depth with the aid of specialists, Pope Francis reached the same conclusion; he points out that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” To blame population growth is, he goes on to say, “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution [of wealth and resources], where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”
A world of exacerbated consumption
Consumerism is the life-blood of capitalism. It is an engineered pattern of behavior that functions and is perpetuated through the constant agitation of desire for pleasure, a transient state that is sold as happiness.
The consumer culture has been manufactured. Human beings are not naturally rapacious; they, we, have been coerced into it, as Rob Urie (author of Zen Economics) says, “there is an entire industry devoted to creating [the] consumer culture.” Through manipulative advertising and marketing strategies corporations have promoted the false idea that happiness and contentment will be discovered on the next shopping excursion, inside the packaging of the new gadget or video game.
The designers of the consumer game know well that no such peace will be discovered in the material world of make believe, and so discontent is guaranteed, prompting the next desire fuelled outing. And so the cycle of inner emptiness, perpetual longing and dependence on transient appeasement through consumption is maintained. As Pope Francis puts it, “the emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.”
The consequences of this are ever-greater energy demands, oceans of landfill waste, deforestation, contaminated air that kills millions every year, and widespread environmental destruction.
Consumerism is a western way of life, another toxic export – together with fast food, obesity and diabetes – that is now finding its way into the cities of some developing countries. It is not the billions living in poverty in the towns and villages of Sub-Saharan Africa, or rural India and China, who are indulging in the voracious consumption that is crippling the planet; the poorest 50% of the world’s population is, according to Oxfam, responsible for a mere 10% of ‘total lifestyle consumption emissions’. The cult of consumerism is predominantly the pastime of the spoilt and bored – with access to easy credit – in the developed nations of the world. Europe and America for example, with a mere 12% of global population, i.e. approximately 900 million people, account for over 60% of worldwide consumption.
This illustrates that it is not necessarily the number of people that is responsible for climate change, it’s how those people – specifically those within developed and (materially) aspiring countries act and behave.
Unrestrained consumption and perpetual growth is essential to the success and profitability of the neo-liberal project, which, without such consumerism would collapse. And so insatiable desire for material possessions is virtually insisted upon, by governments, obsessed with economic expansion, and businesses that depend on sales. This itch, which is constantly excited by persuasive advertising, a culture of comparison and narrow definitions of self, feeds an urge to continually consume. The aim in such a world is not simply enough, but excess, abundance. And whilst the ruling elite is indifferent to the destruction of the planet and the health of humanity, the prospect of the collapse of their cherished ideology is unthinkable.
The extreme capitalist system that is demanding such behaviour is inseparable from wealth and income inequality, climate change, displacement of people and environmental degradation; all are interconnected, and increasingly recognised to be so. As Pope Francis puts it, “in the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.”
All forms of life are mistreated in such a world because nothing has any inherent value; everything has fallen prey to the curse of commercialization, and is seen as a commodity, including human beings. Rivers, valleys, forests, mountains etc., all are commodified. Bought up by large companies who see such natural treasures in terms of an end product, which, when sold in the commercial cathedrals of the world – the shopping centers and homogenous High Streets of our towns and cities – can be financially profited from.
In the rush to drain the Earth of all goodness, huge numbers of indigenous people are displaced, the land ruined and beauty lost. Where the corporate hand of mankind is found, all too often one witnesses exploitation, destruction and waste; human intervention, as Pope Francis puts it “in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey.”
Impelled by a restless appetite to conquer everyone and own everything, “Capitalism,” as Naomi Klein rightly states, “is at war with life on earth.” And if triumph is to be judged in terms of destruction and degradation, at the moment it is winning.
Heating up the planet
Climate change brought about by greenhouse gases and the resulting warming of the planet, dates from the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th Century. According to analysis by NASA “the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit), since pre-industrial times”. Two thirds of this increase took place since 1975, and it’s intensifying; nine out 10 of the hottest years on record occurred since 2000, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this sharp increase is “due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”
The greenhouse gases produced are still an effect. As Naomi Klein puts it, climate change “has less to do with carbon [and other polluting emissions] than with capitalism.” An extreme form of capitalism that only prospers when certain negative aspects of human behavior are elicited: selfish, materialistic tendencies, which the ideological disciples, who benefit from this divisive way of living, and therefore believe in its dogma, are committed to encouraging. Honing in on Naomi Klein’s statement further we can say, as Pope Francis, UCL and others have concluded, that the most significant cause of man-made climate change is the food and drink of capitalism – consumerism.
The logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness
Worldwide, awareness of climate change varies from region to region. In a Gallop poll of 128 countries taken in 2008 they found that overall 61% of the global population were aware of global warming, of which only 11% felt they ‘knew a great deal about it’. Europe was the region where awareness was highest, 88% being aware, with 70% knowing ‘something about it’. This figure drops in the Americas (North and South) to 64% and perhaps unsurprisingly plummets to 45% in Asia, 37% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 42%v in the MENA countries.
Even where some acceptance of climate change exists, people are often reluctant to change their lifestyle and make the required sacrifices – for example, stick with their existing mobile phone, buy less stuff, reduce the use of electricity/gas, give up that diesel car, use public transport, etc., etc.
Awareness of climate change is a beginning, but understanding of the underlying causes and effects is needed to change behavior, as well as a major shift away from selfishness and greed. Such tendencies create separation – from oneself, from others and from the natural environment – desensitize us and lead to complacency. These ingrained patterns of behavior are strangling the purity out of ‘our sister’, and stifling the humanity in us. As Pope Benedict XVI stated and Pope Francis relates, “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence.” Currently that culture is all too often a hedonistic one, based on competition, consumption and abundance
Knitted firmly into the heart of this culture and the crises facing humanity is Neo-Liberalism; it is an unjust system that needs to be laid to rest, and a creative, just method of organizing life initiated. A new system that flows from the recognition that humanity is a family and that all human beings have the same needs and the same rights, to live secure, dignified lives in which human essentials (food/water, shelter, health care, education) are provided irrespective of income; one that honors and respects the natural world and encourages positive attitudes and new responsible and liberating ways of being, made up of “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” as Pope Francis expresses it.
Moving away from the present unjust economic model would create the possibility of purification taking place: purification first and foremost of us, of the way we think and act; as the great Indian teacher J. Krishnamurti put it, “is the pollution in the word different from the pollution within us…is that which is outside different from us, or is it a movement out and a movement in…like the tide going in and out?” This flow, he goes on to say “is a unitary movement.”
From the purification of our internal lives, in which we break the addiction to material goods, cease to look externally for happiness, and reduce our levels of consumption, will result in the purification of the natural environment, cleansed of man-made impurities.
A massive education programme is needed to bring about such a shift in thinking and behavior. One that inspires a shift in consciousness away from the idea of ‘the individual’ as the center of all activity, determinedly competing with everyone else, to recognition of one’s place within the whole and the responsibility that goes with that. As Pope Francis makes clear, “our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance,” and with it the further contamination of the Earth, the destruction of ecosystems and the heightened threat to human life. The choice is ours.
The man-made environmental catastrophe is the severest issue facing humanity. It should be the number one priority for governments, but despite repeated calls from scientists, environmental groups and concerned citizens for years, short-term policies and economic self-interest are consistently given priority over the integrity of the planet and the health of the population.
Contaminated air is the world’s greatest preventable environmental health risk, and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is responsible for the premature deaths of an estimated 6.5 million people annually (11.6% of global deaths) – an average of six every minute. And unless there is substantial reduction in the quantity of pollutants cast into the atmosphere, the death count is forecast to double by 2050. Indoor air pollution, mainly from wood or dung stoves in developing countries, accounts for a staggering three million annual deaths.
Breathing – even in one’s own home– has become more dangerous than poor diet, lack of exercise or smoking tobacco.
The problem of toxic air is a worldwide pandemic; a recent WHO air quality model reveals that, “92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits”. And whilst contaminated air affects virtually everyone, almost two out of three people killed simply by breathing live in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific. This includes China, where air pollution is responsible for the deaths of around 4,000 people a day (1.6 million a year), due, a 2015 study says, to emissions generated from burning coal, for electricity and heating homes.
Humanity is overwhelmingly responsible for this global crisis, and yet despite repeated warnings little of substance has been done and it’s getting worse. Since 2011 air pollution worldwide has risen 8%, and with the current fossil fuel obsession the increase looks set to continue, and with it human fatalities and a range of chronic health issues. Most deaths are caused by microscopic particles being inhaled: these spark heart attacks and strokes, which account for 75% of annual deaths. Lung cancer and respiratory diseases take care of the rest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the poorest people in the world who suffer the most severe effects of air pollution.
As well as the injustice of social and economic inequality, we live in a world of environmental inequality. If you are a poor child living in a city in a developing country, you are up to 10 times more likely to suffer long-term health issues as a result of breathing the air in which you live, than a child in a rich industrialized nation.
Regional air inequality broadly follows the same North-South hemisphere fault lines as economic inequality, and as such reveals that as well as being a global environmental issue of the utmost importance, air pollution is a geo-political matter aggravated by the neo-liberal economic system. Some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of humanity are suffering the worst effects of air pollution, people living in countries where grinding poverty is widespread, education inadequate and health care provision poor.
Air pollution causes a wide range of health issues: in addition to heart disease and respiratory conditions including asthma – now the most common chronic disease in children – there is “substantial evidence concerning the adverse effects of air pollution on pregnancy outcomes and infant death”, according to research by the Medical University of Silesia in Warsaw, Poland. And, as if all this weren’t bad enough, in 2013 WHO concluded that outdoor air pollutionis carcinogenic, i.e. it causes cancer.
The main pollutants that trigger all these problems are broadly three types: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), which is a suffocating gas, and ground level ozone. PM2.5 come from road traffic exhaust fumes and burning fuels such as wood, heating oil or coal – as well as natural phenomenon such as volcanic eruptions. PM concentrations in the air vary depending on temperature and wind speed; they particularly like cold, still conditions, which allow them to aggregate. NO2, Plume Labs relates, “comes from combustion – heating, electricity generation, (vehicle and boat engines), 50% of NO2 emissions are due to traffic.” Ground level ozone is a major component of smog and is produced when “oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – from motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, power plants, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents – interact with sunlight.”
The way in which these poisons are produced varies somewhat from country to country, but they abound in all densely populated, built up areas, where there are large numbers of motor vehicles, as well as coal-fired power plants and refineries. Emissions from residential energy use, prevalent in India and China, Nature Magazine reports, “have the largest impact on premature mortality globally.” In eastern USA, Europe, Russia and East Asia a remarkably high number of illnesses and fatalities result from air pollution caused by agricultural emissions, mainly nitrous oxide and methane.
Children worst hit
Over 50% of the world’s population now live in cities; by 2030 this figure is expected to rise to 65%. All cities suffer from traffic congestion and all are polluted, some more, some less. The Asian mega-cities are the most contaminated, and perhaps unsurprisingly the cities of India and Pakistan are the worst, filling the top seven positions of conurbations with the highest level of PM2.5 in the world. The Indian capital (25 million population) comes in first; incidentally it’s also the noisiest place to live on the planet.
In an unprecedented study of 11,000 schoolchildren from 36 schools in Delhi, it was found that over half the children had irreversible lung damage: in addition “about 15% complained of frequent eye irritation, 27.4% of frequent headaches, 11.2% of nausea, 7.2% of palpitation and 12.9% of fatigue.” And consistent with research in Poland, it was revealed that the children’s mental health was also impacted, with large numbers suffering attention deficit and stress.
All around the world people are suffering from the impact of toxic air: in Mumbai, simply breathing on the chaotic streets is equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day; deaths increase six-fold on heavily polluted hot days in Athens, and mega-Mexico City – one of the world’s most polluted cities – has recently been branded a ‘hardship post’ for diplomats due to unhealthy air. In Nairobi, Kenya, pollution levels are between five and 10 times WHO recommended levels – worst in the slums, home to up to three million people.
London is one of the more polluted cities in Europe, cleaner than Paris and Milan, but dirtier than Berlin and Oslo. Almost 10,000 people die each year in the city from long-term exposure to air pollution, which is now considered Britain’s most lethal environmental risk killing around 40,000 people a year.
And in America, according to a study by the American Lung Association, over 50% of the population is exposed to air pollution toxic enough to cause health problems, with Los Angeles topping the list of places to avoid.
No matter where air pollution occurs, it’s children who are the most vulnerable. This, UNICEF relates, “is because they breathe more rapidly than adults and the cell layer in their lungs is more permeable to pollutant particles.” Research by the children’s agency found that three hundred million children live in areas of South and East Asia where toxic fumes are more than six times international guidelines; another 520 million children living in Sub-Saharan Africa are exposed to air pollution levels above the WHO limit. These toxic fumes cause “enduring damage to health and the development of children’s brain”, and contributed to “600,000 child deaths a year” – more than are caused by malaria and HIV/Aids combined.
Air pollution not only results in long-term health issues, it impedes a child’s cognitive development, affecting concentration and academic progress. The Warsaw paper states that “children who live in neighbourhoods with serious air pollution problems…have lower IQ and score worse in memory tests than children from cleaner environments…The effects were roughly equivalent to those seen in children whose mothers smoked ten cigarettes per day while pregnant.”
Air pollution and deforestation
Some air pollution is the result of natural phenomena: dust storms and wildfires, animal digestion and volcanic eruptions.
However, burning fossil fuels (power plant, refinery, factory and motor vehicle emissions) are the primary culprits.
Deforestation is another cause. The great rainforests of the Earth are its lungs; they cover a mere 6% of the land, but produce around 40% of the world’s Oxygen; they also capture carbon. As the number of trees is reduced so oxygen production and carbon sequestration is diminished.
Whilst it’s true that deforestation has decreased somewhat over the last fifteen years or so, in some countries it is still occurring at an alarming rate. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest are lost each year (roughly equivalent to 20 football fields every minute), around 13 million acres (approximately the size of Greece) being tropical rainforest. Half the world’s rainforests have already been wiped out and if the current level of destruction continues, in 100 years, FAO predicts, there will be none left. Brazil, Thailand, the Congo, parts of Eastern Europe and Indonesia are where forests are being cleared most intensely, particularly Indonesia.
The major reason forests are being destroyed is to make more land available for agriculture, which is an effect of overpopulation. Clearing land to make way for housing and urbanization. (another demand of population growth), is a factor, as is Illegal deforestation – with trees being cut down and used for fuel.
Paper production is another major reason; paper that is overwhelmingly used in developed countries. Up to half the world’s timber and 70% of paper is consumed by Europe, Japan and the US. The US alone, with only 5% of the world’s population, uses 30% of all paper, relates Rainforest Action Network; a large amount of which (estimated 40lbs/19 kilos per adult per year) is junk mail, almost half of which is binned unopened.
Reduce Reuse Recycle
If we are to stop the deaths and damaging health effects resulting from breathing contaminated air, it is abundantly clear that we need to replace fossil fuels with cleaner, renewable energy sources and simplify the way we live.
In addition there are a variety of things that can be done to reduce pollutants: we need to stop the destruction of forests worldwide; install filters in every chimneystack; replace petrol and diesel powered public transport and incentivize private ownership of electric and hydrogen vehicles; create more vehicle sharing schemes – car clubs and carpools; improve public transportation and greatly reduce fares; encourage cycling.
Some steps need to be taken by governments, but a great deal can be achieved by individuals accepting greater social/environmental responsibility: a move towards simpler modes of living, in which our lives are not driven by the insatiable urge for material goods, is essential. Incorporating the three R’s into one’s life – reduce reuse recycle – would contribute greatly.
Like many of our problems sharing has a role to play in solving the problem of air pollution: sharing the resources and wealth of the world equitably to reduce poverty and inequality, as well as sharing skills, knowledge, and technologies. And information sharing: making information about air pollution, the levels, risks, causes etc., publicly available, would further raise awareness of an invisible issue. This is particularly needed in developing countries, where many of those affected have little or no information on the dire health risks. Government agencies everywhere collect data on air pollution, some publish it, many don’t all should.
“The magnitude of the danger air pollution poses is enormous,” states Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director. “No society can afford to ignore air pollution”. It is a deadly issue, which is causing untold suffering to millions of people. The responsibility for the wellbeing of the planet and of one another rests with all of us. Now is the time to act and Save our Planet.