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Do world leaders understand the consequences of the climate crisis?

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A woman cries as she sits next to her destroyed house washed away from the banks of the Padma River at Shariatpur some 40km south of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in September last year after aggressive erosion of the land close to the river. MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP

Do world leaders understand the consequences of the climate crisis?

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have created a hodgepodge of human systems that are at odds with natural systems that support them. In the process, we are pushing billions of people into a dystopian future by bequeathing them with a climate crisis.

While schoolchildren worldwide are on the streets protesting government inaction and millions are displaced by climate-induced disasters, the laissez-faire attitude of our leaders, save a few, sends the message that the current upward trajectory of the crisis does not seem to be a pressing problem.

Instead, those who resist the powerful that are savaging our ecosystems and driving people off their land face death and fear, according to the latest annual report from Global Witness.

At various conventions and Conference of Parties (COP), discussions on climate change resemble the tale of a group of blind men touching various parts of an elephant, each arriving at a very different conclusion of what it is like.

To one it is like a tree, to another a snake, to a third a wall, to the fourth a spear, so on and so forth.

A wise man tells the group that an elephant has all the features they mentioned, but they are missing the big picture.

The moral of the parable is that we have a tendency to project our partial experiences as the whole truth, contrary to what reality is.

Thus, just like the blind men, politicians and world leaders are missing the “big picture” of human-induced climate change.

Scientists have been warning since the 1980s that to limit the most damaging impacts of climate change, strong policies are needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Ignoring their warnings, politicians allowed greenhouse gases to build up to potentially dangerous levels in the atmosphere.

The reason: most likely their lack of knowledge about climatology—a multidisciplinary subject requiring insights from astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, cosmology, economics, geology, history, oceanography, palaeontology, physics and statistics, among other disciplines.

One wonders, how many of them or their advisors have mastery of more than one or two of these disciplines.

Eventually, in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations Environmental Programme and World Meteorological Organization to play a leadership role in tackling climate change.

That said, instead of setting the agenda on global climate, IPCC has become a political body controlled by a few powerful nations that are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

Other nations that claim to be victims of climate change, yet emit carbon dioxide in copious amounts or build coal-fired power plants near huge carbon sinks or open up rainforests for mining, are third world and developing countries lacking a government strong enough to enforce any measures.

Failing to find a one-size-fits-all solution to counter climate change has prompted IPCC to water down the global climate target in the hope of getting some sort of an agreement.

Consequently, it is no longer pushing for binding commitments to reduce emissions, whether for developed or for developing countries.

Furthermore, the widely publicised pledge of giving developing countries billions of dollars to cope with the effects of climate change is essentially relabelling foreign aid already going to those countries.

Besides, in countries where corruption is endemic, how much of the money, though laughably inadequate, is used for adaptation is questionable.

One could argue that the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement hammered out at COP21 was the first step towards solving the problems resulting from climate change.

Regrettably, that first step has so far been Captain Ahab’s “Moby Dick”, the elusive white whale. Hence, there are ample reasons to believe that the agreement is not going to effect any meaningful change in global warming.

So far this year, more than dozen conferences and symposia on global climate change were held in different countries. These conferences, including COP24 last year, dealt with adaptation measures only, which are needed to respond to climate change that has already occurred.

However, are there any plan(s) for the future when our planet might become close to uninhabitable? Can we expect an answer from the “political climate pundits” when they will meet in New York and Santiago (Chile) later this year?

While we are waiting for an answer, global emissions of carbon dioxide are at a record high, with no signs of slowing.

The atmosphere is warming, glaciers are melting, permafrost is thawing and seas are rising.

Extreme weather is bringing floods, storms, droughts and other disasters to every region of the world. Moreover, climate change is creating problems in almost every aspect of our life, from public health to food security, from water availability to the economy, and much more.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unchecked, repercussions of climate change are going to be profound in the future.

They would destabilise governments, produce waves of refugees, flood most of the world’s coastal cities and most importantly would make continuing degradation of the Earth irreversible.

Clearly, because of inaction by our leaders, we will be handing over to our future generations a planet that will be close to unliveable.

As for themselves and their descendants, they would probably buy their way out of the worst effects of climate change while the rest of us drown or choke to death.

This is “climate apartheid,” already practised by the perversely wealthy and powerful.

Today, we are seemingly transitioning to a new geologic epoch, Holocene to Anthropocene, where the climate is very different from the one our ancestors knew. Confronting realities of the new epoch requires courage which many of our leaders lack.

Also, their myopic vision does not allow them to think beyond the next election. In fact, a group called Extinction Rebellion claims that their failure in addressing the climate crisis makes them guilty of “criminal inactivity”.

It is, therefore, obvious that to keep our planet inhabitable, we need leaders with fortitude, wisdom and acumen, leaders who are not beholden to “corporations financing the injustice of climate change”, and more importantly leaders with vision to guide us through what, by all accounts, will be some challenging decades ahead.

Suffice it to say, should we falter in dealing with the challenges of climate change head-on, not only will the universal goal of peace and happiness for humankind slip out of our grasp, but man’s struggle for mere survival will also be jeopardized.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

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