I don't remember when I first heard about global warming, it could have been at university during a chemistry lecture, or from my father after one of the many times he chastised me for leaving the lights on, or it could have been anywhere else, I'm just not sure. But I do remember the precise moment when I started to take notice – when the issue of climate change became real for me.
I took a year off from my university studies and worked in a government environmental chemistry lab. Whilst there I attended a lecture on climate change by the CEO of our institute. She spoke about the economic impacts we will face, and that while 'we will pay for it out of our pockets, they will pay for it with their lives'. She was referring to those living in developing countries, those who don't have the resources to buy their way out. Our brothers and sisters in developing nations are disproportionately affected by climate change, and they didn't even cause the problems in the first place. From that moment on climate change was a social justice issue for me, a faith issue, and I had to take notice.
Our climate is changing because our atmosphere is thicker than it has been for at least 650,000 years. A thicker atmosphere traps more heat, warming our planet. The main gases that contribute to this thicker atmosphere are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Since industrialisation, more and more greenhouse gases have been emitted into the air (primarily through fossil fuel use and agriculture), thickening our atmosphere and warming the planet. To make matters worse, we have been hampering the earth's ability to soak up the excess carbon – deforestation is a leading contributor to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. The nett result is higher surface, air and water temperatures.
These higher temperatures are causing more frequent and intense natural disasters including cyclones, droughts, floods and heat waves and other effects such as desertification, sea level rise, salt water intrusion, increased sea water acidity, glacier retreat and arctic shrinkage. Secondary effects will include or have included an increase in conflicts, food shortages, displacement resulting in 'climate refugees' and an expansion of tropical diseases, such as malaria. The effects on flora and fauna are widespread as the natural systems upon which we rely are changing at a faster rate than what the natural world can adapt to. Our world is changing, we caused it, and we need to do something about it.
“The threat [of climate change] is real and serious, and is of no difference to a slow and insidious form of terrorism against us.” - Saufatu Sopoanga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu.
The land of Tuvalu is being stolen from Tuvaluans, as the land of many south pacific island nations is being stolen from the people who live there, including the peoples of Kiribati and the Carteret Islands. Tuvalu has lost the outer one metre of land of its largest island. It faces increasing salinity of its soils, floods with every king tide and depleting fish stocks due to coral bleaching. Their land is becoming increasingly difficult to live on, and it may not be long until all the islanders will have to vacate and the nation of Tuvalu will be no more. Are we, as a global community, ready to let this happen?
It seems to me that the geographic location of these south pacific nations, and their relative size, allows the rest of the world to ignore them. The injustices felt by these islanders are no different from the injustices of past generations – they are just caused in a different form, with the perpetrators at a comfortable distance. There are strong parallels with the west's colonialism of the 18th and 19th centuries. The west's greed for resources and economic growth caused the colonisation of many nations across the globe and the subsequent dispossession of land from the rightful owners. I cannot perceive any differences with the current situation in the south pacific. Our greed and uncontrolled consumerism has caused and will continue to cause south pacific islanders to leave their land involuntarily – it's being stolen from them and we should be outraged, just as we are outraged by the injustices that occured in Australia, India, South Africa, the Americas and countless other regions in centuries past.
Of course it is not just the south pacific nations that are experiencing the effects and devastation of climate change. For Australia, however, the crisis in the south pacific is the example we need to know most about and have the most concern for, not just because they are close neighbours, but also because they are likely to receive the international attention they deserve using our microphones. This is why Australian churches and aid agencies have been focusing on the plight of the south pacific. Many other communities around the world are facing similar problems. The war in Darfur is said to be affected, if not primarily caused, by local climate change exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change. Bangladesh, a climate-vulnerable river delta nation is experiencing floods, droughts and water shortages from climate change.
Climate change may have been an unintended consequence of the industrial revolution, but it is a consequence nonetheless and any economy that has contributed to the problem needs to take responsibility for the solutions in all forms – mitigation and adaptation. The solutions to climate change are a lot more costly to developing nations than to developed nations, even if you look at the household level. Mitigation involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions and restoring carbon sinks to reduce the extent of global warming. In Australia we are able to buy solar panels, buy greenpower, change the car we drive and the food we eat. These choices are just not available to the poor, who already struggle to pay their electricity bills, get to work (if they have work) and provide cheap nutritious meals for their family. If the temperature heats up, we might turn the air conditioning on, change our clothes or refit our houses with insulation, which all aim to adapt to the effects of climate change. The poor are not in a position to make these choices. They don't have access to medical care when new diseases affect them. They can't retrain when their agriculture or fishery industries collapse. They can't buy new land on higher ground because their houses are flooded year after year. Our brothers and sisters in developing nations, the ones least responsible for these problems, are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Broadly speaking we can do two things to address the climate change problem. Firstly, we must act to reduce our own carbon footprint where we can. This not only includes making changes in our own lives, but encouraging others to make changes too. You can have a positive impact on friends, family and colleagues and facilitate change in workplaces, churches and other community groups. Secondly, we must pressure governments to take responsibility and address the climate crisis. The most effective and efficient way to bring about lasting change is for changes to be made at the local, state, national and international levels. Not only must they make the required changes to the required degree, they must also be fair, equitable and respect human rights. There is little point in implementing a carbon trading scheme if the cap is set too high, and it would be unthinkable to adopt legislation and systems that would further marginalise or harm the poor, wherever they live.
Climate change is a real threat. Responding to it is a big job, and we need everyone to be on board. We have the technology and the resources to make the huge cuts in greenhouse emissions that are necessary – we just need the political will. We can't allow the suffering to continue, we can't let climate change ruin any more lives. We must act now.