HONG KONG – A really pernicious combination of distortions in the global driving force of capitalism, allied with indifference and apathy on the part of peoples and the arrogant greed of the rich and powerful, are threatening to push this fragile planet Earth beyond a tipping point where it will become uninhabitable.
We are all stewards of this beautiful planet, but far too few of us understand let alone accept the responsibilities of how to protect it to make it a continuing treasure for our children and grandchildren.
Most people are too preoccupied with the business of staying alive, keeping a job and remaining healthy even to think about the grand problems of the survival of the planet, while the rich and the powerful cash in on their advantages.
This was all too evident in late June when President Barack Obama gave a stirring speech, which suggested that he had at last got religion over the issue of climate change. Bestirring himself from his previous lethargy, Obama invoked his executive authority and promised “a coordinated assault” against the damage being done by climate change. He vowed to use a variety of green weapons, from small things like better insulation of buildings to big tasks such as massive promotion of green energy projects, including subsidies for renewable sources of energy.
Yet, immediately Republican Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate minority leader, lambasted the president for declaring what McConnell said was Obama’s war against coal and jobs. It was instantly clear that whatever the president might promise, the Republicans in Congress would do their darndest to deny him.
When you examine Obama’s plans in detail, you realize that unless he can gain congressional backing, most of them are more hot air and rhetoric than practical plans to control dangerous emissions of greenhouse gases. The president will have to show more guts and determination to get his way than he has hitherto displayed.
Climate change is just one example, a heated one in too many ways, where ignorance and greed are pushing Earth too close to the edge.
On May 10, readings at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had exceeded 400 parts per million on a daily basis for the first time in 3 million to 5 million years — certainly before humans roamed the Earth.
Environmental scientist James Hansen warned in 2008 that “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted … CO₂ will need to be reduced … to at most 350 ppm.”
What was perhaps the most distressing fact was that most of the world’s popular newspapers ignored the milestone, although every day even the tabloid press publishes trivia such as the latest exchange rates, a detailed record of the rise and fall of stock markets, along with gossip about Hollywood and local soap opera.
When will a newspaper be brave enough to publish regular readings of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere alongside weather forecasts of sunshine and showers, together with a reminder that we may be heading for a global rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius in Earth’s temperatures, and sea levels of 5 to 40 meters higher than today?
The debate on climate change is depressing because although there is a sharp divide between doomsayers and optimists, there is little meeting of the minds or considered analysis that might offer a dialogue and a possible bridge between the two sides.
Worse, there is no real action to curb profligate waste of energy. You might think that it would be prudent actively to clean up and at least to make the Earth’s air healthier and less polluted.
Obama is unlikely to get his proposals through Congress, not least because Big Oil is one of the four powerful tribes controlling U.S. politics. Equally important, there is no meeting of minds among the United States, China, India and Europe.
All leaders, even when they have a clear vision and authority to act — and that’s doubtful in too many cases as political paralysis in the U.S. suggests — are waiting for other leaders to take the first steps.
Climate change is not the only question. On issues of world trade, financial regulation, global governance, defense and economic development, not only is there no meeting of minds, but politicians see things through narrow national and nationalistic spectacles as if the Peace of Westphalia is still sacred.
Yet, as we can see particularly from climate change, global trends do not respect national boundaries. Immigration and customs controls cannot stop the spread of pollution, whether from Indonesian forest fires or from Chinese industry.
Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strong Japan throws off its “Occupation” Constitution, it will still have to work out new ways of dealing with what comes on the winds from newly industrializing China.
Meanwhile, capitalism is running out of control, with big corporations and powerful individuals gaming the system. You only have to look at rising income inequalities in almost every country on Earth to be alarmed, especially for the people who are poor and most vulnerable.
Two difficult dimensions to troubling questions require concerted and long-term planning and action, especially with regard to climate change. Groucho Marx posed one of them when he said: “Why should I worry about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” Thinking beyond today is difficult for most people on the planet. Thinking beyond the next election is impossible for most politicians. Yet, actions taken today and tomorrow will have repercussions for future generations.
The other problem is to put aside narrow national perspectives and understand that all of us — Chinese, Indians, other Asians, Europeans or Americans — breathe the same air and will suffer the fallout from political, economic or physical catastrophe.
It has often been said that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the deepest Amazon jungle, weeks later a hurricane devastates America. But in too many world capitals these days, a hurricane happens, and months later a butterfly twitches.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.