"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children" - American Indian proverb.
These words aptly sum up the tenor and thrust of the just-released 384-page Human Development Report 2007-2008, a goldmine of information eagerly anticipated every year by development specialists. This year, the theme is climate change. Titled Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World, the report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), marshals the case for responsible use of the earth's resources while dramatically showing the dangers posed by global warming. It is a document no environmentalist can be without.
"Climate change is the defining human development issue of our generation," the report opens soberly. "All development is ultimately about expanding human potential and enlarging human freedom. Climate change threatens to erode human freedoms and limit choice," says the report. It continues, "Today, we are witnessing at first hand what could be the onset of major human development reversal in our lifetime. Increased exposure to drought, to more intense storms, to floods and environmental stress is holding back the efforts of the world's poor to build a better life for themselves and their children."
Climate change affects the man in Trench Town, Tel Aviv and Southside. It is the reason why Jamaica has experienced a change in weather patterns and why some international prices are high. It is set to get worse.
Climate change affects everyone, but especially the poor. The Human Development Report says how the world deals with this issue will have a direct bearing on its human development prospects. Failure to deal with this issue will consign 40 per cent of the world's population - some 2.6 billion people - to a "future of diminished opportunity".
Also, it will "undermine efforts to build a more inclusive pattern of globalisation, reinforcing the vast disparities between the haves and have-nots". But the report notes that while it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of the negative effects of climate change, "tomorrow it will be humanity as a whole that faces the risks that come with . We are edging toward tipping points ... Our generation may not live to see the consequences".
Increasing global attention
Climate change has been receiving increasing global attention and many governments are now setting bold targets for greenhouse gas emissions. The developed countries are the main culprits, though China has now overtaken the United States as the world's biggest polluter. The UNDP report notes, happily, that the controversy over whether significant climate change is taking place is now over and the so-called environmental sceptics have been defeated. Observing that five years ago "climate change scepticism was a flourishing industry", the Human Development Report says, triumphantly: "Today, the debate is over and climate change scepticism is an increasingly fringe activity." The fourth assessment review of the International Panel on Climate Change - which has won a Nobel Prize - has established "an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is both real and man-made. Almost all Governments are part of that consensus".
Every Human Development Report is a collector's delight (I have kept every one since the first appeared in 1990). The 2007-2008 edition is no different. The tables at the back alone would be worth the publication and is an indispensable compendium for those interested in development issues. The richness of the HDR's intellectual thought and articulation is always assured and in this issue the authors lay bare the ethical and philosophical issues underlying the discussion on climate change.
"Climate change also asks tough questions about how we think about our links to people in the future. Our actions will serve as a barometer of our commitment to cross-generational social justice and equity. Future generations will see our response on climate change as a measure of our ethical values".
The report goes on to make the important point that "perhaps most fundamentally of all, (climate change) challenges the way that we think about progress. There could be no clearer demonstration than climate that economic wealth is not the same thing as human progress. Under the current energy policies, rising economic prosperity will go hand-in-hand with mounting threats to human development today and the well-being of future generations".
China illustrates this development paradox. China has quadrupled its GDP over the 1980-2000 period and pulled over 50 million people out of poverty. Since 2005, China's energy growth, for the first time in decades, has outstripped its economic growth, with China now being the largest emitter of gas into the atmosphere. Today China emits 35 per cent more carbon dioxide per dollar of output than the United States and 100 per cent more than the European Union. In 2006, global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use increased by about 2.6 per cent, driven by a more than 4.5 per cent increase in global coal consumption. Of this, China contributed more than 66 per cent, according to an article in the winter 2007-2008 issue of the journal The Washington Quarterly (the entire issue of the latest Washington Quarterly is devoted to the subject of climate change, illustrating the global scholarly consensus on this issue.)
Yet, China's rapid economic and industrial development is lionised, as the West's has been, and yet it comes at a high cost environmentally and, thus, developmentally.
So this issue raises philosophical questions about the Western economic growth model. Says the Human Development Report: "Carbon-intensive economic growth is symptomatic of a deeper problem. One of the hardest lessons taught by climate change is that the economic model which drives growth and the profligate consumption of rich nations that goes with it is ecologically unsustainable. There could be no greater challenge to our assumptions about progress than that of realigning economic activities and consumption with ecological realities."
And the realities are both constraining and frightening. About three-quarters of the world's population, living on less than US$1 a day, depend directly on agriculture. Climate change projections show that there will be large losses in productivity for food staples linked to drought and rainfall variation in sub-Saharan Africa and South and East Asia. There will also b water insecurity. (Indeed, some experts have, for some time, predicted that the fight over water will replace oil as a contentious issue in the 21st century.)
There will be increased exposure to coastal flooding and extreme weather events. Droughts and floods have already affected, on average, about 262 million people between 2000 and 2004 - over 98 per cent of them living in developing countries. "With an increase in temperatures, warmer seas will fuel more violent tropical cyclones. Drought-affected areas will increase in extent, jeopardising livelihoods and compromising health and nutrition".
Increased risk for malaria
Globally, up to 400 million could see an increased risk for malaria.
In the article, 'The Security Implications of Climate Change', in the winter 2007-2008 Washington Quarterly, the former Chief of Staff under President Bill Clinton, John Podesta, paints a chilling picture of the consequences of climate change.
In terms of the disease burden alone, "countries (like Jamaica) that depend on tourism could be economically devastated by even relatively small outbreaks. Restrictions on the movement of goods could also be a source of economic and political turmoil. Pandemic-affected countries could lose significant revenue from decline in exports due to limits or bans placed on products that originate or transit through them."And, even in the absence of trade restrictions, Podesta says, "the economic burden that disease will place on developing countries will be severe".
The challenge will be to those living in developed countries whose lifestyles affect the pace of climate change. This will be the most difficult issue and this is where the philosophical issues are the thorniest. For why should people nurtured on a culture of consumption, comfort, ease, luxury and hedonism change their lifestyles for future generations? Why should people do things differently today to benefit future generations? Or why should they care what happens to people in some poor underdeveloped nation like Bangladesh?
The Human Development Report notes that "when a person switches on a light in Europe or an air-conditioning unit in America, they are linked through the global climate system to some of the world's most vulnerable people - to small-scale farmers eking out a living in Ethiopia, to slum dwellers in Manila and to people living in the Ganges Delta. They are also linked to future generations ..." But why should people care about that? What is it in secular humanism, the new religion of enlightened man, to confer a sense of moral obligation toward future generations?
Says the Report: "Given the evidence about the implications of dangerous climate change for poverty and future catastrophic risks, it would be a denial of morality to disregard the responsibilities that come with the ecological interdependence that is driving climate change".
The problem is that the traditional philosophical sources which could sustain such a moral vision - namely, religious ideologies - have been undermined by a nihilistic and postmodernist philosophy. That only deepens the tragedy of climate change.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at email@example.com.
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