By David Salt
Have you heard? We’re at war! And, in the fog of war, nothing is certain.
Well, one thing is for certain: the weather is going crazy. Have you ever seen anything like it?
The US went from killer heat waves, unprecedented drought, mega wildfires and hurricanes in the closing months of 2022 and then switched to unprecedented arctic snowstorms and monstrous flooding over Christmas and the opening days of what promises to be a very bumpy 2023.
“We’re in a war!” proclaimed New York’s Governor, Kathy Hochul, during her Xmas day emergency news conference as her state got pounded by some of the coldest temperatures and biggest snow dumps the region had ever seen. At that point, over 30 people had died in western New York alone, frozen in houses without power or trapped in stationary cars on gridlocked highways.
So, who’s the adversary here?
“We’re at war with Mother Nature,” explained the Governor. “And she’s been hitting us with everything she has.”
Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, also believes we’re in a war with Nature; however, she sees Nature as more as the victim than the aggressor.
“As far as biodiversity is concerned, we are at war with Nature,” she said at the Biodiversity CoP15 conference at Montreal last month. “We need to make peace with Nature. Because Nature is what sustains everything on Earth … the science is unequivocal.”
Though, when has ‘unequivocal science’ ever been the deciding factor? (See ‘The first casualty’)
A world at war
As everyone knows, wars are times of change; in wars horrible things happen; people die, leaders are vanquished or created, maps are redrawn, and things are very uncertain. The status quo is smashed, and new things arise, both wonderful and terrible.
In recent years there have been many calls to ‘wage a war’ on climate change because the current status quo of incremental shifts, climate denialism and vested interests do not appear to be reducing humanity’s remorseless buildup of carbon in our atmosphere. We need action, we need transformative change. (Consider this call to arms during last year’s Climate Summit: We must wage war on climate change to save the Earth.)
In one of my first blogs on Sustainability Bites I discussed the call for a new ‘Pearl Harbor’ moment, a reference to the day Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese Imperial Forces during the Second World War, thrusting the US into that global conflagration. Over 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the event transformed the nation overnight into a war machine that would go on to become the world’s leading superpower.
If Pearl Harbor catalysed the transformation of a nation to become a lean-and-mean fighting machine, what would it take to transform humanity into a united force willing to tackle climate change in a sustainable and effective manner?
A few years ago I believed a significant climate-related disturbance might be what was required to shock humanity out of its complacency; overwhelm the status quo of inaction. Then we experienced unprecedented mass coral bleachings across the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017. These events, long forecast by scientists and harbingers of the death of our planet’s biggest ecosystem, received enormous attention in the media but almost no action from our conservative climate-denying Australian Government (above and beyond a lot of hollow rhetoric and a few extra dollars thrown at managing the reef; little to nothing was done about reducing our emissions or playing a stronger role in encouraging other countries to reduce their emissions, the root cause of the bleaching).
Then Australia was hit by megafires at the end of 2019, a season which has since been dubbed the Black Summer. Again, lots of media, no action on emissions or climate. (Indeed, our then Prime Minister was overseas holidaying at the time. On his return he infamously quipped, “I don’t hold a hose.”)
Since then we’ve had a run of La Nina years with historic flooding wiping away many of our regional towns.
These are just a few of the climate ‘shocks’ we’re experiencing in recent years in my home country Australia. But these disturbances don’t seem to be catalyzing transformative action. Yes, our climate denying conservative government was voted out of office last year (denialism was only one of its many flaws), and the new government is doing more on climate change; however, simultaneously, this new government is still approving large fossil fuel developments so in the ways that count it’s same old, same old.
Around the world similar climate catastrophes have been rolling out with ever increasing frequency, and 2022 will go down as the year that climate disruption came to everyone’s backyard. But has it catalysed transformative change? Not really. The big forum on the climate last year, the CoP27 Climate Summit, was largely seen as a failure. Transformative change was not even on the agenda. There were even moves to unwind things agreed to the previous year in Glasgow.
The first casualty
Which is why the hype and hyperbole is increasingly invoking the metaphor of war. Our world is sinking; climate disruption is unpicking the very fabric of humanity’s identity; our belief in a future with certainty is withering. In response, people are calling for action, big action, revolutionary responses as only occur in a time of war, and the calls are growing more strident and desperate.
But be careful about what you wish for. In war, society’s norms are thrown out the window. Truth is no longer regulated by our institutions, chaos reigns.
‘Truth’ is always a relative commodity, but it’s been under growing stress in recent times. For example, the pandemic saw a flourishing trade in disinformation around science-based vaccination programs, and politics is being played faster and looser with the truth all around the globe.
In many ways, there’s been a cold war around climate action for decades with the vested interests actively peddling disinformation to protect their investments. The climate cold war may be coming to an end as things heat up, as climate disruption takes central stage. The big question, though, is what replaces it?
Because, let’s be clear, the ‘war’ is not Mother Nature out to get us, or even us out to get Mother Nature. It’s actually about the great divide within humanity itself in which a small proportion of the people on this planet enjoy the benefits of enormous economic wealth and power, while a growing segment of the majority of Earth’s people are buckling under the growing burdens of climate impacts.
The world’s richest 10% account for around 50% of global emissions. An analysis last year by the Center for Global Development found that each Briton produces 200 times the climate emissions of the average Congolese person, with people in the US producing 585 times as much! Within a single month, the carbon emitted by someone living in the UK will surpass the annual emissions of citizens of 30 low- and middle-income countries.
And the inequities so apparent between countries are just as real within countries. As one small example, an analysis of energy use in the UK in 2019 showed that car journeys and flights taken by the richest British people – especially “white, wealthy middle-aged men” – used more energy that year than 60% of the population got through in total.
Truth is the first casualty of war. The war on climate is usually portrayed as a battle for or against Mother Nature. If that’s the way we continue to frame it then I fear the battle is lost before a single shot is fired.