By Rajesh Mehta, Swati Srivastava and Mark Bartosik
Our mindset is still locked in old forms of warfare, but a new form of war is right at our doorstep.
Albert Einstein famously said, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” We know now that a key weapon in World War III is disinformation and the enemy is Climate Chaos. While our mindset is still locked in old forms of warfare, a new form of war is right at our doorstep, and we are grievously unprepared.
Due to its sheer magnitude, the havoc that climate chaos will wreck on the planet is going to be far worse than any war the world has seen. What does a war do? Kills people, destroys cities, creates refugees, crashes economies, and causes widespread damage & suffering. Climate chaos is going to do all this and more. It is going to threaten humanity’s very existence.
Whether its sea level rise, extreme weather events, water scarcity, food shortages, mass extinction of species, humanity’s future is under attack. It’s immaterial whether buildings get knocked down by bombs or flooded by rising seas; they still become uninhabitable and make people homeless. Several coastal cities and some entire nations are destined to disappear from the map giving rise to an avalanche of suffering and creating an unprecedented wave of climate refugees.
A quarter of humanity faces looming water crisis. From India to Iran to Botswana, countries around the world are under extreme water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have. Groundwater is going fast and rainfall is becoming erratic. What happens when major cities such as Cape Town, Delhi, Sao Paolo, Chennai etc. run out of water? The scope of impact on regular folks’ everyday lives strains the imagination. It would also lead to an unprecedented migrant crisis and social unrest.
Nineteen of the twenty warmest years have occurred since 2001. Every year previous records are shattered and new ones made. The hottest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic Circle as well as the hottest temperature reliably recorded on the planet occurred in the last few weeks. The planet doesn’t heat up evenly across the board, so some places are going to become punishingly hot on a constant basis and the rest would experience extreme spikes. At the current trajectory, temperatures in parts of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and South Asia could eventually exceed 130° Fahrenheit (54°C) making it life-threatening to be/work outdoors, straining power grids, and bringing whole economies to stand-still. Add to this heat extreme humidity and just 95° Fahrenheit (35° C) would be lethal even for the fittest of humans, even under shaded and well-ventilated conditions. The only refuge will be in air conditioning but no grid would be reliable in such extreme conditions, and power cuts would mean death. Besides, how many people in the global south have air conditioning?
Extreme weather events are the new normal; super-hurricanes such as Maria that devastated Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries, droughts followed by floods that have impacted several countries in the Horn of Africa, massive wildfires that spawn “firenados” (fire tornadoes) as in California or in the case of Australia where successive droughts, fires and floods have caused disasters of biblical proportions. Add to it the plague of locusts stretching from Australia to East Africa devouring scarce food sources, and large scale famines start to become the new reality.
Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving. As their land fails them, hundreds of millions of people from Central America to Sudan to the Mekong Delta will be forced to flee their homes resulting in the greatest wave of global migration the world has seen. In just another decade, two billion people will live in slums with little water or electricity, where they are more vulnerable to flooding or other disasters. The slums fuel extremism and chaos. Governments of nations that suffer from a relentless confluence of drought, flood, bankruptcy and starvation, could topple as whole regions devolve into war, in what the US Defense Department refers to as a “threat multiplier”.
The planet is undergoing a “mass extinction” event, defined as a loss of about three-quarters of all species in existence across the Earth over a “short” geological period of time. While such events have occurred before, this crisis is a direct result of the planet’s exploitation by humans, leading scientists to coin a new term for this Geological era; “Anthropocene”. Biologists warn half of Earth’s species could go extinct by 2050 and scientists predict collapse of all seafood fisheries by 2050. By underestimating our inter-connectedness with other species, we are paving the path for our own eventual extinction.
Humans are typically bad at understanding exponential growth, we tend to think linearly. However living under the shadow of COVID-19, most of us now have some experience of living with exponential growth; not only in terms of a virus’ infection rate but also how such events impact the economy. Much of climate chaos will also be felt on an exponential basis.
Every war has its allies, adversaries, and collaborators, so does the war against climate chaos. The allies are the global scientific community, the renewable energy industry, NGOs and activists tirelessly fighting on the frontline challenging the status quo, regular folks making conscious choices and sacrifices in their lives for the collective good.
Most of the Fossil Fuel industry is an adversary; its interests invariably linked to the collapse of our ecosystem. Another adversary is Russia; one of the few countries that will benefit from climate chaos, for it will provide Russia access to new trade routes, fresh oil deposits in the Arctic, a more hospitable Siberia etc. Russia harbors ambitions to be a super-power again, the demise of Europe and United States is considered a gain by Putin. No wonder the Russian state has become the purveyor of global disinformation; a disunited world presents more opportunities for its resurgence. The world’s loss is Russia’s perceived gain – at least in the short term, until one or more ancient virus comes to life in Siberia due to thawing Permafrost.
No conversation about the adversaries in the war against climate chaos is complete without mentioning the direction the USA has taken under President Trump. By withdrawing the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, opening up vast swaths of public lands such as Alaska’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, supporting coal, undermining/ reversing hundreds of Obama-era environmental regulations, and going so far as brazenly deleting the words ‘climate change’ from websites across the federal government as part of its widespread effort to delete or bury information on climate change programs, Trump’s administration has an absolutely abysmal environmental record and has cemented its legacy as one of the worst perpetrators and enemies in this war.
Besides the USA and Russia, China and India are the other two top emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Decades of rapid economic growth have dramatically expanded the energy needs of both countries. Both also have a muddled report card when it comes to efforts to combat Climate Chaos. While China is the world’s leading country in electricity production from renewable energy sources, it is still increasing fossil fuel use as well, its grid becoming only about 1% cleaner per year, similar to the US. India has self-proclaimed ambitious targets for clean energy yet the reality is that like China, it is still increasing fossil fuel use, the clean energy mix of its grid also improving by only about 1% per year. Improving by a meager 1% per year is simply not enough; at this pace it will take 70 or 80 years to be where we need to be. The war would certainly be lost by then.
The collaborators in this war are the climate deniers refusing to acknowledge the facts. Certain media such as Rupert Murdoch’s Empire, that have done unconscionable damage by sowing doubt and disinformation about this settled science. Akin to Nazi propaganda films that fueled doubt about the nature of concentration camps, Murdoch’s media empire continues to fuel doubt about the causes and repercussions of climate change, and has turned a scientific issue into a divisive political one, making it a deliberate collaborator.
A negligent collaborator is Capitalism itself. By externalizing social, environmental and human costs from its narrow definition of profits, the framework of Capitalism has aided and abetted climate chaos and continues to work against humanity’s interest. Its flawed definition of profits has exacerbated income inequality around the world, now the worst effects of climate change are going to be felt disproportionately harder by poor and marginalized around the globe.
So how do we win? During WWII, the USA emerged as the strongest economy in the world through working hard on “mitigators” to prevent the worst of the war from reaching its shores. It created the necessary tools to win that war and engaged every American in the war effort. The necessary tools to win the war of climate chaos require building a carbon-free green economy with everything it entails — wind turbines, solar panels, carbon accounting and perhaps even rationing, sea walls, sustainable agriculture and building & maintaining international coalitions such as the Paris Climate Agreement. There is no time to find a new economic model; instead we must use the levers of Capitalism itself to fix this issue, starting with a carbon tax that truly values the environmental costs of carbon pollution.
There comes a time in a war when we must all pick a side. Staying on the fence is not being neutral; it is acting on the side of the adversary because it supports the status quo. History doesn’t look kindly on bystanders, we must choose to be on the right side of history, or there may not be a history at all. We must take all the steps we can collectively and individually as quickly and aggressively as possible, in order to prevent the worst predictions becoming facts. We must find all the ways we can to stand up against entrenched interests. As Mr. Dagfinnur Sveinbjörnsson, CEO of ‘The Arctic Circle’ says “In the fight against Climate Chaos, it will not be enough to sustain scientific research and the creation of knowledge, if we do not nurture the virtues of open public discourse and defend the right to speak truth to power.”
The massive mobilization for World War II prompted an unprecedented government campaign urging the public to conserve resources necessary for the war effort. Allied citizens were asked to make sacrifices in many ways. Rationing was one of the ways they contributed to the war effort. In UK, US and elsewhere, supplies such as gasoline, butter, sugar and milk were rationed so they could be diverted to the war effort. The most important items to ration in today’s war are meat and milk as going vegan creates the single biggest impact an individual can have on climate change. Indeed, eating further up the food chain makes us an adversary.
A famous WWII American poster read, “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler.” In the global war we confront today, we must also understand the need to act collectively. When we consume mindlessly we are that lone rider. When our choices are driven by greed, status and ego-fulfillment rather than a sense of sacrifice and collective good, we are that lone rider. We can have the fun of being lone riders for a few more years and lose the war or we can inform ourselves, gather our courage and rise to the challenge by acting decisively to win this war. The decision is up to us.
Rajesh Mehta is a Leading International Consultant & Policy Professional. His twitter address is @entryIndia and he can be reached at [email protected] . Swati Srivastava is a film-maker and an environmentalist. She can be reached at Linkedin and [email protected]. Mark Bartosik is an engineer and an environmentalist. He can be reached at [email protected]