In the face of rapid climate change, the future may seem bleak – but there is hope, writes Lauren Mulvihill
“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” – John Milton
Time is a tricky concept to wrap your head around. At twenty years of age, I experience time differently to how I did when I was five. Back then, a year – a whole fifth of my life so far – seemed an almost insurmountably long period. Now, I blink in January and reopen my eyes in March. How do you perceive time? As a line running west to east, over and back? Or is it running south to north, up and down? Maybe it’s not a line at all. Maybe you don’t think of time as a binary distinction between past and future; perhaps it’s more a cycle of thens and nows, beginning and re-beginning with the passing of each day. But we have places to be: we can’t organise a meeting at two o’clock if our colleague will turn up at six, because they don’t subscribe to linear time.
Hence, we have clocks and calendars. We found ways of ordering time to ensure that everyone’s more or less on the same page when it comes to the day-to-day running of things. Human beings, as a rule, aren’t inclined towards coincidences. We like order because it helps us make sense of things. Take history, for example. Historians divide the past into different eras or dynasties, each of which suggest a particular political, social or economic climate: think the Elizabethan Era, the Revolutionary Period, the Han Dynasty, and so on. It allows the mind to quickly make associations between a time period and its products or facts. So just as a social historian thinks of history in terms of sociopolitical relations, a geologist views the past in terms of the earth’s physical characteristics. Thus, history becomes divided into eons and epochs with names like ‘precambrian,’ ‘jurassic’, and – more recently – ‘the Anthropocene’.
The word ‘Anthropocene’ (from the Greek ‘anthro’, meaning human, and ‘-cene’, meaning epoch) made its debut in 2000, and refers broadly to an unprecedented period in geologic history where human beings have been the primary agents of climate change. It can generally be traced to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, but it was only from the mid-20th century onwards that it began to have a meaningful effect on the earth’s climate. It was this later period that saw a massive expansion in the use of fossil fuels and microplastics, among other ecologically harmful substances. This has had the effect of irreversibly altering the earth’s atmospheric composition and physical structure. Global greenhouse gas emissions increased by 60% in the last thirty years alone, and continuing in this vein will see average global temperatures rise to 4℃ above preindustrial levels by the end of the 21st century. This doesn’t seem like much, but such a change will bring about a climate never before experienced by humans – a climate which will affect food security, and see entire countries disappear under rising sea levels. All this is made infinitely worse by the knowledge that we’ll never get back to those preindustrial levels; in just over half a century, we’ve simply gone too far to reverse what we’ve done.
To make matters worse, we’ve brought it upon ourselves. Kind of. In truth, calling ‘human beings’ the primary agents of climate change is somewhat… misleading.
In the summer of 2017, a report was released by the environmental nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). The Carbon Majors Report, as it was called, analyses the carbon and methane emissions released as a result of industrial activity since 1988, eschewing the traditional approach of charting emissions based on geographical location. Upon publication, the report made international headlines as a result of its major finding: between 1988 and 2015, just 100 corporations were responsible for 71% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions, or 923 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This equates to more than half of all global industrial emissions since 1751 ACE.
In recent years, pro-environmental initiatives have tended to focus on individual action. Reusing, reducing and recycling, showering for shorter periods, and even modern lifestyle trends such as ‘no-waste living’ have aimed to place the reins in the hands of the individual in combatting climate change. Such initiatives aim first to give us a feeling of control over our uncontrollable climate, and second to have a knock-on effect; the idea being that, if everyone becomes more environmentally friendly on an individual level, then the problem will be fixed. As well-intentioned as this idea is, individual actions will have very little positive effect on the environment if industrial-scale pollution is largely ignored. Where, after all, does the excess packaging so loathed by the ‘no-waste’ movement come from in the first place?
The fact is that the global rise in industrial emissions occurred in conjunction with the increased liberalisation of the global economy. Neoliberalism, an economic system championed by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in its early days, is characterised by a ‘free market’ system which, in its ideal form, would completely eschew all governmental interference in the economy. Instead, privately-owned businesses would compete for control of the marketplace, operating under a supply-and-demand model which, in theory, gives consumers the final say over which goods and services matter most to them; as the saying goes, “the freer the market, the freer the people”. Related to the free market ideal is the concept of ‘trickle-down economics’, which posits that the richer those at the top become, the richer those at the bottom become, too. Considering income inequality is higher than ever before, the latter is a demonstrable myth. Somewhat similarly, nowhere on earth is the market truly ‘free’. Businesses and corporations are still subject to taxation and legal regulation by successive governments throughout the world. Even so, there has been a noticeable worldwide movement towards an increasingly deregulated market system, meaning that regulators have not left the marketplace for good, but they’re certainly keeping it at an uncomfortable distance.
It is the high energy consuming models of neoliberal societies and the highly competitive nature of this system that have driven climate change over the past three decades, as industries sought to produce more and more and more to the detriment of the earth.
In terms of environmental effects, who really suffers here? It’s certainly not those at the top of the system. The wealthiest people on earth can afford to physically remove themselves from danger – to high-altitude areas with high quality infrastructure. In the immediate present, those who suffer greatest are the impoverished, who are often pushed from society both in terms of social status and physical location. Often, marginalised groups are forced to the outskirts of populated areas, where infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired and where they may be left more vulnerable to the elements by virtue of being located near the sea, rivers, or structurally unsound buildings. But there is another group, arguably the group who will be more affected by our changing climate than anyone else, and for whom there are few ways of challenging this state of affairs: future generations.
The Kids Are Alright
A central concern for environmental activists is the issue of intergenerational equity, or the lack thereof. The UN recognises climate change as a fundamentally intergenerational problem under Article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but there are currently no binding legal agreements under international law that would ensure the preservation of the environment for the benefit of future generations. The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission blames this state of affairs on “a culture of short-termism” which has negatively affected governments’ abilities to plan for the long-term. This is despite the fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child includes among its articles the right to live and grow in an healthy physical environment. Children, due to their being in the early stages of development, are more susceptible to environmental toxins than adults are. Not only that, but the biggest killers of children worldwide – malnutrition, respiratory infections, malaria, diarrhoea, and similar vector-borne infections – are all highly susceptible to changing climatic conditions. Since impoverished countries are set to suffer most from climate change, there is also the reality that children accounted for 47% of the population in the world’s 49 most economically underdeveloped countries. Indeed, the alteration of existing social relations under climate change also gives rise to the possibility of violent conflict in certain territories, another major contributor to child mortality rates.
It is difficult for a child to escape the reality of climate change no matter where they live in the world. They’re seeing it, they’re experiencing it, they’re hearing and reading about it. They know what’s going on. And they know what the implications of those goings-on are. The question is, what can they do about it?
Well, they’re fighting back.
They Fought the Law
In July 2016, Rabab Ali successfully sued the government of Pakistan. Alongside her father, an environmental lawyer, Ali argued in court that the exploitation of lignite coal would drastically increase Pakistan’s carbon dioxide emissions, polluting the air in a way which would prove deadly to future generations. Operating on the basis that the exploitation infringed upon the constitutional right to life, and violated the ancient Doctrine of Public Trust, Rabab Ali made history by becoming the first minor to file a public interest litigation case in the Pakistani courts, at just seven years old. In a statement to The Third Pole, she said:
“I want the government to give me and my friends a safe environment to grow up in. I want it to help me conserve it for future generations.”
And she’s not alone. In April 2017 Ridhima Pandey, a nine-year-old girl from the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand – an area that has been heavily affected by devastating floods in recent years – filed a lawsuit against the Indian government for failing to adhere to the terms they had agreed to upon signing and ratifying the Paris Agreement, again basing her argument upon Indian constitutional law and the public trust doctrine. This doctrine dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, and holds the government responsible for protecting public resources. Meanwhile, a group of Portuguese children affected by severe forest fires in Leiria began gathering funds in September 2017 in the hope of taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Represented by Global Legal Action Network, a major NGO, the children aim to sue a total of 47 countries – Ireland among them – for failing to reduce emissions.
Yet another group of young people have taken up the cause in the US, in what has been described by National Geographic as “the biggest case on the planet”. A group of 21 youths, with the aid of nonprofit Our Children’s Trust and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, are currently in the process of suing the American government, again for failing to protect the earth from the effects of climate change. In promoting the production of fossil fuels and remaining indifferent to the effects of industrial greenhouse gases, they argue, the state violates the constitutionally guaranteed rights to life, liberty, and property. Originally filed against the Obama administration, the case was initially dismissed on the grounds that the US government could not be held responsible for a global problem. This argument was successfully disputed in court, but following the former administration’s failure to settle the case, the ‘climate kids’ now find themselves facing Trump, and alongside him a government that seems singularly uninterested in climate change or its effects.
“We have little or no representation in the government, yet the effects of climate change will affect us more than anyone else,” says 19-year-old student Kiran Oommen. “This is a way we can speak for ourselves and stand up for our future.”
A Beacon of Hope?
Time, as I said, is a funny thing. In the present, we measure it by seconds and minutes; by what we’re doing now, by what we just did, by what we have to do next. In the past – which is a much bigger place – we divide it into greater sections, into years and decades, centuries and millennia. But the future – the future is an entirely different story. We have no connection to the future, not immediately. We don’t even know how much of it we’ll live to see. In that way, the future is both absolutely mysterious and completely forgettable. And part of that can be put down to denialism – denial of the destruction we’re allowing to happen, simply because it’s easier to ignore it. Denial of the fact that, for the first time in history for many people, the future is no longer a source of hope, but rather a source of fear and instability.
Denial can only get us so far. The young people leading the charge against global climate change have shown us that. As university students, as young people ourselves in most cases, that future they’re fighting for is our future too. It’s not a case of reversing time anymore; it’s about accepting what has happened and understanding that this course doesn’t have to continue. The stories of all our different cultures all throughout the world have always promised us some paradise in the future; they’ve taught us that we still have hope, that things will get better, that we can do anything if we know that we can. Is that paradise lost? It’s not; not just yet.