Progress Needed Urgently

I wrote this piece around 2009. Much has changed since then: my examples are now a little dated, not to mention that the climate science has only got worse. My expression has also got much better! Also my use of the gerund. What hasn’t changed is this piece’s central thesis – that climate change is unique in the urgency of action it demands.

When one considers the social progress that has been made in the course of human history, there is a great deal to be grateful for. Western societies have historically subjugated women and non-whites, repressed sexual expression, and neglected to provide universal healthcare or education. Thankfully, over the course of centuries, progress has been made. The evolution of more democratic forms of government has occurred in tandem an improvement in health and education services. Many forms of discrimination have been abolished or legislated against, generally as the result of mass social movements. As these changes happen, society’s overton window has shifted to the point that it is now inconceivable that inter-racial marriage would be illegal, and conceivable that we would grant basic rights to animals such as chimpanzees.

Reflecting on this, it seems that there is some sort of path that most human civilisation is on. This path leads to a society that is characterised by greater equality and greater respect for all of its members. Whether or not there is some ‘city on the hill’ where all conceivable social progress has been made, or whether it is an endless journey, I suggest that humanity as a whole is more just than it has historically been.

This sort of advancement can also be seen in the West’s attitude toward the environment. While it is true that human environmental destruction is occurring on a greater scale than it ever has, to the point of threatening life as we know it, our awareness of the vulnerability of the environment seems to be more acute than ever, no doubt partly motivated by a selfish awareness that environmental destruction will spell our own demise. The banning of CFCs, in terms of environmental protection, is comparable to other developments in social progress: there was something wrong, laws and attitudes changed, and now humanity is in a better place than it was. This gives me hope. Opportunities to help the environment abound more than ever, and people are taking advantage of these. On a 2009 trip to Melbourne, I was able to bus to and from the airport. I took a bus back to Adelaide and offset my emissions. The camp I attended had an ‘Environmental Sustainability Officer’, who had overseen revegetation projects and the installation of rainwater tanks that supplied water for showering or gardening. My host had an awe-inspiring vegetable garden. Her organic waste went into a compost for this garden, other waste was recycled as much as possible. In South Australia, a ban on plastic bags has been introduced; shoppers have to use the re-usable ‘green bags’ that are the obvious solution to the problem of disposable bags. In addition to this, the state has met its target of 20% energy from renewable sources. Federally, a similar target is in place, and the introduction of a price on pollution later this year will no doubt also encourage environmentally sustainable practises. One might think that, on the environmental front, things are just peachy.

Well, it’s not quite a case of ‘you couldn’t be more wrong’, but there is a difference between making social progress and making environmental progress. The social advances that have occurred didn’t occur in an environment of critical urgency. Women campaigning for women’s rights didn’t need to achieve their goal by a certain time. Furthermore, the extent to which they could achieve their goal wasn’t affected by the rapidity with which they achieved it. Similarly, gay marriage is going to be made legal, almost inevitably. It’s simply a generational issue – California’s removal of the right of gay people to marry, with Prop. 8, was supported by 62% of voters over 65, and opposed by a similar proportion of youth. While it is shameful that it will take maybe twenty more years for marriage equality to be achieved, those twenty years aren’t much considering the centuries of injustice that preceded them.

Environmental progress is a different ball game because there is an irresistible deadline on making change. Lowering of our carbon emissions is definitely set to happen, as technologies continue to improve and people continue to realise how easy it is to change. However, this lowering is urgent, and must occur fricken’ rapidly. Head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and an economist: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

Tackling climate change isn’t comparable to opposing apartheid or supporting the legalisation of euthanasia: climate change is a threat to human civilisation that demands immediate and urgent action. If this action occurs doesn’t occur in time, even if it does eventually, the carbon pollution already in the atmosphere, when feedback loops embedded in the Earth’s ecosystems are taken into accont, will contribute to irreversible change. A rapid reduction in emissions occurring now would still result in more than a two degree rise in global temperature by 2100. On our current emissions path, we are looking at more than 5 degrees: mass extinction, ocean acidification, desertification, brutal heat-waves and rising sea levels.

Climate Change isn’t an unfortunate injustice that ought to be righted some time in the future. It is a threat to human civilisation as we know it.


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