ODVV Interview: Climate change makes the global...
Climate change is being described as the single biggest threat facing humanity. While most governments dedicate profligate resources to building up their militaries, tackling poverty, modernizing cities and lifting communities out of the COVID-19 calamity, World Health Organization says the climate emergency is insidiously undoing the “last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction,” widening inequalities between and within communities.
Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to result in nearly 250,000 additional deaths annually, linked to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. In monetary terms, the costs of climate change for our communities have been skyrocketing, and mostly impossible to be afforded by the underdeveloped countries already floundering to keep their economies afloat. In the 2016-2018 two-year period, climate-related disasters inflicted damages on the world adding up to USD650 billion.
Although in many countries, financing climate action is not treated as a priority or there is simply not enough political will to join the global campaign to slash emissions and embrace green technologies, UN experts say for every USD1 investment in climate action, a turnover of USD4 would be generated, which renders combatting climate change an economical and prudent venture. Yet, the communities that bear the lion’s share of the financial burden of climate change are those which are contributing to the climate emergency the least, but suffer from it the most. The cost of climate impacts in developing countries can amount to USD500 billion per year by 2050.
The human rights implications of global heating are massive and it is simply short-sighted to ignore them. The report Lancet Countdown has revealed since 2000, heat-related mortality surged by 53.7 percent in people above 65 every year, and that 67 percent of world cities anticipate a collapse of their healthcare systems due to the harmful effects of climate change on human health.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is an American science writer who works as an academic specialist with the Michigan State University. She is the executive director of Science Debate, a nonprofit initiative promoting popular discourse on scientific matters while pushing for science to be embedded in political decision-making. She conducts the annual Food Literacy and Engagement Poll and is the co-author of the 2009 book “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an interview with Ms. Kirshenbaum on the implications of climate change for underprivileged communities, the rising tide of climate denialism and the shifting global attitudes to climate policy-making.
Q: It is a given that our world is confronted with a broad-ranging environmental emergency, predominantly induced by anthropogenic activity. Yet, the movement of climate denialism is gaining steam exponentially, is supported by influential media organizations, has stakes in multinational corporations and think tanks, and even until early last year, had a notable patron like Donald Trump. What are the benefits involved in peddling climate misinformation? Why are there so many scientists and pundits who tend to undermine scientific evidence pointing to the acuteness of the climate crisis?
A: The pushback against climate science – and science generally – is not new. In fact, I would argue that the situation on climate, specifically in the US has arguably improved. When I started working in climate communication and science 20 years ago, politicians and journalists wouldn’t mention it. It was not a voting issue in the US, and special interest groups and lobbyists on Capitol Hill were frequently casting doubt on whether climate change was happening at all.
The conversation has since shifted dramatically, although I would love to see more policy and action. Since 2012, the majority of Republicans and Democrats among the US public have accepted climate change is real. In polling before US elections, it has become a top voting issue and we have seen organizing and marching globally calling for attention and climate action. It is no longer a question here of whether climate change is real, but what the causes are and whether we can do anything about it. So, I see a lot of climate progress – though I would love to see more.
Q: Do you believe the world is on the path to the fulfillment of the mandate of the Paris Agreement, that is limiting global temperature rise to 2°C by the end of the century, with an eye to capping the heating to 1.5°C? If we rely on the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that has warned against a rise of the Earth’s temperature within the range of 2.6°C to 4.8°C by the end of 2100, we should probably anticipate a serious catastrophe. Isn’t it so?
A: I am not convinced we will meet the Paris Agreement climate targets, but I also do not like framing climate change outcomes with thresholds like this. They provide pressure to act and a measurable goal, but with climate change, it is not an all or nothing calculation based on whether or not we achieve it. We know there will be challenges and are already experiencing more extreme events like storms, droughts, floods, agricultural uncertainty and more. But there is still time to avoid the worst possible outcomes and that should be the primary goal.
Q: Talk our readers through the costs of climate change for human communities. The leading insurance company Swiss Re has estimated in a new report that by 2050, climate change can be inflicting costs on world economy adding up to USD23 trillion. But how do the costs of climate change manifest themselves in the proliferation of diseases, reduction of incomes, rise of healthcare expenses, forced migrations, surge of climate-induced mortalities, distortion of environmental patterns and other disruptions to human life?
A: That’s more a question for an economist for specifics. What I do know is that, yes, climate change will bring significant costs. Changing coastlines, severe hurricanes and typhoons, conditions that change the world’s breadbaskets, flooding, and more will affect livelihoods, access to resources, and create more geopolitical instability meaning greater conflict. On top of that, changing conditions will also shift ranges of disease carrying pests while the loss of forests – also part of the equation – can introduce more pandemic disease. So, true costs are difficult to fathom. And can we really put a cost on the loss of lives?
Q: Of course not. What appears to be quite conspicuous about the ramifications of climate change is that, as you implied, people’s access to water resources would be restricted, biodiversity would be threatened, agriculture would hit a stalemate, food supply chain would be compounded and more cities and villages would be submerged. But it seems as if the human rights consequences of climate change are not brought to light adequately. What are the adverse effects of climate change on children rights, people with disabilities, local communities, immigrants and women?
A: I see more emphasis being centered on climate justice and equity in recent years. At universities here in the US, we have entire departments organized around these issues that focus on how humans make decisions and how resources are distributed. We have a long way to go, of course, but we are moving in the right direction. Just by asking this question, I see that you, as a journalist are paying attention to social issues in the climate conversation and am encouraged.
To answer your question specifically, climate change makes the socioeconomic challenges we already face globally, more severe. While climate change will affect everyone, it will not affect everyone equally. Those living in the poorest communities without regular access to water and other resources face the most dire situations, particularly in low-lying regions dealing with sea level rise. We also see that limited resources leads to more conflict, which is why climate change creates greater geopolitical instability.
Women have a tremendous role to play in our energy system around the world. The way they are treated in society, as well as their decisions about energy use, are extremely significant when it comes to our collective climate future. I would love to see more attention on that.
Q: MIT economist Christopher Knittel and his like-minded colleagues opine political leaders don’t take action to battle climate change because the upshots of the conundrum are mostly hypothetical and are not presently felt; rather, they will be experienced in the coming decades, and the generations who are actually going to bear the brunt are still not born. They say the political elites and holders of power do not have the incentive to prioritize addressing the climate emergency, because it would not accrue short-term electoral benefits for them. Is this an accurate explanation for politicians’ lethargy and lack of action in responding to climate change?
A: I think that’s partly it, but there is far more going on as well. In my work, I focus on risk perception, cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, and other factors that affect political decision-making. Some lack of climate action is certainly due to temporal distance between climate effects and the worst outcomes, especially considering short election cycles. However, the ways we obtain, evaluate, and form attitudes about new information on issues like climate change are influenced by more than facts. Our emotions, political trust, and relationships factor into how we perceive risk and who we listen to as well.
Q: Are we too away from the point when the use of renewable energies, smart transportation, sustainable agriculture, ecosystem renovation, green roofs and houses, structured waste recycling and saying no to fossil fuels can emerge as the ruling practices of our lifestyles and government policies, and costly, traditional conventions that produce more emissions are totally abandoned?
A: There is so much already available and on the near-term horizon happening to address climate change and I am feeling optimistic. Energy-efficient technologies are transforming the energy landscape. We are installing new infrastructure at tremendous scale and speed. Plant-based meat alternatives are transitioning diets to be less meat-intensive, while cell-cultured meat is finally being introduced. We are taking steps to reduce food waste – which is an action I love, that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, because we don’t need new technology and innovation to do so and can have enormous impacts.
And even the largest fossil fuel companies, as well as the corporate world, are now pushing for change because decarbonization is good for business and the public demands it. There is enormous focus and funding for expanding geothermal, offshore wind and solar, and carbon capture utilization and sequestration, renewables, and storage technologies. We still have a very long way to go, but from where I sit, there is still reason for hope.
By: Kourosh Ziabari