Lack of compassion at tipping point of climate change

It is time to revisit the bad script of the bygone century. A climate at the tipping point amid a global pandemic is part and parcel of the same bad script: the tragedy of the common man aggravated by the lack of compassion and imagination by people responsible for our better future

As the temperature keeps rising due to spike in various greenhouse gases, floods, wildfires and extreme winds have battered many parts of the world in the last six months.

The recent devastation caused by floods in Germany resulted in the loss of 160 lives, whereas more than 50 people died after massive inundation swept through the central Chinese province of Henan — a province unlucky to receive a year’s worth of rainfall in just three days.

Communities around the world have been devastated by heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires so extreme that they cannot be explained by any rational model of natural variability.

In fact, the recent findings of the UN-convened Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are extremely bleak but shouldn’t be particularly surprising for anyone paying attention to the research published in the intervening years.

According to Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, “The signals are just leaping out of the noise.”

What’s causing these harmful changes?

It’s mainly us.

We homo sapiens are the ones to blame for the emission of greenhouse gases, causing average temperatures to rise worldwide.

Every year, countless factories, power plants and vehicles running on fossil fuels pump tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, trapping solar radiation that further increases temperatures around the globe.

The global warming trend is increasingly disrupting our climate. In fact, due to this trend, the earth has already warmed by about 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, since the pre-industrial days. If it continues like this, we are on our way toward 1.5 degrees C (2.7 F) rise by as early as 2030.

Therefore, the next decade is going to be decisive in determining the future for our planet when it comes to climate and biodiversity. A warmer world – even by a half-degree Celsius – has more evaporation, leading to more water in the atmosphere. Such changing conditions put our agriculture, health, water supply and ecology at risk.

How do we slow the pace of climate change?

We are witnessing these terrifying devastations because politicians and business leaders of different nations have failed to appreciate the risks involved in massively interfering with the make-up of our atmosphere and to initiate time-bound measures to limit the damage. As a result, the world right now is facing a climate catastrophe with little time left to act to counter the threat.

The series of catastrophes witnessed right across the globe makes a very strong case for world leaders to apply the same sense of urgency to the challenge of climate change as they have done while dealing with the global pandemic.

The world leaders need to make sure that all fossil fuel corporations make immediate commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions and set aggressive dates by which they will ensure that their entire operations and end-to-end supply chain are carbon neutral.

Combating rising global temperatures will require a systemic change from the boardroom to the marketing department. From participating constructively in environmental policy and legislation to investing in research on carbon abatement and alternative energy technologies, companies should restructure their businesses around the bitter reality of climate change.

In recognition of their historical culpability, fossil fuel companies should also pay reparations to the marginalised communities around the world that are currently most affected and least able to afford the catastrophic costs of climate change.

Beyond the unsustainable scarcity model of capitalism

There is a compelling case to revisit the scarcity model propagated by capitalism in the last century or so. Most definitions of mainstream economics revolve around the “efficient allocation of scarce resources”. The answer to scarcity coupled with people’s presumed desire for more is what has kept production in perpetual motion.

Not surprisingly, the guiding north star for success, of both policymakers and economists around the world, is a crude metric — GDP — that does nothing but indiscriminately measure the final output, irrespective of whether it’s good or bad, whether it creates well-being or inequality.

This unabated creation of wealth, however, came, and continues to come, at a huge cost — powered by fossil fuels. It is both depleting and burning up the planet. Growth, expansion, development — the struggle to conquer scarcity both gave and took in large measure from those who populated our land. Perhaps it’s finally time to count all the damages that we did on our way to create more wealth.

We are living in a modern world where we no longer need more. In order to create prosperity for all, what we need instead is a better and fairer distribution of resources. And yet, our dominant economic systems continue to follow colonial methods of exploitation while perpetuating irreversible environmental damages along with an unequal generation of wealth.

The paradox is we are still teaching our brightest minds in simplistic economic models about the efficient allocation of scarce resources, rather than in how to sustainably build the good life based on an abundance of knowledge and resources.

The way forward

In The Value of Everything (2019), the economist Mariana Mazzucato points to an underlying flaw in thinking: “Until now, we have confused price with value”.

Economists and policymakers have created a system disconnected from the real world that privileges market transactions over our personal and planetary well-being. Here too, we can find a standard circular logic: earnings are justified because something was produced that presumably has value; value, in turn, is defined by the amount of earnings.

Perhaps that’s why it is quite unrealistic to expect individuals to make smarter choices when dominant economic reasoning rewards them for moving in the wrong direction. As a result, we often see best brains still struggling while making choices for their future: engineering, medicine, corporate law, consulting, finance, investment banking.

We need an economy focused on shared flourishing, rather than on the collective illusion that more money will somehow create prosperity for all.

A new set of economic thought mindful of overproduction and overconsumption needs to be cultivated where new freedom will eventually find its way within the possibilities and constraints created by the nature.

It is time to revisit the bad script of the bygone century. A climate at the tipping point amid a global pandemic is part and parcel of the same bad script: the tragedy of the common man aggravated by the lack of compassion and imagination by people responsible for our better future.

(The writer is an economist, former IRS officer, & author of the upcoming book “The Current Perspective on INDIAN ECONOMY”)

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