Monday, September 29, 2014

Can we change for Climate?

It is that time of the year when New Yorker's curse at the United Nations in unison. Not because it keeps failing to meet its mandate of stopping war and violence around the globe, but because it makes traffic unbearable for many who live on the island of Manhattan. Every year in September, when the weather is just perfect, world leaders gather in New York city, which hosts the United Nations building complex, to make speeches and take part in summits and meetings, with the intention of making the world a better place to live in. Dictators, despots, monarchs and democratically elected leaders, big and small, are all welcome into a league of nations, a disparate quilt which is the UN. While most speeches in front of the garish green marble backdrop are lofty and veiled in accusations of rival nations, it is questionable how much is really achieved here, other than millions poured into the New York city hospitality industry.

This year a meeting on "Climate Change" grabbed headlines as the largest ever in it's history. With over 120 leaders attending it was billed to be consequential and vital. A few days before the meeting, over 300 thousand people poured into the streets of Manhattan, forming a protest rally called "Peoples Climate March". With biodegradable signs, giant puppets, colorful banners and T-Shirts and Hollywood celebrities, the march demanded the attention of leaders to enact policies that would address climate change and global warming. At the meeting President Obama said "urgent and growing threat of climate change" would ultimately "define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other" issue. The United Nations even drafted the familiar Hollywood face of Leonardo DiCaprio, to deliver a message of urgency. The three largest polluting nations on the planet, Russia, China and India, did not attend the meeting. And other than some lofty goals and Hollywood advertising, nothing was committed and very little was achieved in tangible progress.

So the question rises, can humanity really change for climate? Can summits, meetings and Hollywood pomp really bring about change, when the planet seems to be slipping beyond humanity's grasp? Even Leonard DiCaprio in his valiant speech acknowledged that upgrading light bulbs and driving electric cars cannot reverse climate change as we have crossed the point of no return. According to scientists, cutting carbon dioxide emissions is the answer to stem climate change, but most governments are averse to doing it, as targeted growth rates are not achievable with strict environmental controls.

Another impediment that stops governments from taking action, are "global warming skeptics". While making my recent documentary film "Garwin", I encountered some from this lot. While filming, my colleague and I visited an important annual conference titled "International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies" in Erice, Italy. Prominent scientists across all fields have been gathering in this picturesque medieval hilltop town since the sixties, to discuss the dangers that face humanity and the planet. Through their research they propose remedies in meetings and seminars which have significant impact in their respective nation's policies. In 2012 when we were there, "Global Warming" was a hot topic. What took me by surprise, were the number of scientists who were presenting arguments that the science was not conclusive to single out human activity to be the cause for climate change. Therefore there was no need to change the path of human progress, in the interest of development and commerce. Some prominent scientists and politicians were making a committed argument that the fear tactics used by environmentalists and global warming proponents were akin to those of communists and fascists of the past, to make humanity suffer in the shadow of alarmist visions of planetary catastrophe. And their goal was to resist such an onslaught by proving that climatic anomalies were just normal planetary cycles, that have been taking place for eons. Many Republican Senators and Congressmen in the US are beholden to this belief as well. In the recently concluded House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, some Republican congressmen displayed apathy, ignorance and plain disdain towards prevailing overwhelming scientific evidence, that proves that human activity is causing climate change that is detrimental to all, rich and poor.

While not attending the meeting on climate change at the UN, India's newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made some interesting comments on the environment in his speeches at the United Nations and other venues. His campaign pledge to clean up one of the worlds longest and most polluted rivers, the Ganges, is a lofty one wrapped in symbolism and pride. But his vision to make India a high growth nation by attracting and expanding manufacturing and industry is in direct contradiction to any environmental mission. The air quality and sanitation in most Indian urban environments is deplorable. The carbon emissions per-capita may be low compared to the west, but if India is to achieve growth rates in competition to China, there is no way it can do it without further decimating its environment. China and India are the worlds first and third most polluting nations. The United States is a proud second. And China has paid a heavy environmental cost for its so called economic progress. Development of this nature is not something to celebrate and applaud. Mahatma Gandhi, who Mr. Modi liberally quotes as his poster boy, would never approve of such development. Mr. Modi proposed Yoga, inner peace and holistic approaches towards environmentalism. They might be good ideas in speeches, in reality these will not stem carbon emissions. It is time for drastic measures and there are no leaders who are willing to make the hard sacrifices needed to turn back or even stop the clock.

Climate change skeptics can doubt the science all they want and present counter arguments. What they cannot turn away from are some unflinching facts. Human addiction to fossil fuel is deep and unending. Factories, power stations, plastics, cars and other machines predominantly still run on and are manufactured from fossil fuel and the attempt to reverse that trend is minuscule in relation to the crisis we face. Oil is still a currency that is booming and search for more and more of it, in the hardest of places, is always in progress. From the tar sands of Canada, which hold oil the size of Saudi Arabia, to the threat of drilling in the pristine wilds of Alaska, the thirst for oil is unrelenting. This week it was reported that a joint venture between Rosneft, a Russian oil company, and Exxon, an American oil company, had discovered black gold in the Arctic. It is estimated that a well drilled into the subterranean deposits could harness 100 million tons of oil and 338 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The report did not reveal how much carbon dioxide that much oil and gas would add to the planet's atmosphere.

An alarming report by the Living Planet Index, revealed today that deforestation and loss of habitat due to human activity had caused 52% of all populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish to plummet, only in the last four decades. Populations of freshwater species have suffered an even worse fall of 76%. Globally, habitat loss and hunting have reduced tigers from 100,000 a century ago to just 3,000. The report also shows that the biggest recorded threat to biodiversity comes from the combined impacts of habitat loss and degradation, driven by what WWF calls unsustainable human consumption.

Thus one wonders what these meetings mean and what Leonardo DiCaprio is there for. Is he just grabbing more advertisement for his fictitious movie persona, or does he really think he can make a difference using his diction and dance. And what weight do President Obama's words, or that of any leader really carry? While it may feel good to be part of a march that proclaims people power, when the scale of the problem is of planetary proportion, does the size of the crowd really matter? Do we really need more awareness, is there really a need for a debate? There is need for action and unfortunately there is very little of it. For tangible change to occur, humanity has to fundamentally change the way it lives and aspires to live. That is not happening any time soon. It is what it is.