14. Climate Change, Human Security, and the New Landscape of Social Justice

Author: Avery McGaha, Senior

Early this month, world icon Nelson Mandela passed away after a lifetime of accomplishment. The 95 year-old activist, philanthropist, and former president of South Africa was renowned for his wisdom and transcendence. “To be free,” he once said, “is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." His words were a striking metaphor for most people, but for him it applied to the letter. Mandela was perhaps most famous for the 27 years he spent in prison, from 1964 to 1990, after being convicted of organizing strikes and sabotages against apartheid in South Africa. When he won the 1994 election as a free man, wresting South Africa from the grasp of the racist regime, Mandela further demonstrated his capacity for empathy and forgiveness by inviting even his former jailers to watch his inauguration as VIP guests. In a recent tribute to Mandela, commissioned by the U.S. State Department, world famous poet and longtime friend Maya Angelou expressed his influential journey.

Although born into the brutal embrace of Apartheid
Scarred by the savage atmosphere of racism,
Unjustly imprisoned
In the bloody maws of South African dungeons...
He had not been crippled by brutes
Nor was his passion for the rights
Of human beings
Diminished by twenty-seven years of imprisonment... 

When news of his death reached the United States, she says, “Our world became somber / Our skies were leadened.” For Nelson Mandela was not only an efficacious leader, whose leadership brought necessary democratic reforms and regional stability to Southern Africa. He was a symbol. A sign that institutionalized racism and tyranny could be dismantled without violence. That structural violence could be replaced with fair governance and equality. All South Africans could hope for a social and economic environment that supported what the United Nations calls Human Security: “the right of all people to live in freedom and dignity, free from poverty and despair.” Mandela embodied the struggle for equality and Human Security, because he endured so much suffering and injustice to secure for “all individuals,” the U.N. explains, “in particular vulnerable people...freedom from fear and freedom from want, with an equal opportunity to enjoy all their rights and fully develop their human potential.”

His imprisonment and his movement created a domino effect of worldwide support for the anti-apartheid cause. The system was a clear and visible violation of basic human rights, and an increasingly educated and empathetic world rallied to bring it down. College students in America, for one, engaged in protests, rallies, and even civil disobedience in order to push school officials to divest—or remove their investments from companies supporting the Apartheid regime in South Africa. One by one the universities agreed, bringing national attention and increased pressure. And on February 2nd, 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed. It was a historic milestone for human rights, built upon two centuries of abolitionism and civil rights movements—and predicated on the dignity and value of individuals, regardless of superficial differences. Mandela gave us hope for a world free of structural violence, where people work together to advance Human Security.

But while Mandela was suffering for basic human rights, as Angelou describes, “In the bloody maws of South African dungeons,” planetary scientists, many in the very same universities that agreed to divest from South Africa, were beginning to unravel the secrets of the stars.  And in the voids of deep space, in the electromagnetic rays piercing the heavens, in the soil beneath the oceans and in the very atoms of our atmosphere, scientists would discover one of the greatest obstacles to Human Security and social justice the world has ever seen.

In the first decade of Mandela’s imprisonment, NASA and other space agencies around the world were busy developing advanced remote sensing technologies, like satellites, probes, and telescopes, which gave scientists unprecedented access to the chemical and physical compositions of other worlds. Mars, they discovered, was mostly red and dead. Pluto, then still a planet, was cold and dark. When British inventor James Lovelock supplied NASA with a sophisticated system for monitoring the chemicals of alien atmospheres, scientists saw that Venus, for instance, was smothered in a thick blanket of carbon dioxide. When the Soviet probe Venera 7 finally slipped through Venus’s carbon dioxide blanket uncrushed and unmutilated, in fall of 1970, the instruments relayed a surprising fact: At the surface, Venus’s atmosphere was nearly 95% carbon dioxide, which trapped so much heat that temperatures on the surface were recorded at 887 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to melt lead.

Naturally, we enlarged-frontal-lobed human beings contemplated the implications of this new science of planets in terms of our home world. Scientists began to study the energy budget of Earth—where energy comes from, where it goes, how much and how fast. We’re now taught the results in grade school, but at the time the discoveries were revolutionary. Light from our Sun hits the planet, some of which is reflected by white clouds or icecaps, and the rest is absorbed into the surface and atmosphere. Gasses like water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide are particularly good at absorbing light energy, and so even though they compose less than 1% of Earth’s atmosphere (the rest of which is mostly nitrogen and oxygen), even relatively small changes can have momentous effects on Earth’s average temperature.

On February 2nd, 1990, Nelson Mandela stepped out into the light of a different world.

Scientists, for one, found their normally distinct fields colliding with others in unexpected ways. Research about planets trillions of miles away was all of the sudden informing research about pollen grains frozen miles down in Antarctic ice. Geologists who studied volcanism and vegetation remains from millions of years in the past were now interested in air monitoring research in Hawaii. The evidence was sparse, still, back then, but it was beginning to pile up. Carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere were climbing. Fast. In fact, in the span of one human generation, carbon dioxide appeared to be proliferating to levels unseen in half a million years.

And in the past, judging from ice core samples, more carbon dioxide has always, without exception, meant a warmer Earth. 

In 1989, budding American journalist Bill McKibben published one the first books for a general audience about climate change—or “global warming” as it was known at the time. McKibben’s book, called The End of Nature, was a short but powerful volume that outlined some of the evidence coming from sciences across the world, which showed that Earth is warming at speeds and magnitudes unprecedented in human history. He claimed that climate science had, though the evidence was sparse at the time, brought an end to our concept of nature: humans were now measurably responsible for droughts and floods, for stronger hurricanes and melting ice through the release of “greenhouse gasses” like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since the industrial revolution, the incineration of coal, oil, and natural gas—combined with mismanaged agriculture and widespread deforestation—have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide from around 280 molecules of CO2 per one million molecules of air, or parts per million, to almost 400. 

As planetary science evolved through the years, and as a free Nelson Mandela began to impress leaders around the world with his tempered freedom fighter attitude and sagely practicality, researchers began to understand the implications of this small carbon dioxide inflation. Through the nascent discipline called “paleoclimatology,” the study of ancient climates, experts began to realize that warming average temperatures would not subtly increase the number of warm days in Boston, or lighten the winter burden in Moscow. A warming Earth means disaster.

More energy in Earth’s budget means more frequent and more serious droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires. In already wet places, warmer air would bring more frequent and heavier rains, even more snow in some places. Glacial melt would cause mighty floods in glacier-fed river basins, in addition to water insecurity due to decreased glacier replacement; nearly half of all species would go extinct, Arctic sea ice would disappear. Entire weather patterns would shift, in varying degrees, all over the planet: loading the dice in favor of extreme weather events. Warmer temperatures in the atmosphere might even cause more lightning. In the words of Australian scientist and explorer Tim Flannery, we humans had become Weather Makers; we could no longer blame Mother Nature for the weather.

Compared to Earth’s long 4,500,000,000 year history, the eye-blink existence of the Homo sapiens has occurred in a blessedly mild period—where agriculture, exploration, and all the fruits of civilization have been allowed to thrive.  But judging from the wealth of paleoclimatology research, it is clear that when something influences Earth’s energy balance, Earth’s climates have changed rapidly. Whether by volcanic ash blocking light from the sun, new creatures belching gas into the sky, photosythesizers sucking gas out of the sky, slight wobbling of the planetary axis, or through the subtle dimming of our celestial nuclear furnace, Earth has been frozen solid and molten hot. It’s been covered in poison, snow, slime, rock, drowned in sea and blanketed with forest. To get a sense of how wild these differences have been, consider that even in the last years of the Dinosaur Age, where 65 million years ago CO2 concentration was over 1000 parts per million, the streets of Chicago would have been a humid, sweaty, giant and carnivorous jungle. Twelve thousand years ago, however, during the Pleistocene epoch of mammoths and giant sloths, Chicago would have been buried under several miles of ice. 

But temperature itself—and its sweeping effects on what kind of creatures can live where, what foods are available, what predators and diseases thrive, how well certain plants grow, how much ice and rain and clouds exist and where—is not the issue with human-caused climate change. We people are ingenious, after all, inventive and ambitious. Given enough time, resources, and knowledge, history shows that we have enormous potential. We could conceivably manage our planet’s temperature, or at least meticulously manage our societies to adapt to the carefully projected conditions. The problem is that we do not have the resources and we do not have time.

Climate change is happening as I write this and as you read it. This is a fact accepted by every major scientific institution in the world, and is the official view of representatives for every major government—who have signed a non-binding pledge, the Kyoto Protocol, to keep global warming under  2° Celsius higher than before the industrial revolution.  In the last century, Earth has already warmed by 0.8°C toward this mark. By the year 2100, highly sophisticated models of our climate system show that at the current pace of emissions, combined with the growing fuel consumption of China and India, average temperatures may reach 4 to 6°C. That’s the same temperature difference between today and the Pleistocene—when Chicago was buried in glacial ice several miles thick.

The projections are largely based on the vast coal, oil, and gas reserves reported by giants in the fossil fuel industry.  This vast store of carbon will be released into the atmosphere if burned for energy, and that’s exactly what big companies plan to do. Because extracting carbon-heavy fuels is so lucrative, so subsidized and necessary, at least right now, companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron, have made more money—as Bill McKibben is fond of pointing out—than anyone in the history of money. For investors, these companies have doled out fast and reliable returns. That’s why churches, retirement funds, and university endowments all have their hands in the fossil fuel pie. However, in the years since McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, he and his non-profit group 350.org—so named for the desire to cut our atmosphere’s CO2 concentration back to 350 parts per million—have been dialing up the pressure on these investors. Using the divestment strategy invented to bring down apartheid, 350.org has traveled around the United States, urging audiences to “Do the Math,” and remove their money from fossil fuel companies. By refusing to leave carbon fuels in the ground, these companies are impeding progress toward a cleaner energy future. Moreover, they are raking in cash while the planet burns, and will continue to do so while people drown and starve for thousands of years to come.  These investments, McKibben argues, are patently unjust and should be socially toxic.

Some institutions are heeding McKibben’s call. The City and County of San Francisco, Unity College, and others have already committed to divestment, and hundreds of major universities in the United States have active campaigns in progress. And while many state and local governments, business, and individuals are seriously trying to reduce their carbon emissions, no actions are enough to avoid devastating ecological and humanitarian consequences. Even if we stopped every car, shut down every coal power plant, factory, home and business in the world, today, carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for nearly a century, raising temperature for decades. And if we do nothing—or not very much—Earth will get warmer, faster, and our climate will increasingly misbehave, our world will look increasingly misshapen. In a recent paper, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen and colleagues wrote that we must act quickly and comprehensively to transition to a zero-carbon economy, “to stabilize climate and avoid potentially disastrous impacts on today’s young people, future generations, and nature.”

The conundrum here is that because modern society runs more or less entirely on fossil fuels, any transition will be incredibly expensive. Experts largely agree that if we want to avoid passing the 2°C limit, by 2030 we must sharply reduce the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, perhaps as much as 80%, and then make a graceful decline to zero. But in the last ten years, emissions have hardly begun to shift downward at all. Such a dramatic shift in our carbon emissions means changing, probably through coercive national and international legislation, how every human being on the planet uses energy. How people get to work, pump water, make clothes and toys and concrete. How they cook, what people cook, how far it travels, even how it’s cultivated. While effective carbon-free technologies exist to generate electricity, like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear power—not to forget simply using energy more efficiently—reaching the right speed of transition will be quite costly: to the tune of trillions and trillions of dollars. And even if we spend trillions to cut emissions, we will still have to deal with climate change—it just won’t be as bad as it could have been. Natural disasters, famines, conflict and water stress will continue to take an increasing cut of global GDP. It’s a mess.

This is why, for the most part, international treaties have amounted to non-binding half-measures. Nobody wants to foot the bill.

In the week before Nelson Mandela’s death, government delegates gathered in Warsaw, Poland, for the 19th round of United Nations climate talks.  Much of these talks have amounted to ritualized standoffs about who should reduce emissions and how fast. China and India, for example, always point out that the Global North brought its citizens out of poverty with the industrial magic of cheap fossil fuels, and they, too, should have that right, despite the desperate need to reduce overall emissions. Americans and Europeans, it is routinely argued, have mostly caused the 0.8°C rise in temperature so far. Even today Americans are responsible for about 20% of world emissions each year—now comparable to China, which adds one coal-fired power plant per week—but we emit a full ten times as much per person.  Put simply, the whole thing is kind of our fault. And since we have yet to enact any ambitious legislation to reduce our impact on the rest of the world, leaders in the Global North don’t have much leverage. Why should nations in the Global South scrape together billions of dollars to prevent a disaster they didn’t start?

And so last week, inevitably, the subject in Warsaw drifted to climate finance. Because most large scale attempts to curb carbon emissions have either failed or are embarrassingly mediocre, much of the talk at Warsaw was about how to finance what’s called “adaptation.” Instead of preventing the storm, so to speak, it seems that some level of storm is inevitable given the current status of negotiations, and so the international community has taken to, metaphorically—and even literally—putting its houses on stilts. While the price tag for adaptation measures—building up levees, installing new dams, irrigation systems, hurricane warning systems, and famine relief capacity around the world—is a demonstrably larger number than the cost of preventing climate change altogether, the need is visible and the benefits are tangible. Plus, jurisdiction falls to regional and local governments, with real, active constituents. The political cost of adapting is perceived to be smaller.

However, from the perspective of countries in the Global South, the picture for adaptation is largely the same, only laced with a sense of pride and tragedy. Why should we pay to evacuate and rebuild our cities after a super typhoon, truck in grain during a famine, suppress popular uprising, staunch civil conflict, find new fishing grounds and water sources, when it is America and Europe who have caused the droughts?

When it is your car, the beef in your hamburger, the thread in your coat, and the warmth of your house that have brought this crisis—the floods, the storms and spreading disease, the heat waves and mass migrations, turning our forests and grasslands into deserts—are we, after a legacy of colonialism and humiliation, supposed to neglect the needs of impoverished citizens so we don’t add another drop in a bucket you have filled? 

While the facts are, of course, a bit more nuanced than this caricature, the basic principles are very real. Countries that have negligibly contributed to global warming in the past are even now being hit with the consequences.  And these people are often the most vulnerable. Especially in Africa, where many nations are climbing from the ruins of colonialism and poor governance, changes in monsoon patterns have already brought debilitating consequences. In a 2010 report, the World Bank points to climate change as a keystone issue in Sub-Saharan Africa, due to the region’s particular vulnerability. This includes,

...the continent’s natural fragility (two-thirds of the surface area is desert or dryland), significant and fragile terrestrial and coastal ecosystems, and high exposure to natural disasters (especially droughts and floods), which are forecast to increase and intensify as climate change progresses. Moreover, the region’s livelihoods and economic activities are very much dependent on natural resources and rainfed agriculture, which are highly sensitive to climate variability. 

Climate isn’t the cause of all the strife in the world, obviously. The point is that climate disasters shake the very foundations of human society—our food, water, and shelter. In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, where in many cases the foundations are already tenuous, this impact is all the more clear.

While biomass provides 80 percent of the primary domestic energy supply in Africa, rainfed agriculture contributes some 30 percent of GDP and employs about 70 percent of the population, and is the main safety net of the rural poor. Added to this is the spread of malaria — already the biggest killer in Africa — to higher elevations because of rising temperatures, compounding the effects of climate change with an increasing disease burden.

And in some bizarre string of cause and effect, logic compels us to feel some responsibility here. It’s not that one single event can be traced to climate change, because weather is always varied, and sometimes even disastrous. But we now understand climate interactions enough to know that some events are more likely in the new world we have created. By warming everything on Earth, by adding more energy into Earth’s budget, we have loaded the dice for powerful and extreme events. We’ve tilted the odds toward disaster. We are beginning to understand that governments, companies, and individuals are needlessly causing the misery and death of millions of economically disadvantaged people. This is institutionalized violence, like apartheid, like slavery, like the fallout from dictatorship and poor governance. Climate change also threatens people’s basic needs, their Human Security. But instead of structuring violence into our laws or our schools or our restaurant norms, we have built violence into the air.

But here’s the most important part of all. Fixing climate change is often compared to a war; it requires the quick mobilization of huge amounts of capital, effort, and technology.  What the news outlets don’t—or can’t—explore, is the crucial difference between a war effort and global action to mitigate and adapt to climate change:  We are fighting an enemy that does not sleep. That cannot surrender, flee, or perish. That doesn’t care about our children, our non-binding agreements, or even its own skin. An enemy that isn’t really a foe at all—it’s in the air, in our blood and our brains, in the steel of our trucks and the coal on our trains. The enemy is us, in the Global North anyway. It’s ExxonMobil, Tyson Chicken. It’s the paper mill down the road; it’s the cows in your yard, the moss under your feet, your grandma’s favorite lamp. How do you mobilize 7 billion primates, with different cultures, gods, myths, histories, geographies and skin color, to fight that?

But it’s not quite that simple either, because while climate change is dangerous already, we are really fighting to protect our children, most of whom do not yet exist. The bottom line is that we are fighting to soften the blow to all humans who will live after us. James Hansen puts it bluntly. “Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice.”  We’ve tilted the odds toward disaster, and the odds will just keep tipping. In a world that is constantly changing, constantly sinking coastal cities, drying out farms, burning forests, and turning the ocean to acid,  it’s hard to imagine a prosperous global civilization, without all that much disease, war, or superstition. Or even the kind of world we have now.

We’ve already sucked resources around the world from healthcare, education, science and music and poetry, from clean water and endless clean electricity—all for the penance of our fossil fuel bacchanal. From 2011 to 2013, for example, the United States alone spent $136 billion on relief for flooding, crop insurance, and other climate disasters.  As Bill McKibben put it in The End of Nature, “Instead of being a category like God—something beyond our control—[nature] is now a category like the defense budget or the minimum wage, a problem we must work out. This in itself changes its meaning completely, and changes our reaction to it” (179).

In Warsaw last week, rather than the likes of the defense budget, which in the United States is over $600 billion, delegates treated the question of climate adaptation in the Global South like a Wall Street Christmas bonus. After 36 straight hours of final deliberations, six European countries pledged only $72.5 million to help countries adapt to climate change.  To secure food, water, and shelter for, in Maya Angelou’s terms, “The poor who live piteously / On the floor of our planet.”  While our televisions, our coffee cups, and our wasted food  endeavor to take them away.

Climate change will not cause the world to end, nor extinguish all life on the planet. Our experience with nuclear weapons has showed us that much: cockroaches and even some bacteria don’t mind radiation, and many creatures in the sea are amazingly tolerant to a range of environments.  Paleoclimatology, furthermore, shows that while climate disasters in the past did wipe out many, even most of life on Earth, that millions of years later life began to flourish again, in ways no observer could predict. However, claims about the end-times appropriately capture the urgency we should feel, that urgency which is so hard to really feel, because the causes and effects are so distant, intellectual, dispersed. For most of us, we can’t seem to make the emotional connection between our consumption and the reverberations throughout this planet. But we must find some path to greater empathy, along with a Mandela-like patience and wisdom, and a capacity to “not withhold forgiveness / Even from those who do not ask.”  And we must hope our kin in the global south find this peace as well. Because we can no longer ignore the fact that our climate change will hurt the poorest and least culpable of our brothers and sisters around the world.

We are knee-deep in an ethical crisis that will define much of the next few centuries. But this time, we must not hide our responsibility in the ethical space between a tank of gas and a super typhoon. In the racist, apartheid excuse of natural law and tradition, of convenience and illusion, or in the white settler’s crutch of deportation and assimilation. We must learn and teach our children that we are all better off if we take care to, in Mandela’s words, “live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” To live in a way that produces an environment conducive to growth, health, stability and happiness. And the first step, worth more than all the adaptation money in the world, is for those of us in the Global North to open our eyes. To see our fingerprints in depths of the ocean and the atoms of the sky, in the bodies of plants and cows, in air bubbles trapped in ice and in the rain on a cassava leaf.

End Notes

Angelou, Maya. “His Day is Done.” 2013.

  United Nations Human Security Unit. “Human Security for All.” Accessed December 13, 2013. http://unocha.org/humansecurity/about-human-security/human-security-all.

  Angelou, “His Day is Done.” 2013.

  Mann, Michael E. The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. Columbia University Press, 2012.

  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, 2013.
  Flannery, Tim. The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth. Grove Press, 2001.

  Fagan, Brian. The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization. Basic Books, 2004.

  IPCC. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, 2013.

  “PwC Low Carbon Economy Index 2012.” PwC, 2012.

  McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone, 2013.

  Hansen, James, Pushker Kharecha, Makiko Sato, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Frank Ackerman, David J. Beerling, Paul J. Hearty. “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.” PLoS ONE 8, no. 12 (December 3, 2013): e81648. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648.

  Goswami, Urmi. “Warsaw Meet: Outcome from Climate Change Talks Remains Fuzzy.” The Economic Times. Accessed December 12, 2013.

  Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - and How It Can Renew America, Release 2.0. Picador, 2009.

  The World Bank. Climate Change Strategy Report, 2010.

  Ibid.

  Brown, Lester R. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.; Gilding, Paul. The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Press, 2012.; Lester, Richard. “In the War Against Climate Change, Look to the States.” The Boston Globe, 2013.

  Hansen, et al. “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change.’” 2013.

  When carbon dioxide is absorbed into the ocean, the water becomes more acidic. This has implications for aquatic life, and since billions of people get their protein from fish, ultimately for people. See: Welch, Craig. “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn.” The Seattle Times, 2013. http://apps.seattletimes.com/reports/sea-change/2013/sep/11/pacific-ocean-perilous-turn-overview/

  Plumer, Brad. “The Government Is Spending Way More on Disaster Relief Than Anybody Thought.” Washington Post, 2013.
  Goswami. “Warsaw Meet: Outcome from Climate Change Talks Remains Fuzzy.” The Economic Times, 2013.
  Angelou. “His Day is Done.” 2013.

  Hall, Kevin D., Juen Guo, Michael Dore, and Carson C. Chow. “The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact.” PLoS ONE 4, no. 11 (November 25, 2009): e7940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940.

  Angelou. “His Day is Done.” 2013.

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