Is it all mere talk on climate action?


On Sept 28, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (pic) threw down the gauntlet to world leaders and the media in her opening speech to the Youth4Climate summit in Milan: “We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah blah blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action.”

AT the end of this month, the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), under the presidency of the United Kingdom, will begin.

This time around, expectations are high that something must be done to improve on the commitments made by governments at Paris COP21 in 2015.

On Sept 28, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg threw down the gauntlet to world leaders and the media in her opening speech to the Youth4Climate summit in Milan: “We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah blah blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action.”

Climate action optimists welcome United States president Joe Biden’s commitment to double US aid to developing countries on climate action.

Chinese president Xi Jinping agreed to stop financing new coal projects abroad. This week, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam promised in her policy address to spend US$30.8bil (RM129bil) and create a Climate Change and Carbon Neutrality Office to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. For Hong Kong to finally address climate threats is welcome news.

Climate pessimists like Greta Thunberg are justifiably disillusioned by more green talk and less real deliverables.

They feel betrayed by public leaders who repeat electoral promises that result in widening social inequalities, growing debt and planetary damage that coming generations have to clean up.

They see businesses pushing consumerism that ends up destroying the planet through more carbon emission, pollution and biodiversity loss.

At long last, more corporate leaders have moved from the denial phase to greenwashing their corporate strategies through environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting.

Funeral directors at least see calamities and deaths as profit opportunities.

Under the lockdown during the pandemic, I zoomed with six experts who have deep experience in epidemiology, finance, complexity science, urban planning, water and food disciplines to collectively think through how we can help the young tackle the looming climate change crisis.

Coming from different disciplines enabled us to cut through the silos in thinking, arrive at less technical jargon and move from theory towards a practical approach to speeding up real Climate Action.

The 2021 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC6) published recently basically signalled that time is running out.

If no serious action is taken by 2030, the world would witness temperatures rising more than two degrees Celsius, with the poorer countries bearing the brunt of losses.

The faster the planet heats up, the greater the losses, the less time to mitigate and adapt to worsening conditions.

Climate damage has moved from crisis to catastrophic proportions, with melting of the Artic permafrost, the loss of Amazonian rainforests and rising sea levels.

By 2040, 700 million people are likely to face droughts of at least a six-month duration, double the historical average.

The world would have another 1.4 billion people to feed.

Our group therefore focused on Buying Time for Climate Action; a forthcoming book to map out the key barriers to climate action and think through how to act.

Given the complexity of climate change at different geographies and national and local conditions, there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution.

Complex problems do not always have simple solutions, but the general principles to tackle these complex problems must be simply understood for effective implementation.

God takes care of elegant principles, but the devil is in the details.

Finding human solutions under complexity and uncertainty is therefore less about theory and all about experimentation and practice through diversity, exactly how Nature copes with profound change.

We must learn to live with Nature and fight less with each other.

The worst pandemic in a century required mobilisation at all levels of government and society. There may be more disasters and conflicts to come. Thus, we must move out of war against each other to mobilisation like a war on climate action.

Everyone, especially the young, should be motivated to change their consumption patterns and behaviour.

The stumbling blocks to action that we identified – finance, talent, vested interests, bureaucracy and political will – can be overcome.

Many climate activists complain that money and talent are in short supply. Ironically, central banks were able to print US$9 trillion (RM38 trillion) in 2020 alone, whilst there are millions of young who are willing to work passionately to innovate our way towards a green and inclusive future.

We simply need to build the social media platforms that are able to deliver the necessary technical know-how and resources (crowd-funded if need be) to the thousands of projects and programmes at the grass-root level to help deliver change.

The vested interests that stand to lose from change are resisting action, whereas bureaucracies designed for status quo are reluctant to change. Change cannot come without political will and public support. Brexit and the pandemic showed that scientific solutions are not enough when a significant proportion of the population react emotionally to oppose change.

In short, technology, science and knowhow exist for technical climate solutions. Money is also available, but not channelled to where it is needed, because as economists say, climate change creates market failures.

The state needs to work with markets, namely businesses and the community, in a whole-of-society effort. Getting the political will and support therefore is therefore a mindset barrier.

This book’s conclusion therefore is that we should think globally within the concept of OneEarth, but act locally now. We must act locally because climate mitigation and adaptation projects are only implemented at the local level, but they may need national technical assistance and resource allocation, supplemented by global aid.

The British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, who gave the keynote and opening chapter to the book, understood well that “we can be technological optimists, but the intractable politics and sociology engender pessimism.”

The young will not wait for fatalistic pessimism. They want action today.

Greta Thunberg is therefore right. No more time for blah, blah, blah. It’s up to leaders like Biden, Xi and Lam to prove that she is wrong, fast.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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