Big Smile, No Teeth: Eventually, we will all be affected by the climate crisis

  • Living
  • Sunday, 12 Jan 2020

A image of two photos combined showing Victoria Falls in January 2019 with water (left) and December 2019 with barely a trickle. — Reuters

Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, are one of the seven natural wonders of the world. When I visited the falls from the Zimbabwean side back in 2006, they made their presence known from a long way away. First, you could hear the unmistakable sound of hundreds of millions of litres of water pouring over the cliff. Second, even a kilometre away, there was a mist. Like it was a sun shower. Water falling from the sky from the enormity of the deluge that are the Victoria Falls.

The falls are famous for being the largest in the world during the wet season. Currently, though, Victoria Falls could more accurately be called Victoria Cliff. The flows of water there have gone from 550 million litres to a mere fraction of that. Indeed, photos of the famous falls now show a dark cliff. With some patches of water at its base.

What’s happening?

If you guessed climate crisis, you’re probably right. Zambia has been suffering from a drought for two years, the worst in its history. And if you’ve guessed that the worst drought of the century isn’t just disappointing tourists looking for their Instagram photo op at the falls, you’re right. Because droughts also tend to make it hard to grow food. Parts of Zambia are nearing famine conditions and since the temperature in southern Africa is expected to rise by twice the global average, the outlook for the future isn’t good.

“Climate apartheid”. This is a term coined by Phillip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. “We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer,” he said to media ahead of the release of his report in June 2019.

Climate apartheid is happening right now.

Rene Castro Salazar, an assistant director- general at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, has noted that the world could slow the climate crisis by restoring land that has been degraded. He estimates two billion hectares of land around the globe has been rendered useless for growing anything, but around 900 million hectares could be restored.

By restoring this land and growing any vegetation on it, the soil could suck up carbon from the atmosphere. Not literally the soil. But the vegetation in the soil. Plants are a pretty good carbon sink. (Theoretically, we could solve the entire climate change crisis by planting enough trees, though in practice this is harder to make work.)

This would stabilise the atmosphere, mitigating the temperature rise that caused drought conditions in Zambia and intense flooding in Indonesia and exacerbated forest fires in Australia. It would also give us 15 to 20 years to come up with another solution for the climate crisis.

But his solution is far from cost free. Salazar estimates it would cost US$300bil (RM1.2tril) to make all that degraded land usable again. A pretty hefty cost. Until you think about what we’re spending our wealth on. US$300bil is the world’s military spending in 60 days. Although, if we spend that much trying to kill each other at least the climate crisis is still on that same theme....

Also, according to Bloomberg, the world’s wealthiest 500 people gained US$1.2tril (RM5tril) in 2019, boosting their net worth to US$5.9tril (RM24tril). But Zambia’s drought will continue, the forest fires in Australia and previous ones in California will become annual occurrences, as will more and more extreme weather events. This is what climate apartheid looks like.

Is it those wealthy individuals’ responsibility to dedicate their fortunes to save the world? That would be nice but that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing that we have enough wealth in our world to save it. Yet we continually sit back and let things deteriorate because right now WE are a part of climate apartheid. All of us who continue with our lives as if it’s business as usual are a part of climate apartheid. Because we can afford to pay to ignore it.

The poor in Zambia who are short on food can’t. The people who have lost their homes in Australia and Indonesia aren’t a part of climate apartheid anymore. They’ve felt the effects of the crisis.

The thing is, all of us will eventually feel the effects. Because climate apartheid only goes so far. Wealth and distance can insulate you, perhaps for a long while, but like Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club, “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero”.

On a long enough timeline, if we continue on this course the climate crisis will destroy our world no matter your economic status. We’re in this together. Rich and poor. We better start acting like it.
Avid writer Jason Godfrey – a model who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at and check out his stuff at The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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