When it is scientifically realized that a very serious threat to the planet is being caused by the excessive exploitation and use of some materials, then the obvious response should be to reduce, replace with something else and try to phase out such materials. In this way the problem can be resolved. However if this obvious solution is resisted then several complicating situations can emerge.
When it was found that CFCs are harming the ozone layer, then as only a material of limited use was involved, it was possible to find relatively easier solutions, as seen in the Montreal Accord. However in the case of climate change, it is all fossil fuels that were identified as the culprits and these have been spread everywhere in human activities and in meeting human needs. So the challenge was much more complex, and it was clear that human society would have to change in bigger and deeper ways. Before this could be thought out properly, there was an additional problem to be overcome—there were very powerful interests associated with the excessive use of fossil fuels and they were inclined to use their power, political links and resources to oppose any agenda that would be economically harmful and disruptive for them. Hence with their help a powerful lobby emerged which tried to deny or minimize the threat from climate change, and this delayed the emergence of effective actions to check climate change for some time. However with the passage of time increasing scientific evidence became available to further confirm the seriousness of the threat of climate change.
Once the need for reducing and then phasing out fossil fuels was widely recognized, the most obvious solution appeared to be their replacement by alternative sources of energy, particularly the renewables. However it soon became evident that replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy on such a massive scale as required by present levels of industrial and other activities was not possible within the limited time span available. Besides all its practical difficulties, it would be resisted by certain powerful interests. Internationally, this would lead to a new race for grabbing certain kinds of resources useful for renewable energy and this would cause a lot of other problems and tensions.
Once it became clear that all the massive fossil fuel use cannot be replaced by renewable and alternative energy sources, the need for not just scaling up alternative energy but in addition also for reducing the production and consumption of several goods became obvious. Actually a lot of potential has been available for reducing the production of a wide range of destructive, harmful and wasteful goods, ranging from weapons to intoxicants to luxury goods. In addition human activities and settlements could be organized in better ways to reduce the need for commercial energy including fossil fuels. The possibilities of war and conflict could be drastically reduced too.
However once all the more obvious solutions were on the table, it became evident that not just the fossil fuel interests but a lot of other powerful industrial interests too would be opposed to most components of this agenda. So instead of the more obvious solutions others were advanced, including several technological fixes the viability of which has not been well-established at all.
Once the more obvious solutions of a difficult and serious problem are denied, then a number of less reliable solutions are advanced, including some which can be quite harmful. This is what has been happening during recent decades in the context of climate change.
Another important aspect relates to the wider reality within which this agenda has to be considered. The overwhelming present-day reality is that of big inequalities both at international and local levels. After many countries became free from colonial rule, attempts were made to keep them trapped in neo-colonial exploitation. Trade, patents, agriculture, investment, debt and other issues were rigged in such a way as to perpetuate the exploitative system. Keeping in view this reality it would not be surprising if the fast emerging reality of climate change with all the agreements it requires is also used against the poorer countries, and particularly against the farmers, workers and weaker sections of these countries. At the same time big inequalities also exist within various countries and here too there are possibilities that the rich and the privileged will be more concerned about protecting their own narrow interests while ignoring the more urgent needs of the weaker and vulnerable sections in high-risk times.
Hence if powerful interests come in the way of making those changes that are needed for checking climate change in time, then one additional response of the privileged sections of the world may be to further fortify their own protection while leaving the mass of people to their own fate in high-risk times.
In a novella titled ‘A Day in 2071’ I have tried to imagine such a dystopian future in which the elite have created their own fortified, protected areas while risks keep increasing for the bulk of the population, making them even more vulnerable to ruin by disasters as well as exploitation by the elites.
However it is possible to visualize a more justice-based response and to struggle for it. In my novella also a day dawns when people rise to demand more equality and justice in times of increasing risks.
The key issue is precisely that when very big problems arise, humanity should be capable of a justice based response in which the much bigger and more serious, life-endangering problems of the more vulnerable people get a much higher priority, instead of the elites trying to further increase their profits, wealth and dominance all the time.
In the initial phase of the climate change there was acceptance of differential responsibility (the rich industrial countries accepting their much higher responsibility for causing climate change) and for a compensatory arrangement resulting from it, but the rich countries have been moving away from such concerns and the actual compensatory mechanisms that have emerged are very weak and inadequate.
Due to the lack of a justice based response as well as due to the pulls and pressures of powerful interests to block and delay the most important changes that are needed (while also introducing dubious, highly suspect mechanisms in place of real change), the response to the challenge of climate change has become highly distorted and inadequate. Urgent correctives are therefore needed and must not be delayed.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.