October 2002


Industrialised nations, by their unchecked energy consumption in earlier years, caused the climate problem. It is their duty now to fix it, says the following article.

By David Suzuki

Development, in terms of North/South relations and economic change, is complicated business. It's about politics and economics, society and the environment. But ultimately it's about ethics.

Time and time again, we hear about how we live in a 'global village'. Indeed, radio, satellite television, cell phones and the Internet now allow us to communicate with virtually anyone who possesses the same technology, any time, in any part of the world. Many corporations are also truly 'global'. You can buy a Big Mac or a Coke today in places that had never heard of these luxuries a decade ago.

But globalisation and international development are about much more than just consumer goods or fast food. They're about recognising that all human beings belong to the same species and share a common history, a common environment and a need for natural resources.

Human beings are now the most ubiquitous mammal species on the planet. Our actions have worldwide consequences - to our environment and to each other. That means people living in rural Africa or New York City, on the islands of Tuvalu or in Canada's far north, are no longer strangers, but neighbours. And neighbours, I was taught, look out for one another.

Right now, a huge portion of the world is still living on the wrong side of the tracks.  According  to the World Bank,  1.3 billion people struggle  to survive on US$1 or less a day, while three billion people eke out an existence on US$2 or less a day. That kind of poverty takes its toll through malnutrition, disease, disaster and unrest. And the local environment suffers.

When poor families are starving, protecting an endangered species is the least of their concerns. Endangered or not, if it's edible, they'll kill it and eat it. If they need more range or farmland for cattle or crops, then they'll cut down and burn pristine rainforests. And we can't blame them.

The result is a feedback loop as environmental degradation contributes to poverty, which contributes to more degradation. It's a particular problem for developing nations whose populations tend to be more connected to the environment through farming, fishing, gathering and herding than those living in the developed world. And it's why improving living standards in the developing world is vital to protecting the global environment.

Paradoxically, while it is the poor who suffer the most from environmental degradation, addressing global environmental problems is a duty of the rich. The best example of this is climate change - a problem caused almost entirely by wealthy nations.

At the start of the industrial revolution 200 years ago, no one thought that burning fossil fuels for energy would increase in scale until it destabilised the world climate. What a bizarre notion! Back then, resources - especially the atmosphere - seemed virtually limitless. How could burning a little coal change the world?

The problem, of course, is that we haven't burned just a little, we have burned a lot of fossil fuels, starting with coal, then oil, gasoline and now natural gas. We've gone from consuming the annual energy equivalent of 400 million tonnes of oil two centuries ago to over 30,000 million tonnes today.

Nations that got the jump on the industrial revolution greatly benefited from this energy binge. It has enabled us to build extensive infrastructures for public health, transportation, water, sewer and power. And it's vastly improved the length and quality of our lives.

But burning all that fossil fuel has released enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, which trap heat in the lower atmosphere, thereby causing global warming and climate change. And these changes are just beginning to show.

In the Canadian Arctic, thinning ice is making it harder for some species, like polar bears, to hunt. In the Antarctic, collapsing ice shelves are cooling the waters and threatening the food chain.  In the Himalayas, melting glaciers are creating unstable lakes that pose a flood threat and endanger tens of thousands of people. Extreme weather events, another sign of global warming, also appear to be increasing in frequency and intensity.

Wealthy nations, which have benefited the most from cheap fossil fuel energy consumption, will also suffer the least from climate change. Developing countries, even though they have benefited the least from the fossil fuel bonanza and contributed the least to global warming, will suffer the most.

Why? First, they don't have the money and infrastructures to deal with problems like rising sea levels, expanded disease vectors, increased floods, droughts and other extreme weather events. These new problems will further strain resources that are already overtaxed.

Second, developing countries have the misfortune of geography. They just happen to be located in some of the areas that climate scientists say will be most affected by a changing climate - areas like the sub-tropics and tropics, including sub-Saharan Africa and low-lying island states.

Developing nations already bear the brunt of natural disasters. According to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 88% of those affected by natural disasters - and two-thirds of the people killed by them over the past decade - live in the world's least developed nations. Such disasters are already on the increase and those societies expect them to become much worse as climate change progresses.

That is also the opinion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of climate experts charged by the United Nations to explore climate change issues. According to their most recent report on projected impacts, Africa is 'highly vulnerable' from the effects of a changing climate because of poverty, a reliance on rain-fed agriculture, and susceptibility to droughts and floods. Grain yields are expected to decrease, creating food stress; many local species could become extinct, damaging tourism; and infectious disease vectors could expand, further threatening human health.

Parts of Asia are also highly vulnerable to climate change. Low-lying Bangladesh, for example, could lose 10 to 20% of its land area as sea levels rise. This would greatly increase food insecurity in a country where more than one-third of the people are already malnourished and half do not have access to adequate sanitation. Low-lying island states like Tuvalu could disappear altogether as seas rise, creating the first of potentially millions of 'environmental refugees'.

Industrialised nations have benefited enormously from two centuries of cheap, unchecked energy consumption. We caused the climate problem. It's our responsibility to fix it. We must help developing nations break the cycle of environmental degradation and poverty, not further entrench it.

We can do that by reducing our own pollution and providing the means for developing nations to progress without becoming chained to polluting fossil fuels. Renewable energies, like wind and solar, can provide clean power to homes in areas that currently meet their energy needs with dirty fuels or simply don't have power at all.

Developed nations have an ethical obligation to reduce our emissions that are causing climate change.

To shirk this responsibility and say that we will simply increase humanitarian aid to affected nations as their water tables shrink and their crops wither is to forever deny their people a chance at the prosperity and good health that we currently enjoy. That is unwise politically and practically, for it will condemn a good portion of the world's people to a continued cycle of poverty, which breeds unrest, contempt and violence.

More important, in a globalised world, we cannot pretend that the plight of people on the other side of the planet is not our concern. They are our neighbours. We created the problem. To turn our backs on them now is ethically unconscionable. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Scientist and author David Suzuki is president of the David Suzuki Society, based in Canada.

The above article first apepared in Global Future (Third Quarter, 2002).

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