“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Yet, when it comes to the effects of climate change, there has been nothing but chronic injustice and the corrosion of human rights.” (Mary Robinson)
By Camille Landry (Program Coordinator)
The most fundamental human right is the right to live. This includes the right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, eat food that does not contain poison and to live in a world that is in balance ecologically, socially, economically, and in other ways. Our political and economic systems wreck the balance of our communities and of the entire planet. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.”
The climate of the entire planet is careening from one unnatural disaster to the next. It is not just a change of weather; it is an ongoing calamity that threatens every living thing on the planet. Hurricanes of record frequency and intensity destroy lives and property. The National Weather Service is considering adding the category F6 to its tornado scale system because the latest F5 storms are so much bigger, fiercer, and more deadly than those we saw just 10 years ago; they are affecting regions that are not accustomed to storms of this type and are not prepared to deal with them.
Polar bears and seals starve because sea ice has melted. We lose Arctic Sea ice at a rate of almost 13% per decade, and over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95%. An ice shelf the size of New York City collapsed in East Antarctica as both of Earth’s poles underwent simultaneous freakishly extreme heat. In the past month, parts of Antarctica have been more than 70 degrees (40 degrees Celsius) warmer than average and areas of the Arctic more than 50 degrees (30 degrees Celsius) warmer than average.
Nearly all land areas are seeing more hot days and heat waves; 2016 was the hottest year on record and 2020 ranked #2. Higher temperatures increase heat-related illnesses and can make it more difficult to work and move around. Wildfires start more easily and spread more rapidly when temperatures are higher.
Hotter temperatures cause changes in rainfall. Water is becoming scarcer in more regions. Reservoirs on every continent run dry. Droughts stir destructive sand and dust storms that move billions of tons of sand across continents. Fertile topsoil blows away, disrupting agriculture. Deserts are expanding, reducing land for growing food. Climate migration has forced millions of people from their lands. Sea levels are rising. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages.
Meanwhile, we use the oceans and inland waterways as dumps. We fill them with toxic chemicals, and with so much plastic that virtually every animal in the ocean has microplastics in its body. So do we. Microplastics have been found in our drinking water and even in rain. They are everywhere, causing untold damage to the environment and the animals who inhabit it. Note well that humans are animals, and we are dependent upon the Earth for our survival.
Much of the damage to the Earth’s climate is the result of greenhouse gas emissions – the release of gases from burning fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas, and petroleum – for energy use.
The list of problems is too long to put into this document but one fact that stands out is that just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. And it’s not just the energy sector. The top 15 U.S. food and beverage companies generate 630 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year.
Corporations are not the only entities that are befouling the planet. The U.S. military is one of the largest climate polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more CO2e (carbon-dioxide equivalent) than most countries. To support the global presence of U.S. troops, the military relies upon trucks, planes, buses, armored vehicles, ships and rockets – all burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases at high rates. A Humvee gets between four and eight miles per gallon; an F-35 requires 2.37 gallons per mile. The U.S. Navy operates 83 nuclear-powered warships (NPWs): 72 submarines, 10 aircraft carriers and one research vessel. These NPWs make up about 40% of major U.S. naval combatants, and they visit over 150 ports in over 50 countries. This presents its own ecological nightmare.
U.S. military operations range from training, infrastructure building, military exercises, blockades, covert and overt acts of war, “humanitarian” missions and the occupation of other countries. It includes the development, testing and manufacturing of weapons, ammunition, and other materiel. Consider also how much particulate matter is thrown into the air every time a bomb or other munitions explode. Another significant source of pollution is from burning obsolete munitions and other unwanted materiel.
The United States spreads this pollution all around the world. According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, the United States military is deployed in most countries around the world, with between 150,000 to 200,000 of its active-duty personnel stationed outside the United States and its territories. Outside of active combat, U.S. personnel are typically deployed as part of several peacekeeping missions, military attachés, or are part of embassy and consulate security. Nearly 40,000 are assigned to classified missions in locations the U.S. government refuses to disclose. The U.S. controls about 800 bases in at least 80 countries worldwide, and has “advisors,” embassy guards, and other personnel stationed in many other nations.
This bloated military machine – larger in scope and cost than the armed forces of the next ten countries combined – is a huge consumer of everything: food, clothing, building materials, fossil fuels, consumer goods, water, chemicals, weapons, nuclear materials, minerals, and more. All of this comes at a huge cost to our environment. The U.S. military has a carbon footprint larger than all of Australia; if it were a country, it would rank #47 in emissions worldwide. Clearly, one of the prices the world pays for U.S. militarism and neocolonialism is a planet teetering on the brink of disaster.
The tipping point
“We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted,” according to data gathered by the United Nations, which states that “we now have five times the number of recorded weather disasters than we had in 1970 and they are seven times more costly.” Several key metrics of planet Earth have already crossed the tipping points, meaning that it is too late to change those conditions; they have passed the point of no return, according to new research signed by over 13,900 scientists from 153 countries.
Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs and the Amazon rainforest may already have been degraded past the point where nothing we can do will change the damage that has already occurred. These systems are vital to the ecology of the planet. The ice sheets, ice caps and glaciers hold 68.7% of the fresh water in the world. If they melt, not only will sea levels rise, but changes in salinity could also stall the Gulf stream – the phenomenon that makes northern Europe and much of the U.S. temperate – and would cause untold harm to the ocean’s ecosystem, worldwide weather patterns, and the face of the earth itself. Coral reefs are essential to the ocean’s health and are home to thousands of species of plants and animals. They also protect shorelines from storms and erosion. They are a source of food and new medicines. Over half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income, and protection.
The giant Amazon rainforest had previously been a carbon sink, absorbing the emissions driving the climate crisis, but is now causing its acceleration. Most of the emissions are caused by fires, many deliberately set to clear land for beef and soy production. But even without fires, hotter temperatures and droughts mean the southeastern Amazon has become a source, rather than a sink, of CO2. The government of Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been harshly criticized for encouraging more deforestation, which has surged to a 12-year high, while fires hit their highest level in June since 2007.
Who pollutes most? Who suffers most?
In another article of our Human Rights Report, we discuss environmental justice and how poor, Black and Brown people suffer most when the planet is despoiled. The poorest people, primarily in the Global South and small island states, are the least responsible for the climate crisis yet have the fewest resources to deal with its consequences.
The top ten emitters of greenhouse gases are the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. It’s important to note that nations emerging from colonial, neocolonial or feudal societies often have little choice other than to use the cheapest and most readily available fuels, even though they’re dirty. Industrialized wealthy nations like the U.S. have a moral responsibility to put the survival of the ecosphere ahead of corporate profits and a bloated military. They should lead by example by using their resources to improve the health of our planet. Pollution doesn’t respect borders!
Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Afghanistan suffer from the most pollution. It’s no surprise that poorer, larger countries are higher up this list than their richer counterparts. There simply isn’t the infrastructure to be quite so pioneering when it comes to protecting their air quality, while their large populations mean that there are more vehicles on the road (many of which are second-hand and emit more emissions than newer vehicles).
Nicaragua is highly vulnerable to climate disasters. Because of its geography, the country experiences powerful storms whose frequency and magnitude have increased due to global warming, which drives the effects of El Niño weather patterns. When weather patterns switch to the La Niña phase, downpours give way to drought; this destroyed 90% of maize and 60% of bean crops in 2016. Political decisions have heavily influenced these conditions: Nicaragua’s Sandinista government under newly re-elected President Daniel Ortega is taking bold and decisive steps to mitigate damage from the climate crisis.
Africa, despite its low contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, is the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts under all climate scenarios above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Africa faces exponential collateral damage that poses systemic risks to its economies, infrastructure investments, water and food systems, public health, agriculture, and livelihoods. The climate crisis threatens Africa’s development gains and will drive higher levels of extreme poverty.
Communities of color in the U.S. fare no better. The people who suffered most from hurricanes Katrina, Isaac, Maria and others were poor, Black, Brown and Indigenous. The people of Detroit, Flint, the Navajo Nation, the Bronx, Chicago, Milwaukee, Alabama, Mississippi and elsewhere suffer and die due to environmental toxins, poisoned water and polluted air. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), addressing environmental injustice, says:
“Climate change is the new normal of more severe storms, like hurricanes Sandy and Isaac, which devastated communities from Boston to Biloxi. Our sisters and brothers in the Bahamas, and Inuit communities in Kivalina, Alaska, and communities in Thibodaux, Louisiana and beyond, will risk property losses to rising sea levels in the next few years.”
What can we do?
Many well-meaning people do what they can to ease the threat of climate destruction. Yet all the individual actions like recycling our refuse, riding bikes or carpooling instead of driving, reusable shopping bags, and other personal actions have a tiny effect on stopping catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate or the despoiling of the land, air and water on which we all depend. These individual actions are a band-aid we’re slapping over a knife wound to the heart. Actual improvement to climate destruction requires massive changes on a worldwide governmental scale. It’s imperative that we stop adding fuel to the fire that is threatening us and take measures now to repair what can be fixed and get ready for what is to come: rising sea levels; drought and flood cycles that devastate lands, crops and people; and the vast humanitarian crises that will result.
The struggles we engage in are not driven by an abstract desire for justice. Our very survival and the survival of our siblings and all other life in this world are at stake. Despite our technology and our hubris, we are animals living in a closed ecosystem on the only planet that we have access to. Our future depends on ceasing “business as usual” and changing the way we live and act. Global capitalism, consumerism and exploitation of the environment and people are a danger to our very existence. We must act now to save ourselves, our future generations, and virtually every animal and plant on the earth.
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