Speaking in Paris on December 7, 2015 – only a morning after the landslide victory of the far right French political party, the UN Secretary General again reminded the world leaders that: “More than 1 billion people worldwide live without electricity. Nearly 3 billion people depend on smoky, dangerous traditional fuels for cooking and heating.
Access to modern, reliable, affordable clean energy is equally important for ending extreme poverty and reducing inequality…The clock is ticking toward climate catastrophe.” Politely ignoring the domestic French politics, as much as the climate change hard-evidence, all international nihilists, professional optimists and other status quo conservators would call it ‘environmental alarmism’…or political alarmism – the same… What is really the state of our planet?
Back in 1990s, there was a legendary debate between two eminent scientists; Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and Ernst Mayr, evolutionary biologist. The issue was the question of all questions – is there any intelligent life out there? Sagan – closer to mathematics, and the counting of starts and worlds attached to it – argued that out of all the innumerable planets like ours, life must flourish at many of them. Quite a few of them, he claimed, must have developed advanced forms of living beings. Mayr – on the other hand – argued the opposite. His pessimism was coming from his profession, not from his character that was as vivid and optimistic as Sagan’s: What is a biology for natural sciences, that is a history for human sciences – spacetime-lined story of the past with a predicament, or sometimes an inevitable consequences, for our future. As prof. Naom Chomski beautifully reminds us of this great episode, Ernst Mayr took our mother planet as an example to illustrate his claim.
The so-called biological success of species could be measure by their number, configuration and durability. By all three parameters, prof. Mayr stressed, the most adaptive systems are those conducting fast (non-cognitive) mutations caused/triggered by any environmental stress (e.g. varieties of bacteria, creatures stuck in a fixed ecological niches, like beetles or some sea biotas), and surviving even larger crisis including the cataclysmic events. But, as we go up the scale of what we assume as intelligence, the systems become less adaptive and scarcer by number, configuration and durability. Arriving to the top (as we classified a tip of the intelligence pyramid), from low mammals to higher primates, apes and Homo sapiens, the species tend to image a rarifying picture – by all three biological success parameters. By Mayr’s account, the average lifespan of upper-intelligence echelons is only around 100,000 years. Out of billions of spices that have inhabited (and quite some still inhabiting) our planet, we – along with other higher primates – are late arrival and temporal ‘accidents’. He attributes this to our intelligence, labeling it as a ‘lethal mutation’ – not a blessing but a curse. Mayr’s finding is intriguing: The higher the intelligence, the more likely to end up in self-destruction, past the transitioning on a curve of initial development.
Indeed, our environmental, financial and politico-economic policies and practices is creating the global stress for us and all other species. Deep and structural, this must be a crisis of our cognitivity. Do we want to prove Mayr right with our global Jihad against cognitive mind?
Cognitive deficit crisis
From Copenhagen, Durban, Rio+20 to the Paris COP 21, our conclusion remains the same: We need principles and accorded actions, as this is the only way to tackle the grave problems of this planet. We are lacking the elementary consensus in/on the Bretton Woods institutions, on the Tobin tax initiative, in the WTO Doha Development round, on nuclear non-proliferation (and NPT), on migrations, on the Middle East and ‘regime change mantra’, in the IPCC, on the post-Kyoto negotiations, and finally on the alarming state of environment. Ergo, on a global scale we fundamentally disagree on the realities of this planet and the ways we can address them.
I am neither moralizing, idealizing nor agonizing. The world based on agreed principles and commonly willing actions is not a better place. It is the only way for the human race to survive.
Climate Change – a brutal terror against nature
We place ourselves in a centre of materialistic world – this, of what we perceive as a universe of dead (and linear) matter. Therefore, what we euphemistically call (anthropogenic) Climate Change is actually a brutal war against (living) nature. It is a covert armed conflict, since we are predominantly using the so-called monetizing-potent ‘technologies’, instead of firearms in our hands. (For this purpose hereby, the army units are replaced by the demolition-man of other name; ‘transnational corporations’.) This armed insurgency is waged against most of what is beautiful and unique on Earth – on the planet that gave us time and space enough to survive as species and to evolve as cognitive life. Thus, the known sustainability matrix of 3 maximums (of good, of species, and of time) becomes the minimum species, minimum time with a maximum harm.
Intentionally or not, it is a synchronized attack: We are steadily and passionately polluting our public sphere with the diverting banalities manufactured by the so-call social networks, reality shows, ‘celebrities’ and the like – trivializing the contents of our lives. At the same time, we are massively contaminating our biosphere (waters, lands, air and near outer space) with non-degradable and/or toxic, solid or aerosol, particles radiation and noise – irreversibly harming our habitat. We pollute the time as well, turning it into cross-generation warfare’s battlefield: Our dangerous patterns might seal off the fate for untold number of generations and sorts of species to come. No wonder, our corrosive assertiveness has (time-space) parallels: acidifying of oceans and brutalization of our human interactions, as well as over-noising both of them, are just two sides of a same coin. What is the social sphere for society that is the biosphere for the very life on earth: the (space/time – content/form) frame we all live in.
Seems we pay our space (linear possessions) by our time (future). Therefore, our crisis cannot be environmental, as it was never a financial or security (war on terror) – our crisis must be a moral one. This is a cognitive deficit crisis, which we eagerly tend to spend in a limbo of denial!
Πάνταρει (panta rhei)
Nature does not change. Change (as a cosmic constant) is a nature itself. Still, even Heraclitus understood, this force is never eruptive or destructive (explosive, combusting and polarising), but eternally gradual and constructive (holistic, inclusive and implosive).
We are drifting, dissolving and retreating on all levels and within each and every organic (marine and continental biota) or inorganic (soil, glaciers, water, polar caps, etc.) system. For the grave, burning (hydrocarbon) planetary problems, our human race needs an urgent and lasting consensus which presupposes bravery, virtue, vision and creativity. All this will not result from fear of coercion (social haircut, austerity, financial straitjacket), from a further militarization of our societies caused by the accelerated confrontations called ‘war on terror’, but from the universally shared willingness to accord our common planetary cause. Cognitive mind can do it all.
Let’s start our global war on terror – but this time – on the terror of a global environmental holocaust caused by our cognitive deficit crisis.
 Additionally, we fundamentally disagree on a role to be played by technology, even on a very definition of what should be considered as technology. Technology is not a state-of-art of science; technology is a state of mind! It is not a linear progression in mastering the natural science disciplines, but a cognitive, emphatic cluster–mastering of the critical insight.
1.Ki-moon, B. (2015), Remarks to the opening of the High-Level session of the COP21, December 7, 2015, UNIS (Office of the Spokesperson of the UN SG)
2.Chomsky, N. (2010), Human Intelligence and the Environment, University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill (Paper)
3.Sagan, C. (1980), Cosmos Random House, NY /Carl Sagan Productions Inc. (page: 109)
4.Dresner, S. (2002), The Principle of Sustainability, EarthScan London
5.Smith, L.C. (2010), The World in 2050 – Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, Dutton (by Penguin group)
Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems
Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion. This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th. The weather service holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast. In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.
While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour. That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.
Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died. Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton. The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000. However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely.
Following Ida was hurricane Larry. Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north. These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists. Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity. They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013. This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.
Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern. This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes. Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.
For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard. Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland. In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals.
Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future. The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals. It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa. Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean.
The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.
All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon.
Human activity the common link between disasters around the world
Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.
The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.
A consequence of human influence
The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.
Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.
Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.
An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.
This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.
COVID and the Cyclone
Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.
In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.
When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.
The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.
The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.
Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.
The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.
“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”
Solutions also linked
However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.
The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution
Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.
1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment
It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.
Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.
Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.
2) The main causes
Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.
Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.
Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.
Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.
3) This is an urgent issue
The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.
On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.
4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector
On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.
Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.
Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.
5)…and it is our responsibility, as well
At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.
Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.
The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.
How clean is your air?
You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.
The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
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