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Ecosophy: New Philosophy, Ethics of Care, a New Humanism, or a mere Reinvention of the Wheel already discovered?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Much more than a simple ecology, ecosophy is a wisdom-spirituality of the earth. The new balance is not so much between man and the Earth, but between matter and spirit, between spatio-temporality and consciousness. Ecosophy is not simply a science of the earth (ecology) and even wisdom on earth, but the wisdom of the earth itself that occurs when a man knows how to listen with love.”–Raimon Pannikar

In ancient Greece, the word cosmos designated nature’s grand universe; the organizational pattern of the universe as our greatest context as well as the organizational pattern inherent in human society. This relatedness of nature and society in harmony with each other also held for the human mind or psyche that is preoccupied with them, so all three – universal nature, human society, and individual psyche/mind – were seen as embedded levels of our complete world, and all three were based on the same organizational principles and laws of operation or conduct.

In this truly cosmic model, the Greeks believed that if we knew how the greater cosmos was organized, we would know how to organize our smaller human cosmos, the world of the polis or Plato’s Republic, for the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. The greater cosmos came out of chaos, which was not seen as the disorder conjured up by that word, but as the unpatterned no-thing-ness of the universal source, the infinite potential (more as in today’s chaos theory) within which all arises. Thus, the matter of how cosmos-as-order arose and functions was of supreme importance for the Greeks.

To create a harmonious human cosmos within nature’s greater cosmos, the Greeks believed that the human mind and emotions would have to be trained to function by the principles of harmonious cosmic organization. Epic poems, ancient Greek drama, and eventually even logic and metaphysics were all teaching tools. Dramas about terrible tragedies wove together the levels of cosmos in order to teach people democracy – what difficult or horrific situations could befall people, what decisions had to be made, what consequences must be dealt with when bad decisions were made individually or collectively, how cosmic influences moved between levels. Comedy taught similar lessons by spoofing how people actually behaved in order to promote better behavior, as in Aristophanes’ plays Lysistrata wherein women scheme to make peace when men fail to do so.

Another familiar ancient Greek word, philosophy, etymologically meant love of wisdom (philo = love; sophia = wisdom) and was used to designate the pursuit of wisdom by studying the natural world for guidance in human affairs. This was especially true for the pre-Socratics who at times are called the cosmologists, before Socrates began the searching for wisdom interiorly within the human conscience and initiated ethics as a branch of philosophy. The cosmologists assumed that the study of nature would reveal patterns of relationships applicable to human society – patterns that would help people organize and conduct their own lives, the lives of their families and their society wisely. There was destiny in the stars, hence the importance of astrology. Thus, philosophy, from the outset, encompassed what later was designated as natural science, the term ‘science’ coming into use only in the Middle Ages.

The Greeks were aware that understanding nature, including our own human nature, would help us live on Earth more intelligently and peacefully. To know one’s nature is to know how to live in harmony. Sadly, science abandoned that mission when philosophy became an independent field of knowledge while the systematic study of nature became ‘science,’ from the Latin scientia, a word implying knowledge, and the analytical separation or division of things into parts to understand them. The dichotomy began in the 17th century with Francis Bacon and signals the arrival of the modern sensibility, or perhaps a better term would be “insensibility” toward nature, which to put it mildly is nothing short than that of a rapist toward a woman whom he wants to control and exploit.

With the arrival of such a dichotomy, wisdom, which was part of the original understanding of science disappears or is relegated to philosophy understood esoterically as a very broad pursuit in its own right, based on thinking instead of experimentation or other formal scientific research. Meanwhile, within science the Greek notion that studying nature can bring wisdom in the running of human affairs was simply neglected and even lost.

Enter Ecosophy, often called deep ecology, which usually presents itself as something brand new, a new philosophy, a new Renaissance spurred by the ecological crisis of our times and able to save human-kind from its self-destructive tendencies.

Now, given the relationship to nature that the ancient Greeks explored as above argued, the question arises: is ecosophy, this latest modern synthesis of scientific ecology and philosophy, merely a reinventing of the wheel, the wheel already discovered by the ancient Greeks? The answer, I am afraid, has to be both yes and no, which may sound like an evasion or a paradox. But let me explain. The answer is yes in the sense of what we in modern times have regretfully forgotten about our cultural origins; as in so many other fields of knowledge disproportionately influenced by modern deterministic-mechanistic science, we, especially those of us committed to a positivistic approach to the apprehension of reality, continue to conclude that ancient philosophy too is a passé, long superseded anachronism, with some latent cultural-historical value, to be sure, but practically useless to solve our pragmatic ecological problems, the sooner disposed, the better. Within this line of thinking, modern science divorced from philosophy must at all costs have the last word, because it is the latest of human developments; what arrives at the end of a process, evolutionary or otherwise, has to be the best because it is the latest and most modern and most progressive; and progress, after all, is all but inevitable and unstoppable. This of course is positivism with a vengeance, which continues to be taken for granted by so many knowledgeable intelligent persons; but is it reasonable? Let’s briefly explore this assumption. When we do we also find out that the answer is not only yes but also no.

For a while, since Descartes’ rationalistic philosophy came into being announcing modernity in the 17th century, we have assumed that the universe is a great machine. And yet, lately our astronauts, who have seen the Earth from far above it, are speaking of an Earth that feels very much alive to them. From a rather depressing scientific story of a non-living material universe accidentally giving rise to all within it, and devoid of meaning or purpose, those astronauts as well as many notable physicists are beginning to enunciate a brand new more hopeful and visionary story strangely resembling that of the ancient Greeks: that the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine and that we are, in some way, its conscious co-creators, active responsible agents for a living Earth, not mere fatalistic victims of our destiny as consumers of stuff. “In the beginning was the Word” may be just as good, just as reasonable, if not better, than “in the beginning there was a big bang which began the process of entropy and final dissolution.”

I said “a new story” purposefully. In Italian the word “storia” the way a Vico interprets it, has two meanings: it can designate a myth, as well as well as history documented by humans about events effecting their existence. Few would disagree that we humans always have been, from time immemorial, and probably always will be, storytellers. Whether we create our stories from the revelations of religions or the researches of science, or the inspirations of great artists and writers or the experiences of our own very personal lives, we live by the stories we believe and tell to ourselves and others. As Thomas Berry, walking in the footsteps of Giambattista Vico and Teilhard de Chardin, one of the authors of the word ‘ecology,’ said quite cogently: “We cannot tell the human story without telling the Earth’s story.”

Vico, Jung and Campbell discovered that certain archetypes of mythology were held in common by many ancient cultures. Of course the story most often referred to as the quintessential “Hero’s Journey” is that of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. Campbell intimates that such a myth or story is incomplete. What happens to Ithaca after Ulysses’ return and heroic challenge of his wife’s suitors? Does the island, having returned to order and stability, become a sustainable resources’ society thriving in peaceful prosperity? We are not told; we need to fill the gap. It has been noted by some eco-sophists that Darwin’s evolution story is like the youthful adventures of Ulysses which now needs to be replaced by another adventure with the goal of building a mature ecologically stable society. Progress cannot be stopped. And this, of course, is positivistic.

Alas, in our modern positivistic world obsessed with explaining how the universe works but wholly disinterested in its ultimate meaning and destiny, story seems to have lost its vital importance. We have assumed since Descartes, since the empiricists and the positivists, since Darwin, that science alone could lead us to the truth, as story never did or could. We misguidedly thought that myths were mere fairy tale story for children or ignoramuses and then doubled up on that assumption by declaring the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection just another ethnic Hebrew myth comparable to the myth of Atlas or Thor. We assumed a reality independent of humans – a material-mechanistic (lately morphed into a cybernetic) universe that could be studied objectively without the human interfering in it in any way. In more poetical terms, we banished the gods and we declared the lord of the Universe dead.

When however, physicists discovered that all the universe was composed of energy waves and that every instance of our human reality was a wave function collapsed from sheer probability by a conscious observer, they were slightly surprised and everything began to change. That discovery meant that our world is produced in our consciousness and that language, to put it in Heideggerian terms, is the house of Being; that the Kantian phenomenon includes human consciousness- that realities are not fixed scenarios in which we grope our way about, but ever-changing creations we ourselves ‘bring forth’ both individually and collectively through our beliefs and actions. In other words, a universe more like a great thought than like a great machine appears; one that is more like a storytelling universe we make up as we go than like a stable physical reality in which we grope our way about. A universe more likely to be found in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel than in Galileo’s scientific astronomy. Of course the hard-nosed positivist will continue to insist that such is the delusion of people unable to bear the brutal reality revealed by a material mechanistic universe.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my oculist, who in attempting to explain to me the incredible complexity of the human eye (and non-human animal’s eye too), blurted out the following: only a fool can think that this kind of complexity simply came about by sheer chance. He then agreed with my observation that the ancient Greeks might have well had it on target all along by postulating a nous, or a Cosmic Mind or Cosmic Intelligence behind the purpose (telos) and orderliness exhibited by the cosmos.

Indeed, it takes time for the new scientific stories of a conscious living universe and Earth to percolate. But philosophers of science such at Thomas Kuhn have by now made it clear that science can only give us useful hypotheses, not truths. Even the ever-more-obsolete scientific beliefs and findings told us a story, and a very powerful story at that. It told us we lived in a one-way universe beginning with a Big Bang and running down ever since like a battery depleted in the process of powering all the random collisions that gave us galaxies and our world. Some of those collisions, we were told, brought about certain molecules that sprung rather magically to life, but life – so the (largely Darwinian) story goes – became a struggle for survival in fierce competition before the running-down tide called ‘entropy’ eventually sweeps all life away.

This was a tragically misleading story. We abandoned community, cooperation and solidarity, as proclaimed by great religions of the world, to individualism, social Darwinism and greedy competitive selfishness a la Ayn Rand, and turned our human civilization into a capitalistic, competitive ‘Get what you can, while you can’ globalized shopping mall. Some now call it “globalization” whose main feature is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We have been frantically chopping down, drilling, digging and scraping up Earth’s ‘resources’ as if – or rather, because – we expected no tomorrow. We have literally put ourselves into the Sixth Great Extinction and are the first of Earth’s species to create such disaster. Only Earth’s very first creatures, her most ancient bacteria, came close to our destructiveness, causing both global hunger and global pollution in turn. They found a solution, we have not yet by transforming themselves into cells.

Primeval bacteria, our deep ecologists tell us, had Earth to themselves for almost two billion years – fully half of all biological evolution, and crossed a the tipping point which led to evolving the evolution of the nucleated cell as a giant bacterial cooperative. These cells, being new on Earth, then went through their own competitive youth for a billion years until they crossed point into full fledged maturity by evolving multi-celled creatures, to wit Humanity which in turn crossed another tipping point when tribes built the first cities collectively as centers of worship and trade that we are only now discovering in South America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

These city cooperatives too have been experiencing their own youth as cities became the centers for competitive empire-building over thousands of years up to national and now corporate empires. We have at last reached a new tipping point where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration, where planetary limits of exploiting nature have been reached. Will we have the courage and the wisdom to cross it?

There is cause for optimism in this regard. Just as everything seemed hopeless, we suddenly have a cause for new hope. In such a sense the answer to our initial question continues to be no: what is going on is not a mere imitation or a reinvention of the wheel of ancient Greece; it is only that if we do not know the history of ancient Greece; there is something added, just as the Renaissance was not just a reinvention or imitation of the wheel of ancient Greece, there was an added value which was unknown to the Greeks: Christianity and the good news that this God was immanent within the universe and participates in its history. That changes the meaning of the story. We are slowly discovering that rather than wait for saviors to save us, we may have the power to save ourselves. How are we to do it? By first changing our story. From cogs within the wheels of a mechanized industrialized world, satirized so masterfully by Charlie Chaplin in one of his silent movies, we have developed a technology—the Internet—that is able to give us the capacity for collaboration and genuine communication. Now we can all save ourselves; not one at a time but together as a human species. We seem to have finally intuited that there is something hopelessly immature about the competing and fighting and grabbing going on at the highest levels of human society. Some have called it Capitalism and have added that it is the best economic system ever devised by man. Reality does not bear that out.

But the call to humanity goes on. Community as a concept, finally having lost the taint of its association with communism and its political agenda of world domination, is in wonderful revival as local self-sufficiency and sustainability become very human and very practical goals in an uncertain world. Caring and sharing are replacing competing and grabbing, in no small measure due to the increasing empowerment of women, who have always held these values and are promoting an ethics of care, care for the Earth who is the mother of us all, as St. Francis so wonderfully expressed in Italian literature’s first poem “The Canticle of the Creatures.” Indeed, many see this as a final growing-up and maturity of humanity. We can be thankful for this new Renaissance, so to speak, to the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, Da Vinci (who conceived of no dichotomy between science and art), Vico, de Chardin, Berry, Sparenberg, Capra, Kuhn, Pannikar, not to speak of the various founders of ecosophy such as Ness and Eisler.

That wisdom expressed by those visionaries, is inherent in the nearly four billion years of Earth’s evolution. Species after species, from the most ancient bacteria to us, have gone through a maturation cycle from individuation and fierce competition to mature collaboration and peaceful interdependence. The maturation tipping point in this cycle occurs when species reach the point where it is more energy efficient – thus, less costly and more truly economic – to feed and otherwise collaborate with their enemies than to kill them off. But the process is not inevitable, for if it were, then we would be determined robots devoid of free will.

A final caveat is in order here: we need to be careful not to characterize this positive hopeful trend called ecosophy deterministic and inevitable or we shall fall once again in the trap of the narcissistic, idolatrous worship of “inevitable progress.” Man’s freedom needs to be preserved and protected because it is part of his identity. Without self-knowledge, as Socrates reminded us, no way forward is possible. We shall not know what are the ethical imperative consonant to human nature. The maturity brought about by time and experience is important but there is also decrepitude to consider. To refuse to change in the name of a pseudo-conservatism, deluding oneself that immobility insures order and stability, is to forget that immobility can also be a sign of decay and death. There is a kind of democracy in the cemetery: they are all equally dead and immovable.

Mark Twain tells a story of his 18 years old daughter thinking of him as the most stupid man in the world, but by the time she was 25, she was surprised at how much “the old man” had learned and matured in seven short years. What Twain is driving at is that the one who had changed was not him but his daughter. She had matured, of course, but she had also acquired wisdom or she would have continued to think of her father as the most stupid man in the world, no matter how many years passed. Wisdom can be an eternal idea but as Plato put it, nobody can be a genuine philosopher before the age of 50.

It is to be fervently hoped that human-kind has matured enough to realize that Ecosophy can not only unite our separate categories of economics, ecology, finance, politics and governance, but can also wonderfully unite science and spirituality, secularity and religion, and thus be the harbinger of human values into the entire human enterprise; as such it also represents a new humanism on the horizon. This new humanism cannot even be imagined till we have at least an inkling of the old humanism of the 14th century.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

Meena Miriam Yust

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

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The Climate Action Summit Fiasco

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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No one could fail to be touched by the fear (for the future) and urgency in Greta Thunberg’s young voice as she broke down while addressing world leaders on the last day of the UN Climate Summit.  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the oceans showed a worse prognosis, the patient is clearly worse.

Sad to say, despite all Greta’s efforts, nothing happened — no commitment by any of the major polluters.  Trump sauntered by before going on to mock her in his address — a grown man bullying a 16-year old girl! 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wanted a commitment to the higher ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5C instead of 2C.  He got excuses, and of course no promise of net zero by 2050 from any major polluter.  Net zero implies balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal.  He also wanted a commitment to no new coal plants beyond 2020. Instead China, India and Turkey will be shamelessly expanding coal power well beyond that date. 

China wanted the developed nations to take the lead due to their long history of emissions and consequent responsibility.  It refused to make concrete commitments unless the US and EU did so.  The EU blames Poland, a coal exporter; the US has Mr. Trump.  In the end none of the major polluters (China, India, EU, US) did although 80 other countries pledged to reach net zero by 2050. 

Included in the 80 who pledged were 47 least developed countries (LDCs) although they are the least responsible for the emissions.  They have also been victimized by past colonialism, slavery, and for many the IMF’s notorious structural adjustment programs.

The climate data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) presented at the summit is sobering:  Global temperatures are up 1.1C since 1850 of which a 0.2C (or near 20 percent) rise occurred from 2011 to 2015.  The five-year period from 2014 to 2019 is the hottest on record while carbon emissions over the same period are up 20 percent from the previous five years.  Sea level rise since 2014 has averaged 5mm annually while the 10-year average up to 2016 was only 4mm.

One consequence of the sea level rise and warmer temperatures has been the human catastrophe from the unprecedented storms in Mozambique and the Bahamas recently.

Ninety percent of the excess heat from climate change is absorbed by water, and the WMO recorded the highest ocean heat content on record in 2018.  It poses a special danger for the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic.  New research (July 2019) also finds melt under the water surface from glaciers reaching the sea and icebergs is ‘orders of magnitude’ greater than previously believed.  It threatens a dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century.  

Professor Brian Hoskins, a meteorologist from Imperial College London warns, “Climate change due to us is accelerating and on a very dangerous course,” adding “We should listen to the loud cry from the school children …”  No one is listening Professor, despite human-induced warming exacerbating storms, wildfires, heatwaves, coastal flooding, etc.  No, not a single major polluter stood up to make a commitment.  The EU blames Poland which relies on coal exports and has veto power over any EU-wide policy; the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia scrupulously avoided the event as if it were a plague.

The IPCC officially adopted its report on oceans and the cryosphere (those portions of Earth’s surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and frozen ground).  Compiled by 100 scientists, it  forecasts a catastrophic rise in sea levels, coastal flooding and worsening disasters.  It moved none of the implacables — not even the terrifying fact that Greenland’s ice sheet alone can raise sea levels by 20 feet.  All of it was ignored and instead of a breakthrough, the IPCC was left touting its evidence and reports at the end of the summit.

To summarize, nothing happened.  The climate action summit became a climate inaction summit, and the climate can was kicked down the road to Chile for the next IPCC meeting in December. 

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Actions not words: What was promised at the UN’s landmark climate summit?

MD Staff

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Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg , speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. UN Photo/Cia Pak

UN Secretary-General warned leaders not to come to his landmark Climate Action Summit with beautiful speeches, but to present concrete plans for cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050. So what, exactly, was promised at Monday’s all-day event at UN Headquarters in New York?

Profiting from sustainability

The private sector had a chance to demonstrate how it can bring about real positive change, when 87 major companies – with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion, over 4.2 million employees, and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants – committed to setting climate targets across their operations.

These businesses include well-known brands such as Burberry, Danone, Ericsson, Electrolux, IKEA, and Nestlé. A number of these companies (you can find the full list here), went a step further, by committing to “science-based targets”, which means that their corporate emissions cuts can be independently assessed.

Speaking at the UN Global Compact Private Sector Forum, Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate with over 200,000 employees, said that more and more business leaders are waking up to the fact that sustainability and profit go together, and that climate action represents the biggest business opportunity of the next few decades.

In the finance sector, some of the world’s largest pension funds and insurers, responsible for directing more than $2 trillion in investments, have joined together to form the Asset Owner Alliance, which committed to moving their portfolios to carbon-neutral investments by 2050. The members of the Alliance are already engaging with companies in which they are investing, to ensure that they are decarbonizing their business models.

Unlocking the power of nature

Using the power of nature is believed to be one of the most effective and immediate ways to address the climate crisis. Strengthening natural ecosystems such as forests, for example, is one such solution: more forests means more capacity for carbon capture, and replanting mangrove forests provides an effective and cheap natural barrier against coastal floods and shoreline erosion.

Monday saw the launch of several initiatives designed to boost nature-based solutions. These include the Global Campaign for Nature, which plans to conserve around 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030; a High-Level Panel for the Sustainable Ocean Economy, which will build resilience for the ocean and marine-protected areas; and the Central African Forest Initiative promises to protect the region’s forest cover, which provides livelihoods for some 60 million people.

Cleaning up cities

It is now possible to construct buildings that are 100 per cent net-zero carbon emitters, and the Zero Carbon Buildings for All initiative is pledging to make all buildings – new build and existing – net zero carbon by 2050. This could potentially lead to a $1 trillion investment in developing countries, by 2030.

A total of 2000 cities committed to placing climate risk at the centre of their decision-making, planning and investments: this includes launching 1,000 bankable, climate-smart urban projects, and creating innovative financing mechanisms.

Tackling traffic congestion and pollution is the aim of the Action Towards Climate Friendly Transport initiative, which includes actions to plan city development in a way that minimises travel, shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to non-motorized and public transport, and increase the use of zero-emission technologies.

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