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Climatic refugees: Natural calamities and migration flows

image credit: Frontex/Francesco Malavolta

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The London-based Institute of Economics and Peace has presented a Report with a profound insight into environmental dangers that threaten countries and territories and could jeopardize socio-economic stability worldwide. According to the Report, “in 2050 the living space of more than one billion people may turn out under threat”. This could be the result of climatic changes, “hurricanes, floods, deficit of water and food”. “Many residential areas will no longer be habitable”

In the estimates of the authors of the Report, climate changes affect the rate and direction of movement of masses of people in at least two ways. Firstly,  the more profound they are, the stronger the impact of natural disasters on the living environment will be. Secondly, these processes will depend on the extent of the climate change – caused destabilization in the sphere of food security, on whether they will restrict or close access to fresh water and food for a significant number of people.

In turn, the dynamics and geography of migration have an immediate impact on the structure of the population in countries and regions. Meanwhile, in terms of politics,  demography plays a major role in determining the level of  stability and ascertaining the historical prospects for political regimes. It produces a tangible influence on social policy, geopolitical potential, and domestic electoral processes.

Poor countries with a growing population will run the risk of plunging into “political instability and violence”. A decrease in the number of employable residents will likely have a negative impact on the rates of the economic growth “in mainly developed and in some developing countries”.  Cross-border migration will become an ever more important factor in political processes. Maximum population growth is expected over the next 20-30 years in Africa, which is home to most poor and unstable countries. Under a negative scenario, this will trigger a new wave of global migration “of unprecedented scale” which will provoke blatant interference in the affairs of the region on the part of foreign powers.

According to the Report, such countries as India and China are more than others likely to experience shortages of fresh water. While Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Mozambique and Madagascar are facing “a combination of threats which they find ever more challenging”. In the estimates of the authors of the research, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Iran are countries where “a slight deterioration” of the environmental situation, along with natural calamities, can produce a significant number of migrants.

In general, the authors of the Report predict that the most acute shortage of social and economic resources, which has been caused by negative climatic changes, will take place, in decreasing order, in countries of Africa,  South Sahara, the Middle East, North Africa,  and South  Asia. 17 of 28 countries that are most affected by the  deficit of essential resources are located in “black” Africa, another 4 – in Maghreb and in the Middle East.

Citing the given trends, the authors of the Report predict the formation of “powerful migration flows which may first affect European countries, which are believed to be relatively resistant to crisis”. “Ever since 2015 we have observed how a relatively small number of migrants may provoke large-scale political unrest and disorder”, – chief of the research Steve Killelea said in an interview with dpa.

Undoubtedly, a dramatic rise in the  number of climatic refugees and forced migrants may be envisaged in case there is an unfortunate combination of a population growth, on the one hand, and an increase in territories suffering from shortages of water resources, on the other. As history shows, the political instability caused by an ever growing deficit of fresh water may put into question the long-term plans of socio-economic development of entire regions and even continents.

Regions which will see climate change – caused conflicts in the next few years  include territories south of Russian borders. For example, the number of territories in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey which suffer from low precipitation rises year after year. In this way, “climatic refugees” are becoming a potential threat to stability and security of the Russian Federation.

The environmental issues which are frequently overlooked by observers  but which can send people fleeing comprise so-called “heatwaves” – periods of abnormally hot weather. Meanwhile, these problems are already causing “superfluous” mortality in many regions, including the developed countries. According to The Economist, the heatwave that hit Europe in 2003 killed about 70,000 people. This issue will acquire still more urgency as yearly temperatures continue to rise and urbanization proceeds at fast pace.

A dramatic increase in the number of climatic refugees can also evoke an increase in the level of the World Ocean. Under a forecast made by the Institute of Economics and Peace, coastal territories in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are at a particular risk over the next 30 years. Estimates presented in the Report maintain that water levels in the World Ocean may rise by more than 2 meters by 2100. As a result, territories populated by at least 200 million people will face the danger of flooding.

Cross-border migration, which was caused, among other things, by ecology-related factors, is contributing to the strengthening of “extreme” political forces.  Poor nations with a growing population are particularly exposed to violence and political instability. Trends of this kind tend to lead to revision of political agenda. This means a new stage of regulating social and economic processes on the part of the state. In addition, according to Professor Rubinsky of the French Research Center of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, «mass migration is becoming a target, and at times, an instrument of the foreign policy of a whole range of countries».

Climatic changes lead to ever more cross-border and internal migration and may contribute to the strengthening of separatist movements in many regions of the world, including Europe. Disintegration of countries into smaller territorial entities stimulates conflicts and encourages intervention from foreign powers. In the long run, the natural need for expanding international cooperation for settling global problems will go hand in hand with the equally natural growth of nationalism and isolationism.

The issue of climatic refugees has been recognized at the international level. Formally, the UN Convention on the status of refugees does not  embrace people who flee their homes because of the deterioration of the climate. Nevertheless,  the Executive Committee of the Agency of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has passed a decision to expand the Agency’s mandate “to include commitments regarding refugees who cannot return to their countries because of climatic changes”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in person is rendering substantial assistance to the victims of environmental disasters.

However, there is no international system of a long-term assistance for refugees and migrants, including climatic, to help them move and adapt to their new place of residence. The policy of countries and territories that most climatic migrants strive for is fairly controversial. In the first place, due to the growing public discontent over “an influx of migrants” in the past decades.

“The European Union boasts one of the most elaborated systems of migration policy, which has no analogues elsewhere». One of the most remarkable achievements of the EU is the European Commission – suggested «mechanism of using an emergency trust fund to ensure stability and assistance in connection with the problem of migrants and refugees in Africa». But, as we know, this does little to solve the problems of Europe, which stem from migrants and public discontent over their growing numbers.

For this reason, it is easy to understand why some European countries refuse to support the UN Pact on Migration, which was signed in December 2018. More than two million refugees that arrived on the European continent after 2013 caused serious upheavals on the political scene of leading countries of Europe. They even put into question the mere existence of the EU in its present format. As a result, most EU countries are involved in an intense political battle with Brussels for regaining their sovereignty in regulating migration flows.

In the USA, a country which has always received millions of migrants, immigration issues had acquired so much urgency by 2016 that they became a top point on the agenda of the presidential election campaign. However, like in previous years, emotions took upper hand ousting the attempts to produce a balanced and comprehensive solution. At present, the opponents are criticizing the Trump administration for the draconian migration policy, which is depriving America of thousands of highly qualified immigrants.  They point to Canada, which, they say, is much more open to migrants, though on the basis of fairly tough criteria.

Until recently, a particular approach to this issue was demonstrated by Japan, which makes considerable contributions to the funds of the Agency of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but does not receive migrants. In recent years, public opinion has become more tolerant towards refugees and forces migrants. Tokyo has been examining the experience of Australia, which is ready to receive a large number of immigrants as long as the process is well-organized. Meanwhile, Canberra’s tough policy regarding the “illegals”, who are sent to detention camps in difficult-of-access areas in New Guinea and Nauru, вis facing ever more reprimands from the international community.

On the whole, as it appears, climatic changes which trigger degradation of the environment and socio-political conflicts will produce an ever more significant, and, at times, decisive, influence on migration processes. This, in turn, will cause political, social, economic and geopolitical problems.

Degradation of the environment leads to socio-political conflicts while military operations or long-lasting public unrest can easily inflict damage on ecosystems. There is thus a vicious circle. Given the situation, the international community will sooner or later have to focus on political, economic and social measures which could help the humanity to better adapt to the changing natural environment.

However, judging by the current state of affairs, the world’s leading countries are highly unlikely to step up their coordination on migration issue in the years to come.  As the 2010s experience shows, the migration issue will be resolved by every recipient nation progressively, “one at a time”. For many ordinary voters the problem of migration “seems obvious and relevant” but they hardly know of the many aspects associated with it. For this reason, only “simple”, tactical in essence and consequences solutions, enjoy most support. The main challenge of the present-day migration will still be a search for a balance between humanistic issues and global security in the context of changes of the climate. The importance of this context is bound to increase over time.  

From our partner International Affairs

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Marine life is on the brink of extinction: Climate reality is a real issue

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With the dynamic nature of the 21st century, no one really knows what is going to happen next and which state of life we might be exposed to. As a 23-year-old master scuba diver committed towards finding out how individuals can collectively prevent climate change from turning into one of the most daunting issues in the world; I knew I had to do something. Our daily actions, our eating habits, and even something as small as switching off the light switch before leaving the house all adds up towards the reality of climate change. Why do we have to wait until this issue reaches its last stage in order to start treating it as the reality it is? Climate change exists and it’s high time we start fixing our mistakes.

While human beings are fond of discovering life beyond Earth, mapping almost every piece of land in the entire world, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to ocean life. There were approximately 2,00,000 in 2021 named marine species while this is only 10% of what actually exists underneath the surface of the Earth. I want people to realize that even though climate reality has already started deteriorating our lives, we can start now in order to stop it!

The ocean embodies life underneath the surface of the Earth. While being terrifying, the ocean provides a sense of tranquility and calm like no other. You can let go of the streetlights, the constant honking and the murmuring of eternity. When I decided to take my first dive, I was deeply shaken up, but that adrenalin rush led to the best feeling in the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, between 2014 and 2017 around 75% of the world’s tropical coral reefs experienced heat-stress severe enough to trigger bleaching. I realized that I can use my love and passion for scuba diving in order to do my bit and help conserve marine life. Swimming with a variety of species of fish and algae teaches you a whole lot about a new ecosystem. The way in which the school of fish syncs itself harmoniously into a rhythmic pattern of swimming, the free movement of brightly colored corals, and the beautiful bubbles.

While on the surface everything seemed apparently alright, when I started going deeper into the layers of the ocean, it suddenly made my jaw drop. The coral went from being colorful to entirely bleached and white. The marine life around me had seemingly started to disappear and in a very anticlimactic manner, everything started to come together. With increased fishing as an effect of increased demand in the market, certain species of fish were wiped out from the face of the Earth.

It was at that moment that it hit me like a wave, the importance of saving marine life. The water bodies are filled with marine life, and almost 80% of the world’s marine life is found underneath the surface of the ocean, while still being a big mistry for us. It is also thought that between 70-80% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by marine plants, nearly all of which are marine algae. While climate change might seem like an impossible concept to some, the truth is that it is now more real than ever and with only one dive, you can witness the reality with your own eyes.

The ocean is turning into a graveyard full of bleached corals and dead marine life which one will find hard to believe unless they see it on their own. This is where diving can be used as an impactful tool to facilitate the realization of reality. When you go deeper into the ocean you will not be able to believe what lies in front of you, but unfortunately we have done that to the ocean’s aquatic life to sustain our life on the surface above. If with one drive you can feel the difference then ask yourself, why not? It is high time we get ourselves to face the issues we have been avoiding and falsifying for this long. It is time we take responsibility for our actions and fix them as best we can.

Because of how baffled the deteriorating marine life had left me, I initiated India’s first ever diving grant providing upto Rs.70,000 to fund individuals who want to explore the ocean and help conserve marine life. Soon this initiative started catching more and more attention from those passionate about the same cause. We soon turned into a team of like-minded individuals fighting raising awareness about climate reality and presented scuba diving as a means to an end, the end of climate change and the extinction of marine life. With the help of Coral Warriors we can help save the future generations, we can act now to save the world’s coral reefs from bleaching before it’s too late.

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Legitimacy of Values during Climate Change

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Post-industrial and neo-technological societies have rigorously separated the stories of cultural values and those of the earth’s nature and climate.  Human civilizations have been fully dependent on the wilderness of nature and the particularities of climate for their survival and success for millennia.  It is understandable that this decoupling in the 20’th century was inevitably perceived as a desirable outcome.   For some years now these two stories are coming together once again meshed by the increased unpredictability and volatility of extreme climate events and their recorded and proven impacts on society at large.  They are coming together at a time of repeated signs of perceived and real social and economic fragility, which if not absorbed and equitably remediated may trigger systemic changes.  Many complex constructs are used to define systemic change. Among them are some traditional ones of economic shock and of increased volatilities in financial markets.  More tangible and physical constructs appeal to unique economic issue such as of the widening gap in insurance coverage.  Most recently some modern constructs of climate inequality bring together the stories of nature and social issues on the same conceptual and policy plane.  All of these constructs and stories contain an element of social fragility. These formalized concepts are part of a language, which is built to abstract from reality and to adapt to academic, scientific and policy research and its consecutive conversations.  Yet, these are not only theoretical constructs, but also tangible stories describing social catastrophes already experienced in recent historical realities. The misfortunes of climate change, pandemic and armed conflict emphasize the fragility of our modern society. These experiences of stress, destruction and loss have vividly erased the distinction between the economic and political impact of natural, health and man-made catastrophes and the sheer human disaster and suffering.  They have also raised the need for an immediate examination of the sustainability and legitimacy of many current cultural norms.  This process of examination is intended to lead to a proposition that for a cultural norm to be legitimate it must be found socially sustainable and socially resilient. The resilience of a social system becomes a requirement for its own legitimacy.  It is well understood and accepted that a social order must protect the life, property and essential liberties of the people who belong to it to be found legitimate. The cultural definition of social resilience and sustainability may vary to some degree across geographical regions and political systems but there is some broad consensus. There is even less divergence in understanding that social resilience in itself becomes the indispensable foundation for systemic legitimacy. 

Social resilience for the purpose of this analysis is defined as the ability of a society to adapt and absorb large shocks and externalities caused by excess climate volatility and unpredictability.  In general resilience is achieved through preparation for extreme, highly unfavorable, and catastrophic outcomes oftentimes cascading through all nodes of the systemic structure. Systemic architects build tiers of reserves and pockets of conserved energy, which are designed to absorb catastrophic shocks. Still systemic reserves and endurance are an exhaustible resource. Once such resources are depleted, catastrophic shocks through a process of network contagion may have deep cascading effects into social and economic layers, previously considered riskless. Such impacts may lead to systemic collapse and full or partial reorganization of many systemic nodes and layers. The processes of collapse and reorganization may be gradual and of evolutionary nature, but it may also be of a sudden and catastrophic nature. In both cases social resilience towards environmental and climate shocks and catastrophes can never be infinite.  Remediating the impacts of climate and natural disasters in an equitable manner becomes a common measure of societal endurance.  The various degrees of this systemic ability to provide equitable remediation and then recovery from a catastrophic shock have become a comparative metric of systemic resilience.  Systemic stability thus becomes a measure of the veracity of social and political systems.  Once systemic and social resilience is brought into macro-economic and macro-financial policy discussions, there grows a need for providing a transition and mapping in definitions and measures. This is not a transition and remapping of exclusively and purely technical definitions. This transition is also about a redefinition of a cultural measure – being a measure of value, which must be associated with the legitimacy of current economic and political enterprises. Furthermore, this transition must be about providing information and a degree of evaluation of the durability and longevity of its underlining social establishment. A cultural measure thus must contain valued societal information. This transition is also required to both stimulate and defend the need for a revision of cultural values in such manner that they unquestionably enhance systemic legitimacy.  This new dominion of cultural values must contribute to systemic sustainability and thus must have systemic resilience at its core to be legitimate. 

The process of economic globalization at a time of lower climate predictability, at a time of growing volatility in extreme natural catastrophes provides this very ground necessary to intertwine the stories of nature and social values. These premises allow an examination of a twofold need for both redefinition of values and for reclaimed systemic legitimacy. The foundations of the current version of the global economy can be traced back to about forty years.  The first phase of globalization is about economic growth and accumulation of wealth.  It is about the advancement of technological knowledge and building of interconnectivity among regional and national financial, trade and economic systems.  These were years of continuous economic growth.  They fostered the progress of the established model and the acceptance of its very outcomes.  The economic statistics of the period were convincingly reinforcing the intellectual and technical analysis.  Absolute and per capita gross domestic product metrics were rapidly raising.  The proverbial tide was lifting all boats – big and small. GDP growth as a measure of the economic effectiveness of the system assumed unlimited and boundaryless resources.  This economic success blunted our intuition accumulated from historical experience and our historical cognition gained from studying natural sciences and mathematics.  These exact sciences have always maintained that every physical system and every physical process have boundary conditions and limitations. Once these boundary conditions are breached, otherwise and previously stable systems and processes collapse or may perform in chaotic and shockingly unrecognizable manner.  From first principles of system’s theory, it is established that breaking through one boundary condition may be sufficient to shock a system and throw it into a state of chaos or collapse.  In the last two decades we have broken through three such boundaries of stability – these of efficient markets, of the resilience of global health, and of the predictability of the earth’s climate as a vital natural resource. The breach and exhaustion of these limits reveals previously hidden costs of our economic model at a time of  disruption and instability.  At present there is no recognizable political system, which can survive, let alone succeed without economic growth being its primary objective.  Furthermore, for three centuries, since the onset of the industrial revolutions, the expansion and intensity of our drive towards growth and wealth rendered to second order the values of environmental protection and maintaining the stability and predictability of the earth’s climate.

In this inevitable entanglement of risk factors, cultural values and measures of systemic legitimacy, there is a critical component, which is rarely discussed.  This is the impact of moral hazard. The scenario of its emergence has been experienced previously in other settings and can be foreseen with certainty. The measurements of disaster and shock in health and economic systems and their contagion effects upon social fragility have been observed and presented to the public discourse. Counter measures of remediation are also defined and refined. Both types of measures are examined and validated by technical and political authorities and thus may become reflected in established policy. During this process there is an element of moral hazard of such policy innovation being implemented only in physical, statistical, economic and health metrics but not yet becoming deeply embedded in cultural values, that are well accepted in society.  It is still by no means necessary that this process of exploration, investigation, and policy definition in itself will lead to a transition in cultural values.  There is no mandatory social provision or entity that requires this transition to take place or makes it inevitable. Such a transition to a new set of cultural values cannot be mandated. It cannot be enforced. If moral hazard is allowed to become the preponderant ethical concern in the process of value transition, itself accelerated by rapid systemic change, then systemic legitimacy will be endangered.  Thus, the only mechanism which remains to facilitate a transition to a new set of moral values is a widely accepted necessity at all societal levels to ensure the survival of systemic legitimacy.

The development of the global economic system is one process where an emerging transition and mapping of new cultural values may express itself for observation.  A transition and remapping of value must then overwhelm all other considerations to become embedded in the values representing the second phase of globalization.  The only intellectual force which is capable of accomplishing this drive is the search for systemic survival and legitimacy.  By this logic the second phase of globalization should establish itself to be about managing common and existential threats from natural catastrophes and extreme climate events as much as it would be about economic growth and wealth accumulation. A new global economic system is thus deemed timely for design. This one must balance twin objectives – growth and wealth creation on one side with sustainability and preservation of natural, human and climate resources on the other. The importance of balance among these two objectives is undisputable.  However, the instruments of balance are far from being yet available.  The current economic model is fully and well equipped with all the instruments and techniques of causing a profound disbalance.  To pursue the objective of economic growth and accumulation of wealth tools and frameworks refined over hundreds and in many cases over thousands of years are well established.  These are goods, commodities and financial markets with their domestic and international trade agreements and their investment and growth policies.  The mastery of economic growth presents a danger of allowing self-deception to grow in society of its mastery over nature. The lessons learned every day from climate science reveal elemental forces that can bring about a redefinition of the path of civilization.  These same earth and physical sciences show society with every newly compiled scientific report that the story of growing climate unpredictability and its adverse outcome of extreme catastrophic events is also a human story.  Balance rather than mastery should be the only sustainable and legitimate principle in the further development and unfolding of this story. To pursue a balance with a new set of values, which center on preserving natural and climate resources, at present society is inadequately, and better still, quite ill equipped for the task.  We are unequally equipped to pursue balance and hence the most likely outcome is disbalance and inequality of outcomes.  The hard task has become not whether and when but how to find with urgency a new set of moral values which will underwrite this story of balance and stability.

Our current civilization and its economic model have honed and perfected instruments and processes for economic growth for many years.  This drive to succeed economically to accumulate wealth has become genetically engrained in many who subscribe to the values of contemporary civilization.  It has become a part of the human story.  So far this has been a tremendously positive story of our civilization. Now a time has come, where a natural resource upon which this drive depends so thoroughly and unequivocally, namely the predictability of earth’s climate, has run short of its previously unquestioned stability.  There are no social preparations for this turn of things. A comparison is highly illustrative between the enormous accumulation of tools, treaties, international and state structures on trade, development, and investment to what we have to manage and balance a newly defined instability. The modern pace of knowledge creation and technological development allows states, societies in general, to quickly build a comparable machinery of institutions, treaties, and processes for managing this risk, and to ensure sustainability and predictability of this natural resource of earth’s climate. This can be done in a relatively short period of time.

The essence of these two human activities – the pursuit of economic growth and the preservation of a fundamental natural resource, defined as the stability and predictability of climate can no longer be mutually exclusive. Societies have trained themselves to succeed in the former for many generations and yet they are only in the first generation to face the need to be equally effective in the latter. The time of a single generation must be sufficient to raise a civilization to the magnitude of this task.  This amounts to a shift in cultural values.  The definition of economic success must and will continue to encompass growth and wealth accumulation.  An updated and modern definition must balance these with environmental sustainability, personal and public health, and general well-being.  Market and economic stability and success are no longer sufficient to define systemic success.  This transition of values must hold true at the level of the corporation, the public sector, an administrative region and even the sovereign state and the international institution. The interconnections between the lack of climate predictability, excess climate volatility and the emergence of new frameworks of values in economic and political activity are not straightforward and linear. Herein the technical definition and social perceptions of the concept of systemic stability are changing.  The new and emerging technical definition implies moral sentiment.  Work aimed at accomplishing the definition of systemic success is a work to gain ownership of the present and the future. The criteria of systemic stability now become a set of shared values and shared technical definitions. While technical definitions are much easier to change values alter through a much slower process of evolution, transition, and remapping.  Organizations, regions, states which can provide this desired stability will be defined and accepted as successful both in economic and social terms.  The alternative will be considered systemic failures.  If an institution cannot be the source of its own stability and sustainability, then it is by all laws of nature and economics a failed entity.

The mechanics of markets, trade, and investment work without the intervention of a hegemon.  Nonetheless they tend to have self-correction and recovery memories and capabilities and thus provide their own state of stability.  However, at present, both cultural traditions and market frameworks are missing a moral sentiment needed for fostering sustainability and recovery of a natural resource as vital as climate stability and predictability.  Only until recently, this resource was deemed to be boundless.  The transition and remapping of values will require that now this resource is seen as a basic tenet of the legitimacy of social cultures. In a broader perspective it is evident that climate issues are local, institutional, and individual and they impact communities and organizations differently.  Thus, for a transition to a new set of cultural values to take place the work and preparations needs to take priority. The lack of a globally accepted framework and a hegemonic plan of action with an existing philosophical current deeply vested in resolving these challenges emphasizes the need for collaboration.  Resolving and managing a global crisis of an essential natural resource without core and periphery, without clearly defined geographical and social hierarchies is a collaborative effort of the largest possible scale.  A framework of collaboration will withstand the pressures of chaotic action born from the lack of rigid contractual frameworks.  This collaboration is vitally needed at all systemic levels – the state and region, the corporation, university, and the non-governmental, civic, and military institutions.

In a new regime of torrential change in a global system lacking a pronounced hegemon, agreement is unsurprisingly hard on who should bear the cost of action.   In such a circumstance there simply cannot be an authoritative prescription of who should define the mitigation of risk and its consequences.  On the level of cultural and social values there cannot be an authority which demands the right and the obligation to change a person’s or a social group’s way of life.  Hence it is essential to treat global climate risk as a unifying concept of common human heritage.  The concept must be allowed to evolve into an item of collaboration and to allow various degrees of its adoption. Out of this collaborative effort climate and health stability fostering services would be generated and simultaneously would become sources of newly created economic and social wealth.  This new kind of wealth creation is driven by both the self-interest of all actors, and by the process of collaboration and collective understanding of the vital challenges at hand. Systemic stability, which includes climate and health factors relies for its success and endurance on this accumulation of self-interest and collective interest.  At the human level this is an opportunity to connect the story of society and its desire for growth and its hidden pitfalls with the story of the tremendous power of the earth’s nature and its climate.  Particularly in the advanced post-industrial and neo-technological societies these stories have been kept far apart for far too long.  The excess volatility of climate, the accumulation of knowledge on the impacts of climate’s unpredictability are creating a societal opportunity to rethink these two stories.  We must weave them together again, as our ancestors have always done this in the past.

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The Perils of Plastic

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Authors: Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust

The ubiquitous plastic water bottle, crystal clear and shiny, can find its way into lakes, rivers and the oceans, carelessly discarded by cruise ships so notorious for the occasional dumping of garbage into the seas on long cruises; that bottle or parts of it can end up inside marine animals.

If plastic waste gets lodged in their stomachs, the poor creatures have a mistaken feeling of fullness and become nutritionally deprived causing an early death.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is the plastic used to make the bottles.  It is light in weight, clear, has high strength and stiffness and high chemical resistance i.e. barrier properties — being also cheap makes it a desirable choice.  But it takes centuries to degrade. 

Polycarbonates are used for the harder plastics like baby bottles and refillable ones, also for dinnerware, eyeglass lenses, even compact discs.  And they form the protective lining for beverage and food cans.  But research on a chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), used in its manufacture is a cause for concern: it disturbs the hormone estrogen, possibly increasing cancer risk. 

If BPA is no longer being used in baby bottles and sip cups, it still lines steel cans.  The Food and Drug Administration maintains the amounts leaching into the contents do not pose a risk to human health.

More than 380 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually worldwide.  The figure represents what is around to pollute our environment if not disposed of safely.

In the U.S., a total of 35.7 million tons of plastics were disposed of in municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018, according to the American Chemistry Council.  Landfills received 27 million tons.  Another 5.6 million was combusted together with other MSW recovering energy for heating and power generation.  Only 31 million tons were recycled representing less than 9 percent.  For PET bottles the number is higher, closer to 29 percent.

Aside from fossil fuels, big oil also produces lentil-sized plastic pellets called nurdles from petroleum.   These are bought by manufacturers in large plastic sacks and fed into injection molding machines to make the everyday plastic items we see around us.  As can be expected, the nurdles can be spilled — as an  example, a container ship carrying them foundered a few years ago spreading them in the sea around the southeastern United States. 

Trillions of nurdles are produced each year and sent to factories all over the globe.  They are then melted and formed into various products – anything from plastic bottles to electronics to car parts.  Unfortunately, not all nurdles are melted into products.  Unregulated, 200,000 metric tonnes of nurdles, 10 trillion by number, end up in the oceans  annually.  Looking remarkably like fish eggs, these can even be swallowed by small fish, filling stomachs and causing starvation.

Plastic bottles have been found inside marine mammals’ stomachs.  And smaller pieces can find their way into the stomachs of littler creatures — fish, birds, oysters, to name a few.

Beached whales are often discovered to contain plastics in their stomach, sometimes in quantities large enough to have compromised feeding and digestion.  One found in Scotland two years ago had ingested a horrendous 220 pounds of plastic. 

Changing consuming habits can help.  Plastic straws will take a couple of centuries or more to degrade.  Why not straight from the glass or use a paper one.  Regular coffee drinkers collecting their morning brew can bring their own favorite mug or an insulated container. 

There is one piece of good news: a team of University of Texas scientists have developed a protein enzyme (FAST-PETase) which breaks down PET making it easier for natural decomposition.  

In the end, as with most things, it’s up to us …

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