Taking a Closer Look at Global Warming

Tuesday, 18 September, 2007 - 23:00

Calling for NGO Engagement Most of us have heard of global warming. Hardly a day goes by without something in the newspaper or on TV to convince us that we are on the brink of a disaster of our own ma

Most of us have heard of global warming. Hardly a day goes by without something in the newspaper or on TV to convince us that we are on the brink of a disaster of our own making. The ice caps are rapidly melting, thousands of species are facing extinction, and regular floods, droughts and hurricanes prove that weather patterns all over the world are changing. Given the steady stream of reports and the sheer scale of the problem, it is hard not to want to do something about it at a personal level. The problem is that the "solutions" seem so trivial.

You can ride a bike instead of taking the car, switch off lights when you leave a room, recycle your waste, and much more besides. But none of these actions seem like the kinds of things that are going to stop the global warming juggernaut. It's a bit like being told a runaway train is heading in your direction, and all you can do to stop it, is toss a few matchsticks on the track. Somehow the solution doesn't fit the problem, and its not surprising that possibly the biggest challenge ever to face humankind seems to have galvanised so little real action. Of course, if a few hundred million people all laid their little matchsticks on the track, we would be able to slow the train down. So, we cannot choose inactivity simply because our individual actions seem inconsequential.

But is there something else? Is there something unique that the development sector can offer? I think there is.

Global warming is a product of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere are now higher than they have been for 650 000 years, when the world was a very different place. There are two primary causes for this, namely, the massive and increasing amounts of fossil fuel being burnt; and the rapid conversion of natural landscapes to agriculture. Both are fundamental to maintaining our consumerist-based economies, and the big question is whether we can address the carbon problem without messing with the economy. I suspect not.

Obviously we can reduce carbon emissions by replacing coal-fired power-stations with wind turbines and nuclear reactors (although they come with their own baggage), and we can replace petrol and diesel with bio-fuels (albeit at the cost of increasing food prices). But taken piecemeal, none of these are likely to be sustainable or make a lasting difference, and sadly, piecemeal is standard procedure for governments and businesses, that are structured to respond to consumer and voter demand rather than lead it. Sure, governments and businesses look to the future and make plans, but the visions that shape these plans are constrained by what voters and consumers will accept.

Some writers on global warming argue that our survival may depend on a "carbon-dictatorship" which will force us to change from a carbon-based economy. Like any dictatorship, this is likely to cause as many problems as it tries to address. Nevertheless, the changes that we need to make are difficult and fundamental. George Monbiot's book "Heat" opens with his recollection of a question asked at a lecture he once gave. A member of the audience asked what England would look like if it reduced its carbon emissions to acceptable limits. Another member of the audience gave the answer: "Like a very poor third-world country!" This is a hard reality for politicians or business people to accept, and because of this, most "solutions" being offered are located within a business-as-usual scenario. Nuclear reactors will simply replace coal-fired power-stations. Bio-fuels will simply replace petrol and diesel. The underlying problems of over-consumption and under-development remain, and even deepen as the struggle over resources intensifies.

We need to think out of the box. We need to understand what it means to de-link economies from fossil fuels - the NGO sector is well placed to do this. There are enough people posing the "problem" and plenty of other running around looking for the "solution". But we need to move beyond this. We need to begin to build a positive vision of a post fossil-fuel economy and to get influential people and organisations to share in this process – and to embrace the hard reality that there is no technical quick-fix or magic bullet that will stall global warming and also address the problems that lie at its root.

Helping society to understand how big and how fundamental a change we need to make is only one side of the coin.

We are already feeling some of the early effects of global warming and even if we cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95% tomorrow, we would feel the impact for decades of a few hundred years of accumulated emissions. The global system has an enormous "lag effect" and we will have to learn to adapt to current and future changes in the climate and all of the secondary impacts that these will have.

A colleague asked me what was the point of doing all this development work, when global warming may well sweep it all away. "Are we simply building sandcastles at low-tide?" was how he put it. Maybe we are, but there are also many ways in which we can ensure that our development work includes building resilience against the effects of global warming.

My own organisation has been working for many years with communities of small-scale rooibos tea farmers in the Northern Cape, in restoring degraded land, adopting sustainable farming techniques and accessing more lucrative markets. But climate models predict that the areas they live in and depend on will become increasingly drought-prone, threatening the source of their livelihoods and all that they have built up. In a recent initiative, they have joined forces with scientists to identify and plan how to protect the remaining populations of wild rooibos, since it is from this wild genetic stock that new drought-resistant varieties could be developed.

As the challenge of HIV/AIDS has demanded that we "mainstream" a response in almost everything we do, so global warming requires that in all of our development work we begin to build the resilience of communities to these new and unpredictable changes.

There are many things we can do as individuals and as organisations. Some are simple, but most are not, and most cannot be done overnight. But we can't wait for government or someone else to do them for us and we can't wait for too long either. Most importantly, none of what must be done will be done without us informing and educating ourselves.

- Picture Acknowledgement: Courtesy of Bemused Capybara.  

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