As the effects of climate change in the Third World worsen, developing nations may soon face a massive influx of refugees. Image via Flickr
About 500 years ago, capitalism started to displace feudalism as the dominant socioeconomic system on the planet. There were about half a billion humans wandering around then, and about 80 percent of them were living hand-to-mouth existences and relying on subsistence agriculture. It wasn’t until the replacement of animate energy (biomass) with inanimate energy (fossil fuels) in the West during the 19th century that the global population started to grow exponentially, ballooning to its current level of over 7 billion. (To understand what powered this increase, consider that a teaspoon of diesel fuel contains as much energy as a human can expend in a day.) This transition from diffuse/currently available solar energy to stored/concentrated solar energy transformed every aspect of society, from manufacturing to agriculture to transportation to life expectancy. Basically, the last 200 years of exponential industrial and population growth have been subsidized by ancient, compacted sunlight.
It took about 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion (~1800 CE), 130 years to reach 2 billion, 30 years for 3 billion, 15 years for 4 billion, and around 13 years each for 5, 6, and 7 billion. The UN is predicting that reaching 8 and 9 billion will take 16 and 19 years respectively, meaning the rate of population growth might have peaked around the year 2000. It’s probably not a coincidence that this growth corresponds pretty closely with the easy availability of ancient stores of fossilized energy. It has been argued that without fossil fuels, the carrying capacity of Earth would be around 1 to 2 billion humans.
To put it bluntly, we’re reaching peak everything. We’ve blown through our one-time inheritance of natural capital (fossil fuels, topsoil, groundwater, biodiversity) like the crazy, hairless apes we are.
In 1896, Svante Arrhenius—the Swedish polymath, future Nobel Prize winner, and founder of physical chemistry—was the first to propose the idea that burning fossil fuels could raise our planet’s temperature. After doing a bunch of “tedious” calculations, he concluded that by “evaporating our coal mines into the air,” humans could raise the temperature of the planet by five or six degrees Celsius. This is eerily close to modern predictions made by computer-aided climate models.
In the last few decades, humans have finally started to understand and accept that industrialization and infinite-growth capitalism—those systems that have given some of us in the developed nations the luxuries of modernity—have also increased atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to the point where we’re all headed toward a hotter, more unstable home planet.
The shittiest, most ironic thing about it all is that in the next few decades, as our oil-soaked socioeconomic systems continue to unravel, the poorest and least developed populations with the lowest CO2 emissions will face the most dire consequences of human-induced climate change.
Enter the era of justifiable Climate Rage.
Poor countries in Latin America, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia are demanding rich countries that have benefitted from 150 years of unabated carbon dioxide emissions pay their dues. They claim that if the developed nations want to restrict the emissions of the developing nations, they need to pay for the technological leap to bypass the early, dirty stages of modernization and energy production as well as provide funding to deal with the current and future effects of climate change.
This aptly named “climate debt” was discussed at the failed UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009. In 2010, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established something called the Green Climate Fund in order to facilitate the transfer of money from rich nations to poor nations so they could mitigate and adapt to the consequences of climate change.
Currently, the richest nations have agreed to contribute up to $100 billion a year by 2020. This is not an official agreement, however, and it's still unclear exactly how this fund will be collected and distributed. So far, only a fraction of the money has been pledged, and it's mainly gone to to cover startup costs. It’s a whole lot of money to organize and facilitate during high-risk times—but it’s also necessary.
A 2013 report on the vulnerability of cities around the world to climate change showed that Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is facing the most immediate and extreme effects from our fossil-fuel guzzling. Dhaka has one of the lowest CO2 emissions of any major city in the world at 0.6 tons per person per year; almost half of the 13 million people of Dhaka live in low-lying, crowded slums and rarely have access to clean water, let alone electricity or personal vehicles. If you compare their annual emissions with the US (18 tons per person) or Canadian average (16 tons per person), you can start to see exactly how unfair the situation is. If you go down the list of the cities most threatened by climate change you'll find similar cases—low GDPs and CO2 emissions, high risks for environmental catastrophes.
This is just one more area of life where the poor are being screwed by the rich. The United States is responsible for 29 percent of all human emissions of carbon dioxide since the mid-19th century—or 328,000,000,000 metric tons of CO2. Seventy percent of emissions have been produced by the richest 20 percent of the population—and the World Bank has estimated that 75–80 percent of the effects of climate change are being felt by the least developed countries.
Climate change is real, it is happening, and it is affecting the poorest, most vulnerable humans most of all. If our species wants to avoid widespread suffering and massive battles over resources due to millions or billions of climate refugees, we’re going to have to come together to work on solutions that aren’t based on the capitalist logic of return on investment. The return on this investment is survival.
In 1992, at the UN Earth Summit in Rio, Fidel Castro gave an impassioned speech about the ecological debts owed to the global poor. His words remain hauntingly prescient:
“An important biological species is in danger of disappearing due to the fast and progressive destruction of its natural living conditions: mankind. Wehave now become aware of this problem when it is almost too late to stop it.
It is necessary to point out that consumer societies are fundamentally responsible for the brutal destruction of the environment. They arose from the old colonial powers and from imperialist policies which in turn engendered the backwardness and poverty which today afflicts the vast majority of mankind. With only 20 percent of the world's population, these societies consume two-thirds of the metals and three-fourths of the energy produced in the world. They have poisoned the seas and rivers, polluted the air, weakened and punctured the ozone layer, saturated the atmosphere with gases which are changing weather conditions with a catastrophic effect we are already beginning to experience.
The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Every year thousands of millions of tons of fertile soil end up in the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct. Population pressures and poverty trigger frenzied efforts to survive even when it is at the expense of the environment. It is not possible to blame the Third World countries for this. Yesterday, they were colonies; today, they are nations exploited and pillaged by an unjust international economic order. The solution cannot be to prevent the development of those who need it most. The reality is that anything that nowadays contributes to underdevelopment and poverty constitutes a flagrant violation of ecology. Tens of millions of men, women, and children die every year in the Third World as a result of this, more than in each of the two world wars. Unequal terms of trade, protectionism, and the foreign debt assault the ecology and promote the destruction of the environment. If we want to save mankind from this self-destruction, we have to better distribute the wealth and technologies available in the world. Less luxury and less waste by a few countries is needed so there is less poverty and less hunger on a large part of the Earth. We do not need any more transferring to the Third World of lifestyles and consumption habits that ruin the environment. Let human life become more rational. Let us implement a just international economic order. Let us use all the science necessary for pollution-free, sustained development. Let us pay the ecological debt, and not the foreign debt. Let hunger disappear, and not mankind.
Now that the alleged threat of communism has disappeared and there are no longer any more excuses for cold wars, arms races, and military spending, what is blocking the immediate use of these resources to promote the development of the Third World and fight the threat of the ecological destruction of the planet? Let selfishness end. Let hegemonies end. Let insensitivity, irresponsibility, and deceit end. Tomorrow it will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago. Thank you.”