Should we pin our hopes on The Copenhagen climate meeting finding a solution to the threat posed by global warming? It is unlikely if the way the world has dealt with similar threats in the past is anything to go by.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the threat to the world was nuclear war. The fear then, and now, was that in the event of a nuclear war the world would be destroyed by several things.
First, the blast would shred living things into fragments, break rocks and soil and such other matter into tiny pieces and then spew the mixture into the sky. Second, radioactive fallout would kill anything that might have survived the blast.
Then all the radioactive material and other debris thrown thousands of metres in the air would form a cloud that would block the sun’s heat from the earth and create a nuclear night and winter that would last for a long time. Any form of life that may have survived the initial explosion would surely perish in the radioactive winter.
Today, the threat is climate change. Carbon gases and other related gases are emitted into the atmosphere, creating a blanket above the earth which traps the sun’s heat leading to a rise in temperatures – the phenomenon called global warming. Global warming will lead to two things.
One, the melting of the ice cap, which will in turn lead to a rise in sea levels submerging large parts of the earth. Two, extreme heat will lead to prolonged drought, scorch large parts of the earth to bare ground and cause untold famine.
In both cases there have been frantic efforts to find solutions to the threats.
For the nuclear threat, the fear of mutual destruction prodded the big powers into reaching some form of accommodation.
And so the United States of America and the former Soviet Union, the countries with the largest arsenals, signed treaties to limit the possibility of a nuclear war. They also limited the development and ownership of nuclear weapons capability by other countries. By and large, this form of deterrent, informed by mutual self-interest, kept the world safe.
In the case of climate change, the response is different. Destruction of the earth is seen as distant and slow, and less dramatic than a nuclear blast. And so there is less urgency from the major players to act.
This is evident in the attitude of different countries towards climate change – from the Kyoto Protocol to the present Copenhagen meeting.
There has, for instance, been foot-dragging by the wealthy and guilty, and scepticism by the majority about an agreement on measures to control carbon emissions and other green-house gases. Consequently there are low expectations that a legally binding agreement to check climate change will come from the Copenhagen meeting.
So why are there these different attitudes? Who is guilty?
The industrialised world, led by the United States, is reluctant to cut carbon emissions, although they have the means to do so.
A powerful industrial lobby, backed by conservative political groups, essentially holds the political leadership of these countries to ransom. These groups choose to see in the development of newer, greener technologies increased expenditure and a cut in profits.
They read in this attempt a word they hate – regulation. It may actually not be the case but they use the argument to fit their case and scare off those who do not fully grasp the issue.
They are also unwilling to give money to poor countries to help them give up greenhouse gases and stem the effects of climate change.
Then there are the fast-industrialising countries – China, India and Brazil. Their fast development has seen them move very close to the richer countries. They want to reach the high table of the wealthy. They see it in reach and will not be denied.
The poorer countries do not have the resources to acquire cleaner, greener technologies. So don’t even mention them.
All countries and interest groups are agreed on one thing: cutting greenhouse gases is necessary, but it must be paid for. Who will pay? That’s the question. Everyone will cut emissions as long as someone else pays. Developing countries argue that the rich countries should pay since they are largely responsible for climate change. Rich countries agree but will only pay very little.
The reluctance to act on climate change lends itself to cynicism. Who cares whether Bangladesh is submerged or Mozambique disappears, or picturesque islands in the Pacific are lost for ever?
What if the whole of Africa goes up in flames because of excessive heat? There can only be fewer poor people lining up for handouts. And it would reduce the burden of bad conscience for the rich when they do not help the poor.
Perhaps divine intervention on biblical scale is possible.
We might yet have an expert boat builder and a righteous person to herd God’s creatures into an ark and float it on rising seas and hope they eventually recede. What will save them from the scorching heat? I have not found any answers from Holy Scriptures or anywhere else.
Excuse this scepticism. We have been down this road before.
In the 1980s there was a big international movement to create what was dubbed “the new economic order” Conferences were held to find ways to transfer wealth and technology to poor countries so as to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
All the efforts came to nought. Of course there was much hand-wringing from the wealthy that they could not do much. The new economic order now exists only in history books.
In the same decade, there was much talk about the search for new and renewable sources of energy. Again conferences were held, many papers written and a genuine search made.
The search was driven by the fear of existing fossil fuels running out. When new deposits continued to be discovered the talk about renewable sources of energy disappeared from public debate. The search was quickly forgotten.
The existing economic order and the absence of renewable energy were not an existential threat and so there was no strong urge to find solutions to them.
That is also true of climate change. The world will only act decisively if a doomsday scenario becomes immediate.