More than 20 years ago, David Wirth, at the time a senior attorney at the NRDC, wrote about the imperative of climate protection in global politics. “The international community cannot afford to delay elevating the greenhouse effect to the top of the foreign-policy agenda,” Wirth wrote in Foreign Policy.
The editor’s note of Endgame, the latest installment of Dispatches, a quarterly focused on issues ranging from the environment to the economy to the war in Iraq, opens with this historical claim of the importance of environment in the world’s socio-economic discourse. Two decades ago, people were saying practically the exact same thing as we are now. Though the lexicon of Wirth and James Hansen and several other notable environmental commentators from the time has slightly shifted—now the lingo is climate change or global warming—the underlying notion is still very much intact: The way we live our lives is unsustainable.
Endgame editor, Mort Rosenblum, writes:
This issue is called Endgame because climate change is only partly about climate. Our new parlance talks of ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation.’ There is still time, if precious little, to mitigate. But to adapt? Even if Maldives islanders might pack up and move, there are billions more of us. No political order, economic system, or social structure can stand if people, not polar bears, must think first of their very survival.
Rosenblum’s assertion moves far beyond what may or may not be accomplished in Copenhagen this week. For him, it is not simply about establishing limits or carbon markets. It is about a wholesale shift in the way we as a society operate, organized by globalized political and economic systems. Climate change doesn’t merely affect endangered species in far off corners of the globe; it is increasingly impacting people’s livelihoods, our agriculture, and the production of commodities.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the developing world. The series of pictures included here are from a photo essay in Endgame entitled “The Ark,” which is focused on laborers in Bangladesh. It draws upon the human element, those who are already witnessing the effects of climate change. As water levels drastically change, people who subsisted on the tenuous balance between bodies of water and impoverished, underdeveloped lands are finding the need to rethink, in the words of Rosenblum, “their very survival.”
The heavy-handedness of the title of the photo essay speaks to what the people behind Dispatches view as the great imperative facing our culture. We are on the brink of calamity, yet very few people are heeding the whirl of the emergency sirens.
As developing nations like China, India, and Brazil grow in affluence, so too grow their carbon emissions. These countries and many others have come out very publicly on their environmental stances. China commissions two new coal-fired power plants every 10 days, yet at the same time, is also erecting new wind turbines at the rate of one every hour in hopes to catch up with its exponentially growing energy demands. India is looking to clean up its act; Brazil recently announced a pledge to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
For all that the third world can do, it is not the entire picture. Endgame is unabashedly critical of U.S. reticence on the issue. Not only have we historically been the biggest emitters of carbon, we are also the largest consumer of Chinese made goods, which has made many people beg the question of carbon liability. Who ultimately is responsible for the environmental ramifications for the things we consume?
For the U.S. to step up, however, the climate change discussion needs to move beyond Capitol Hill. Initiatives like BICEP are great bridges to corporate America, as well as the recent withdrawals from the Chamber of Commerce. But what now? The signing of a binding treaty this week would attempt to create a globally level playing field (or some would argue), which means now is the time to define what the sustainable, globally competitive American economy will actually look like.
“The picture that emerges, sharply focused in haunting human detail against a broad backdrop few of us ever imaged might be possible, is dead clear,” Rosenblum writes. “One obvious response is to perfect alternatives: solar, wind, nuclear, ocean currents, and others still in dreaming phase. The other is to use less, much less. What more do we need?”
To find out more about Endgame, or to subscribe to the quarterly Dispatches, visit the website.
Images courtesy of Dispatches.