Responding to climate change is ultimately a moral choice

BY TOM ODHIAMBO Climate change is a phrase that many educated people have heard, know something about but often just ignore. It isn’t the bother of the car-driving working class that also seeks to live in bigger houses, eat meat every day, warm their houses when it is as cold as it is this month, buy more clothes (that they won’t wear twice), go on holiday by plane, drink bottled water, among the many things that the ‘market’ advises those who wish to live a lifestyle (not just live) to do, in order to distinguish themselves from the ‘rest’ of humanity. Well, even the poor aren’t that bothered about this climate change thing. Why would they? After all, they aren’t the ones driving big cars. Poor people only eat meat once in a while. Very few of them drink bottled water, and if they do, they’ll recycle the bottle by refilling it with tap or borehole water. The destitute hardly change their clothes more than thrice a week. So, one imagines, the poor don’t have as much stake in the whole climate change debate and the efforts to arrest the situation. Yet, the poor, research shows, will suffer more from the distress of planet earth. When floods come because forests are exhausted, it is the houses of the poor that will be swept away. When the sea level rises, the rich may relocate up to higher ground but their poor neighbours will end up in slums. When rivers and water sources dry up because of overuse of water, the drought will lead to crop failure, which will translate into hunger and starvation for the poor. They will also lose whatever little wealth they may have. The troubles in northern and northeastern Kenya are due to climate change. Rainfall has become poor. Pasture is difficult to come by. Livestock will die unless the herders force themselves onto farmlands. Clashes have ensued, leading to displacement, destruction of property and deaths. So, as the advocates of environment conservation argue, it can’t be business as usual anymore for humanity. This is the point that Mayer Hillman, Tina Fawcett and Sudhir Chella Rajan make in the book The Suicidal Planet (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007). There are thousands of books and essays on the tragedy that is unfolding in the world that scientists call climate change today. There is evidence upon evidence that continued use of fossil fuels, uncontrolled harvesting of forests, human settlement on arable land, production of meat for the expanding middle class, uninhibited production of goods that very few people use, among other factors have significantly led to increased carbon emission, exposure to radiation, less precipitation, poor rainfall, crop failure, hunger, deaths, disputes between communities on water and pastureland use etc. But the urgent need to read and reread books on how to manage climate change can’t be gainsaid. The problem, as Fawcett, Hillman and Rajan suggest in The Suicidal Planet, is that human beings know – from science – that the earth may soon reach a point where it can no longer bear the abuse it is currently suffering. Enough evidence shows that even though temperatures haven’t risen beyond manageable levels, they are actually rising. There is already loss of flora and fauna that is logically linked to habitats becoming inhospitable due to changes in weather and climate patterns. Which makes it sad that human beings are still giving excuses in order to avoid starting programs to address climate changes. In The Suicidal Planet, the authors discuss the danger in the many excuses that human beings give to avoid active engagement with the tragedy of climate change. Among them include, 1) “I am already doing my best” – those who claim they don’t drive and are going green; 2) “There is nothing I/we can do about it” – the fatalists; 3) “It is not my problem” – these are the fellows who argue that there are already too many problems for them to worry about ‘tomorrow’s issues’; 4) “There are more important and urgent problems now” – that from cynics; 5) “Technology will halt climate change” – this from those who think tomorrow’s innovation will address today’s problems; and 6) “It’s the government’s problems” – from those who eternally believe in government’s inexhaustible abilities. Well, all those who doubt that climate change is happening here and now and think that it isn’t imperative to confront the problem immediately are only postponing the inevitable. Human beings already know that fossil fuels are exhaustible but have a lasting damage on the environment. They also know that alternative and environment friendly fuels can be made. People know that cycling or using public transport is healthier than driving individual cars. Many builders today know that houses can be built in such a way that they do not have to use air-conditioning when it is hot or heaters when it is cold. Or that water reticulation should be a basic requirement for modern urban settlements. Or that solar water heating is a significant energy saver etc. If some people think that talk of climate change is mere scaremongering, as some politicians and doubters – including scientists – tend to, then it is imperative that those who know better, those who better understand the likely consequences of continued damage to planet earth, should repeat, ad infinitum, the message that the earth has to be saved. Water must be conserved. Carbon emissions must be strictly managed. Governments and businesses must invest in better technology to reduce reliance on equipment that consume too much energy. Consumption habits have to be moderated to avoid overproduction of food that relies on soil damaging chemicals just to satisfy the needs of a few people. Forests have to be conserved. And humanity must make collective effort to resolve this crisis. As the authors of The Suicidal Planet warn, “Responding to climate change is ultimately a moral choice.” It is a choice that really has no alternative. It is the only way to guarantee future generations life on mother earth. The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.

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