China has previously “declared war on pollution,” and our polluting actions might be deemed a war on the environment. But no one, except leaders of small island nations, is talking about the War of Inaction. This is the war we wage when we refuse to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change and ignore the 2 degree Celsius target.
On Thursday at the LSE, the president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, expressed concerns about his nation of 33 islands, which faces challenges of sea level rise and extreme weather. He worries about the international community’s morals, and stated that inaction is equivalent to a declaration of war against his nation by deciding to destroy the homes of his people. This inaction will demolish homes, obliterate livelihoods, ruin people’s health and take lives–whether residents of island nations or future generations. Inaction will erase communities, cultures, and nations from the face of the planet.
Stop and think about this: an entire nation disappeared, submerged, forgotten.
The lecture was appropriately titled, “On the Front Lines of Climate Change,” illustrating how President Tong and similar leaders are already fighting a war waged against them by oblivious, greedy nations over centuries. Speaking about economic development, he stated, “By the time everyone has ‘their turn,’ there will be nothing left.” This statement was probably aimed at countries like China or India, who have been criticized for “playing the poverty card” in order to take less responsibility in climate change mitigation. Earlier in the morning I felt defensive about China after reading an article that said China “clings to developing-nation status.” Thinking of poorer Western and inland provinces in China, I felt the country should have more time to allow these areas to develop. But after hearing President Tong, it seemed that urgent measures to change behaviors are needed. He expressed frustration at the continued investment in coal, despite internationally proclaimed goals to decarbonize the global economy. If decarbonization is the goal, he felt there were no more excuses for continuing to further growth in this dirty, toxic sector. His nation may cease to exist, and no one seems to care.
The audience could hear the emotion and desperation in the president’s voice. While explaining his pleas to the international community, he said, “Maybe I’m just in such a desperate position that I’m asking people to do things even I wouldn’t previously do,” like sacrifice economic growth or his political office in order to protect the environment and save lives. An audience member asked the president’s about his views on New Zealand’s refusal to budge from the 2 degree Celsius target (to a lower 1.5 degree target) and refusal to accept climate refugees from Kiribati. In response, President Tong matter-of-factly stated, “Unfortunately, it is probably cheaper for New Zealand to let us go underwater than to cut emissions.” This statement vividly illustrates the concept environmental economists always speak about: negative externalities. Polluting countries are not paying for the emissions or degradation they cause. Instead, residents of states like Kiribati pay the price.
The president expressed his abhorrence for the term “climate refugees,” people who emigrate from their country due to environmental challenges. He preferred the term “migration with dignity,” that residents of his country would migrate and contribute positively to the societies they join. He hoped that they would be respected and treated with dignity. But, he admitted that in the global arena, the voices of Kiribati residents and similar island states are lost. “We preach democracy internationally but do not practice it.”
He repeatedly said that he accepted the reality of the situation. He refuses to let his nation go under water but acknowledged that it was beyond his control and up to the discretion of the international community. There would likely never be a large enough scale of technology that could improve the situation. Even worse, there would likely never be enough will among the international community to change their behaviors and morals.
He explained how he and his wife went to Notre Dame during the first week of COP21 to pray. Pray for a miracle–A MIRACLE! Is there so little hope in humankind’s abilities that a divine act is the only solution? We humans have the resources to improve the situation. But maybe the miracle he prayed for was that international leaders would wake up one day and have a sudden change of heart. That they would realize their ambivalence is equivalent to atomic bombs, that their greed is lethal. Maybe they will wake up one day and decide to stop this war.
President Anote Tong speaks at the LSE on Thursday, December 10, 2015