Sunday, March 27, 2011

Age of the people

This is an essay I wrote for a competition. I was supposed to answer this question: How successfully have global leaders been able to work together to solve environmental problems? 

I did go slightly off tangent with the content but heck, I had fun. Special thanks to my mother who helped me with the editing.

Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are gone and are still dying at the rate of an acre a second. About 90% of the large predator fish have disappeared. Species are going extinct at rates about 1,000 times faster than normal. Annually, an area 300 times the size of Singapore is converted into desert land.Rising greenhouse gas emissions are reaching dangerous levels- with scientists estimating a 6 degrees rise in global temperature in this century. Polar glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, threatening the survival of many low-lying countries and regions. Worldwide weather patterns are changing with extreme winters, severe summers, unprecedented floods and devastating storms. The fast depleting ozone layer is increasing incidents of skin cancer and other illnesses in humans and animals. This shocking situation stares into our faces.

So what is being done about it?

After years of alarms raised by environmentalists, their cause received due importance in 1997 with the initiation of the Kyoto Protocol by the United Nations (UN). The Protocol aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 to 5.2% below the levels in 1990, with different greenhouse gas reduction targets being assigned to different countries. For example, USA was given the target to reduce emissions by 7%, Australia was allowed an increase in emissions by 8% and China was not obligated to reduce emissions. Till now, 191 countries have agreed to this protocol. However, these countries are now severely off-target and are not likely to reach their goals for 2012. USA, one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, has not even ratified the protocol. The second significant initiative in recent years was the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which was also a huge failure. Participating countries, such as the USA, China, Brazil and India, failed to come to a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, a recent “Wikileaks” release exposed a conspiracy between USA and China to derail the Copenhagen summit! The most recent failure is that of the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, which likewise ended without any serious consensus.

So what is the cause of this continued failure? Why aren’t global leaders able to cooperate to fight for a global issue like the environment?

Heads of state, by default, are primarily interested in the prosperity and growth of their states. Any drastic measures to save the environment will require drastic changes to their current way of life, such as how they produce energy, how they produce goods, how they travel, where they live and what they consume. Such vast changes, required for the global good, will put any country’s economy at huge risk, at least in the short-term. The protectionist goals of governments are naturally opposed to such initiatives undertaken for a global cause. This is best illustrated by the (in)famous words of President George Bush who said, “We will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the people who live in America; that's my priority”, in response to the protests when USA refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol. It also requires tremendous courage and effort for a country’s leader to undertake such a step while being preoccupied with retaining power. Their dependence on corporate funding for elections does affect their decisions making. The fear of losing their political position and power discourages leaders from being bold and working together to fight for environmental issues.

The earliest environmental movement was premised on environmentalists working closely with governments, or within the system, to bring about small changes. These incremental changes were expected to add up to a significant change in the long run. Unfortunately, this has not happened in the last 40 years because of greed, indolence and the tension between protectionist and global ideals of governments. It is obvious that the current structure of leadership has failed in solving the environmental issue. So where do we go from here?

A paradigm shift is needed. This is the age of “people-power”, as so profoundly illustrated by the recent uprisings in the Middle East. Who could have imagined the power that common people can wield without any external help. Leaders of these uprisings were the masses themselves who were fighting for that they believed in. Similarly, where global leadership is failing to combat the environment crisis, global citizens can succeed if they are sufficiently motivated and engaged. The need of the hour is to adopt a bottom-up approach and bring the environmental movement to each and every individual. Maybe it is time to make the people the leaders...

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