05/31/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2013

Facing the Climate Crisis

On May 9th, NOAA reported a significant milestone: CO2 emissions had crossed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level not seen for three million years. Although this figure has since been revised to 399.89 ppm, even this lower number paints a grim picture. Heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase 50 percent by 2050, primarily due to a 70 percent growth in energy-related CO2 emissions. Average global temperature is expected to rise by 3-6 °C by the end of the century, exceeding the internationally agreed upon goal of limiting it to 2 °C above preindustrial levels. The Global Warming Potential of methane, the second most prevalent greenhouse gas after CO2, is expected to be more than 50 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over the next 20 years. The primary source of methane is industrial animal agriculture, which supports global meat consumption. Meat production has tripled during the last 40 years, up by 20 percent in the last decade alone.

Scientists warn that if current patterns of energy use continue, planetary biophysical systems could be destabilized, triggering "abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be deleterious or even catastrophic for human well-being." Yet even as the climate crisis intensifies, minimal efforts to address climate change through the Kyoto Protocol -- the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- have been derailed by international economic competition. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to extract a binding agreement to limit emissions of greenhouse gases from even a single country. The 117 countries that endorsed the target of 350 ppm were the poorest and most vulnerable countries, not rapidly industrializing countries like India and China or the "rich, powerful, and deeply fossil-fuel addicted" countries of the Global North. Developing countries want these industrial juggernauts to take the lead in sharply reducing emissions. Conversely, fearing the erosion of their competitive advantage, developed countries are retreating from earlier targets and obligations. The United States has never been a member to the Kyoto Protocol. Canada, Japan, and Russia will not take part in the second commitment period of the Protocol starting in 2013. Australia and New Zealand also remain uncommitted.

About 80 percent of the world's environmental damage is attributed to the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's population -- the "overconsumers" of the industrialized North, whose lives are "organized around [individually owned] cars, meat-based diets, use of packaged and disposable products." At the bottom is the poorest 20 percent, who live predominantly in the Global South in "absolute deprivation," travelling mostly by foot, eating nutritionally poor diets, drinking contaminated water, using local biomass, and producing negligible wastes. The overconsumption of the top rung and the under consumption of the bottom are both unsustainable. The middle rung, the 60 percent also living mostly in the Global South -- who travel mostly by bicycle and public surface transportation, eat healthy diets of grains, vegetables and some meat, use unpackaged goods, and recycle wastes -- represent a balanced middle that should become the global norm. Unfortunately, however, more and more countries are adopting the Western model of development and its accordant hyperconsumerism.

Renewable, clean sources of energy and solar, wind, and biomass technologies must become the means for economic growth. The average person in the developed world must "cut meat consumption in half by the year 2050" to meet the emissions reduction targets set by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Political will is necessary to effect such sweeping changes in production and consumption. However, as Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who is leading the effort to reverse climate change states, "greenwash" is a "near universal response of politicians to the climate change issue." As he goes on to point out, energy lobbyists in Washington receive handsome payouts from energy companies.

At the crux of the problem is the dualism of self and other. Ultimately, all of us, self-absorbed individuals pursuing narrow self-interest over environmental sustainability and human well-being are accountable for the climate crisis to varying degrees. If we are seriously concerned about planetary survival, and thus human survival, we need to reflect more deeply on our uncritical internalization of dominant values and worldview.

Although current environmental and social collapse are attributable largely to the excesses of modern technology and economic growth, the roots of these crises go all the way back to the pre-capitalist era and the psychological and social evolution of hierarchy and domination. Over the course of history, a way of viewing reality and guiding social action defined by human domination of nature and each other has intensified; in fact, it is now being realized on a global scale. Sustainability and well-being require a shift from the prevailing system of domination and extremism to a global consciousness and a socioeconomic system based on interdependence and partnership. Adoption of appropriate technology, rational allocation of resources, and balanced and equitable consumption require a partnership ethic based on cultivating the values of moderation, tolerance, nonviolence, and compassion.

(Sources for quotations available in Asoka Bandarage, Sustainability and Well-Being (Palgrave, 2013)