Monday, September 06, 2010

Climate Change: A Conflict Transformation Approach

Part I: Diagnosis

“Peace is the ability to transform conflicts creatively, empathically and nonviolently.” (Johan Galtung)

Conflict can be defined in very simple terms as an incompatibility of goals. These two definitions allow us to reach two preliminary conclusions: one, that Climate Change is a conflict; and two, that the transformation of this conflict may be reached by increasing degrees of peace at a global scale.

Regarding the former, the incompatibility seems to be relatively simple to identify: our depletion of renewable and nonrenewable natural resources has reached a level that does not allow nature to regenerate them for our use in a sustainable manner. The conflict can increase in complexity if we include all other living beings that are being pushed to extinction, mainly due to two overarching constraints: first, habitats of some endemic species are disappearing faster than inhabiting species can adapt or migrate; and second, pollution is altering the sanity of some marine and terrestrial ecosystems beyond species’ ability to cope with such contamination.

Part of the problem that Climate Change poses is the difficulty to portray the holistic dimension of the conflict. It has been reduced to a political conversation of a few international leaders that most likely will not be occupying those roles in ten years. We have also narrowed down the causes that have led to this conflict to the mere carbon emissions.

It is clear that combustion of fossil fuels is provoking a global effect on the planet. This offers two interesting propositions: first, that fossil fuels are carbon-rich residues of decayed organisms that lived on the planet millions of years ago. Those organisms grew, fed and reproduced using sunlight, pretty much in the same way we do today. Everything we eat is carbon-rich. Our bodies and those of all other living beings is carbon-rich, from a whale to a tree. If we burn a tree today, the smoke it generates is carbon dioxide (CO2) that goes into the atmosphere. So, burning hydrocarbons like petroleum and natural gas implies releasing very ancient sunlight that has been stored into the crust of the earth and underneath the ocean floors a very long time ago. In other words, carbon emissions are adding ancient sunlight into our present-day atmosphere. The design of the atmosphere precisely assists in the capture of temperature to make sure some of the light received from the sun remains and makes the planet a livable one.

The second proposition is that, if greenhouse gases (GHG, where CO2 is the most abundant one, but certainly not the only one and far from being the deadliest) remained at surface level instead of rising up into the atmosphere, many of us would not be here as we would have already died from toxic poisoning. The same way as we would not want our children to stay inside a closed garage where a combustion engine is on because it is life-threatening, it would also represent a fatal risk to live where millions of tons of toxic gases remained at the surface level where we live, walk and work.

Rhetorically, we could claim that if such would have been the case that GHG remain at surface level, the amount of toxic gas generated 100 years ago would have already forced us to find a solution to the problem, either transforming the sources of energy, the uses of energy, the efficiency of generating it from fossil fuels, the ability to sequester poisonous residues, or any other paradigmatic change that would have dealt with the situation permanently.

Today, the problem forces us to think that, in a way, those gases are remaining at surface level. The holistic implications of the amount of GHG poured into the environment is causing enormous pressure on the entire planet, and more critically, on the global ecosystem. This global ecosystem knows no boundaries and belongs to no one. As a matter of fact, no one has control over it in terms of conservation. Not even all the efforts to preserve it and enrich it and enlarge it are being effective, because the effort we are doing together as humankind is greater, therefore the accelerating degradation of the planetary environment as a whole.

Back to the partial problem of Climate Change is precisely this: we only speak about CO2 and other GHG. As a matter of fact, there are possible future scenarios in which the GHG spewed into clean air could be taken care of by nature itself. In order for this to happen, though, the global ecosystem would have to increase in size significantly.

Vegetation –forests in particular- are absorbing all the CO2 they can. More precisely, vegetation needs CO2 to grow and flourish. This means that, not only do forests purify the planet’s water and clean the planet’s air, but they also feed of it. It is a magnificent symbiosis despite the fact that our exhaust fumes are contaminating the air we all breathe.

The problem has two vectors: one is the amount we emit, and the other is nature’s capacity to absorb it. The equation is imbalanced, and the imbalance grows every single minute, because of two opposing trends: the volume of emissions is increasing while the forest coverage is decreasing. Even if emissions would keep on growing –as they in fact are- and there was abundant forest coverage worldwide, perhaps the balanced equation would cancel out the contamination, allowing us to move on into other matters, at least temporarily.

The problem of GHG is, then, bidirectional, because by cutting our forests we are increasing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, it is calculated that the atmosphere held approximately 280 particles of carbon per million (ppm). Today, this number has climbed to 380, and forecasts estimate that, given the unwillingness and inability to reduce carbon emissions, this figure may reach 450 ppm by 2050 (Jeffrey Sachs, “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.”) As a mere illustration, the White Paper on Environment Policy published by the Chinese government in 2008 shows a commendable effort to transform the energy mix to renewable sources by 2050. They estimate their capability to transform up to 20% of the energy they will require 40 years from now. The remaining 80% will still come from hydrocarbons. To put this number into perspective, it does not mean that they will burn fossil fuels at 80% of today’s levels, but at 2050 levels, when China will have grown many times the size it has today. Therefore, 80% of carbon emissions in 2050 are equivalent to many times today’s emissions.

A similar scenario can be depicted for Russia, United States, India, Australia, and perhaps even the European Union, whose environmental policy on Climate Change is decades ahead of that of other continents.

Going back to the GHG problem, policymakers and international leaders have focused solely on this issue. This does not allow room to look up, pause and think about the underlying causes of the conflict. As a matter of illustration, some of the GHG is the residue of heat to stay warm during winter and to prepare food. Another larger portion of GHG is the residue of transportation of commodities and consumer goods from one place to the other, and to commute people from one city to another, and from home to work and back. Yet another portion of GHG is the residue of industrial manufacturing of many different things we buy. Much energy is generated worldwide from fossil fuel combustion. The energy is then used to manufacture textiles, electronic appliances, cement, vehicles, and basically all other product we purchase on our everyday lives.

Sadly, most of those goods are disposable, whether in one use or a few, whether they last a year or several. The problem is that we are not discarding them properly. Proper discarding of our residue is making sure it becomes input of some other process or system. For example, if all the plastic containers we throw away that are non-reusable and non-recyclable, were melted together to construct highway divisions to contain cars that drive out of control. This would even prevent deaths making life safer on our roads; or if all food leftovers could be sent to composters that will transform it into organic fertilizer. It is essential that we shift the way we think about garbage because this is one of the critical issues that makes Climate Change an incremental conflict. Exhaust fumes are the residues of combustion, and it is not feeding any other process or system. So it represents millions of tons of toxic gases that we are dumping into clean air, without any regard about who will deal with it, how and when.

Another part of the conflict is that the global atmosphere, like most of the planet’s ocean waters and the global ecosystem, belongs to no one. So, no one is responsible, no one is in charge of enforcing it preservation, and no one is punished for polluting the air that we all need to live. This paradox has been referred to as the Tragedy of the Commons, or the unsustainable condition that common goods that have no owner suffer, which leads them to exhaustion or extinction. If no one owns a river, a factory can dump toxic chemical waste into the river. This will harm the river’s ecosystem and biodiversity, and eventually will cause a severe and permanent damage on the ocean or lake where the river flows. Such is the case of the Gulf of Mexico, that has a dead zone along the United States coast as a result of millions of tons of toxic waste dumped upstream the Mississippi river by numerous factories.

This paradox can be extended into a different dimension that could allow for a greater comprehension of the dimension of the conflict of Climate Change. Let’s call it the Tragedy of the Unaware. A person buys a product unaware of how much residue was generated to produce it. She discards the product unaware of how it will be disposed of, either by the system in charge of dealing with garbage or by nature itself. For example, a person purchases a mobile phone, uses it until it is time to replace it, and gives it away or throws it away. Many cellular batteries end in garbage dumps where the battery will leak toxic residue for decades, contaminating the ground and possibly underground aquifers or nearby masses of water for a very long time.

A tentative question to raise is if that person is to blame or should be held liable for her unawareness. The answer is no, but she should. No, because her unawareness is partly the result of a producer willing to sell a product that does not observe quality controls in environmental terms, both in the residues generated to produce it, as well as in the residue it becomes once disposed of by the customer. This paradox is referred to as an information asymmetry. It is a behavioral principle that states that if a person had more information, her decision-making process may differ. For example, if a product had a label that disclosed the environmental impact the product has generated in its production process, and what is the expected environmental impact it will have when discarded, then the customer might not buy it. This could potentially lead many industries to bankruptcy. Instead, they are getting away with it by concealing some crucial information and this is leading the global environment to bankruptcy, or something equivalent.

A possible solution to this problem would be, as suggested by Daniel Goleman in “Ecological Intelligence,” that all producers of consumer goods be forced to disclose a precise measurement of environmental impact when producing a good, and that it offers clear instructions as to how to dispose of the good properly. The European Union has environmental policy that effectively makes obligatory for all producers to give consumers an instruction about how to return the product to the company when discarded, so the company itself deals with it properly. This may mean reusing, recycling, or refurbishing some components, or to classify residues in an environmentally sustainable manner.

A reflection is necessary at this point regarding humankind’s habits of consumption. The impact that our behavior is having on the global ecosystem is so large that we could say that we are working to earn money to spend it on garbage, whether in the form of GHG, a toxic chemical that is the residue of mining, or a plastic bottle that will probably find its way into the Eastern Garbage Patch, a floating garbage dump mainly of plastics that occupies an area twice the size of Texas on the Pacific Ocean. It is estimated that this garbage dump contains “three trillion pieces of plastic debris” (Thomas M. Kostigen, “You Are Here.”)

Paradoxically, we are not only generating a lot of garbage with our modern lifestyle, but we are not generating a proportional degree of happiness. It is revealing, from the Happy Planet Index (, that the happiest nations are not the richest. In fact, most of them are among the poorest. These two contradicting trends signify that the more we buy, the unhappier we become. Perhaps it is something that should lead us, as a civilization, to revise bad habits we have adopted in recent decades, when consumption became more important than happiness.

The complexity of the conflict of Climate Change increases to far greater levels when we stop to realize that the group of international leaders that concentrate most of the decision-making power for an effective transformation process are the political leaders of the so-called G-20, the 20 largest economies in the world, which, much to our dismay, are precisely the 20 that pollute and contaminate the most. This contamination is not only in GHG emissions, but also in resource depletion from other countries that, being poor, are led into commercial deals for their natural resources, be they minerals, forests, or arable land, which, in turn, is causing greater environmental degradation onto the planet’s ecosystem.

In other words, the G-20 has self-appointed itself to deal with a conflict that they have predominantly created, and the way to deal with the conflict is to self-regulate themselves. Does this sound like a sustainable system? Does this sound like a governance principle that would make geopolitics a more just system? Is this an enforcement of the rule of law? Is this bridging the divide between public opinion and public policy?

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