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    Global North off the charts and tone-deaf to Nature’s plea for help

    “High-income countries use six times more materials per capita and are responsible for ten times more climate impacts per capita than low-income countries.”

    Global Resources Outlook 2024

    Besides the usual musical definition of “tone-deaf” there is this one: “Having or showing an obtuse insensitivity or lack of perception particularly in matters of public sentiment, opinion, or taste.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary

    Jubilation followed the news that a biodiverse and fecund cold-water coral reef off the coast of British Columbia had been discovered by Indigenous people and that another reef had been discovered near the Galápagos Islands. Calls to immediately protect the areas received support. At a time when warming oceans are harbingers of coral bleaching, any good news gets its rightful share of publicity, but is it enough?

    A concatenation of ongoing Earth crises is upon us, but not because the warnings haven’t been voiced. Governments have been swayed by corporate money instead of being clarion voices for their own peoples’ wellbeing.

    More than a century after Eunice Newton Foote recognized and articulated the greenhouse effect in 1856 (something that has often wrongly been attributed to John Tyndall), the oil companies’ scientists realized that there is long-term danger from burning fossil fuels, which increases the temperature not only in the atmosphere but also in the ocean. They kept this knowledge from the public because they wanted to maximize profits.

    In 1985 the astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan laid out before the US government the coming existential crisis that humanity would face if greenhouse gases were not urgently curtailed in the coming decades.

    Sagan called for all nations to act together on a plan to combat the rise of emissions so that future generations could flourish. The eminent climate scientist James Hanson, testifying in 1988 in front of Congress, basically said the same thing.

    In 1989, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first popular book on the perils of increasing climate warming. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit helped to cement the relationship between Earth systems, economics and political engagement, and the resulting Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed by most countries, including the United States, and the landmark accord was the first global treaty to explicitly address climate change.

    In 1992 some 1,700 leading scientists signed a letter of warning asking for immediate action “if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More than 15,000 scientists endorsed a second warning 27 years later, declaring a climate emergency and detailing the need to limit the human population and reduce the per capita consumption of meat and, amongst other resources, fossil fuels. The 2006 climate documentary based on Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth reached millions of people and helped launch the climate movement. 

    Even though humanity has witnessed the multifaceted catastrophes brought on by rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, there is no enforceable treaty in sight to reduce these emissions. Take methane, for example. Although it is a much shorter-lived gas than carbon dioxide, its potency to heat up the planet is many times greater. Aggressively reducing its emissions can give us some drastically needed time to focus on carbon dioxide.

    However, although nations have pledged to reduce methane, the vast majority do not accurately report their emissions statistics to the UN. What emerges is a potpourri of estimates and downright lies. “Satellite data analysed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows methane emissions from oil and gas fields globally are around 70 percent higher than governments claim, mainly because of unreported leaks and flaring.” From Turkmenistan to the US and Canada, there is a great deal of cheating.

    How can the UN finally call out the industries that have not curtailed emissions? Enter the MethaneSAT satellite, which can pinpoint where all the methane is coming from and hold governments and corporations accountable by “ushering in a new era of climate transparency and accountability.”

    We also need to have an intelligent and perhaps intense discussion regarding the methane produced by belching cows, which is the greatest agricultural source of the gas and is impacting climate change. Through diet and breeding, concerned farmers are working on reducing the methane produced by cows, but more emphasis needs to be placed on eliminating meat from our diet altogether, as this would also make room for a resplendent biodiversity turnaround.

    After seemingly large public climate education gains in the last 6 years, beginning with Extinction Rebellion’s 2018 creative civil disobedience strategies and, inspired by Greta Thunberg, Fridays For a Future climate actions across the globe, governments and corporations are now backtracking on their commitments to make large dents in their greenhouse gas emissions, to the dismay of climate/biodiversity scientists, social justice advocates and concerned citizens everywhere. Though some investment companies are implementing positive changes to their climate/biodiversity policies and the advice they give their clients, many of the world’s largest are erasing from their literature their resolve to do so.

    A new word has emerged that describes these reactionary decisions: “greenhushing” is when these corporations no longer publicly express pro-climate business advice or frame their financial planning around knowledge based on climate science. What they say behind closed doors might lend credibility for green policies, but it’s hush-hush now. From mighty banks to corporations, mum’s the word.

    Suddenly, governments are afraid to affront the fossil fuel industry and their cronies and are retracting promises to spend billions on climate/biodiversity action. Even the new rules approved by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, detailing how public companies disclose to investors climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions they produce, have been watered down. 

    Right-wing threats to sue or haul these institutions in front of hostile government committees, suppress new pro-Earth strategies and have pressured the largest banks and investment corporations to mute their new found enthusiasm for the transition away from fossil fuels. This spells a disaster for future generations. Why would we be surprised? It has never been easy to get past the corporate self-imposed barriers that artificially separate business decisions from a more holistic planetary approach, even if that approach will ultimately distribute greater financial benefits over the long term. 

    It’s not only business models that don’t accurately reflect the required impetus towards the greener technologies, ecological responsibilities and ethical obligations that many investors are now clamouring for. The highly complex scientific climate models that have been used for 40 years to guide society haven’t by a long way kept up with the on-the-ground realities of the climate crisis. Those same models that inform, amongst others, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must reflect the rapidly unfolding climate emergency. We simply haven’t internalized what is around us. By burrowing our heads in the sand we aren’t even attuned to the crises. Yes, our bodies and minds in the west are tone-deaf to visceral reaction by Nature to the onslaught. Climate models haven’t responded to the severity of what is swiftly challenging those models, so a huge chasm has appeared. Models are no longer adequately advising humanity of future planetary upheavals. Erica Thompson’s book Escape from Model Land: How Mathematical Models Can Lead Us Astray and What We Can Do About It details the growing concern with these models.

    Let us be inspired by the five women Amnesty International recently highlighted for their fervent voices for climate justice.

    “Local and Indigenous communities should be at the center of conversations around climate justice, and have a key role to play in seeking solutions. Their voices must be heard, including those from the youth and women, and the solutions they propose should be considered and implemented.”

    Astrid Puentes, environmental lawyer, Colombia-Mexico.

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