Najib Saab 26/3/2023

The report issued a few days ago by the international scientific body advising the United Nations on climate change brought nothing new, except for confirming what has been known for years: that the climate is changing faster than expected, and the impact will be multiplied should there be no prompt practical plan. However, credible solutions are still remote, because countries did not abide by what they promised in conferences and climate treaties over the past three decades.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes scientists from all over the world, has issued since its inception in 1988 a series of scientific reports that have been the basis for climate agreements since COP summits began 27 years ago. The last report was a summary of the committee’s work over five years, and its conclusions and recommendations are supposed to form the scientific foundation for the political options to be considered at COP28 in the UAE at the end of the year.

The most prominent conclusion of the report is that limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees by the end of this century is no longer an achievable goal, due to the delay in implementing the required commitments to reduce carbon emissions. This means that the range of irreversible impacts will expand, whether it is rising seas, heat waves, droughts, or the accelerating frequency and scale of extreme natural disasters. These demand an increase in adaptation budgets, in preparation for dealing with snowballing impacts that can no longer be reversed. However, this does not mean that our fate has been sealed, and that we have to succumb, as some operators of polluting industries and activities like to promote, in order to continue accumulating profits with business as usual. Accelerating emissions reduction measures, even though they will not stop the temperature rising by just 1.5 degrees, will at least put a limit to this increase, keeping it more manageable. It might also be possible, over a period of time, to absorb part of the excess greenhouse gases, either through natural methods such as increasing forest areas, or industrial procedures by capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it safely. The unchecked increase in emissions puts the ramifications of climate change beyond control.

The report also concludes that our action today will determine the future of humanity for thousands of years to come, as it may lead to extreme changes in ecosystems that entail radical modifications in the patterns of life as we know it. Nevertheless, the report confirms that a solution is still possible, by developing realistic policies based on scientific facts, for which governments can be held responsible. However, it also places big portion of the responsibility on the people, as it calls on them to voluntarily change their consumption patterns in a way that leads to the rational use of resources and the reduction of emissions. This is a crucial challenge, as public policies are the main driver for any radical change in consumption patterns, rather than voluntary change in behavior. Nor can billions of people in poor countries, who lack the most basic conditions of life such as water, food, electricity, health and education, be asked to care about climate issues, while their main concern is securing the basic requirements of their day to day life. Those same requirements are often ignored by the same politicians spreading climate threats.

It has been very useful for the report to base its findings on scientific facts; however, it is equally necessary to explain them to the public in an easy and accurate manner, with an explanation of the available options and possible solutions and alternatives. This helps in forming a cognizant and vigilant public opinion, well equipped and motivated to pressure authorities to adopt appropriate policies that respond to climate challenges.

However, the result is completely different, which is not the fault of the report authors. Organizations and the media present the report in a context of fear, warning of the inevitable extinction of the human race, without offering explanations, defining responsibilities or presenting possible solutions. The loudest demonstration of this attitude was the statement by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, describing the report as the last warning before the climate time-bomb detonates. It is true that the Secretary-General’s warning comes with the best of intentions, but it would have been more useful, instead of intimidating people who lack the most basic requirements of life, to address governments and hold them accountable to their commitments. It would also have been more useful, and credible, for him to lead the way by putting an end to squandering in United Nations bodies themselves, by imposing measures to enhance efficiency and directing resources to help advance climate action. It is equally necessary for the international organization to start with itself, by putting an end to excessive travel by its staff and conference invitees, and changing its rules to shift from business to economy class for all its staff, limiting it to absolutely necessary trips. This will save millions needed for real work to help alleviate suffering of the poor, as well as contributing to a significant reduction in emissions. Research shows that air passengers seated in business class are responsible for up to 4 times more carbon emissions than if they fly coach. Personal photos and comments shamelessly shared on social media by some participants in international environmental conferences, from Bangkok and Sharm El-Sheikh to Cancun, show a passion for tourism and entertainment more than an interest in saving the planet and humanity. This is an additional proof that a deep revamp of the system is overdue.

The release of the last climate report coincided with the publication of an article in the European Journal of International Law on the “Discourses of Fear on Climate Change in International Human Rights Law,” written by Dr. Anne Saab, Professor of International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. The article warns against the spread of the fear rhetoric regarding climate change, as it is one of the most serious threats to human rights. Indeed, scientific facts prove the devastating effects of climate change, and their disclosure is necessary to draw attention to the problem and spur action. The article cautions that “over-intimidation and mixing scientific facts with sentimental rhetoric can wear people down and drive them away from caring, right up to opposing climate policies.” It calls for not limiting concern to climate change only, at the expense of other basic human needs. While world leaders have been warning of “climate’s last chance” for the past twenty years, they are missing the fact that most of the world’s population does not have the luxury of thinking about climate change. The article concludes that abandoning the language of intimidation and fear and converting scientific facts into realistic policies is a condition for achieving effective climate action supported by international law.

Climate change is not the primary cause of hunger, thirst, disease and deterioration in the quality of life, but rather wrong policies and neglect of reform. Climate change exacerbates these calamities, and is, in one way, triggered by them in the first place. Therefore, politicians and leaders of organizations should not be allowed to use climate as an excuse to justify their shortcomings, through intimidation and mixing science and politics with emotions and populist speeches spreading fear.