Remember the heady days of 2009? The world – or at least the world’s media – was rocked by such hot topics as the death of Michael Jackson, the spread of swine flu, the Iranian elections and the new Star Trek movie; as if that wasn’t enough, there was also something called climate change that was pushing us into global disaster. The mass media got terribly excited over an international summit in Copenhagen that was supposed to fix the problem; when the meeting was a flop, the world’s press largely got bored and turned their attention elsewhere.
The swine flu pandemic may now officially be over (and Transformers 2 a happily distant memory), but sadly climate change has refused to stay behind in 2009. You’d be forgiven for thinking it had; a 21% drop in global media coverage of the issue in 2010, and a further 20% fall in 2011 has left many people with the impression that it’s not such a big deal any more.
Record-breaking global temperatures in 2010 (the joint-hottest year on record, along with 2005) were accompanied by a wave of climate-related disasters from killer heatwaves in Russia to floods in Pakistan. 2011 saw more of the same; slightly cooler than 2010 thanks to the La Nina weather event, it became instead the hottest La Nina year ever recorded.
Hurricane Irene in the Caribbean and the US East Coast, deadly mudslides in Brazil and the devastating drought in East Africa were just three examples of the kind of catastrophes that are becoming ever more commonplace (the global annual natural disaster rate has doubled since 1980, according to insurers Munich Re).
That’s the bad news. Here’s something more positive: according to the opinion polls – and despite the media prominence of certain US Republican politicians with anti-science viewpoints – most people in the world understand that this growing emergency is firmly linked to humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that we need to act fast to reduce them.
The December 2011 Durban summit saw politicians once again fail to set meaningful climate targets, but that hasn’t stopped people on the ground from being vocal on this issue. In just the last month protests in the US have halted a major pipeline which would have boosted the extraction of highly polluting tar sands oil; meanwhile, demonstrations up to 30,000 strong in China are blocking the construction of coal plants. Perhaps more crucially, the links are being made between economic and environmental turbulence.
Existing renewable energy technology (without giant dams, nuclear power, large-scale biofuels or unproven “carbon capture” techniques) could harvest enough energy to give everyone on the planet a good quality of life – but only if the wealthiest segment of the world’s population rein in their wasteful ways to create enough energy “space” for the rest of the globe to get up to a sustainable level of power consumption.
This isn’t going to happen without a serious shake-up of our current economic and political systems, to reduce the power of the vested fossil fuel interests, entrenched elites and financial corporations who are prioritising short-term profits for the already-wealthy over the long-term needs of the world’s population.
Fortunately, we just might be seeing the birth of a global movement with these very demands. From European anti-austerity demonstrations to millions of small farmers calling for land reform; from the Arab Spring to the Russian pro-democracy uprising; from Indigenous forest communities fighting the extractive industries to striking Indian factory workers; all of these disparate issues already have shared roots in our failed economic system, and could – potentially – find common cause with climate activists too, making this topic into a unifying issue around the globe.
The burgeoning Occupy network is already starting to make this link, describing climate change (correctly) as a symptom of our out-of-control economic system.
Calls for a fairer economy, greater democracy and a safer climate should – and must – go hand in hand, as none of the three is truly possible without the others. We could yet save ourselves from calamity if we can find enough common ground; we are, after all, all under the same sky.