Several months on from COP26, neither the climate crisis nor the time to act are over. Eduardo Klien, HelpAge’s Regional Representative in Asia Pacific, reflects on his vision of the heaven or hell that might await. It all depends on what we do next.
You are in the year 2046. September to be more precise. Today’s temperature in London is forecast to be in the range of 38-40° C. Your grandchildren start school at 06:30 am. Ah! you must remind them to take rehydrating liquid in their backpacks.
You go to work at around 06:45 to avoid the worst of the intense heat. Public transport is already very hot. There was an annoying incident on the tube. A group of youngsters were harassing an older couple who wanted priority seats by shouting at them “you old farts, you screwed up the world and now you still claim privileges…!”
Once in your office you skim through the news. The heatwave ravaging through northern Mexico and southern USA has caused at least 28,000 recorded deaths in the last 10 days. According to AARP, 42% of deaths in the USA were older people. The BBC reports riots at water distribution points in northern Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Southern Spain, and across Sub-Saharan Africa. You read that wildlife in the Masai Mara has shrunk by 90% in the last three years. Droughts and extreme heat have also led to simultaneous uncontainable forest fires in Australia, Chile and Turkey. In contrast, unprecedented floods in the UK, Canada, Germany and Bulgaria have caused innumerable deaths. Two typhoons have devastated Luzon and Leyte islands in the Philippines and are now on course to hit Vietnam and Hong Kong. A hurricane category 5 is looming in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ooooffff… you decide to skip the news of the rise in sea levels and the millions suffering in coastal cities everywhere. You cannot absorb so much bad news in one day.
You switch to politics: US President, Ivanka Trump, declared in a rally in South Carolina that “the USA is shielded and protected against the Chinese-caused global warming…”.
Ayayayyyy, better go to Sports: The Olympic Committee has confirmed that the next Winter Games will only be held in-doors, as there are no longer appropriate snow-covered locations in host-country, France. You also read that Arsenal beat Liverpool by a convincing 5-0 in the newly air-conditioned Emirates Stadium.
You are writing a concept note for a study on social innovation in adapting to rapid population ageing in developing countries. You search for updated context information. 38% of population in Sub-Saharan Africa and 26% of Latin America population are now living below poverty levels (according to the UNDP Development Report 2045). The WHO has commented that global life expectancy has now sunk to the same level as it was in the 1960s. The UN Secretary General, Talitha Alvarez, said that “humanity has almost completed digging its own grave, and is starting to write the tombstone”. She called for the construction of a new world, with a new economic rationale based on cooperation and not on greed, adding that “acting now is the very last hope to maintain a barely liveable world”.
Is that nightmare scenario within the realm of possibility? Yes, yes, it is very possible if rapid, global and concerted action is not taken.
The sweet dream
Again, you are in September 2046. Now in South Africa. You wake up to a bright, sunny day. It is getting pleasantly warm and spring flowers are blooming. You are looking forward to your holiday, canoeing down the Zambezi River while your grandchildren are at an Alpine camp in Austria in December. They can’t wait for snow and skiing!
Although you are now formally a pensioner, you have a full agenda as Chairman of the Environmental Protection Committee of your Older People’s Association (OPA).
As you go jogging, you listen to the news: the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Greta Thunberg, has declared that 78% of the energy consumed globally is now renewable, even though the carbon and oil industries are still resisting further reductions. She states that 118 countries have met their Net Zero emissions targets, and China has committed to reach that goal in 2052. India, is the outlier, insisting that it will only reduce emissions once it has achieved its development goals. Ms Thunberg highlighted that this was not only harmful but also contradictory, given the dramatic reduction in the cost of renewable resources, especially with the recent developments in energy transmission and storage. Besides, the carbon tax has meant that the use of fossil fuels is no longer cost-effective for any country.
Global temperature is projected to increase by no more than 1.7 °C by the end of the century. Reforestation in the Amazon and Southeast Asia has made an important contribution to the National Determined Contributions (NDCs) of Brazil, Indonesia and Peru, amongst others. 32,000 communities in Africa and Asia are engaging in CO2 sequestration, storing up to 5.5 Gigatons of CO2 per year in the soil. This has created new sources of income, especially for millions of older people and their families who are benefitting from the carbon credits they receive, as well as from the improved quality of soil.
After a quick shower you start drafting a project aimed at sharing social innovations for a rapidly ageing population. The population has gone down in more than 70 countries, and this changing demographic structure has required systems and structures to be adapted. You are focused on the analysis of prospective ageing, considering older age from the viewpoint of years ahead, rather than years lived. This approach became generalised a few years ago, recognising that people are living healthier and longer, remaining more active than previous generations.
You go through the Human Happiness Index (HHI), which combines 36 metrics to assess people’s well-being. When you were young, GDP was the dominant measure of development, a number defining success but making abstraction of people. That rationale, represented by “profit uber alles”, had been at the core of global warming.
You are proud that humanity stood up to the biggest challenge it had ever confronted. It cost sweat, tears… even blood. The mass mobilisations pushed governments to act, improve and implement their NDCs or face political disgrace. Your OPA had won the award of the most environmentally friendly OPA in South Africa.
It was a fight on multiple fronts: for financing adaptation, for carbon taxes, for meaningful social protection, for ambitious NDCs, for preserving oceans and environment, for taming the food industry, for changing social behaviours, for fast-tracking new technologies, for rethinking development, for disinvesting in fossil fuel industries, for countering the disinformation spread by powerful lobbies…. and along the way, drastically reducing wealth inequalities.
Some looked like small victories, but in aggregate they made a difference. Humanity put the greed of the gargantuan forces of capitalism on the back foot. That, gradually, made a crucial difference.
We are enjoying a new era of confidence and global collaboration. But even though you know that a luta continua… the struggle continues, you are confident that humanity is on the right track, and there will be a liveable, clean planet for generations to come.
So, which will it be? The nightmare or the sweet dream?
The easy option is do little, thinking that you (humanity) are doing a lot. In that case, the nightmare will prevail. Achieving the sweet dream, on the other hand, requires commitment, action, perseverance and thinking big. This option requires massive engagement, strategic impatience and restless perseverance. Or put it in another way it requires to confidently hold David’s sling to fight against powerful Goliaths.