Climate Change is Bringing a New Meaning to “Cold War”

Image of Arctic Circle ice caps
Ponds on the Ocean. Source: NASA, Creative Commons.

When I first heard the report that President Trump was working to try to buy Greenland, I was so taken aback that I checked to make sure I was not listening to an article put out by the satirical news outlet, The Onion. Sure enough, I was listening to my NPR podcast and the President attempting to buy another country could in no way be described as fake news. A little more research into this interesting political maneuver revealed the true intentions behind the President’s financial offer to Denmark. Geopolitics are suddenly playing a massive role in climate change as countries prepare for a world with significantly higher sea levels than we are currently experiencing. This is unfortunate as major powers are focusing on investing money and resources on being prepared for the after effects of climate change instead of focusing on fixing the crisis itself. Greenland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle gives the country who owns it, currently Denmark, a claim to the continental shelf that runs under Arctic ice and thus a stake in the trade route that will be unveiled as the ice continues to melt. Ownership of Greenland would allow the United States to gain an important leg up in the race to control the Arctic.

It is indisputable that the planet is progressively getting warmer, and that humans are a direct cause of the continued warming. Green house gasses and carbon emissions produced by the world’s top producing countries directly contribute to a decrease in the expanse of ice caps and in an increase in ocean levels around the world. Average global sea level has a pattern of rising and falling over the centuries of Earth’s existence. The most recent global sea level rise, the one we are experiencing now, has proven to be significantly more rapid than past circumstances. Scientists have noted that should the current rise in sea levels continue, continental coastlines will become drastically different. World leaders do have an incentive to ignore the serious ramifications of the melting arctic ice caps in favor of the possibility of new trade routes over the top of the world. Once the ice caps melt, it could be possible for ships to travel through the Arctic without the need for ice-breaking machines.

The new trade route in question is the Northern Sea route, a route already used during the summer months but that many trade dependent nations are hoping will be open year-round. It extends from the Barents Sea (Russia’s border with Norway) to the Bering Strait (between Serbia and Alaska). Current shipping lanes require ships to start from the Mediterranean, continue through the Suez Canal, and finish through the Red Sea. With this current route, ships travel over 13,049 miles over the course of approximately 48 days. The Northern Sea Route would reduce the transit time for ships by 10 to 15 days.

It is becoming increasingly clear to major power countries that border the Arctic ice caps, such as the United States, Canada, and Russia, how strategically important control over the developing trade route could be. As of yet, Russia has been the fastest actor. Russia has the most stake in the Arctic Circle, despite the United States and Canada having claim to a large portion of the Arctic. The superpower went as far as to plant a titanium flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, on the North Pole in 2007. More recently, Russia has been maintaining multiple military bases within the Arctic Circle that include over 50 ice-breaking machines. Along with the increased military presence of Russia in the Arctic, the civilian presence has increased. Nearly two million Russians live in large cities created in Russia’s Arctic territory. In comparison, the United States maintains a singular airfield in the Arctic, on land that technically belongs to Greenland, and the largest United States town of Utqiaġvik houses a population of a little more than 4,000. President Trump’s attempt to obtain the island of Greenland as part of the United States shows the US beginning to counteract Russian presence in the Arctic. Tensions are slowly rising, and many analysts have reason to believe that a major conflict over territory and control of a consistently melting Arctic could arise in the next decade.

It is clear that these nations have been paying attention to the melting ice caps but none of the countries’ representatives have presented an adequate plan for counteracting the issue. In 2015, 195 world powers signed the Paris Agreement, the goal of which was to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels instead of the forecasted 2 C. During this 2015 conference, the United States promised to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, Russia did not ratify the agreement, and Canada promised to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions below that of 2005 levels: 30 per cent below by 2030. Canada and the United States made bold commitments and led the way for other countries to do the same.

However, these commitments have not been fulfilled. In the United States in 2018, emissions rose to an estimated 3.4 percent. A country that was once considered a leader and role model in the fight against climate change has all but withdrawn from the fight. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has even announced plans to officially abandon the Paris Agreement and has simultaneously removed carbon-reducing regulations set in place by the previous administration. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has recently announced that not only is the country on track to meet this goal, but will also undoubtedly exceed it. The claim has brought hope to many environmental activists that Canada could replace the United States as a leader in fighting the climate crisis. However, reports from within Canada dispute Trudeau’s predictions. The Environment and Climate Change Canada’s January 2019 projection has predicted that with current and upcoming climate policies, Canada will barely reach 19 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Russia’s response to the climate crisis has been lackluster at best and the Climate Action Tracker rates Russia’s target emissions at the lowest rating, “Critically Insufficient.” In September of 2019 the United Nations held a Climate Conference in New York where world leaders re-evaluated prior commitments and could choose to update their emission goals. Canada pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This is an admirable goal, but leaders have not yet put forth a plan to achieve the emissions rate. The United States was largely silent in the discussions and did not provide any new promises to reduce emissions. Surprisingly, Russia agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement at the 2019 Climate Conference.

The United States, Canada, and Russia are countries that have a very large sphere of influence and it is disheartening to witness these superpowers focus energy and resources on exploiting a disastrous effect of climate change instead of working towards preventing and ending the warming of the planet. Should the ice caps melt fully, yes, a new trade route would be opened, but millions of people would be affected by the rising waters. The human habitat would be drastically affected along coastlines; more than a hundred million people live along coastlines or within range of the newly predicted coastline and many people live on the decreasing ice caps themselves.

In the race to establish territory in the Arctic, conflicts between very powerful nations could arise and citizens of the world are largely being left out of the conversation. Should the ice caps continue to melt at the rate that supporters of the new trade route are hoping for, the people who call the ice caps their home will be left with limited options and the countries who are laying claim to the Arctic are not providing any options for them. Arctic bordering countries like Russia, the United States, and Canada recognize the opportunity to gain political, economic, and strategic advantages over other major powers. The conflict that is arising from this recognition is another effect of climate change and should violence erupt in the North, the citizens of all of the included countries as well as separate countries could be affected. It is easy to acknowledge how rising water resulting from ever warming ice caps could contribute to loss of land and increased flooding. However, it is important to recognize how global warming will affect human rights in other ways, such as increased reasons for conflict between major powers around the world. President Trump offering to buy Greenland is an evident sign of a growing issue across the world, validating the concern that global warming can and will negatively impact human rights in more ways than usually understood.

The Rainforest is Burning: Fires in the Amazon

Trees in a swamp in the Amazon rain forest.
Swamp in Amazon rainforest. Source: Ivan Mlinaric, Creative Commons

On August 19, 2019, the sky of São Paulo, Brazil was turned black from smoke, bringing an abrupt awareness to a serious problem in the Amazon: it’s burning.  During the first eight months of this year, upwards of 74,000 fires were found burning in Brazil, most of which were in the Amazon and/or on agricultural land.  This was an 84% increase in the number of fires found during the same period in 2018, and the highest number found at one time in Brazil since 2010.  In August, the G7 (Group of Seven) held a summit to discuss issue related to climate change, biodiversity, and the oceans, where the countries involved agreed to give support and $20 million in response to the devastation in the Amazon.  Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, refused this offer, claiming that the country’s sovereignty was being the threatened. 

Why is this happening? 

There are a few different factors that have been attributed to causing the fires.  One is that some number of fires is normal, especially during this time of year, as it is a dry season.  Most of the fires are not naturally occurring, though.  Brazilian journalist Silio Boccanera says that many of the local people feel comfortable setting fires as they wish, as the government has not made efforts to prevent it. 

President Bolsonaro supports the deforestation of the Amazon because he sees it as place for development.  Because of this, his administration has not framed the preservation of the rainforest as being particularly important, making groups who want to clear land for farming do exactly that.  Boccanera believes that this, in combination with the expected fires of the dry season, has been the main cause.    

According to Mikaela Weisse from the World Resources Institute, cattle grazers and soybean growers are the main two groups who are clearing the rainforest due to economic interests.  Mining, timber, and development firms are also growing in the area as a result of Bolsonaro’s position on the rainforest.  Confirmation of the fact that humans have caused most of the fires comes from satellite photos showing “special pattern where we see a lot of fire hot-spots clustered around roads, agriculture and pasture areas that have already been cleared.” 

The Impact of the Fires on the Environment  

The increase of fires has had (and will continue to have) a serious impact on the natural world.  So far, 228 megatons of carbon dioxide have been released due to the fireswhich absorbs heat and contributes to climate change. 

There is also great reason to be concerned for the long-term well-being of the Amazon itself.  As a tropical rainforest, it has high levels of humidity and is not fire-adapted, meaning its vegetation does not have the special traits that the plants of drier climates have developed in order to survive or even thrive when fire is present.  According to Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, it takes around 20 to 40 years to regenerate after a fire (assuming it has the chance to regenerate before a new fire begins).  However, any fires that do occur leave the surviving trees more vulnerable to drought and new fires than they were before.  Multiple fires every few years mean more long-term, permanent damage, potentially shifting large parts of the Amazon to a “degraded shrubby state.” 

As of August, 80% of the Amazon remained intact, but Malhi is concerned about how the combination of deforestation and climate change will impact the situation.  Due to the reduced rainfall leading to a drier climate, fires would be more likely to spread.  As Malhi points out: “If 30-40% of the Amazon was cleared, then there would be a danger of changing the forest’s entire climate,” which is hard to think about.  He does, however, also say that we are at an early stage in the situation, and that there is still enough to work to save the rainforest. 

Clearing Up Some Misinformation 

One claim that has been seen numerous social media sites is that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of Earth’s oxygen.  According the BBC’s Reality Check, academics believe that the number is actually less than 10%.  Professor Malhi points out that a large part percentage of oxygen is produced by plankton and that, of the oxygen that is produced by plants on land, only 16% is produced by the Amazon.   

Even if the Amazon produced a full 20% of oxygen, this is still a misleading claim, because the Amazon absorbs close to the same amount of oxygen as it produces, “effectively making the total produced net-zero.”  The plants of the rainforest must reabsorb about half of the oxygen they produce to perform respiration and grow, and the soil, animals, and microbes also use some of it. 

This is not to suggest that saving the Amazon rainforest is not an important issue (because it certainly is)rather, it is to clear up some misinformation.  People have been known to point to misinformation as an argument against the importance of an issue, so it is important to address it when it is being spread.   

An area of the Amazon rain forest where trees have been cut down and burned.
Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. Source: Matt Zimmerman, Creative Commons

The Impact of Fires and Deforestation on Indigenous Peoples 

The deforestation of the Amazon has a severe negative impact on the indigenous people of Brazil.  Indigenous tribes rely on the rainforest in nearly every part of their lives, from food to clothes to medicine.  It is also an important part of their identity as a people.  Jonathan Mozower from Survival International says, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of these forests for indigenous peoples.”  The fires that are burning in the Amazon are eating away at the resources that are the foundation of their livelihoods.   

According to Mozower, this is “the worst moment for the indigenous people of the Amazon” since the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s.  In just a single week in August, there were 68 fires found and registered in indigenous territories and conservation areas. 

The indigenous people of the area are also being harmed by the fires’ impact on the rainforest’s biodiversity.  The Amazon rainforest contains the most diverse range of living things in the world.  For example, it is home to over 3,000 species of fish, and there are hundreds more that have not yet been discovered.  The diversity of the forest is what allows the life there to thrive, with different species depending on one another, such as fish helping to spread the seeds of trees.  The loss of some species leads to the loss of others, causing the rate of biodiversity loss to increase over time. 

As the Amazon loses more and more biodiversity, the indigenous people who live there lose more of their resources. 

This Is a Human Rights Issue 

According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration for Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.  This is also affirmed by Article 7 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) states that “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.”  

DRIP also addresses many aspects of the land and resources that indigenous peoples depend on (like in the Amazon rainforest).  Article 8 states that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for actions that deprive them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of cultural values or ethnic identities and any action that tries or succeeds at taking away their land or resources.  Article 26 identifies indigenous peoples’ rights to the lands and resources they have traditionally possessed, to own, use, develop, and control these lands and resources, and to have “legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources” by the states they live in.  Article 29 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.  Articles 30 says that governments should consult the indigenous people who live in the area before using their territories. 

The impacts of the fires and deforestation of the Amazon impede indigenous people’s access to these rights and must be dealt with. 

What Can We Do? 

When faced with the facts of the situation in Amazon, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future.  Here are some things that you can personally do to help. 

Donations 

One option is to donate to organizations aimed at fighting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and supporting the people who are impacted by it.  Survival International takes donations in order to fund their efforts to pressure the Brazilian government to keep loggers out of the rainforest in support of the Awá people.  The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs aims specifically to help makes sure that the voices of indigenous people are heard. 

Rainforest Safe Products 

You can also try to only by products that are deemed “rainforest safe”.  Products that are “Rainforest Alliance Certified” come from “farms that passed audits and met standards for sustainability”.  Some goods that might have the seal for this certification include coffee, bananas, and chocolate.  Products that are made with wood can be “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)” certified, meaning the wood used did not come from illegal logging and deforestation. 

Sustainable Living 

Another great option is to try to live a more sustainable life overall.  One of the best things that you can do is adopt a plant-based (vegan) diet or at least cut down on your consumption of animal products.  As it was previously mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for the clearing of the Amazon is cattle grazing and the farming of soybeans (which are mostly used to feed livestock).  According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Brazil is world’s largest beef exporter, “providing close to 20 percent of total global beef exports.  In 2017, the United States was the sixth largest importer of Brazilian beef, buying $295 million dollars’ worth According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the United States imported 140.9 million pounds Brazilian beef in 2019.   

Cutting down on the consumption of animal products is also a great way to live more sustainably, as 42% of the United States’ agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture and “livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions” worldwide. 

It main seem difficult, but it is possible for to make a difference as ordinary people. 

Worldwide Famine and its Impact

by Nicole Allen and Pam Zuber

Sharing out the beans Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into everyday, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts.
Sharing out the beans. Yemen still has 350,000 dipslaced persons, although verifying this number is difficult. Most of these are from Sa’da and many of these are in Harad district on the border with Saudi Arabia. Conditions in Harad are not easy, hot and dusty and prone to flash flooding. Even before the arrival of the displaced it was an area of high malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria. UNICEF has, with the government and NGO partners worked to provide education, clean water and nutrition services. On this mission I accompanied the WFP representative and visited food distributions. After five years of displacement we need to look for longer term and sustainable solutions. One of the many beautiful features in this part of Yemen is how flowers are woven into every day, flowers for sale at traffic lights, boys wearing them in the hair, given as gifts. Source: Julien Harneis, Creative Commons

Famine and other types of food insecurity are problems in several ways. A chronic and widespread lack of food is not only harmful to people’s health but can produce other repercussions.  Unfortunately, we are witnessing many of these short- and long-term repercussions of famine and food insecurity in several areas of the world.

Yemen

Yemen is a country in the throes of a vicious civil war. Like other countries experiencing such strife, it is experiencing food insecurity as well. People who experience food insecurity do not have consistent access to nutritious, affordable food. Yemenis truly do not have physical access. Experts estimate that Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, but the civil war has closed the country’s airports to civilian flights, blocked its seaports, and created dangerous conditions within the country. Even if food becomes available, many impoverished Yemenis cannot afford it. Saudi Arabia invested billions in Yemen in early 2018 to reinforce the latter nation’s economy and the riyal, its unit of currency, but the economic status of Yemen remains precarious.      

Malnutrition causes other problems. Malnourished people are susceptible to disease that requires medical intervention, and this has been the case in Yemen. The country has experienced cholera and meningitis outbreaks. These diseases can create even more malnutrition. Thus, Yemen is battling a vicious cycle of malnutrition and disease. There is another, less-discussed but still significant factor that also contributes to problems in the country: drug use. Many in the country use a drug called qat (also spelled khat). Users say the drug enhances strength and virility, which is why military leaders allegedly give it to child soldiers. Users also say it suppresses the appetite, which could make qat attractive in a country experiencing food instability. Given qat’s popularity, it is also big business for the people who grow and supply it. Qat is profitable, which could encourage people to grow and sell it instead of other crops that could feed Yemenis. But, as with any drug, struggles for control over the qat market could provide dangerous, especially in a country already experiencing political instability. The quest for profit might come before the health, physical safety, and other human rights of Yemenis.

Somalia

Long subject to periods of drought that devastate its food supply, Somalia’s food situation is bleak. According to the United Nations’ World Food Programme: “As of May 2018, 2.7 million people [in Somalia] cannot meet their daily food requirements today and require urgent humanitarian assistance, with more than half a million on the brink of famine. Another 2.7 million Somalis need livelihood support to keep from sliding into crisis. An estimated 300,000 children under age 5 are malnourished, including 48,000 who are severely malnourished and face a high risk of disease and death.” Such drought limits the crops Somalis can grow and shrinks the amount of pasture land they can use for their livestock. It also puts people out of work, preventing them from buying food and other necessities.

What little food and water there is available is a precious commodity in Somalia. People have attempted to control these scarce resources to build and consolidate power, which has sometimes led to violence and tension. People without such resources might be more willing to join violent movements because they feel as if they have no other optionsThus, famine and reduced job prospects might be breeding grounds for violent groups of people who feel as if they have nothing to lose. It could contribute to violence, unrest, and human rights violations, since people may feel that their situations are hopeless and that human life is worthless.

Nigeria

As with other countries on this list, political strife has created considerable food insecurity and other problems in Nigeria. The militant group Boko Haram has been active in northeast Nigeria since the early 2000s. Boko Haram’s name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language and the group calls for Islamic law (sharia). The group has protested secular Nigerian rule in various ways, most notably by kidnapping several women, girls, and children in a number of separate incidents and by bombing and attacking government and United Nations buildings. Boko Haram has also clashed with government representatives and multinational troops, which has killed several Nigerians, displaced others, and severely disrupted everyday life in the African nation: “[I]t is likely that significant populations remain in areas of the northeast that are currently inaccessible to humanitarian actors. Reports indicate that people fleeing from conflict-affected, inaccessible areas [in Nigeria] are often severely food insecure and exhibit signs of malnutrition,” according to a 2018 report from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

If Nigerians had their way, they would not only have access to food, but the means to grow it as well. Fanna Kachella is a farmer in Rann, a city in northeastern Nigeria. The ongoing political conflict has affected her livelihood, but she hopes that food assistance can help her and her family: “Not having anything much to do has been hard for us, we are used to planting our own food. I hope we will get a good harvest from the seed.” The ability to support oneself and one’s family should be a fundamental human right. Not being able to do so is denying this right. Not being able to do so can jeopardize a person’s health, dignity, ability to form and nurture a family, and interactions with others.

a group photo of the women of SIM South Sudan
SIM South Sudan Harvest Worker Project. Source: SIM East Africa, Creative Commons

South Sudan

Founded in 2011, South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. But, in its brief history, it has faced many problems that are as old as time. Unlike other countries on this list, it looks as conditions may be improving, however. On August 6, 2018, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, signed a power-sharing cease-fire agreement with the leader of his political opposition, Riek Machar. As part of this agreement, Machar would serve as one of the five vice presidents of the country. Political conflicts between the two men plunged South Sudan into civil war in 2013. Machar once served as Kiir’s deputy but fled the country after a dispute between the men. The two men agreed to end their dispute in 2015, but it ended in 2016 when Machar return to the country’s capital, Juba.

These personal disputes erupted into a country-wide civil war that has killed thousands of residents of South Sudan and displaced almost two million more. The political conflict and its resultant disruptions, massive displacement, economic problems, flooding, dry spells, and pests all contributed to famine conditions in 2017. According to the international initiative the IPC (the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification), “5.3 million people required food assistance” in South Sudan in January 2018, “up 40 percent from the same time last year.” The initiative attributed these food-related problems to “widespread conflict [that] continues to displace communities, disrupt livelihood activities and impede humanitarian access to vulnerable populations.” But, if the truce between Kiir and Machar holds, it could spell an end to this calamitous conflict. Perhaps it will allow people to return to their homes and grow and obtain food, reversing the food insecurity and other problems that this new nation has faced.

North Korea

Food insecurity and malnutrition have been common occurrences for decades in North Korea, another country also experiencing political troubles. The oppressive and secretive nature of the country’s government has made it difficult to determine the extent of North Korea’s many problems. But, the estimates are devastating. For example, experts believe that a famine in the country in the 1990s killed up to three million people. North Korea’s mountainous terrain and cold climate have always made agriculture difficult, and the country no longer received agricultural aid from the Soviet Union after the latter country collapsed in the early 1990s, which made farming even more difficult.

The North Korean government claims that a lack of aid from other countries continues to hurt the country. Many countries have imposed sanctions on North Korea for developing a nuclear weapons program. The countries imposing the sanctions have claimed that they did not place sanctions on food but on other goods. But, even these sanctions threaten the livelihoods of many North Koreans. If the North Koreans cannot earn enough money, they cannot earn enough to feed themselves and their families. The results have been heart-wrenching. “[H]unger remains a way of life” in North Korea, wrote Dr. Kee B. Park in a December 2017 article in the New York Times. “Forty-one percent of North Koreans, about 10.5 million people, are undernourished, and 28 percent of children under 5 years old have stunted growth. When my 4-year-old daughter visited [North Korean capital] Pyongyang in 2013, she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.” Park vividly explains how hunger creates immediate problems and future ones. Not having food creates insecurity that can last a lifetime. It can create physical and emotional problems that persist long after people receive adequate food if they ever receive adequate food.

What Are People Doing About Hunger-Related Issues?

Different governments are pitching in to tackle famine. The government of United States president Donald Trump pledged to donate more than $1 billion since November 2017 alone. Still, relief workers say that the governments of other countries can do more. That is if the governments even know about such problems in the first place. Relief workers say that people do not know that famine exists in many places. They say that Trump’s administration has been helpful in its humanitarian efforts. But, on the other hand, they also say that publicity surrounding Trump and the activities of his administration has overshadowed people’s knowledge about other things, including famine and food insecurity in different parts of the world. Food insecurity is also tied to political insecurity. It is no coincidence that many of the countries on this list have experienced war or other forms of political instability in addition to food problems. Many experts believe hunger and war are often inextricably linked. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, “The hope for a famine-free world depends on improved governance and on peace. It is as simple – and as difficult – is that.”

Nicole Allen is a freelance writer and educator based in the United States. She believes that her writing is an extension of her career as a tutor since they both encourage learning and discussing new things. Her degrees in creative writing, education, and psychology help her understand her target audience and how to reach them in creative and educational ways. She has written about fitness and health, substance abuse and treatment, personal finance and economics, parenting, relationships, higher education, careers, travel, and many other topics, sometimes in the same piece. When she isn’t writing, you might find Nicole running, hiking, and swimming. She has participated in several 10K races and hopes to compete in a marathon one day. A longtime volunteer at animal shelters, Nicole is a passionate supporter of organizations that help animals. She also enjoys spending time with the dogs and cats in her life and spoiling them rotten.

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, business, and gender.

Dr. Robert Bullard: Health Equity through Environmental, Economic and Racial Justice

a photo of Robert Bullard speaking to a crowd
Dr. Robert Bullard. Photo by UAB IHR.

Dr. Robert Bullard has been fighting alongside the citizens of various cities for their right to a clean environment. He positions himself as a dot-connector who utilizes the central theme of fairness, justice, and equity. He is a seeker of just equity. His fight began with the demand of his wife, Linda, in 1979 after she filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and BFI, a national company seeking to dump waste in a Black community. Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corp. was the first lawsuit to challenge the notion of environmental justice using civil rights law. Bean found that while Blacks made up 25% of the population of Houston during the years prior to 1978, the communities in which they resided became the ‘new residences’ of 82% of the city’s waste. Environmental justice (EJ) reveals the disparate impact of the embedded disrespect White supremacy has for marginalized communities, specifically poor communities of color in the South. It exposes the interdependent relationship among pollution, corruption, and racism. oil containing PCBs dumping travesty in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, initiated the launch of EJ on the national level. Young Black activists put their lives on the line in protests. In 1983 a study found that 75% of waste sites were in Black communities in seven (7) of eight (8) Southern states. Bullard advocates for community-based participatory research projects.

Using a variety of maps and graphs, Bullard located the roots of environmental injustice to the division of the country during enslavement. The data shows that racism can make people sick. “Your zip code is the most powerful predictor of health and well-being.” A 1994 Clinton executive order reinforced Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and by 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that persons of color were more impacted by pollution and contract more diseases than affluent White communities. The highest concentration of environmental injustices occurs in Southern Black communities, including North Birmingham and Emelle, Alabama. Emelle houses the largest chemical waste management site in the nation. This site receives waste from the lower 48 states and 12 international countries; however, this tiny town is in the heart of the Black Belt, 95% Black, and in a county that borders the AL/MS state line.

EJ is not simply about the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also about the lack of accessibility in neighborhoods and the decreasing proximal distance between vehicles and pedestrians. Health connects to everything. We must redefine the environment, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it. Bullard argues that the environment, though it should be neutral and equally accessible for all, is not when the entitlement of equal protection is not applicable to some members of society. Health equity brings together all the segments which merge into intersections. EJ advocates and activists must call out the normalization of whitewashing in both the history and the present injustices plaguing marginalized communities. We need more equal partnership—with universities and communities, and among the marginalized. Marginalized communities must have a reclamation of space—free from the influence and presence of Whites—for the unshackling of all the ‘isms’ from their narratives to unify their voices and their messages. Whites must make room for, stand aside, and equally distribute finances and resources when confronted with the reality of EJ like Flint and the southern Black Belt. The erasure of history makes people ignorant but the failure to invite and listen to the voices of those most affected by EJ continues the perpetuation of the injustices.

Bullard concludes that justice has not been served in places like Flint because not only does the issue remain, the families are still poisoned, and the government officials have not received justice. For 40 years, Bullard has steadfastly shown that a commitment to EJ specifically, and justice broadly, is lifelong and intergenerational. It also requires an alliance with Whites longing to learn and build relationships. The process of mutual learning, regardless of race or age, must be met with clear expectations and a desire to focus on that which may seem ‘unsexy and unattractive’ because that is where the real need for attention lies. Community health is not just about the treatment of the sick; it is the exacting of liberty and justice for all.

Climate Change and Refugees

Climate Change Refugees. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Climate Refugees

The ongoing debate about climate change never seems to become resolved because there are certain people who believe in it and others who refuse to believe it. However, both sides often forget about climate refugees, a fairly new term that has no formal definition or protection under international law. As of 2008, millions of people lose their homes to weather disasters. Other aspects such as desert expansion and sea levels rising also affect people in terms of where and how they live. Scientists say the three most endangered regions are sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America while a World Bank report estimates that by 2050, those three endangered regions will consist of 143 million people who are displaced.

Climate Change and its effects

According to scientists, climate refugees consist of “people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming.” Climate change pertains to the change of a climate in a region, while global warming is how the average temperature of the Earth is rising. As a result, global warming is leading to climate change. Rising temperatures due to global warming can cause glaciers to melt which can lead to flooding and the rising of sea levels. Furthermore, it can lead to droughts and desertification. These results of global warming can make the land people live on uninhabitable and make it difficult for people to survive.

In Bangladesh, thousands of people are affected by flooding each year, especially in Dhaka. In West Africa, Lake Chad is almost completely gone due to desertification. These problems are not just limited to the developing world. In the United States, approximately 2,300 Puerto Rican families who were displaced due to Hurricane Maria are looking for permanent housing. Additionally, small coastal communities in areas like Alaska and Louisiana are fading into oblivion due to rising sea levels.

In regard to droughts and desertification, individuals are not able to grow crops where they live. Thus, with no food, they are forced to move elsewhere. In China, the Gobi Desert is expanding more than 1,390 square miles every year. Farmers and merchants who live near the Gobi Desert migrate to more urban areas because the grasslands are turning into deserts. Droughts and desertification are a global problem. Also, in Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya more than 386 square miles of productive land are lost to desertification.

Desertification. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

 

Climate Change and its ambiguity

In Europe, a journal estimated that if global temperature trends continue, applications for asylum to the European Union would increase by 28% by the year 2100. Additionally, many climate refugees live in rural or coastal communities and are forced to migrate to urban areas. Their skills, such as farming, are not beneficial in urban areas. Thus, finding a job can be difficult. Climate refugees who leave their country can face struggles when adjusting to new laws, languages, or cultures.

According to the development expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Yayboke, the biggest problem that arises is there are millions of people who are considered a climate refugee, but there is no consensus as to what we can do about them. There are currently no international laws that protect climate refugees and they can be sent back to their homelands or forced into refugee camps. The reason that the term climate change is ambiguous is due to “the effectiveness of rights and legal certainty”. Since it is not covered by the law, there are no guaranteed international protections. Another source of ambiguity arises when you need to determine why those individuals were displaced. Was it actually due to climate change or was it because of another reason? For example, say there is a drought and a farmer moves to another area in order to find other work. Did the farmer move due to climate change or because the economy has no alternatives for employment? The term “climate refugee” tends to be associated with a variety of factors and not simply just climate change. Thus, an absolute definition is hard to define.

In 2016, the UN General assembly introduced the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. In this declaration, it discussed the development of two global compacts: In 2018, climate refugees became recognized in the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. The purpose of this compact is to protect the rights of those who displaced and to determine the economic, environmental, and social factors that individuals who are forced to leave their homes face. Unfortunately, the compact does not focus on trying to control the man-made forces behind global mass migration.

Another major problem is how climate refugees are not covered by the 1951 Convention in regard to the Global Compact of Refugees. Their definition of refugees has nothing to do with individuals who are displaced due to environmental factors. Thus, the term ‘climate refugee’ does not fall under the score of the 1951 Refugee Convention and their protocol. Therefore, individuals who are displaced cannot be classified as refugees and cannot appeal for resettlement and are “trapped in worsening environmental conditions”. However, a counterargument is that those who are displaced due to the environment could rely on the protection of their national government, whereas the traditional refugee cannot rely on the national government because they tend to be the source of persecution.

Hope for the future

In 2009, the EU decided to place a greater focus on climate change as a cause of migratory flows, in terms of security. From 2011-2013, a strategy paper was created for a European Commission project whose goal included working with developing countries in regard to migration and asylum. Additionally, the paper states focusing on climate change and migration. In 2013, the Commission published a paper on internal displacement. In 2015, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President stated “Climate change is one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly”. However, EU Member States still have not created a category for climate refugees.

Climate refugees is a vague term that is hard to define. However, the economic, social, and political consequences are apparent and need to be addressed. Based on the global compact on migration and the international climate, one of the most salient ways to address this burgeoning human rights issue is for there to be numerous regional agreements that influence the creation of international law for climate refugees.

Sustainable Blazers

Green Life… Source: Julie Rutherford1, Creative Commons

On Wednesday, April 11th at UAB Edge of Chaos, dozens of Blazers met, in the spirit of Earth Month and Earth Day (4/22), to hold a discussion titled A Conversation about Sustainability. The event centered on a faculty panel, consisting of Dr. Hessam Taherian (School of Engineering), Dr. Suzanne Judd (School of Public Health), Dr. James McClintock (Department of Biology), Dr. Tina Reuter (Institute for Human Rights), Dr. Josh Robinson (Collat School of Business), and, moderator, Dr. Shauntice Allen (School of Public Health), alongside an inspired, and vocal, student body.

Conversation began with a simple question: Why should we care about sustainability?

The conversation began as far from Birmingham as possible, in Antarctica, where Dr. McClintock conducts research, inspiring him to mention risks to the continent’s biodiversity and its resources that enable pharmaceutical innovation. Dr. Taherian asserts that with almost 7.5 billion people on this planet and counting, so it is imperative we think about our actions, especially as finite resources dissipate. Dr. Judd mentioned how she just came back from Paris, where, in recent years, often rises, and threatens to flood the heart of Paris.

Discussion then turned to Alabama, where raining has increased, resulting in river erosion. Although the effects in Birmingham are minimal, as hurricanes travel through warm water, their strength compounds and influences greater threats to our environment and communities.

When discussing resource distribution, the tragedy of the commons became an immediate talking point — a scenario where individual actors are capable of taking a resource with no clear owner, leading to its depletion. This concept was then related to big hunting in Africa because no one owns the wildlife; therefore, excessive hunting practices have guided many species to their endangerment. Since human behavior was addressed, conversation quickly shifted toward a human rights perspective, demonstrating sustainability’s impact on conflict and displacement of vulnerable communities, namely poor and indigenous persons. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international document that aims to protect security of the person, was proposed as a framework to protect these communities. However, no legal mechanisms are yet in place to protect “climate refugees”, a growing phenomenon.

Following, concerns from the crowd asked if we’ve reached the point of no return. Without hesitation, it was claimed we have because the Great Barrier Reef has experienced recent catastrophic loss from climate change, serving as a canary in the coalmine for what is to come.

Panelists exclaimed we need to incentive sustainability because it directs responsible behaviors. For example, in France, one is charged if they don’t bring their own grocery bags, while, in Dr. Reuter’s home country of Switzerland, she mentioned trash bags are $2 each, incentivizing sustainable behavior. Inevitable critiques of business practice then emerged, where Dr. Robinson claimed businesses are designed for sustainability, meaning accumulating costs of unsustainability will pressure enterprises to adapt. However, it was insisted major oil companies don’t want to leave their product in the ground because of it investment, pitting money against environment. Strikingly, the same researchers hired to protect the tobacco industry about the harms of smoking now help Big Oil with denying the existence of climate change.

As the topic of taxing the population entered the discussion, audience members suggested such an approach would disproportionately affect society’s poorest. Although, it was insisted taxes are not monolithic and can be tiered by income brackets. In addition, the groundswell of communities pressuring the Chinese government to clean the polluted air was mentioned. This generated conversation about the multi-stakeholder process that has been excluded from many environmental decisions, leading to a strong suggestion for non-state actors to be included in such discussions.

When formal discussion ended, students forwarded more insightful questions to the panel, which many responses resulted in conversation about behaviors such as beef consumption, sustainable transportation, Styrofoam cups and the importance of not being aggressive when discussing sustainable behaviors with others. As the lively dialogue ended, it was clear that UAB is the largest electricity consumer in the state, inside a city with poor transportation, and represents a state with some of the nation’s greatest solar potential, meaning Blazers are in the unique position to participate in a global cause by leading local initiatives that advocate for a greener, more sustainable community.

The Economic and Social Impacts of Climate Change

The United States has been plagued with natural disasters in the past few months. With Hurricane Harvey in August, Hurricane Irma in September, and Hurricane Maria hitting US territory Puerto Rico last week, recovery will be a long process. Unfortunately, the damage comes not just from hurricanes. On the West Coast and southeast Alaska, wildfires run rampant. Outside of the US, Central America has been under a tsunami advisory; landslides and droughts in Africa; monsoons in South Asia; floods in China, and the list goes on.

Photo of the earth from outerspace
earth. Source: Medrawtchina, Creative Commons

Why is this happening? The answer to this question can be summed up in two words: climate change. NASA defines climate change as gradual changes in a region’s regular weather pattern over many years. Examples of these changes can be temperatures being higher or lower than what is normal in the area, or it can be an increase or decrease in annual precipitation. Climate change is not a sudden change in weather, such as a sunny day turning into a cloudy day in a matter of hours. The biggest factor is the rise in the globe’s temperature. Since 1970, the global temperature has risen around 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit each decade. While 0.3 does not seem like a big change, imagine your body’s internal temperature rising 0.3 degrees every ten days. Your body would go into shock trying to adjust, which is essentially what is happening with our planet. Small changes in the globe’s climate have large impacts.

Scientific evidence shows that climate change is real and happening, and the earth’s climate is warming. As a result, the ocean’s temperature is also rising. A hurricane’s strength depends on three factors: water temperature, wind shear, and moisture in the atmosphere. According to Vox, “Warmer water and atmospheric moisture give the system energy. A low wind shear — i.e., sharp changes in wind directions as you go higher and higher in the atmosphere — keeps a hurricane from dissipating.” In an interview with Vox, meteorologist Klozbach claimed that he found the Atlantic Ocean, where Irma formed, is two degrees warmer than the ocean usually is this time of year. The strength of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria are substantially impacted by changes in the climate, as they too originated in abnormally warm waters.

As another result of the earth’s temperature rising, scientists have concluded that wildfires are “occurring about five times more often than in 1970…burning more than six times the land area as before, and lasting almost five times longer.” Wildfires can be caused by humans unintentionally by dropping a cigarette, or by natural causes such as lightening. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, every state in the western US has seen an increase in numbers of annual wildfires. The duration of the fires and their intensity are also a result of climate change. Because the earth’s temperature is rising, the soil becomes drier, droughts occur, therefore making chances of a wildfire increase.

What are other consequences of climate change? Aside from the damage to communities, mass displacement, or even death in extreme cases such as the 1,200 deaths caused by the monsoons in Asia, there are other long-lasting effects as well. After Hurricane Harvey flooded a large portion of southeast Texas with a record-breaking 51.88 inches, there were over 150,000 jobs created that were dedicated to post-flooding clean up and construction. However, the trio of climate change-powered hurricanes have potentially destroyed job growth for September and October by taking out over 80,000 payrolls. In addition to that, CSNBC Market Insider claims the damage caused by Hurricane Maria is predicted to keep citizens of the territory jobless until November. According to Diane Swonk, CEO of DS Economics, “We’re creating an average 175,000 jobs a month … The problem is it looks like the hurricane disruption will overwhelm those job gains in September to get them close to zero, and we’ll likely see a negative reading in October because of the sheer number of people that were affected in Puerto Rico. We really have a humanitarian crisis there.” As a usual result of hurricanes, gas prices shot up. Forbes reported that Texas had the highest gas prices it had seen since 2014 at almost $5 per gallon in Fort Worth.

Storage building photographed with Hurricane Irma in the background
Spent Hurricane Irma outside. Source: Concrete Connection, Creative Commons

Wildfires can also have positive and negative economic effects. Similar to the hurricane clean-up crews, the beneficial effects come either from rebuilding after a wildfire or fire suppression. Counter to that, Diaz found in a study conducted in 2003 that California had lost over $43 million in wildfire expenses that year. It was also estimated that about 5,000 fire-related jobless claims were filed in the same year. Due to the wildfires this year, parts of Texas have lost roughly $21 million in agricultural costs – without accounting for costs of damages on equipment. Wildfires also contaminate water supplies and produce air pollution. The largest concern with the drinking water supply is sediment filling reservoirs or basins, and sediment going into the air supply can result in long-term damage to lungs.

Arguably, the most important impact of these disasters is the social impact. When Hurricane Irma was destined to hit Florida, 6.3 million people were told to evacuate. Roughly 800,000 Texans have filed claims for help in after Hurricane Harvey. Over six states have seen damages to their agriculture because of wildfire damage. These cases of displacement and infrastructure damage can also have psychological effects. Thompson asserts that people show high levels of “anxiety, stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more signs of depression” when displaced after a natural disaster. Food security is also a factor in measuring the social impact. With damages to agriculture, this should come as no surprise. While the US is effected by droughts and agricultural damages, in less developed countries, such as the seventeen countries in Africa that have suffered from drought this year, food security is a much larger issue.

Photo of a flower being grown in a bottle cap
Recycling. Source: Marian Kloon, Creative Commons

The true question is: where do we go from here? Earlier this year, President of the United States Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement to combat climate change and reduce the United States’ pollution: the Paris Climate Accords. While the climate changes due to natural causes, without proper attention to the environment, scientist have warned that the earth’s temperature will continue to grow at an accelerating rate due to human activity. With one of the world’s leaders pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords, that intangible threat is encouraged to be a tangible reality. Some US states have pledged to continue practicing proper environmental safety techniques. However, without a legal force coercing large factories to control their pollution emission, the US will become a large factor in contributing to the acceleration of climate change. It is our job to take care of the earth in any way that we can. If you would like to know how you can help slow down climate change, refer to Prevent Climate Change’s website.

It’s Not Just Irma and Harvey: Deadly Floods Affect Millions Around the World

map_of_southeast_asia. Source: ANHCANEM88, creative commons.

These past few weeks have been a very vulnerable time for our global community. Media has been predominately focusing on the countries and victims affected by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Jose, however nature’s violent outcry stormed communities all over the world- not just the hurricanes in the West. Powerful monsoons struck South Asia, affecting more than 41 million people throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. In Karachi, Pakistan, devastating monsoon floods abruptly invaded communities preparing to celebrate an Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha. Lastly, Typhoon Hato swept into the cities of Macau and Hong Kong, causing thousands of people to flee their homes.

After all of these natural disasters transpired, one concept became very clear: Mother Nature does not discriminate. Natural disasters affect the rich and poor, high income countries and low income countries, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities. Regions struck by these disasters are left with substantial amounts of infrastructural, property, and environmental damage. As a result, victims of these disaster experience traumatic consequences, such as internal displacement and food insecurity. Growing up, I believe I was too young and just overall uninformed to really comprehend what natural disasters entail, and why they are so devastating. However, now being an adult, it’s obvious to me that the reason why natural disasters are so devastating is because post-disaster damage completely compromise the dignity of human rights detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Disasters interfere with a population’s economic, social, and cultural rights emphasized through 17, Article 22-27 of the UDHR. Articles 22-27 of the UDHR focus on establishing social security through people’s right to education, employment, adequate living conditions, cultural life, and leisure. Likewise, Article 17 of the UDHR establishes that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Unfortunately, after a natural disaster, these rights are undeniably negatively affected.

Hurricane Katrina LA7. Source: News Muse, Creative Commons.

Right to Work

The right to work and employment is severely hindered after natural disasters due unimaginable infrastructural damage. In 2005, the US experienced public health tragedy when Hurricane Katrina devastated millions along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released numerous reports on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on employment and unemployment. These statistics state: “approximately 38 percent of business establishments in Louisiana and Mississippi were within a 100-mile corridor of the path of Hurricane Katrina’s center.” From August 2005 until June 2006, Louisiana unemployment rates soared from 5.8% pre-hurricane to 12.1% post-Hurricane Katrina. In Mississippi, unemployment rates climbed from 6.8% in 2004 before the hurricane to 10.4% after Hurricane Katrina. Everyone has the right to work to “ensur[e] for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity”; this is ultimately difficult to achieve when opportunities for employment have literally been washed away. In the Caribbean regions, hit hardest by hurricane Irma, tourism one of the largest revenue-builders and an important source of income for many families. Specifically in Anguilla, a territory hit by Hurricane Irma, tourism contributed to 57% of the island’s GDP in 2016. Generally, travel and tourism alone contributed to about 15% of the Caribbean region’s total GDP. For the Caribbean victims of Irma, the disruption of the tourism industry is a disruption to a family’s livelihood. Natural disaster victims living in rural regions such as India, Nepal, and Bangladesh face continuous threat to work when their agriculture and crop land get destroyed and the becomes unprofitable.

Right to Adequate Living

The most noticeable human right that natural disasters discernibly jeopardize is the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” For many survivors after natural disasters, ‘adequate living’ is no longer a reality. What happens when a family’s home is demolished in the wake of disasters such as these? Tragically, millions of people become internally displaced within their countries. The United Nations reports that about 851,000 people are displaced in India, 352,738 Nepalese are displaced from their homes, and lastly 696,169 people have been displaced in Bangladesh since the monsoons. Food insecurity also becomes an urgent need to address throughout regions affected by these disasters. Within two days after the floods, Nepal Food Security Monitoring System (NEKSAP), issued a first assessment of the damage. Results exposed that 70% of flood-affected areas are moderately food insecure or worse. Of that 70%, 42% of those regions are highly and severely food insecure.

Right to Education

Natural disasters also impede on one’s right to an education due to the damage sustained by schools and educational infrastructure. Human loss to education systems, comprising the loss of school administration personal, teachers, and education policy makers, affects the institution’s ability to deliver a quality education. UN reports affirm that in Bangladesh, 2,292 primary and community schools suffered substantial water damage. In Nepal, 1,958 schools have been ruined, thereby impacting the education of 253,605 children. In India, nearly one million students’ education have been disrupted when floods damaged 15,455 schools. Damage to schools not only undercut education in the short term, but threaten long-term educational goals as well. USAID explains “the normal processes of educational planning break down during an emergency, weakening the overall system and creating future problems in the development of an inclusive educational system.”

“Famine”. Source: Jennifer Boyer, Creative Commons

What’s next?

These events have got a lot of people asking why these disasters even occurred in the first place. Well, science indicates that climate change has become a major catalyst to such drastic weather related disasters witnessed throughout the past couple of weeks. As NASA explains “changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters.” With rising temperatures and a predicted increase in weather-related disasters, maybe the United Nations and our government should start to consider changing the definition of an internally displaced person (IDP) or a refugee to include people fleeing from natural disasters. The UN definition of a refugee is a person who , “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” Just like people running away from armed conflict, victims of weather-related disasters are also trying to escape harsh realities, including inadequate living conditions, food insecurity, no economic opportunities, and violence. A modern day example of weather-related disasters is the famine spreading across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya caused by intensified droughts.

“We have moved four times in the last four months. We were trying to follow the rain – moving according to where the rains were supposed to come. But they haven’t. If the rains don’t come, none of us will survive”

– Farhia Mohamad Geedi, Oxfam

Just like Farhia and her family, 10.7 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and are facing sever hunger. If their governments are not able to provide them with a feasible and effective solution, they have no other choice but to leave, or die. With a predicted increase in weather-related disasters such as drought and floods, more people will be living in extremely life-threatening  environments that will force them to leave their home. The destruction of the consecutive water disaster have been very tragic, but there is hope for the future. Countries have begun to recognize that “their shared burden of climate-related disasters can only be lifted by universal action to address the causes of climate change.” 175 countries from all over the world have signed onto the Paris Agreement, which will focus on keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius. We as a global community have already made such positive impact by acknowledging we have a problem, now it’s time to hold ourselves accountable for progress.

 

Additional resource: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.

 

The Reality of Climate Change and its Effects on Human Rights and the Refugee Crisis

Photo of Earth
Earth: A simple model of Earth using Autodesk Maya. Source: Kevin Gill, Creative Commons

What is climate change? To understand climate change, we must first know what climate is and how it is different from the weather. Weather is what we see change on a day to day basis. We can see and feel the changes in weather: sunny one day, rainy the next, and back to sunny again. Weather also is the change in temperatures: sometimes it is hot, and sometimes it is cold, depending on the time of year or the place that you are in. Climate,  on the other hand, is the usual temperature of a place. For example, a regional climate may be wet and cold in the winter, but warm and dry in the summer. There have been anomalies–extremes where it has snowed year round. Not all climates are the same. The global temperature has been rising each year; however, climate change is much more than just that. In addition to the climates of individual places, there is also Earth’s climate, which is the result of combining all of the climates around the world together. Climate change is often referred to as global warming. Climate change is defined as changes in the usual weather found in a place. This could be a wide range of changes like how much rain a city gets in a year, snowing in places it does not usually snow, or most commonly, changes in a place’s usual temperature. Earth’s climate is also subject to climate change. The planet can experience rising temperatures, or it is possible for rain and snow patterns to shift, causing it to do so in places it would not usually.

Simply put, weather changes in a matter of hours or less, whereas climate takes hundreds of years to change.

In the past 100 years, Earth’s temperature has increased about one degree Fahrenheit. This may not seem detrimental on the surface, but minute changes in Earth’s climate has had massive effects. While Earth’s temperature rises independently, humanity plays a contributing role in speeding up the process of rising temperatures that influence the stasis of the Earth’s atmosphere, at an alarming rate. The Earth’s atmosphere consists layers, made of nitrogen , oxygen, argon, neon, helium, carbon dioxide, and methane. Key components in climate change like greenhouse gases contribute to the dismantling of the atmosphere, a term coined “the greenhouse effect” because of the absorption and transmittance of infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases impact the ozone layer. When it comes to climate change, the ozone layer is a layer in the Earth’s stratosphere that contains high amounts of ozone. Ozone absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation emitted from the sun, and prevents it from reaching Earth. Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a 40% increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The largest contributing factor of the emissions of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels by factories and industries, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Doing so pollutes the air, and releases these harmful gases into the atmosphere, counteracting the Earth’s natural greenhouse process. As it stands, the Earth’s surface temperature could reach record-breaking temperatures by 2047, which would cause ecosystems to fall apart and the livelihoods of people worldwide would be effected. If humanity continues to emit the amount of greenhouse gases into the air as we currently are, there could be dangerous consequences.

Factory emitting pollution into the air
Factory. Source: タロイモ, Creative Commons.

Man-Made Causes

Natural Causes

Consequences of Climate Change

Emissions of greenhouse gases

Variations in the Earth’s orbital characteristics Higher temperatures

Deforestation

Volcanic eruptions

Droughts

Sulfate aerosols

Variations in solar output

Changing rain and snow patterns

Soot particles – otherwise known as black carbon

Natural aerosols

Wilder weather

Less snowpack

Melting glaciers

Shrinking sea ice

Thawing permafrost

Increases in ocean acidity

Warmer oceans

Rising sea levels

Acid rain

Figure 1

Based on Figure 1 (above), it is easy to see that the causes of climate change are far outweighed by the consequences. There are very few man-made causes, but they each have many effects on Earth’s climate.


The Clean Air Act
is known as the most successful act in place to protect the environment. Passed in 1970 with the purpose of reducing the air pollution in the country  by limiting  the amount of pollution put into the air by industries, like chemical plants and steel mills. Under the Obama Administration, the Clean Air Act was used to help reduce the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to take into consideration the environment when making important decisions, such as building a highway or deforestation. It requires agencies to prepare an Environment Impact Statement to report how the actions may affect the environment. This act also assembled the Council on Environmental Quality to advise the President on environmental issues. While these laws have been effective in reducing the damages on the Earth’s ozone layer put out by the United States, the integrity of the ozone layer is still at stake. Recent studies have found that the ozone layer shows signs of healing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its relation to Climate Change

Under Article 22 of the UDHR, everyone has the right to security and economic welfare. The effects of climate change infringe upon this right because it jeopardizes environmental integrity. Climate change effects us all, and is supported by scientific evidence around the globe. It transcends political parties, race, and social class.

Everyone on Earth shares the same climate.

In the wave of executive orders issued out by President Trump, he re-initiated the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a controversial project that was halted by the Obama Administration. The DAPL was originally routed through Bismarck, North Dakota, but after the mostly-white residents refused to allow construction on the grounds of “polluting their water supply”, it was rerouted through Standing Rock. The pipeline’s construction threatens to destroy the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s historic, religious, and cultural sites. It also contributes to climate change and may cause untold damage to the environment, such as water pollution–presently acknowledged by the Bismarck community–and explosions. The DAPL effects the health and security of the Sioux Tribe.

Protesters standing up against the DAP
Protesters oppose Dakota Access Pipeline in Music City. by Lee Roberts

Another prime example of climate change infringing upon the health of people is the smog currently plaguing China, which is a result of burning massive amounts of coal. The emissions coming from China’s most industrialized areas were five times the national average in 2016 compared to 2015. Citizens of China are having to wear face masks to combat “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” While measures have been taken to reduce the pollution, such as wind-mill farms, the smog still continues to get worse because of the amount of coal being burned. Schools have been shut down, flights are being cancelled, and people are afraid to leave their homes because of the smog.

There have been many observable effects of climate change on the environment. Endangered species, both animal and plant, across the globe are dwindling in numbers due to the fluctuating temperatures in their habitats. Lakes and rivers are drying up or reaching low levels. The glaciers are melting, ocean levels and temperatures are rising. Here in Alabama, we suffered a drought this past summer and an oil leak this fall. The effects that scientists had predicted would happen due to climate change have started to occur.

Climate Change Effecting the Refugee Crisis

According to the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC), climate change has been noted as the “greatest security threat of the 21st Century”. The council has also said that climate change will cause a refugee crisis of “unimaginable scale”, as the effects of climate change have already pushed many refugees into Europe. There are claims that a lack of natural resources due to climate change may have been a contributing factor in the Syrian War, namely oil. Despite the abundance of oil in the Middle East, the over-excavation of oil brought about a ecosystem collapse, resulting in the dispersion of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The land began losing its integrity which affected the economic output as Syrians were unable to produce goods due to the ill-suited climate.

If the Earth’s temperature continues to rise causing the glaciers to melt, causing a rise in sea levels, 20% of Bangladesh will flood, creating additional climate refugees. The potential is over 30 million people forced to evacuate and relocate their lives and families as a result of climate change. In light of this potential threat, Bangladesh is asking wealthier countries to be ready to accept millions of displaced families.

“Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.” – Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project

The United States’ impact on the Earth’s climate is profound. As an industrial country, we have a notable carbon footprint. In other words, what we do largely impacts those around the globe as it effects Earth’s climate, just as what China does impacts us and others even if they are across the globe. It is important to be aware of the growing concerns stemming from climate change, whether it is down the street or thousands of miles away. As I mentioned, we all share the Earth’s climate, so we are all effected by the changes in some form or another. Lives and families are being torn apart across the world due to changes in the climate. We as humans are responsible for destroying families’ homes, land, and countries. We must prevent the refugee crisis from growing at all costs. Climate change is not a “hoax”, it is a reality, and it is effecting us all. It is killing people directly and indirectly. It is killing our planet. This is why it is very important for us to all take part in slowing the effects of climate change. When the US began to reduce its waste, other countries followed suit.

Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It is a public health issue. It is an economic issue. It is a security issue. It is a racial issue.

Chalkboard reading: "Dare the World to Save the Planet"
“Dare the World to Save the Planet” chalkboard located in Starbucks, photo taken by Tyler Goodwin

There are many ways to reduce our carbon footprints and slow the climate change process; I will focus on four. First, reduce fossil fuel use. this may be something more for factories, it is important to know the effect that burning fossil fuels has on the environment, and the small things we can do to help reduce it. It can be reduced on the domestic level by using less electricity, and using more energy-efficient appliances. Converting from gas-powered appliances to electric can also have a large impact. Second, plant trees. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas. Planting trees or any kinds of plants can aide in the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen. By planting trees, we are combating the effects of deforestation. Third, reduce your waste by recycling. The decomposition of garbage in landfills produces harmful gases like methane, which absorbs the sun’s heat, and increases the Earth’s temperature. Reducing your consumption habits and reusing or recycling items when possible largely decreases your carbon footprint, as it reduces the need for new items to be made, and prevents items from being placed into landfills. Recycling metals, plastic, glass, and paper helps decrease the greenhouse gasses from being emitted into the air, as it takes less energy to make an item from recycled materials than it does as opposed to making materials from scratch. In Birmingham, you can order a recycling bin by phoning 205-254-6314. Additionally, in Birmingham, the recycling center is located at 4330 1st Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35222. Lastly, conserve water. The conservation of water is essential to the reduction of climate change. Water purification requires a lot of energy to complete, which in turn increases the mission of greenhouse gasses. By saving water, less energy is used. Turn off water at home when you are not using it, and pay close attention to pipes that may leak to ensure that unnecessary amounts of water are not used.

For more tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint, please visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website at: https://www.epa.gov/

 

Additional resources: 

Naomi Klein

Before the Flood documentary

Wangari Maathai