Saturday, March 24, 2012

On global environmental inequality

I was recently asked to take part in a public panel discussion with the title of “Inequality in Turbulent Times: A Post-Normal Panel”. It’s coming up Wednesday night, and I’m still not entirely certain what I’m going to say, so I thought that maybe by blogging about it, I might refine my thoughts and come up with something halfway decent.

The panel is organized by the British Council and will be moderated by Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson. It has been convened in large measure to showcase a scholar visiting from the UK, Professor Ziauddin Sardar, a Pakistani-born physicist and public intellectual well-known for his thoughts and research on the future of Islam. The title of the panel reflects the subject of his presentation; I must confess I am not entirely sure what ‘post-normal times’ are, but I’m looking forward to finding out. The other speakers are Howard Duncan, head of the Metropolis Project on international migration, and Lori Beaman, a Canada Research Chair who studies religious freedom. Collectively, the other panellists and the moderator are an awfully interesting bunch, and it is them, not me, the audience will be coming to hear speak. I’d be more comfortable sitting with the audience taking notes but it’s too late for that now. So, in for a penny, in for a pound as the British would say.

Inequality seems to be the main theme of the evening, which is a pretty useful term to use when describing global environmental issues. We have entered an era when human activities are causing rapid changes to the Earth’s systems. We’ve modified the stratosphere, we’ve modified the climate. The oceans, increasingly stripped of their fish life, are becoming great gyres of plastic garbage. The most fertile soils are being degraded and eroded by industrial farms, our rivers are overloaded with chemicals and fertilizers. We all know this already, the damage we’re doing to our environment is chronicled in first-year environmental science textbooks.

But not all people contribute equally to this great waste that we’re laying to the planet. And not all people suffer equally the consequences. Those whose choices and actions have the greatest impact on the planet – me, you, and anyone else with the time and luxury to read a blog or attend an evening panel discussion – are those likely to suffer the least. Those whose actions do the least harm to the natural environment are most likely to be themselves harmed. This, to me, sounds like the essence of inequality.

Studies have shown that Inuit mothers in northern Quebec have elevated levels of dangerous chemicals like PCBs and flame retardants in their breast milk. There are no chemical factories in their remote Arctic villages, they do not use or purchase things that contain such products. We in the south have contaminated their wild caught foods with our pollution. Ecological footprint studies estimate that, if everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average southern Canadian, several additional planets worth of resources would be needed. Using similar methods, it has also been estimated that the urban poor in Bangladesh’s largest city, Dhaka, have no ecological footprint. In fact, by living on the most meagre of food rations and depending heavily on recovering and reusing things others have thrown in the garbage, Dhaka’s poor actually provide a net benefit to the planet, and offset by a small amount the ecological damage done by others. We ought to keep them in mind the next time we congratulate ourselves for being dutiful users of our blue recycling boxes and green composting bins.

In practical terms, what are the ramifications of this global environmental inequality? Two other themes being discussed by other panellists are immigration and security. Let’s start with immigration. Most people will have heard of the term “environmental refugees”, and come across media reports warning that global warming and sea level rise will displace tens or hundreds of millions of people in coming decades. Is this likely? Environmental migration takes many forms, from sun-seeking snowbirds moving to Florida to parents with asthmatic kids moving out of the smoggy city, to any number of other variants.

The one we worry most about is distress migration – people fleeing natural disasters. The three most common environmental triggers of distress migration are droughts, floods and tropical cyclones. Anthropogenic climate change is expected to lead to more frequent droughts in many regions, especially those that are already water scarce. Flood trends are a bit harder to predict; there are a lot of other human actions that influence the likelihood of flooding in any given place. Tropical cyclones are showing a trend toward growing intensity. The short answer is that environmental stimuli for distress migrations are indeed likely to be stronger in many regions in coming years.

But people displaced by events such as these tend not to show up as refugees at the airports and border stations of the world’s rich countries. For example, one recent study estimates that when severe drought strikes rural Mexico, migration from that country to the US goes up by only a few percent. After Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, US Border services intercepted several thousand additional Hondurans trying to enter the US clandestinely the following year. Again, significant, but only a tiny fraction in comparison with the hundreds of thousands who had been left homeless by that storm.

The reality is that most environmental migration takes place internally, within countries. This worries security experts, for the places most likely to experience increases in environmentally related migration in coming years include many where conflicts and tensions already exist, places like Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East. Will climate change trigger a downward spiral of growing refugeeism, political instability and violence in such places, as some pundits have suggested? Fortunately, there are few recent examples of conflicts between or within states that are directly caused by environmental phenomena. However, as food riots of recent years have shown, governments need to be aware that as the impacts of climate change filter down through economic and food production systems, the potential for instability will increase. Especially where inequality is endemic.

There is still time to change the path we’re on, although the longer we wait, the greater the chance we take. I have my own ideas as to what these are, and I’ve touched upon some of these in previous blog postings. I’m hopeful that Wednesday night I’ll hear additional prescriptions for addressing inequality raised by other panellists and audience members on Wednesday night, ones that may also likely go a long way addressing global environmental inequality. If I hear any, I’ll b be sure to write about them.

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