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The moral dimensions of global climate change

About the author
Lionel Hurst is Ambassador of the Caribbean island state of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States. He is a member of the advisory board of the Green House Network.

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I am never unaware of the small size of my country, and therefore feel greatly honoured by an invitation to this important capital, to address so many intelligent and well-informed people on this earth-shattering subject. If I could give my twenty-minute talk a title, I would say that I am going to tell you about “the moral dimensions of global climate change”.

I think that I can best demonstrate the accuracy of my claim of failing moral rectitude by telling you a little about the history of my country and region, and by using that lens to view the enormity of the challenge which islands face. I will speak a little about the power relations between large and small states and I will show how the vital interests of very small states can be ignored, to their peril. I see the future largely as a struggle over the environmental security of our planet.

Furthermore, I see the need for small island states to align with just states and caring people to fight gigantic material interests that are determined to lead civilisation down a self-interested path, which will clearly be destructive. I will nevertheless end on an optimistic note, again taught by my own history.

A history revealed

The history of my country, indeed of the entire Caribbean region, was largely determined in places such as England and the Netherlands, where the centres of power resided. The Caribbean welcomed Christopher Columbus in 1492, as the first European tourist. From that fateful October morning, 510 years ago, a new page in the modern history of the Caribbean and of Europe commenced.

Three hundred years following that initial encounter, a debate took place in England over the moral depravity of slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean and the rest of the New World. Many Europeans, by 1802, questioned themselves about this significant element of the wealth-creating system then in place. Purchasing humans in Africa, forcibly shipping them across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, and compelling those who survived the journey to a life of misery, as a means of creating wealth, smelled unjust.

Ironically, this immoral trade and painful practice was carried on principally to allow Britons to enjoy the sweet taste of sugar. From the Dutch Caribbean, salt was the most important export.

In 1807, Britain banned the slave trade and tried to get the French, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Portuguese to end this trade in human flesh. But despite the agreement reached at the Vienna Conference in 1815, it was by force of arms, and the confiscation of ships and their human cargo, that the trade in human beings was brought to an eventual end.

I tell of my own region’s unflattering past as a slave colony because I believe that the great moral question, which bedeviled the slave masters of yesteryear, holds important lessons for today’s generations. Human beings, and not wealth creation, stand at the centre of civilisation. The evils of slavery have taught that justice and freedom, morality and ethics, must coexist with the system of wealth creation, whatever each generation may think that system should be.

Can we save the Earth?

Can the human family so organise society’s wealth-creating system that we not only spread development equitably today, but also bequeath to future generations a world that is superior to our own inheritance? Can we enjoy the bounties of the Earth today, without imperiling the ability of future generations to enjoy the same, tomorrow?

If you answer “yes”, then you believe that we can attain sustainable justice. If you answer “no”, then you are a pessimist, and you are on the wrong side of history.

Human behaviour, which leads to global climate change, seems innocent. What could be more innocent than cooking your food, taking a shower, making your home warm in winter, taking a train to work, turning on your computer? These are very innocent acts which each of us must daily undertake if we are lucky enough to have a home, an income, and access to the technologies that are creating wealth today. Yet, collectively, these acts destroy the planetary systems that support life. Whether deliberate or accidental, the destruction of the life-support systems of our planet poses a great moral question about choice.

Those of us who live on small specks of land, peopled by the descendants of slaves and slave masters, in the Caribbean, have not agreed to be sacrificial lambs on the altar of success of industrial civilisation. I frequently tell North American audiences that the love which I have for my island country is no less than the love which they have for their country, even though my country is much smaller. Our love of country is equal.

Just as North Americans would not tolerate any innocent act originating on my small island which jeopardised their security and their tomorrow, so I too am compelled to let them know that we will never cease to use the means available to us to persuade others that we find their “innocent” actions collectively unacceptable.

We see a lack of moral rectitude by those who are in leadership positions, who know the consequences of their inaction, and yet insist that they will not act. The skies do not belong to the United States, nor to Canada, nor to Europe. “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” The skies form a part of the global commons, collectively intended for the use of all living creatures. Yet, creation is itself endangered by the refusal of the wealthiest states to seek and find alternative, non-polluting sources of abundant energy, and by the USA’s deliberate denunciation of the Kyoto Protocol.

mangroves(click for bigger image)
The challenge defined

Low-lying islands and coastal communities worldwide may cease to exist as the waters of the oceans expand upon being warmed. Global temperatures will continue to increase due to the additional quantities of greenhouse gases and particulate matter indiscriminately dumped into our skies each day. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that islands and coasts could quickly become the victims of civilisation – the dispensable canary in the coal mine.

The IPCC also warned that half of the world’s mangroves and wetlands have already been destroyed. They acted like shock absorbers, easing the impact on the land whenever storms and other extremes of weather brought the ocean ashore. But they are going, going, gone. Bird and mammal species are disappearing at an estimated 100 to 1,000 times the rate at which extinction naturally occurs.

Caribbean islands are especially plagued by natural disasters, related to weather and climate change, that terrify us. Between 1920 and 1940, a twenty-year period, the Caribbean experienced 70 storms and hurricanes, or an average of 3.5 events per year. Between 1944 and 1980, a thirty-six year period, the Caribbean experienced 196 storms and hurricanes, and the average climbed to 5.5 events per year. In the decade of the 1990s, the Caribbean experienced on average more than 13 storms and hurricanes each year. In 2002, we are told to expect 13 storms and hurricanes, the same number as last year.

Storms and hurricanes are compounded by droughts and floods, increased ambient temperatures and other extreme weather events. The IPCC warned that all of these would occur if the fossil-fuel consumption and disposal habits of our civilisation remained unchanged. They have remained unchanged, even worsened, since 1989 when negotiations began on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Climate Change Links

Alliance of Small Island States nations thought to be among those most vulnerable to global warming

Benito Müller’s homepage

Centre for Science and Environment Indian think tank with views and information on climate change

Climate Change Guide an introduction to the science and politics of global warming

Climate Ark a portal site for news and views on climate change and renewable energy

Climate Change Knowledge Network bringing together expertise and experience from over a dozen organizations from developing, transitional and developed countries

Bjorn Lomborg the Skeptical Environmentalist

Ecoequity a US organization which describes itself as part of an emerging international Climate Justice network

UN Framework Convention and its Kyoto Protocol a guide

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change an international body set up by the World Meteorological Organisation and the UN Environment Programme

Skepticism about global warming for those who believe there is no problem

As is well known, disasters are not confined to the Caribbean. Worldwide, natural disasters in the 1990s caused more than $600 billion US dollars in economic losses. This was more than five times the amount of losses in the 1970s as in the 1990s, and more than 15 times the amount of losses in the 1950s as in the 1990s. The 1950s saw 20 great disasters; the 1970s saw 47; and the 1990s saw 86. Between 1985 and 1999, more than 560,000 people died in natural disasters worldwide, though not all in hydrological events.

The power relations among states

Can an alliance of small island states persuade continental states to cease and desist from their waste-disposal methods that imperil our Earth? The evidence is clear. Small islands cannot – no more than slaves could convince their slave masters of the moral depravity of slavery. Furthermore, the material interests at stake are so large, the opposing parties so well endowed and so well connected, “that men hath lost their reason”.

The petroleum industry is a $4 billion dollar a day business. The sale of fossil-fuel products in 2000, as a percentage of all economic activity in that year, surpassed the percentage value of the sale of slaves and slave products, as a fractional value of all economic activity in 1800. In 2000, the world’s fossil-fuel-driven economy was at its zenith. In 1800, the world’s slave-driven economy was also at its zenith.

The evident moral wrong of slavery is difficult to deny, then and now. Yet, it took treaty-making, war among and within states, revolution and civil strife, and violence to end the slave trade and slavery. Those in favour of continuing the trade and practice back then were very wealthy and very powerful. Yet, they lost.

Still, contrast those facts with today’s challenge. In 2002, there is no perceived moral wrong in burning fossil fuels. In 2002, the owners of the petroleum industry are even wealthier, more powerful, better connected than the slave masters of yesteryear. But, like all injustice, “this too shall pass”. Today, a few important world leaders are engaged in denial, and the led are largely unaware, or are persuaded to engage also in denial. Denial makes the task of changing the technological course of energy production more daunting, but nevertheless doable.

Faith in the future

Yes, great changes can and will take place. We have faith that many well-informed and good people in developed countries, doing what you have done these past three days, will succeed in persuading their leaders, their legislators, their elected parliamentarians, their populations to compel a change in the behaviour of the powerful, and to commence the earnest search for new technologies.

The objective we seek is not achievable by abandonment of responsibility to market forces. There is a compelling need in the United States for the American Government to do what it did when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik. The US made a decision to land a man on the moon. In a few short years, they did it.

Having lived in the USA for a considerable fraction of my adult life, I have come to the conclusion that when a known challenge confronts the American people, they give their leadership all the support necessary to overcome it. This thirst for environmental justice must be cast in moral terms, and it will speedily succeed. It must be seen as good versus evil.

Europeans also must vow “to land their man on the moon”, to create within a short time the technologies required to lessen dependence on fossil fuels, to increase reliance on non-polluting sources of energy. There is an urgency to act.

Conclusion: time to change course

Let me close by reminding you that this Earth and our Sun are 3,500,000,000 years old and that the Sun is at its half-life. Humans have been on this planet for merely one million of those 3500 million years. Human civilisation, on the other hand, is only 10,000 years old – thanks to the recent beneficent climate, which evolved after so many billions of years.

I remind you that many of our inventions have come about within the century just past. In 1902, there was no electricity, as we know it. There were no automobiles, no aeroplanes, no radio, no television, no telephone, in 1902. There were no computers in 1902, no Internet, no palm pilots.

For a hundred years, the developed countries have seemingly been conducting a dangerous experiment. What will happen to our planet, industrial civilisation has seemed to ask, if we pollute the skies with carbon and dust particles that have been sequestered in the Earth’s bowels for millions of years?

The answer is now clear. The time has come to change course, to put civilisation on another trajectory. Given the long future that the Earth has yet ahead of it, increased reliance by a larger human population upon a finite and diminishing resource, such as oil, betrays a lack of logic. On the other hand, infinite ingenuity exists and humans can devise the necessary technologies to bend the future to our needs.

I believe that institutions such as the International Red Cross and the United Nations can stimulate the effort to bring about technological advancement in our lifetime. The people of Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, and all of the small island states around the Earth are counting on you. Thank you.

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