The Injustice of Climate Change

Earth Sweating

Credit: Rhiannon Doherty

Fergus Brown
Writer

The inauguration of Donald Trump and his slew of executive orders have caused huge controversy and protest, both in the States and all round the world. In times like these, the people of Glasgow can be trusted to take to the streets in anger, as seen by the several demonstrations against Trump’s presidency, in particular against the so-called “Muslim ban”. This is just the latest example amongst a history of global social consciousness in Glasgow, a city that prides itself on standing by the disenfranchised. In 1981, Glasgow awarded Nelson Mandela the Freedom of the City, despite the British media still painting him as a terrorist at the time. The city played host to an anti-Iraq war protest that saw over 50,000 people march from Glasgow Green to the SECC in 2003. Glasgow has a history of accepting refugees – in 2001, Glasgow City Council was the first to sign up to accept asylum seekers being dispersed from London, and today groups like the Scottish Refugee Council and the Glasgow Night Shelter help many people start a new life here. But Glasgow is sorely lacking action against arguably the biggest issue facing the world today.

The general narrative surrounding climate change and global warming is that they are problems of the future. It is widely accepted that human activity is causing global warming. The impact of this however, is not so widely acknowledged – most people think it will cause problems for our children or maybe even grandchildren. And to some extent this is true – nobody in the UK is dying as a result of climate change, and nobody will for many years. Tragically, this is not the case for the rest of the world.

Data from the 2012 DARA Climate Vulnerability report shows that in 2010, 5 million people died, and millions more were made sick, disabled or homeless as a direct result of our fossil fuel choices. This roughly breaks down to direct effects upon half a million people from climate change itself – from famine-causing droughts, infections that thrive in warmer climes and extreme heat or coldness, and 4.5 million from the carbon economy – air pollution, indoor smoke and occupational hazards resulting from the processing of fossil fuels. In the time it takes to read this article, real people will have died as a direct result of our reliance on fossil fuels. Countless more will have become sick, homeless or starved. As global warming snowballs, these numbers will only increase. But the tragedy doesn’t stop there. The vast majority of these deaths take place in countries with low or negligible emissions. The Western, affluent countries responsible for global warming don’t bear the brunt of their actions. An analogy with the days of the British empire and Europe’s history of colonisation is obvious – for our Western comforts, luxuries and laziness, the developing world suffers.
The average carbon footprint per capita in the UK is the equivalent to 13.4 tonnes of CO2. This doesn’t mean much on it’s own, so let’s put it into context. Worldwide, the average is 4 tonnes. Our SUV loving friends in the USA average 20 tonnes, while Tanzanians emit just 0.1. The generally accepted amount that would be sustainable (i.e. the amount the sea and rainforests can absorb) for 7 billion people is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 tonnes per person according to carbonindependent.co.uk. So clearly we are producing far more than a “sustainable” level of carbon emissions, but again, what does this really mean?

Unfortunately, the impact of this is beyond what most people imagine. Craig Simmons is the co-founder of environmental consultants Best Foot Forward and the Anthesis group – he has authored several books and advised the UN, EU and WWF. Having looked at the numbers of people affected by climate-related disasters and combined this with data on global carbon dioxide emissions, he calculated that “one person could die, be made homeless, require urgent medical treatment or face starvation for every 102 tonnes of carbon dioxide we add to the air”. This leads to the unsettling fact that just 7.6 years of an average UK lifestyle wrecks or ends the life of someone else. The life expectancy in the UK is just over 81 years – British citizens producing average emissions will destroy 10 other lives over the course of their own through profligate emissions. This number increases exponentially for frequent fliers and heavy consumers of foreign made products. And the consequences do not just affect those far away from ourselves. When climate change inevitably hits the UK, resilience.org anticipates that it will be the lowest income households most affected by increased extreme weather – people with less money are less able to purchase things like flood insurance, air conditioning and home insulation to adapt to the changes.

There is a certain degree of public annoyance at our government’s lack of action, regulation and prioritisation of climate change, and this is justified: strong leadership from our politicians could help deal with the situation quickly. But it also plays into a narrative that corporate and governmental responsibility is the best way to deal with our carbon emergency. While it is hugely important that the companies causing emissions are strongly regulated and accept their share of responsibility, it’s equally important to remember that their environmental policies are dictated by public demand. It’s time to face the facts. Action against climate change is not the tree hugging movement aiming for peace and love and hemp it has been painted as – it is action against the single biggest case of social inequality the world has ever faced. More people are dying every single year due to fossil fuel use than died in the first or second World Wars. Reducing our carbon footprint is no longer a choice – it is quite simply a moral imperative. Every day we are presented with a multitude of choices over how we consume and travel. Putting even a small amount of thought into these choices could really help achieve a fairer world.

Glasgow is a city that makes it entirely possible to live sustainably. There are 3 areas you can address to reduce your impact.
1. Food – putting animal rights to one side, the reality is that meat and dairy are massive polluters – luckily enough Glasgow has been voted the UK’s best city for veganism, and the internet is awash with guides, tips and tricks to help you cut down on animal products. Shopping locally is also important to cut down on food miles – in the West End, Stalks & Stems and Roots & Fruits, both found on Great Western Road, offer fresh and often local produce. In the southside, Locavore grow food in Glasgow and even deliver weekly veg boxes all over the city, and a fortnightly farmers market runs in Queen’s Park. Harvest Co-op in Shawlands has lots of packaging-free options, including food and other products, to help cut waste. Eating a vegan diet with locally produced, organic, minimally packaged foods can cut almost 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year compared to a diet rich in meat, dairy and processed foods. Using Simmon’s calculation, we can say that this change saves 2.4 lives over an average UK lifespan.

2. Travel – Tony Blair once said people in Britain shouldn’t bother reducing their flying because in time scientists will fix global warming. He couldn’t be more wrong. Not only is climate change already killing people, airplanes are one of the worst offenders. The inconvenient truth is that planes emit a lot of carbon, and this being released into the upper atmosphere more than doubles its impact – made worse by the fact that most flights are really unnecessary. Travel is a great thing, but if it’s done by airplane, it’s incredibly damaging. Until planes can fly on clean energy, ignoring the low fares and giving up flying as much as possible is the only option. All of Europe is accessible by rail in surprisingly little time. Substituting multiple mini breaks for a longer holiday will also cut your travel emissions. Scotland itself is full of places to visit, again accessible by train – try a weekend in the Highlands instead of another 48 hours in Amsterdam. Personal travel footprints will vary, but according to ecopassenger.org and thetrainline.com’s eco calculator, substituting trains for return flights from Glasgow to Barcelona and to Berlin will save 2.3 tonnes a year, or 1.8 lives.

Travel in daily life is also very important. Glasgow’s often complained-about public transport is actually pretty good. You can get to almost anywhere in the city from any starting point. Cutting personal car use to only when it is truly impossible to use public transport is essential, and not only for people on the other side of the world – Glasgow’s air exceeds WHO limits on pollutants. We all have to breathe the same air – it’s our responsibility to ourselves and to each other to avoid making it poisonous. Student passes are available on the buses and an 18-25 train card will cut fares by a third. Walking and cycling are also amazing ways to cut your footprint and get fitter in the process, and at rush hour a bike can get through the city centre in a fraction of the time of the vehicles on the road. You’ve probably noticed the rental bike stations spreading out over the city. German company Nextbike is behind these, and the prices for rental are very reasonable compared to the costs related to a car. Even better, for Glasgow University students, free use is available simply by signing up with your university email. Students at Caledonian and Strathclyde can take advantage of a 50% discount – just £30 a year. Bike lanes are lacking in some areas, but the more people who cycle the more likely it is the council will take action. Again, personal footprints depend on a number of variables but taking a 10 mile commute as an example, switching from an average petrol car to the train could save a further 1.16 tonnes of emissions = 0.92 less lives ruined.

3. Consumerism – Britain is a capitalist country. We have been raised in a culture that values growth and accumulation of wealth more than environmental consciousness and equality. Realistically, this way of living is utterly unsustainable and has led to the worst example of Western exploitation of the global south. Workers in the developing world work back-breaking shifts for pennies to supply us with goods, the carbon impact of which then causes floods, droughts, heatwaves and hurricanes which destroy their homes and lives. It is an horrendous injustice. By simply assessing whether or not you need something before you buy it, and buying second-hand or fair trade products instead, this deadly cycle can end. Electronics and clothing have surprisingly high carbon footprints, and repairing and renewing them instead of replacing them can have a big impact.