Climate change is not only an environmental issue

Correspondence between María Elena Salgado (researcher at Universidad Centroamericana – Managua) and  Hannelore Peeters (researcher at University of Antwerp)

Dear Hannelore Peeters,

It is a pleasure to be able to talk with you about one of the most significant environmental issues of the last millennium, but above all to learn about the perspectives of our countries on this phenomenon and how we are facing it.

Talking about climate change makes us think of many other aspects that are not specifically of an environmental nature, although its direct effects are more visible in nature. Undoubtedly, in Central America, we have surprisingly experienced them, with hurricanes and droughts being the most recurrent. But the impact of these natural disasters has been the trigger for more problems, which have hit the most vulnerable populations particularly hard.

When the UN defined the Sustainable Development Goals, they contemplated the lines of action against climate change at the environmental, social, and economic levels. This was a great step forward because we understood the holistic nature of the issue.  But I have many doubts regarding this agenda; first, if we are following the right path to respond according to the magnitude of the problem; second, I reflect on whether these goals apply to all countries in the world; and third, I analyze whether we are leaving out some other related aspect. Regarding the third aspect, I could believe that the political level has not been explicitly contemplated, considering that this issue is closely related to governance and, therefore, to the more efficient management of the territories.

I believe that one of the main impediments in my country has been that decision-making and policy creation has very little to no participation of those sectors most vulnerable to climate change. Besides, the response mechanisms to natural disasters primarily consist of assistance. This is very common in countries with deficient democratic structures, where the rulers take advantage of the majority of its population in conditions of poverty and offer immediate solutions when these natural phenomena occur, but in reality, they do not visualize short or long-term prevention plans. This reminds me of the conclusion reached by López and Méndez in their article “A critique of the concept of sustainable development“, which stated: “When we talk about eliminating poverty in certain regions of the world without questioning the power structure that sustains it, the question of sustainability is falsified”.

With the above, I want to change a little the common narrative of countries like ours — the smallest contributors of carbon dioxide — that we dump almost all the responsibility on the major emitters worldwide. Undoubtedly, our governments do not aim to turn us into cities that are adapted to the climate scenarios that are coming. But with this I am not exempting the planet’s biggest polluters from blame; instead, I urge them to reevaluate their commitments made at climate summits and to set goals that are more in line with the impact they produce.

And as I refer to more realistic goals, I return to the roadmap of the 2030 Agenda. Since the UN defines energy as the factor that contributes to 60% of global emissions, transition to affordable and non-polluting energies must be sought. I have always had my reservations about renewable energies being presented as the absolute solution to the fight against climate change because I know that this does not apply in all regions of the world. In the case of Nicaragua, for instance, 53% of the energy matrix came from renewable energy until 2018, but much of that energy generated is exported, making national consumption dependent mostly on fossil fuels. It should also be noted that our renewable energy prices are considerably higher compared to average prices worldwide, due to the risks involved in establishing these projects in our country, and many of these risks are due to climate change. This means that in a long run changing the country’s entire energy matrix does not guarantee to achieve one of the goals pursued with the SDGs, which is to increase the production of reliable, uninterrupted and sufficient energy. I am very eager to know your opinion regarding this aspect, because I understand that in Belgium, they also have their limitations in this energy transition and rely heavily on nuclear energy.

The final issue I would like to delve into is biodiversity, since my recent experience in the subject has made me realize that this component has not been treated with the seriousness it deserves. Unfortunately, governments and businessmen believe that allocating money to conservation activities is an expense and not an investment; perhaps they have not yet visualized the economic value of natural areas, or they are simply not willing to wait for the benefits, which in the case of biodiversity, are only/primarily visible in the medium and long term. My hypothesis was confirmed by the report prepared by the European Union, which addresses the effects of climate change on biodiversity. The findings suggested that many Latin American countries have policies and strategies for conservation, but few of them have the budget to implement them. This makes me conclude that we continue to create necessary laws and policies, but without plans to implement them in the immediate future. I would like to know how your country has advanced on this issue, and how your government contemplates biodiversity in their development plans as a nation.

It has been very gratifying to express in this letter everything I think, although it is more critical than optimistic. I wanted to let you know a little more of how we live on this side of the world. I am certain that when you tell me your experiences, we can find points of convergence. I am also sure that in our next correspondence we will be able to visualize alternative solutions for our countries.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read my letter.

Sincerely,

María Elena Salgado
8-March-2021, Managua

Dear María Elena Salgado,

Thank you so much for your letter. You made some interesting points and I will do my best to respond to your questions appropriately.

Even here in Belgium with a more temperate climate, we are already noticing the changing climate. The summers are generally drier and more heat waves are occurring, while in winter we have fewer frost days. Here too storms are occurring more frequently with floods as a consequence. Without going into detail, the predictions are scarily accurate.

I agree with you on the statement that politics are an essential part of the current climate crisis as well as other environmental, social, and economic crises, and that it should also be taken into account in the process towards a sustainable world. I don’t think the lack in long-term solutions only applies to countries with deficient democratic structures. Actually, this by itself forms a topic for discussion: Is it because the democratic system is deficient or is it inherent to the current democratic systems? Most democratic systems today focus mainly on short term, quick-fix, easy solutions. We need to wonder why this is so. To find an answer to this question, I think we need to look at what drives politicians. What is their ‘primary motivation’?

I grew up with the idea that politicians are visionaries, idealists who want to change the world – or at least their part of it – for the better. This usually requires long-term commitments and measures. When we look at the present political system in our countries, politicians are elected – fortunately – for relatively short time periods of two to six years. At the end of a term, what would a politician want? Here, the logical answer is ‘to be re-elected’, which of course makes sense since the person wants to keep their job and to continue working on their vision, since the latter is rarely realised during only one term. However, in order to be re-elected, the politician needs to gain votes and thus, the politician needs to please as many electors as possible. This makes long-term decisions that serve the so-called ‘greater good’ far more difficult, as they often harm a lot of people, companies and the economy at present time. Following this train of thoughts, the solution might seem simple. If democracy is not working, then a climate dictatorship (for x-years until the climate crisis is under control)? This solution does not seem desirable to me. During the course of history, humanity has fought too hard for democracy – and in many places is still fighting for it – to voluntarily throw it out of the window now. Even if we were to choose an interim or partially authoritarian system, again history shows us plenty of examples that this simply does not work. Perhaps because the goal is never (entirely) reached, perhaps because power is – as so often said – addictive. So how can we tackle the current climate crisis without discarding democracy as such? We need to convince politicians of the urgency of the issue, of the responsibility they have to present as well as future generations and that political courage by acting on the long term won’t necessarily be punished. I’m curious about alternatives you might envision.

In parallel, I think we need to evolve again to more community-based thinking and living instead of the individualistic society we have evolved into, and which has led us to this point. For this, education is crucial: on the one hand, education on the climate crisis and why it is essential for all of humanity to tackle this crisis, and on the other, educating community-thinking so that we can move to a more community-based society. Education here should not exclusively concern children. Adults too should at least be made more aware of the situation and the alternatives, although this is inevitably more difficult to organise. Environmental movements and climate advocates have tried to do this for years, but hit a wall of resistance or indifference. Therefore, the climate issue is also an issue of communication.

You make a very interesting point stating that governments like yours consign the responsibility to the largest polluters, without preparing their territories for the consequences of climate change. The historic contribution of developing countries is indeed insignificant compared to the large contributors, yet the current development increases the footprint of most people living here. This calls for the contested term ‘sustainable development’ and the even more controversial question of who is to pay for it. Should we apply the polluters pay principle’ or do we treat this as historic pollution and only look forward? The former method might seem the fairest, but comes along with many questions on how to estimate the amount of pollution and what the price should be, similar to the issue of reparations in a post-colonial context. The latter then seems more feasible, although less just. At this point, the urgency is so high that there is no time to waste on endless discussions on rates of past pollution. Everybody has to act now. The largest contributors have to make the largest efforts – and here I mean largest contributor based on consumer emissions (inhabitants carbon footprint), not territorial emissions (greenhouse gases emitted in a country). In order to achieve this, a system of carbon credits at the correct price is essential. Briefly, in this way the price of a product will not only reflect the production costs, but it could cover the societal costs. This could lead to a lower amount of products sold and encourage less carbon-intense technologies.

On the topic of renewable energy, a critical view is needed indeed. The Belgian energy system is too complicated to explain, so I’ll focus on Flanders, where we have a dubious relationship with regard to subsidies for renewable energy. In short, in Flanders at the moment 33.69% of our energy supply is renewable, 28.01% is fossil-based and indeed 38.30% is from nuclear sources. The problem with renewable energy is indeed its variable supply, besides the slow transition process. Nuclear energy has the benefit of having a constant supply – except when the reactors are failing again – has a relatively low carbon footprint according to propaganda and it is well-established, mainly because of all the subsidies it has received over the ages. However, to fulfil expected demand, new nuclear plants are needed, making it too slow and too expensive, that is, more expensive than renewable energy per invested euro. This is not even considering the issue of nuclear waste. To paraphrase emeritus professor Aviel Verbruggen, if renewable energy had been given the funds that nuclear energy has received since the 1950s in Belgium, there would not be an issue today. Besides at the production level, changes at the individual level  are also needed. Especially here in Europe, we need to consume less energy. We need to change our way of thinking and living. Do we all really need a (electrical) car? To reach the climate goals, not only the source of energy needs to change, but also our consumption.

Biodiversity with its long-term benefits also suffers from the short political tenure terms. Belgium as a EU member state has to comply to EU legislation such as the Natura 2000 or Habitats Directive. Is there a Nicaraguan or Pan-American counterpart? Although we are certainly not the best pupil in the class, I think the benefits of biodiversity are slowly sinking in and EU legislation is being implemented. Our biggest problem is habitat fragmentation of this small, densely populated country. Unlike in many southern countries, where vast nature areas are in danger of being exploited, the damage has already been done and there are only very few and small areas left to conserve. In some areas, biodiversity has actually increased due to proper management. The most visible example being the return of the wolf, but also smaller, yet very significant changes like the return of fish in the Zenne river.

I hope I have been able to answer your questions sufficiently and I’m curious about your views. A letter is just too short to express everything on this topic we are both so passionate about.

Sincerely,

Hannelore Peeters
12-March-2021, Antwerp

Dear Hannelore,

I was sure that your reply would bring other interesting points to this discussion and you have absolutely helped me to further analyze the answers in my first letter.

I agree with you that the authorities do not usually make long-term plans, regardless of the quality of their democratic system. This is very common in my country, and moreover, projects being considered by governments to extend beyond their tenure in power are discontinued by a subsequent government. And it is definitely not negotiable to replace democracy with dictatorial measures, but it is necessary to integrate civil society organizations, the private sector, and academic institutions into the governmental working groups to serve as overseers in order to ensure that the climate actions agreed upon are continued within the established deadlines.

About the issue of education, it is a great tool to raise awareness about climate change in society. In the youth movements where I work, we have changed the strategies a little to be able to take the message to the entire population. Above all, we have considered that not everyone is equally engaged with these issues, so it is necessary to be creative to break the wall of resistance and indifference that you mentioned. In these volunteer programs, we have developed community-based science activities such as promoting the use of technologies to document the flora and fauna of our environment, environmental theater plays, beach clean-up, and reforestation days. Although some activities may be tilted towards grabbing media attention, they serve to draw attention to the problems that exist in our communities and at the same time awaken people’s interest in learning more about it.

One thing we are clear about is that the costs of climate change are abysmal, especially when it comes to adaptation costs, which according to UNEP will be 140 to 300 billion dollars per year by 2030. A good alternative is to implement mitigation since industrial production, instead of after products have been used. Because of this, Environmental and Social Management Systems (such as ISO 14 001), should go from being voluntary standards to mandatory ones for the largest polluting industries, especially in cities with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, and this should be governed by the environmental ministries of each country.

To conclude, I would like to highlight the sentence in your letter that says: “To reach the climate goals, not only the source of energy needs to change, but also our consumption”. In short, the fight against climate change includes commitments at the macro and micro level, individual and collective. Public resources and the capacity of governments to face this problem without support are limited, and therefore, in addition to being a challenge, climate change is an opportunity to innovate. I believe that more experiences should be exchanged between countries, whether in areas such as renewable energies, biodiversity, response to climate disasters, or any other issue related to achieving the sustainable development objectives. The spaces for exchange result in these innovative solutions that we need so much and that make us feel like a team with a common goal.

I hope in the future we can talk again about a more hopeful outlook on climate change. For now, I thank you for talking with me.

Sincerely,

Maria Elena Salgado
16-March-2021, Managua

Dear María Elena

Thank you for sharing your comments on the ideas in my last letter.

Scientists and civilians have been trying to get governments to listen to them on regional, national as well as international levels e.g Klimaatzaak and IPCC. Klimaatzaak -which translates to Climate Case- is a non-profit (famous) citizens’ initiative suing the Belgian government for negligence in taking proper care of their citizens and some other fundamental human rights in regard to the consequences of climate change at this very moment. Precedents are known recently in The Netherlands and Ireland. Yet governments don’t seem to listen to the experts when it concerns climate change, biodiversity or other environmental and long-term issues. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic we see an exception. All of a sudden experts are consulted and listened to –to a certain degree of course. However, after having listened to the experts carefully and having followed their advice, it seems that political games took over again when it became clear that we’d be in this situation for a longer period of time. The integration of different organisations and different stakeholders at different policy and implementation levels to ensure the effectiveness and execution of long-term action plans do seem like a plausible solution to me.

The initiatives you take part in sound truly amazing! I am also involved in a scientific collective for clear, fact-based communication about climate change and work with adolescents about this and other environmental issues in my free-time. It makes me happy to hear that there are so many initiatives and volunteers dedicating their time and energy to this issue around the globe. Yet it also saddens me a little that this is still needed, especially counting mostly on just these volunteers.

I think we have reached the point where only emission prevention is not enough anymore. As we have both written, we are facing the consequences already, making mitigation most urgent besides lowering greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. I agree that the largest polluters should pay the most and that this money should be used for the mitigation strategies. Doing this directly has turned out not to be very easy, especially when the system is not corruption proof. An alternative is to pay the ‘pollution tax’ to some kind of fund that manages and invests in the mitigation strategies. In the spirit of turning this crisis into an opportunity for innovation, the EU has come up with a plan for a more sustainable economy, The European Green Deal. In this deal, the EU will invest 100 billion EUR in e.g. the energy transition. This is of course tax money, but I’d rather they invest my tax money in this than some alternatives. However, this amount could be even larger if they would entirely divest at the same time. At the moment still more than 137 billion EUR every year goes to fossil fuels in the form of subsidies, fiscal regulations and tax advantages for company cars, the shipping and aviation industry, agribusiness and even coal and gas power plants. Belgium is the worst pupil in the class with over 600 EUR per year for each citizen, mainly going to diesel fuelled company cars. Imagine what could be realised in even just the EU if all this fossil money would be redirected towards mitigation and adaptation measures.

It was a pleasure reading your letters, writing to you and exchanging some ideas and thoughts on the most urgent topic of climate change. Let’s hope -or better said- let’s keep on fighting for the changes in the system we deem necessary to limit the consequences of climate change.

Best regards

Hannelore Peeters
22-March-2021, Antwerp