While environmentalist Greta Thunburg was at the UN, John Bellamy Foster, environmental sociologist and editor of the Monthly Review, was in Mauritius to train people on climate change. Weekly had an opportunity to talk to him.
When one talks of climate change, one thinks about climate science rather than sociology. You ae an environmental sociologist. What exactly does an environmental sociologist do?
Most of our environmental problems are social problems generated by the nature of our society, so an environmental sociologist would ask how we would change society to deal with environmental problems, how to deal with environmental justice and so on.
As a tiny island, how can we affect climate change?
The main responsibility is on the rich countries that have the highest per capita emissions and who have had the biggest share of emissions historically. So the reality is we cannot solve this problem unless rich nations take the lead; they have the biggest emissions, the wealth and the technology.
In the countries responsible for emissions, do you include China and India…
I refer mainly to rich countries like the US, Europe and Japan. China and India would have to play their part too, but definitely the countries with the highest per capita emissions and historically the largest share of emissions are the rich countries. Science is now saying that these rich countries have to cut their emissions by 10 per cent each year or we won’t make it in terms of carbon emissions targets. Countries like Mauritius also have a part to play in terms of setting an example and protecting the coral reefs, dealing with rising sea levels and so on.
How bad is the state of our coral reef?
On 25 September, the UN brought out its ocean cryosphere report. When the Paris deal was done in 2015, part of the agreement was that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would bring out three reports: one on 1.5 degrees Celsius, another on the ocean and cryosphere and another on the land. The first report was a shock to the world.
Who did it shock?
It shocked the world because it said we had 12 years to reduce net carbon emissions by 45 per cent, which obviously is a very serious problem to accomplish.
That’s not realistic, is it?
What we understand by realistic has to change because it’s a question of survival. We can do it but the report actually says that we need unprecedented social transformation and structural changes in the economy. In normal standards, it may not be realistic, but the World Meteorological Organisation has been noting uncommon climate occurrences such as temperature changes, the way we understand extreme weather events, the proverbial 100-year flood that now comes every 10 years… In the ocean and cryosphere report, they say that for small islands and coastal areas, the 100-year extreme event will come every year now and Mauritius is one of the islands concerned.
So what exactly is the danger for us?
In terms of the coral reefs and all the dangers to the ecosystems, Mauritius is one of those countries most at risk. If they don’t stick to the 1.5 degree Celsius target, Mauritius will lose its coral reef and all the fisheries associated with that. Period. The coral reef affords protection in terms of sea levels rising, so there will be that problem that will rear up.
How are we doing in terms of coral reef conservation?
I understand that coral reef conservation is taking place in certain areas particularly by hotels considering the large numbers of tourists they attract. But you need to do more.
To make way for the tramway, we had to cut down a large number of trees, and destroy jogging paths and parks. Isn’t that likely to affect us as well?
It can affect micro-climates and it can affect things like erosion and the aesthetics. Right now, I cannot say much about that but the third report will be about land, so it would be interesting to see what the IPCC has to say about that, including small island states such as Mauritius. What is clear is that if you turn your island into a desert, that’s not going to help.
There are some people who say that all this talk about climate change is alarmist and invented. You obviously don’t agree with that, do you?
There are denialists who say that. Most people saying that are people trying to defend the economy; they may not even believe what they are saying, but simply see advocacy about the climate as a threat to their economic way of life, so they respond in that way.
You mean that such comments come from people who are not disinterested?
Exactly. But none of us are really disinterested when it comes to the climate. Solving this problem will require huge shifts in the economy, moving away from fossil fuels and restructuring whole energy systems. It also requires asking fundamental questions about production and consumption. There are a lot of people who would be threatened by that. But what I am worried about is not so much the denialists anymore, but what I call the ‘minimisers’. Those who say that climate change is real, but can be dealt with in small ways. That’s dangerous because it prevents us from taking the real action that’s needed.
Aren’t the environmentalists also going to the other extreme? Take Greta Thunberg, for example. When she says that you should not take planes anymore, not eat a certain way, almost like die to save the planet, isn’t that enough to scare all those who are moderate away?
If you take a look at Greta Thunberg’s speeches, they are powerful speeches and her message is always about taking political action and large-scale action to change the production and consumption patterns. She does not say in any of her speeches that people should not ever fly or eat meat or any of these things. In her personal stance, she thinks that ethically, that’s what she should do. That’s correct. We can decide individually how we would react as consumers to the problems. But that’s a different question because climate change cannot be addressed by individual-scale solutions but as a society, taking political action. As individuals, we can only affect things politically and collectively.
Isn’t strong language like `you have destroyed my life`, or `stolen my future’, counterproductive?
The science is saying that. For the younger generation, it’s a bigger problem. We will get warmer by two degrees in the next 15 years. That’s a point of irreversibility. That’s what the science says. If we get under two degrees, that’s irreversible.
Isn’t the two degree mark arbitrary?
It is a little arbitrary but that’s the best that the research is saying. Once you hit two degrees.
So what happens when we hit that mark?
Once we hit that mark, then all sorts of things kick in: the ice caps melt, which decreases the reflectivity of the earth, so we absorb more heat. Melting of the ice and glaciers in Iceland and Antartica contributes to sea level rises. Once that happens, we cannot put that back. Once the perma-frost melts and releases methane, we cannot put that back. Once the sea levels rise, we cannot put that back. What we will have done is create a situation that’s irreversible for a thousand years, and once things feedback into that it is almost impossible not to go to three and then four and maybe six-degree increases. What the scientists say is that a four-degree increase is something that could well happen this century and the full effects don’t come into being right away, but it might become impossible to sustain industrial civilisation at that point. So here you have a 16-year-old girl saying that she will be experiencing that over her life while we sit and do nothing.
Is the 16-year-old not being instrumentalised by environmentalists? She should be in school.
She knows the facts, the science and is one of the most eloquent speakers of her age on this. She has this very systematic thinking. This is what education is supposed to produce. She is being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and I wouldn’t be surprised if she won it. People can say that Gandhi was being instrumentalised by some people, but we still revere him. She is a voice of reason and conscience. It’s about time.
How do you react to the way the media has treated her?
It’s complicated because it’s not just about her. In August 2018, she started her strike all by herself. If nobody paid attention, no one would be attacking her. In October, the IPCC came and said that you have 12 years to cut emissions by 45 per cent, so here is the science saying that you have this little window in which we can address the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. A week later, Extinction Rebellion occupies the Greenpeace headquarters in London, and pretty soon, the school strikes start by millions of pupils inspired by Greta and it closes down central London for four days. And then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is elected in the US on the basis of a green new deal and 100 congress people in the US start backing that. All of that happened in the last one year and Greta is part of that. She is one of the catalysts. The reason the media are attacking her is because it can see this momentum for change. There are millions of schoolchildren out in the streets. She is a catalyst, a spirit for change.
How will this affect the world when one of the major players, the US, is headed by Donald Trump who does not believe in climate change?
First of all, we don’t know what Trump believes. Initially, he took a position that climate change was a threat. That was years ago. When he saw that he could get elected with the right behind him, he then became a climate change denialist. But I don’t think he has consistent positions on things like this; it’s very opportunistic.
Isn’t that harsh?
That seems harsh, but there are a lot of opportunistic politicians and he is one of them. The number of pipelines being built in the US and Canada for oil and natural gas is three times what it was in 1995; the two countries are spending over a trillion dollars on building pipelines and infrastructure to help make the US the biggest oil exporter. They’re building this enormous fossil fuel infrastructure at the same time that the world is working to bring it to a halt. This will lead to enormous conflict; there is no way around that. People are going to have to choose which side they are on. Do we listen to the scientists? James Hanson, one of the greatest climate scientists there is, talks about climate inertia, and says that it’s a pity that people are not experiencing the full effects otherwise they would do something more.
What about the oceans?
In recent years, the World Meteorological Organisation has said that some things are no longer impossible: events that happened once a century are now happening every year. The heating up of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, which is currently happening, was impossible because it was considered outside the range of natural variability. So we are already experiencing some extreme events as far as the oceans are concerned.
There has been a lot of talk about how we should be interested in recycling… Until we found out that the pile of ‘recyclable’ stuff in fact cannot be recycled. Have we been doing this for nothing?
We were told there are the three Rs: recycle, reuse and reduce. Industry promoted recycling as the complete solution and that’s collapsed. We can learn to reuse and reduce things; that does not actually harm people’s lives. With all these containers we buy, our culture is to never think what happens to them.
Does the fault not lie with the environmentalists who laid the emphasis mainly on recycling.
There are different environmentalist groups, some attached to industry, some more conservative and some more radical. It’s completely rational to think about reusing and reducing and recycling should come in third. It’s the least effective in terms of dealing with the problem. We have an extreme consumption civilisation. What we are doing is buying several items of clothing a week. You have to buy clothes to be in fashion, and to be fashionable means giving evidence that you have bought something recently. We have to move away from that and think about durability. We should buy products that last and we can use over a long time, not engage in the constant throw-away culture. We are living in an extreme society and we need to be less extreme.
Would you say that overall in Mauritius we are doing enough?
No, you are not doing enough. There are things happening in Mauritius like beach-robbing. The sea level rise will make the conflict of who has the beaches much worse. The population as a whole seems to be losing out to the tourist industry. I am very sceptical of some of the things being done. I think Mauritians are doing a great deal, but you can protect the island much more effectively than you have been!
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