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Climate Change is challenging us to make a choice – But do we individually have ‘choices’?

Opinion Editorial concerning the implications of climate change on individuals by Akiko Fujii, UNDP Resident Representative for Maldives

22 September 2019, MVT 13:18
Grey Heron pictured in a mangrove in Maldives. PHOTO: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
22 September 2019, MVT 13:18

The teenage Climate Activist Greta Thunberg arrived recently in NY to speak at the UN Climate Summit. She had travelled 3,000 miles from Europe on a zero-emission sailboat. “It is insane that a 16-year-old would have to cross the Atlantic to take a stand… [against] the climate and ecological crisis [which] is a global crisis and the biggest humanity has ever faced.” “Let’s not wait any longer. Let’s do it now”, Greta says.

Do we have a choice of not acting on climate change? The answer must be “No”.

“Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate,” the IPCC reports. 1 “… projections of global mean sea level rise suggest an indicative range of 0.26 to 0.77 m by 2100 for 1.5°C of global warming, 0.1 m less than for a global warming of 2°C ... A reduction of 0.1 m in global sea level rise implies that up to 10 million fewer people would be exposed to related risks … Coral reefs, for example, are projected to decline by a further 70–90% at 1.5°C with larger losses (99%) at 2ºC. The risk of irreversible loss of many marine and coastal ecosystems increases with global warming, especially at 2°C or more,” the report states. This would be especially disastrous for Maldives and other small islands. It is clear that we have no choice other than doing everything possible to reduce carbon emissions. So, let's do it.

Flooded streets in a Maldivian island. PHOTO: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Once we choose to act, then, what choices do we have at an individual level as citizens? We may minimize our use of air-conditioning, try walking or cycling, choose to buy more ecologically-friendly and locally produced food to reduce carbon mileage, re-use and re-cycle, etc. Some individuals go the extra mile by introducing new technologies and ideas in smart farming, actively replanting trees and corals to enhance our ecosystem, and so on. But do we really have all possible choices in our hands? Unfortunately, the answer may be “No”.

When UNDP issued its first Human Development Report (HDR) in 1990, the concept of ‘human development’ opened a new approach to understanding human progress. Human development is about advancing human wellbeing rather than just economic growth, and is fundamentally about increasing people’s choices. 2 The call for a human development approach derives from histories of different people’s long quest and demand for democracy, more choice for individuals and greater collective opportunities to make life better.

Our choices have increased dramatically in recent decades, partly because of technological advances, but also because of deepening democracy in many parts of the world. Maldives’ decade-long political transition including recent governance reforms is not an exception. Maldivian people live longer, have more access to education 3 and health services, and enjoy the material benefits of a significantly increased per capita GDP from $200 in 1978 to $11,151 in 2017. 4 In addition, the Maldivian people’s persistent and sincere demand for democracy is finally and increasingly paying off. However, the same technological advances and growth in people power can also cause significant deterioration of our planet and society, if not managed carefully. Carbon emission per capita increased from 0.8 tons to 3.3 tons between 1990 and 2014. Maldives has recorded drastic coral bleaches since 1998, and recorded an average of 75% bleaching in 2016. 5 Clearly, people also need to be guided by right policies and leadership.

A storm rages over the open sea. PHOTO: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

However, there is only so much we can do at the individual level. Yes, we can purchase locally-produced food, walk, reduce air-conditioner use, etc., but what if our entire energy source was renewable rather than oil-based, what if we had a more reliable and convenient public transport system, what if we could all drink safe water from the tap rather than plastic bottles, what if, what if …? Then our choices increase. Dramatically. This, we call a ‘transformative change’ and it must intensify urgently to secure the next generation’s future. People can, and should, demand public policies and systems, which increase individual people’s ability to choose environmentally friendly behaviors.

On 23 September, world leaders, including Maldivian leaders, will meet to discuss climate action, action which will determine our collective future. This will be an opportunity for everyone to learn about the science and the impacts of climate change, as well as to demand that our leaders adopt ambitious and bold policies, which will enhance our individual ability to choose to act on climate change. For the collective future of humanity and of the planet where we live and our children will live, let’s do it now.

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