Change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind. The very expression ‘common concern’ means that the climate system is fundamental to our collective survival. The effects of climate change are so widespread, pervasive, and life-threatening that it is no longer an issue to be discussed and debated among a small number of people with specialized interest.
The carbon dioxide effect
Climate is different from weather. The former is a long-term phenomenon and is predictable. In contrast, the weather is a short-term phenomenon and variations are experienced only for a few days. When we talk about climate change, we are talking about human activity that directly and indirectly alters the composition of the global atmosphere. This alteration is in addition to the natural variability observed over comparable time periods. Before debating climate change, it is very important that children learn the science of climate change. Unlike most air pollutants, carbon dioxide (CO2) – which is primarily responsible for climate change – occurs naturally in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, along with oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, is actually necessary for human life on Earth. Without it, the Earth will be colder and uninhabitable for humans. But a balance is necessary. To this naturally present carbon dioxide, mankind adds approximately another six billion tons by burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees. The vast expansion of human activities resulting from industrialization and population growth has led to increased emissions and higher atmospheric concentrations of several greenhouse gases (GHG).
The accumulation of GHG in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution has gone to a level that does not allow heat to be absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere anymore, rather it is directed back to the Earth, raising the Earth’s temperature. Carbon can stay in the atmosphere for a hundred years or more which means that the carbon we are releasing today is likely to contribute in raising the Earth’s temperature many years later. Thus, the generations to come will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. A rise in global mean surface temperature results in melting of polar ice-caps, melting of glaciers and consequent rise in sea-level. The other extremes of weather which are being experienced at regular intervals are change in precipitation patterns causing drought, desertification, flash floods, and forest fires.
Mitigating climate change
Why are human beings not able to deal with this problem? What is it that needs to be done to address this challenge? Why is this important to be discussed and taught at the school level? This problem demands involvement of people, especially young minds, to find solutions to a carbon neutral world. Since the problem is human induced (anthropogenic), its solution is also in the changing of production and consumption patterns by human beings. The challenge is that climate change is not just an environmental problem but an economic one too. People cannot be prevented from growing rice, travelling in vehicles and manufacturing daily use items. The effects of climate change are felt in the future (delay of many decades and then irreversible, unavoidable consequences) and it is unknown where its severity will be felt most and whose emission is responsible for the effects of climate change. The central feature of climate change is its temporal dimension. Human tendency is to discount the future. This is a kind of massive social trap, the fundamental reason that prevents people from becoming carbon-neutral.
International efforts to fight climate change
If the world is to remain safe from the catastrophic consequences of climate change, it has been agreed upon by many countries in Paris in 2015 that global average temperature must be restricted to below 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels. Secondly, the world has to become carbon-neutral by 2050, which means a balance has to be achieved by that time between human induced emissions (anthropogenic emissions) and their removal by sinks (dissolution of CO2 in the oceans and its absorption by plants during photosynthesis). The other greenhouse gases, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are destroyed primarily by photochemical reactions in the atmosphere. But discounting methane in the run-up to the stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere would be a wrong approach as the global warming potential of methane over a hundred year time as compared to carbon is very high.
Stable GHG concentrations are possible only if there is a balance between the amount we produce and the amount that is absorbed by Nature. And so far mankind has not been able to strike any kind of balance. The effects of climate change will also be felt disproportionately. Small island states, least developed countries and vulnerable groups and areas in developing countries will bear the brunt most. The efforts of the international community to deal with climate change fall into two categories: (i) mitigation (reduction in GHG) (ii) adaptation (coping with the adverse effects of climate change). It is to this effect that several countries, under the aegis of the United Nations (UN), have become signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 1992 and the Paris Agreement (PA) on Climate Change 2015. In the backdrop of these legal instruments, the governments of as many as 193 countries meet annually and take stock of the efforts and obligations discharged by the member countries. But are these efforts adequate? What is common to all these efforts is to stop concentrations of GHG at 450 parts per million or restrict global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels. The objective of the entire climate change debate is enshrined in Article 2 of the UNFCCC – “Stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.” In the PA, the signatories have been asked to aspire to the ambitious goal of restricting global average temperature to below 1.5 degree Celsius. This goal must be achieved within a timeframe. Achieving the goal within a timeframe will allow “ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”
Lessons of ecology and inter-generational equity
The severity of the impact of climate change – hurricanes, flash floods, drought, desertification and destruction of coastal ecosystems and associated livelihood – will be felt by future generations or generations yet to be born. It involves restraining the present to liberate the future. Students cannot be expected to become climate change activists overnight. They must be taught in theory as well as in practice the four laws of ecology: (i) Everything is connected to everything else (there is interconnection among different living organisms, between populations, species, and individual organisms and their physiochemical surroundings) (ii) Everything must go somewhere (in every natural system, what is excreted by one organism as waste is used by another as food. Animals release carbon dioxide as respiratory waste, which is an essential nutrient for green plants. The latter excrete oxygen, which is used by animals.) (iii) Nature knows best (the teacher must demystify the assumption that human beings are possessed of unique competence. Mankind with the help of modern science and technology can “improve on nature”. Teachers must tell their students that any man-made change in the natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system.) (iv) There is no such thing as free lunch (anything extracted from Nature by human beings must be replaced. Payment of this price cannot be avoided; it can be delayed. The present environmental crisis is a warning that we have delayed far too long.)
Students have to be taught in such a manner that the seeds of the principle of intergenerational equity are planted in them. The human species is responsible for the natural environment of our planet. As members of the present generation, we hold the Earth in trust for future generations. At the same time, we are beneficiaries entitled to use and benefit from it. There are two relationships that must shape any theory of intergenerational equity in the context of our natural environment: our relationship with other generations of our own species and our relationship with the natural system of which we are a part.
Involving children in climate change complaints and litigation
In the drive against climate change, the teacher and students can together learn how they can contribute and be part of solutions. Apart from awareness drives, starting public campaigns, etc., they can also become part of legal solutions. There are cases from around the world of how children have stood up for the environment. The Minors Oposa vs. Factoran case from the Philippines is an example. In this case, the plaintiffs were minors (represented by their parents) and the defendant, Philippine Ecological Network, a non-profit organization. The complaint sought to prevent the cutting down of timber by the defendant. The Supreme Court of Philippines held that the parents, on behalf of the plaintiff children, correctly asserted that the children represented their generation as well as generations as yet unborn. Teachers must be aware of the fact that there is an international legal instrument on protecting the rights of children (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989). The instrument can be used by children in their fight against climate change. In a historic ruling on October 11, 2022, in a case by 16 children (plaintiffs) against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey, the United Nations Child Rights Committee (a body charged to implement the Child Rights Convention) ruled that these countries knew about the effects of climate change, were signatories to the UNFCCC, and yet they did not initiate adequate measures to prevent the current climate crisis from happening. The children also added in their complaint that the effects of climate change go beyond their territories which affect children’s right to life, lack of food, and shelter.
Challenges in achieving carbon neutrality
India has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2070. There are more than 100 regional governments, 800 cities and 1500 companies that have adopted organizational net-zero targets. One in five corporations in the Forbes Global 2,000 list has set a voluntary net zero target. Children can be made part of the GHG mitigation efforts by nudging them towards public transportation. This is going to have multiple benefits apart from GHG reduction. Such a move will result in reduction of air pollution, reduction of costs, reduction of congestion, managing growth and increasing mobility. Children can put pressure on governments to prepare emissions profile of cars, trucks, and major building in cities. In fact, children can help us move towards a carbon neutral lifestyle. With the help of experts, children can be made to learn some of the aspects of regulating energy in buildings, especially in school buildings; they can also discuss this with their parents towards replicating it in their homes. One crucial aspect in dealing with the issue of climate change and in transition towards clean energy is the issue of equity, which means those who are consuming or have consumed more energy in the past have a greater responsibility to change their lifestyle in the run-up to carbon neutrality. It is in this context that the call for Lifestyle for Environment (LIFE) issued by Prime Minister Modi and the UN Secretary General, jointly in India, assumes importance. While focusing on a change in lifestyle, what is important is that the consumers in countries that consume at an unsustainable pace and contribute to rising emissions have a greater responsibility to clean up the planet and support the growth of green energy.
Renewable energy now costs less*, and this will facilitate in our transition towards zero-carbon electricity. In most other sectors, the transition to net zero-emission is still uncertain. In some of the sectors like heavy industries, buildings, food and agriculture, aviation, and mining, zero-carbon solutions exist, but they are still very costly. The idea to phase out coal to become carbon neutral is appealing, but coal is found in abundance in many countries including India and therefore cheap. Coal is used to generate electricity and to provide dignified living to millions of people who cannot afford expensive green energy. Just and affordable supply of clean and green energy to everyone, especially in poor countries, requires huge amount of financial resources and technology to be channelled from the rich countries. The poor countries deserve to be supported for two obvious reasons: (i) they contribute the least in the creation of the problem but suffer the most (ii) in comparison to the rich, the poor countries have least resources to tackle climate change induced problems.
Note: I dedicate this article to my late wife Shazia Jamal, who was a school teacher.
*Sam Fankhauser, Stephen M. Smith and others, “The Meaning of Net Zero and How to Get it Right”, Nature Climate Change, vol. 12, January 2022, 15-21.
The author is a senior assistant professor in International Environmental Law, at the Indian Society of International Law, New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com.