Trumping Paris

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 8 June, 2017.

Two years ago, the nations of the world descended upon Paris for a matter of grave importance to the world – the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference aimed to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change from all the nations of the world. Yet last week it was dealt a crippling blow by the government of the United States, when its President, Donald Trump, announced that country was withdrawing from the accords. 

This when, as a country, and as a region, we’ve been feeling the effects of global climate change ourselves over the past few years. Both Namibia and South Africa has been struggling with a drought that has only recently been somewhat offset by better rainfall, but with the US’s withdrawal, we can expect to continue to see increasing weather abnormalities that increase in temperatures globally has led to. In particular, this involves atmospheric circulation, which greatly determines precipitation, or rainfall. 

Specifically, atmospheric conditions are determined by three circular patterns of winds that determine cloud movements and rainfall. The first of these is called the Hadley cell, named after George Hadley, who explained the trade winds that blow towards the equator low in the atmosphere (where the rainclouds are), where after it heats up, and thus rises high up, cools down, and has high atmospheric winds blowing outwards from the equator. Similarly, the polar cells operate in the opposite direction. Hot air from the 60th latitude line rises, and is blown high in the atmosphere to the poles. There the air cools down, drops, and results in low atmospheric winds blowing out from the poles, with the attendant snow storms etc. that is common near the polar regions.

The third cell, named the Ferrel cell after William Ferrel, who theorized it in the 19th century, exists in between the polar and Hadley cell, in the sub-tropical semi-arid regions such as Namibia. This cell, however, is not a closed loop like the other cells, and depends on them. And unlike those cell that have north-south winds, the Ferrel cell is characterised by westerly winds. It is from these winds that break away from the Hadley cell, that we get our rainfall.

The increases in global temperature is causing the polar and Ferrel cells to weaken, and cause the Hadley cell to grow. In effect, this causes dry regions to become even drier, with wet regions becoming wetter, with more storms. We can already see the effect in our own experience with more prolonged droughts, as well as the drought affecting the Western Cape to the south, alongside its attendant storms that is at time of writing wreaking havoc across the City of Cape Town.

Yet the Climate Change Conference only had a stated aim of trying to limit global temperature increases to 2 °C. This in itself will still cause devastation, as that will still entail the global sea level rising between 3 and 6 meters. Even in Namibia, this will displace between 2 000 and 28 000 people along the coast. With the United States withdrawing from this agreement, temperatures could rise by 4 °C, raising sea levels by 7 to 10 meters. Along the coast, that will displace 48 000 to 56 000 Namibian citizens. 

On President Trump’s recent foreign trip, his advisors opined that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” On withdrawing from the accords, President Trump said, “the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”

The world, however, is not an arena. It is, due to cuts in funding for space programmes across the world over the past few decades, still our one and only home. Ensuring the ability of our species to survive on this planet is the ethical and moral responsibility of all. This is even recognized by the large businesses, which previously operated under Milton Friendman’s maxim that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

Instead, corporate governance codes like the new King IV Report emphasize that any organisation is part of its society, and needs to create value for it as well – financial performance alone is not enough. It represents a move from financial capitalism to inclusive capitalism, from a short-term capital market view to a long-term sustainable capital market. Corporations are now aiming towards sustainable development which, as per King IV, involves “development that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,” and sets it as a primary ethical and economic imperative. 

The United States is currently the second largest producer of carbon emissions in the world, with just over one sixth of total global emissions coming from a country with just 4% of the world population. China, of course, is the largest producer, with just over a quarter of global emissions attributable to it. China, though, has 18.5% of the world’s population, and thus per capita its emissions are lower than the United States. Yet, through the short-sighted aspirations of the United States, it is now on China we must depend if we want to prevent catastrophic climate change. We live in interesting times.

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