Why climate change still matters: investigating impact, involvement and uncomfortable truths

Infographic by Taylor Atienza

Climate change. You’ve heard the term at least once, but likely more than you’d really care to. It’s repeated constantly, in reports about those poor starving polar bears, the gradually rising ocean levels, the dying bees. You’ve heard it, certainly, but let’s face a fact: we mourn those poor bears, and momentarily entertain the idea of an city sinking under the sea — but rarely do we ever retain that conscious awareness that the world is falling apart around us.

And yes, climate change is a phenomenon that probably isn’t directly affecting you (not just yet, of course), which is why it’s not necessarily something to feel ashamed of if it’s slipped your mind. That willful avoidance is natural. It’s common. It’s comfortable. It’s the process of desensitization and conscious ignorance when concepts like climate change, global warming and mass extinction seem far too complex and abstract.

The culprit for that why global warming seems like such an evasive concept is the positivity bias, that invisible mental hurdle that we all face; the belief that the crisis will never come to us. It’s why climate change always seems to lie outside that realm of “things to care about.” The term is reiterated in news, in your science class, but it remains too far off, always striking down those polar bears a million miles away and never wreaking havoc in the quiet city of San Ramon.

But despite the illusion of uninvolvement in this phenomenon, the most crucial things to realize are that you are in no ways separate from this issue, and that it goes far deeper than you think.

There are quite a few people that are at the frontlines of this social, political, economic and environmental crisis. They, unlike the insulated majority, do not have the luxury of the positivity bias. They are able to see the neoliberal market pressures that threaten the world around them, and in some cases force them to further degrade the environment. The majority of these people have no voice in the media — they are marginalized, isolated, and often minority communities. They face the consequences of our conscious ignorance, and are the first victims to the crisis that is climate change.

So yes, all of these ideas are all very uncomfortable. There are some very uncomfortable things that have to be acknowledged to push for environmental justice. But such “uncomfortable things” are truths, and we do not benefit from running from them in any way.

Let’s return to neoliberalism first. The philosophy has less to do with “liberalism” as it relates to political orientation and more to do with economics. It’s an economic ideology that believes encouraging the growth of business and reducing market restrictions will eventually benefit more people. In theory, allowing more free—or liberal—market practices and giving corporations the resources they need to expand will result in more jobs and higher wages. Think trickle-down economics.

Which seems ideal. But again, remember that this is what a neoliberal economy is supposed to achieve. There’s good indication that when applied, the wealth fails to “trickle down,” and those who were supposed to benefit are exploited by the expansion of business. In short, neoliberalism isn’t always reflective of reality.

Deregulation of businesses increases the capabilities for environmentally destructive behavior, and human exploitation. One such example are international cases of deforestation for natural resources, and the palm oil industry in particular has proved to have a variety of ramifications for both people and the natural world.

Though widely consumed in Asia, the World Wildlife Foundation reported that more than half of all consumable packaged products in the U.S. contain palm oil. Demand for the resource has accelerated in the past year as a result of suggested health benefits from consumption as well as its use in everyday products like lipstick, detergent, ice cream, baked goods and soap.

However, the true cost of palm oil isn’t always seen by more insulated communities such as our own. In more places like Indonesia, Columbia and Papua New Guinea where palm oil thrives, companies have cleared space for plantations through deforestation. And indeed, it seems like granting companies that manage these plantations freedoms would provide consumers with their palm oil and local communities with jobs. But nothing is ever really that simple, and there is a hidden trend of unfair labor practices and consequences that result from global demand and neoliberal economic pressures that result in deforestation.

“It’s a race to the bottom,” says Mr. Adam Bellows, AP Comparative Government, US History and Sociology teacher. “Because if you open up those barriers, the money to pursue growth and to accumulate wealth is going to go where there are lax labor laws, where you don’t have to pay workers as much, and where you don’t have to worry about environmental degradation because countries don’t have those [laws] in place.”

According to the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), many plantation workers are underpaid children or individuals seeking work who are purposefully held in their position by unfair debt systems. Of course, this is all kept very neatly under wraps by major corporations so that labor exploitation continues in the name of demand and growth. It’s made worse by the fact that the companies that enable these abuses are multinational brands you probably recognize and trust. The ILRF reports the list of companies exposed for allowing such exploitative conditions includes prolific names like Kraft, IKEA, McDonalds, and Néstle.

While some brands have received a certification from The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that is intended to placate consumer concerns about plantation labor practices, numerous reports by the ILRF, Bloomberg, and Amnesty International have found that child labor, unsafe working conditions, and human rights abuses still persist in the industry.

“Not only does serious exploitation exist in palm oil supply chains: the industry’s ethical certification has proven to be no guarantee against abuse,” wrote the ILRF.

The RSPO not only falls short on delivering on promises for fair labor, but also in the realm of environmental protections. According to a 2013 Greenpeace report, while members certified by the RSPO are supposedly not allowed to convert primary or high conservation value (HCV) forests, there are no rules restricting deforestation of secondary forest regions that constitute the majority of undeveloped forest in countries like Indonesia.

Clearing trees to create space for palm oil plantations is executed either through burning rainforest or using machinery. Both processes produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, degrading air quality for the laborers in the surrounding area and contributing to global warming. According to a 2016 investigation of palm oil plantations by Amnesty International, workers are regularly exposed to pesticides like paraquat — a known carcinogen.

Despite the incriminating reports and damning investigations on the ethical and environmental issues associated with the industry, palm oil is still very much in demand and very much in use. It’s likely still in your toothpaste, shampoo and candy. Underpaid children are still deprived of an education, and forced laborers continue to work in harmful conditions for little to no compensation for their efforts.

And the very dark and uncomfortable truth behind all of this, the reason for the persistence of these egregious human rights violations and environmentally destructive practices that is hidden so carefully in our faith in large corporations and our own avoidance of disturbing truths is that we favor our own comfort.

We — consumers and companies alike, throughout the world — allow this to go on because we benefit from it.

Which is such a horribly contemptible truth. The basic idea that we benefit from another’s suffering isn’t easy to accept. It certainly makes me wince every time I roll this thought around in my head. It’s not easy to write this, either. I hate these ideas just as much as you do, and in no way do I claim to be morally superior, because we’ve all lived in this state of conscious ignorance for a while.

Pressure for economic expansion in industries that only exacerbate climate change and environmental degradation has also resulted in rising sea levels, another well-known phenomenon that has far-reaching impacts. It’s caused by global warming that is further intensified by emissions which come largely from global industry and automobile use. While a 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated a cautious 2.7 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures, this seemingly minimal shift has large repercussions.

Bangladesh—one of the countries of the world more vulnerable to rising ocean levels due to its low elevation—has experienced intensified natural disasters and the destruction caused by saltwater intrusion. The trend of developing countries facing the consequences of the actions of industrialized nations repeats itself, this time with implications of displacement and death.

Flooding and vanishing coastlines have left many homeless or struggling to survive while farming soil saturated with salt. Scientists in Bangladesh agree that an estimated 18 million are expected to eventually be displaced by 2050 after 17 percent of land is lost to rising sea levels (The New York Times). Worse still, Bangladesh has also witnessed extreme storm patterns that have been attributed to the changing climate.

While anthropogenic climate change is named as only a factor in some major weather disasters, others can be attributed entirely to human activities. Events like these identified by a 2016 report by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) included an extreme heat wave in Thailand, as well as the discovery of new marine hotspots that could disrupt aquatic biodiversity.

“Climate change was a necessary condition for some of these events in 2016, in order for them to happen,” stated Mr. Jeff Rosenfeld, editor-in-chief for the AMS.

Increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters has disproportionately impacted developing countries, where impoverished communities that have struggled to cope have been silenced by lack of coverage and our own ignorance to our part in the issue.

But as mentioned before, there is no separating yourself from this phenomenon despite the distance you may feel from these problems. Most of the crises named so far have all happened halfway across the world; but as environmental degradation and global warming worsen, and we prioritize economic growth at the expense of the welfare of marginalized and the natural world, the issue continues to press closer and closer to where we once believed would never be affected. The impacts of the crisis hit closer to home than you may think—especially when considering the Sonoma County wildfires that ravaged the region just last October.

“God forbid the actual catastrophe happens here, but those communities, I’m sure felt very much the same way, like, ‘We’re fortunate enough to be living in California, we don’t really have major disasters here.’ And then you have these wildfires, where literally, in just a moment, people have lost their homes,” explains Nguyen. “And after the wildfires, there are still possible mudslides and all kinds of these chain reactions that happen because of the loss of the ecosystem. Aside from health, we also have the concern of what would happen to our insulated, isolated little pocket if any of those disasters we have seen in the past year were to happen here as well.”

And yes, I could go on. I could go on pleading with you to care, because all of these issues really have no endpoints in terms of their repercussions. Working conditions on palm oil plantations prevent children from getting a proper education. Clearing trees exposes humans to diseases like SARS or Zika that are carried by displaced species. Millions will continue to lose their homes to natural disasters, and countless others will lose their lives to these catastrophes. Marginalized and indigenous communities will lose the lands they once inhabited and their culture. Pipelines like the DAPL or the Keystone XL will be built, and they will continue to endanger water supplies and surrounding wildlife. Industrial expansion will also come to an end after the natural resources that sustain it are finally depleted, and millions will lose their jobs.

I could go on, and you could back away. You could step away from all of this, as could I. We could all forget about this, and avoid being conscious about all of these uncomfortable truths. It’s easier to sleep at night that way.

You could also say it’s far too idealistic to believe you could maybe help to save the world. But it’s also far too idealistic to believe that neoliberal economic policy is benefitting many besides the 1% that head multinational conglomerates. And it’s certainly far too idealistic to believe we can continue taking from the environment as we have for decades while ignoring the problems it causes for people and the natural world.

Bu there is small good to be found. It’s a daunting issue, but that doesn’t mean that your contributions are insignificant. Seemingly negligible victories are all crucial in a greater push for environmental justice.

“I think [in] every small action that we are capable of doing to improve our environment or to improve the lives of people around us, there should definitely be a satisfaction in knowing that you’re doing the right thing,” says Nguyen.

We are privileged enough to not have witnessed the effects of climate change and environmental degradation as a result of economic pressure in our own community. And yet as that privileged group, we have a responsibility to help those at the front lines of this crisis.

And yes, it’s hard. Especially with the current administration, fighting for greater environmental protections and a limit to neoliberal expansion is more of an uphill battle than ever before. The issues of combating climate change, environmental destruction, and violations of human rights while confronting our own role in enabling these issues are in no ways easy concepts. Certainly, it’s terrifying to think about all these things—there’s no denying that. But the longer it takes for us to face that fear and the real consequences of our actions that our happening around us, the longer we allow ethical injustices to persist and the world to suffer.

So I’ll present a challenge for you and I, reader. Keep investigating and confronting these uncomfortable truths, and avoid the easy way out. Think about expansive environmental degradation and those often forgotten communities whose welfare is too often neglected for the sake of economics.

“If you can localize it to [those groups], and actually start with empathy, and go, ‘Ok, I’m not as impacted right now, but it seems like other people are more “on the front lines” of increased natural disaster, flooding, losing shoreline, economies being hurt as species aren’t available…” remarks Bellows. “If you focus there, you might be able to realize, ‘Oh. Maybe that could be us.’”

Pranav Chillappagari, Staff Writer, contributed to this article.