Old and young speak with one voice to save our species from climate disaster

Hassan Yassin
Hassan Yassin
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Our planet is dying – now is the time to take action to save our species. Where governments have failed, old and young voices such as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have stepped up to the challenge.

As we watch forest fires burn further out of control in California, shortly after the passage of powerful hurricanes and typhoons in Louisiana, Texas, Japan and South Korea, after a long summer of unprecedented heatwaves across the Arctic, our thoughts are drawn to powerful signs of climate change.

This week, though, sees the release of two major reports and a powerful documentary about biodiversity, the other critical issue we have ignored at our peril. Tomorrow the United Nations’ 5th Global Diversity Outlook will be released, undoubtedly telling us that we failed to meet almost all targets that we had agreed in 2010 and at every meeting before. Only last Thursday, the World Wildlife Fund released its Living Planet Report, warning that the world’s vertebrate species had declined by 68 percent in the last 50 years as a direct result of human activities. And yesterday global treasure David Attenborough presented his new BBC documentary “Extinction: The Facts”, painfully and devastatingly showing us what we humans have done to our planet and its diversity of species, with extinction now happening hundreds of times faster than the natural evolutionary rate. The bottom line here really is that our own species now finds itself under equal threat of extinction.

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Of course, our planet does not need homo sapiens to survive — in fact there is no doubt that the planet will be much better off without us and that biodiversity would rapidly flourish in our absence. But we have clearly shown since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and its UN Convention of Biodiversity that there is a way for us to coexist sustainably with our planet and all of its other species. Just like the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, however, more than 80 percent of the international targets that were agreed in Rio have not been met, according to last year’s report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Until recently we have been caught in between the dire statistics, the hopeful language of international conventions, the technological tranquilizers and our inability to take any meaningful action, preferring to hang on to our comfortable consumerist lives at the expense of our planet and those less fortunate than us.

A man crosses a street in smoggy conditions in New Delhi on November 4, 2019. (AFP)
A man crosses a street in smoggy conditions in New Delhi on November 4, 2019. (AFP)

Indeed, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries placed us on that very track. For all the marvelous inventions and real progress shown by humankind, there was always the question of the negative externalities that we tried to ignore. Visiting London in the late 1940s and 50s, everything was still daily covered in soot from the coal that fueled the industrial revolution since its inception. A white shirt would turn grey from the coal soot after a day walking in the city, a visible reminder of the toxic particles that we and especially the miners were breathing in every day. The rich man had someone to do his frequent laundry, while the poor struggled due to their limited access to electricity and the ability to feed their family and survive as acceptable compensation. Looking away from the tremendous negative externalities produced by cheap fossil fuels powering our out-of-control economies all these years has been our greatest mistake, bringing both tremendous progress and devastating environmental destruction.

David Attenborough speaks during a conference about the UK-hosted COP26 UN Climate Summit, at the Science Museum in London, Britain February 4, 2020. (Reuters)
David Attenborough speaks during a conference about the UK-hosted COP26 UN Climate Summit, at the Science Museum in London, Britain February 4, 2020. (Reuters)

As the 94-year-old David Attenborough clearly says in his documentary about biodiversity loss, “We are facing a crisis [..] that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate, it even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as COVID-19.” A combination of human-caused habitat destruction, climate change and pollution is threatening 1 million out of 8 million species on earth with extinction. Climate change and biodiversity loss are equally menacing for our future and they are very much linked. Last year’s UN IPBES report on biodiversity reminded us that humans have already altered three-quarters of all land and two-thirds of the oceans, with more than a third of land and three-quarters of freshwater resources now devoted to crops or livestock. What is more, plans to reduce carbon emissions by pushing bioenergy will only accelerate habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. Rebecca Shaw, WWF’s chief scientist concludes that “COVID-19 is a really clear wake-up call that we are destroying the planet at rates that will not only undermine environmental health but also our own health and our economic health.”

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I have said from the beginning that viruses like SARS-CoV2 and its predecessors are strongly linked to the loss of natural habitat and increased ensuing contacts between humans and virus carriers such as bats or monkeys. We humans are the only species that has challenged the very planet we depend on for our lives; no other species has shown such presumptuous arrogance towards nature. The extreme weather and increasingly frequent virus outbreaks we have been witnessing are Mother Nature speaking directly to us, warning us of the consequences of having gone too far. Mother Nature has a heart and cares for its children, but, like any good parent, she also has a tolerance limit. The devastating forest fires in California, Brazil and Australia, the powerful hurricanes, and COVID-19 are all ways Mother Nature is trying to indicate to us what we are doing wrong. The climate and biodiversity conventions are not worth the paper they were signed on if governments’ disregard their targets. We must conclude that change today is no longer being led by governments, but by ordinary voices, young and old.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg on a protest. (Reuters)
Climate activist Greta Thunberg on a protest. (Reuters)

Over the past few years, the two clearest and most passionate voices emboldening us to finally take the necessary measures for our environment are an old man and a young girl. I am thinking of course of the aforementioned David Attenborough and of Greta Thunberg. Both have become spokespersons for all us ordinary people, coming together as one voice to save our planet and our species. They are not afraid of brutally laying the facts out in front of us, for the reality of the destruction we have wreaked are indeed brutal. Instead of speaking of international conventions and goals, they speak to each and every one of us of our individual responsibility for the planet, both in our daily lives and through collective action to turn the screws on those who govern us. They draw our attention to the tremendous waste our societies produce, and how plastic waste could soon outweigh fish in the oceans. If we are smart enough to make plastic bags, surely we are smart enough to recycle them rather than lastingly pollute the seas with them.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to David Attenborough via laptop. (Reuters)
Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to David Attenborough via laptop. (Reuters)

The global experience of coronavirus confinement has given us all more time to think about our actions and the equilibrium of our planet and our society. A small virus disarmed us, shook our knowledge of medicine and political power and reminded us that we are not immune from the havoc we wreak upon our planet. When Greta and David tell us to wake up, they are speaking of a couple of decades at most in which we must act decisively if we are to avoid seeing the calamity and ruinous consequences of our ignorance and dismissiveness on our planet and our species. But Attenborough also contrasts the bleakness of seeing the last two white rhinos on the planet with the successful efforts to wrest mountain gorillas back from extinction in Rwanda. Greta and David provide us hope and the necessary reasons to give it our every effort, unlike the tranquilizers and pontificators we have been listening to, always falling back into our old ways, blissfully unaware, until now, of the consequences that await us.


Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi Arabian petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.

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