Climate change, hurricanes and reconstruction, pt. 1

Last weekend, Swedish teenage environmental advocate Greta Thunberg made a plea to world leaders to listen to the science, to stop talking and to reverse the degradation of our planet’s environment by taking action.

Thunberg is the latest in a long line of environmentalists sounding the alarm. Her call is dramatic because of her youth which has not prevented her from understanding the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and to begin to address the dangers of smog-filled cities, rising temperature, sea-level rise and treacherous weather systems as was Hurricane Dorian.

Scientists in developed countries began talking in earnest about threats to the environment in the middle of the last century. Early concerns centered on the dangers that the liberal use of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture and manufacturing presented to the health of not only humans but of the planet.

Belching industrial smoke stacks at power plants and other industries and industrial discharges into rivers, lakes and the sea added to concerns over deteriorating air quality and clean water sources. In the early 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought environmental concerns into mainstream America. In the decade that followed, the United States of America created the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and passed the Clean Air Act, however industrial practices in that country barely changed.

Similar environmental legislation was put in place in other developed economies in Western Europe with similar marginal benefit. At the same time, developing economies in the southern hemisphere became hosts to increasing numbers of the world’s polluting industries.

As industries in the northern hemisphere became cleaner, those in the south became increasingly polluted. The explosion in vehicle and aircraft emissions in both the developed and developing world negated advances being made anywhere. Nowhere were alternative energies being developed in a meaningful way, however.

Finally in 1992, the United Nations gathered more than 100 heads of government in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Earth Summit. The intent was to devise plans to collaborate on environmental issues and particularly on ensuring the sustainability of the earth’s resources, the issue being too large for any individual state to handle.

Twenty years later in 2012 when heads of government met again in Rio, concerns had crystalized among environmental scientists, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and a growing number of governments. It was accepted that our “human footprint” was responsible for environmental degradation: the use of fossil fuels for power, release of toxic emissions by industry and from motor vehicles, aircraft and vessels and the disposal of toxic waste.

The consequences were identified: polluted air, increased pulmonary disease, compromised fresh water sources, rising global temperatures, desertification, ocean acidification, melting Arctic and Antarctic ice, sea level rise and dramatic changes to weather systems.

The Bahamas joined fellow Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in mounting campaigns for the developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which are the major cause of temperature rise, sea level rise and produce larger and stronger tropical storm systems.

But we were less anxious to change our own behaviors:

– Hills continue to be cut, beaches continue to be breached;

– Water tables continue to be compromised;

– Large scale developments continue to be constructed along coastal zones;

– Wetlands continue to be back-filled;

– Subdivisions continue to be approved for development on wetlands;

– Low-lying land building permits continue to be issued for construction on those back-filled areas; and

– Fossil fuels remain our sole national means of power generation.

(To be continued)

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