7 December 2012

Between Climate Catastrophe and Civilisational Renewal: How the Rural Poor Might Yet Save Us All

Revised version published in United Nations University's OurWorld 2.0 (21.12.12)

Although governments around the world ostensibly agree that our carbon targets must aim to keep global temperatures below the 2 degrees Celsius tipping point, it's now clear that we have failed dramatically to stick to our commitments.

According to the latest report from the Global Carbon Project, the rate of growth of carbon dioxide emissions of 3.1% a year is on track to lead to a 4-6C rise by the end of the century - the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) worst case scenario that would lead to an uninhabitable planet.

The report, released while the UN climate talks at Doha continue, follows a spate of studies confirming that industrial civilisation is on the edge of triggering climate catastrophe. A World Bank report, more conservatively, warned that a 4 degrees C rise this century is inevitable on our current emissions trajectory. 

Another report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) similarly concluded: "Even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees [C] of warming by the end of the century" - suggesting that current emissions levels could lead to even higher global temperatures.

Many corporate and government leaders insist that humanity must simply adapt to the new conditions generated by global warming. Earlier this year, for instance, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson argued that the "consequences are manageable... We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions."

But to the contrary, the World Bank report finds that a 4C temperature rise will mean that the human species will cross "critical social system thresholds", at which point "existing institutions that would have supported adaptation actions would likely become much less effective or even collapse."

The report rules out assumptions "that adaptation to a 4C world is possible", instead warning: "A 4C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation... the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today."

Indeed, the new evidence increasingly suggests that conventional climate models, far from being too alarmist, are hopelessly out of touch with the complexity of the Earth's interconnected eco-systems.

The melt of Arctic sea ice is accelerating faster than the IPCC predicted. While those models forecast a collapse of the summer sea ice toward 2100, the University of Washington's PIOMAS project tracking actual sea ice concentrations by satellite, accurately anticipated the record low that occurred this year. Contrary to model predictions, the Arctic summer sea ice is on track to disappear completely by 2015-16.

Another comprehensive NASA study of Greenland and Antarctica concludes that there has been a nearly "five-fold increase" in the pace of ice loss "since the mid-1990s" - and a "50-percent increase in Antarctic ice loss during the last decade." Overall, the ice sheets are melting three times faster than 20 years ago - and once again, the pace of change is "faster than scientists expected." Concomitantly, a separate study found that sea level rise is accelerating 60% faster than the IPCC's model projections, which may be "biased low."

A UN Environment Programme report published amidst the UN summit urged the IPCC to account for the positive-feedback effect of melting Arctic permafrost, which is increasingly releasing sub-ice methane - a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon - into the atmosphere. A 3C rise in global average temperatures - which we are set to surpass - would generate a 6C rise in the Arctic. This would result in an irreversible loss of up to 85% of near-surface permafrost, releasing up to 135 gigatonnes of carbon equivalent by end of century, in turn doubling total atmospheric carbon emissions and potentially triggering a runaway warming process - a momentous possibility currently ignored by the UN models.

Arctic methane emissions have also been previously underestimated, increasing by 31% between 2003 and 2007 - a record rate which continued through 2008 and 2009. Ten times more carbon than previously thought is being emitted through methane release from melting permafrost on the Arctic Siberian coast. Worse, scientists estimate there could be far more methane underneath Antarctica's rapidly melting ice sheet than hitherto believed - as much as four billion tonnes worth.

The key lesson of this avalanche of bad news is that the failure to act decisively has irreversibly and inevitably locked in certain climate change impacts. If anything, this underscores the urgency of adapting to what we can no longer avoid, as well preventing or mitigating that which can still be avoided.

Unfortunately, while government negotiations continue to flounder, the only agencies remotely taking the climate crisis seriously are those concerned with security. And their prescription for action is decidedly narrow. Noting a future of unpredictable crises in water supplies, food markets, energy supply chains and public health systems, a new study commissioned by the US intelligence community, including the CIA, warns that the US might need to use "military force to protect vital energy, economic or other interests."

Despite the seeming intractability of our predicament, ongoing grassroots efforts to generate bottom-up change prove that all is not lost. One outstanding yet virtually unknown example can be found in what at first glance might seem the most unlikely of locations - the remote northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan, where militant strongholds have invited ongoing US-funded counter-terror operations primarily in the form of drone strikes.

Operating in this region since 1989, the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) has quietly pioneered a model of development suggesting a viable pathway for transition to sustainable, post-carbon prosperity. The model is based fundamentally on participation of the marginalised rural poor at all levels as planners, designers, implementers, and maintainers: grassroots communities are empowered to self-mobilise into local community organisations which then become the vehicles of building 'self help capacity', identifying the needs of households, and procuring the training, skills and resources to undertake diverse development projects.

One of the SRSP's flagship projects involves micro-infrastructure. So far, the impact has been astounding. Over 4,028 small scale projects have been planned, delivered and maintained by communities themselves across the region, establishing micro-hydroelectric plants which allow communities to finance their own development - in turn generating new local jobs and service providers, clean water and sanitation schemes, farm-to-market roads, and new opportunities for small-scale agriculture. Farming communities utilise water from the hydro power plants, diverting it to fields for kitchen gardening, multi cropping and fish ponds. As the plants store rain and river water, they also provide effective disaster mitigation against monsoon rains and flooding. Through such projects, SRSP has enabled 308,540 men and women to, literally, transform their own lives.

It is no surprise that in all the districts where SRSP programmes operate, militancy is not a problem. Enfranchised communities who are economically independent, producing their own energy, water and food, are resilient to radicalisation. The same cannot be said of other less fortunate communities. Over the last decade Pakistan has faced overlapping economic, energy and environmental crises. Rocketing unemployment and widening inequality has been compounded by electricity blackouts and government ineptitude in responding to natural disasters. Militants exploit those in need of assistance by penetrating vulnerable areas, broadening their support base by providing services, and ultimately recruiting to their cause. As such crises escalate, their exacerbation of militancy illustrates not only the deep-seated interconnections of multiple civilisational crises, but also the futility of knee-jerk military responses which, focusing on symptoms, tend only to make matters worse.

Yet the success of grassroots projects like the SRSP's proves that solutions do exist. If SRSP programmes were scaled up throughout the northern areas of Pakistan, they might well do more to ameliorate militancy than conventional approaches, by addressing the root-cause issues most central to Pakistani citizens. Equally, by focusing on sustainability at the micro-level, these programmes offer a model of economic empowerment that is sustainable precisely by being both clean, cost-effective and linked to the specific needs of local households - rather than the narrow interests of large foreign corporations.

The potential should not be underestimated. The SRSP is part of a larger Pakistani civil society network - the Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN) - which has operated across Pakistan for the last 30 odd years. The RSPN has had a staggering success rate - mobilising 4 million Pakistani households through local community organisations, providing skills training to nearly 3 million, and bringing approximately 30 million people out of poverty. Across the rural areas where the programme operates, the fundamental model is the same - empowering locals to become the vehicles of their own emancipation; scoping local energy, economic, health and education needs; and providing the training and learning to allow them to source, design and deliver projects accordingly. 

So successful is this model, it has been widely replicated in developing countries. In 1994, the UN Development Programme asked RSPN's founding chairman - Nobel Peace Prize nominee Shoaib Sultan Khan - to set-up pilot projects in Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The success of those pilots led India to begin scaling-up a countrywide programme inspired by Khan's model that will reach out to 300 million rural poor.

The only caveat is that the RSP model does not bring quick wins for conventional development targets. Time-scales for success are long-term - as long as 15 years in some cases. The upshot, though, is that they bring a form of real grassroots sustainability that lasts. As energy and food prices rise alongside unemployment rates and inequality, this is a model that even more privileged communities in the North could learn from.

While governments dither at lofty international negotiating tables, it is not too late for communities and philanthropists across North and South to work together, pool collective resources, and begin mobilising grassroots projects such as these. Doing so will not only spur us further along the rocky road of civilisational transition, it will increasingly force our political leaders to realise that if they want to remain relevant in the emerging post-carbon era, they need to keep their ears to the ground.

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