Every day, Americans are bombarded by posters, email subscriptions, and bulletins begging them to ‘save the environment,’ a large, noble and necessary task that usually seems lofty and ambiguous in implementation. The stories we see of starving polar bears in the Arctic, once-vibrant coral reefs devoid of their brilliant luster, and incidents such as Boston’s airport raising its electrical equipment are the reasons we’re given to care.
It should be no surprise that the Eurocentric platform of climate change focuses on these sorts of matters, and it just so happens that many of the most developed countries — from the United States to France to Germany — are the most guarded from these changes. And if not, at least they have the resources to cope, right? Likewise, the threat of climate change feels like a distant one — sure, rising tides could hamper your travel plans, a changing ocean acidity might bust that snorkeling excursion you were planning, and those polar bears deserve better — but at least it isn’t “us.”
Maybe that’s why we still see such vehement opposition to even the most basic environmental protections from the Right in the name of ‘laissez faire’ economics, if not the denial of the phenomenon altogether. Maybe this is why the opposition tends to be juxtaposed with environmentalist cause’s love for easy philanthropic contributions to eco-friendly brands such as Patagonia, all while doing little to seriously lessen overall individual or collective consumption.
The tragedy, however, is that this commodified Western model of the climate crisis glazes over the fact that millions, if not billions, of people living in some of the most densely populated regions of the world are caught in the crossfire between globalization and global warming, while lacking the resources to mitigate the effects of impending catastrophe.
Many of the most endangered regions are in Southeastern Asia, such as Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. A horrifying Vietnamese government report explained that in the case of a mere one-meter rise in sea levels, which is expected by the end of the century, a third of the Delta region would be submerged and over 17 million displaced, destroying half of the country’s rice production. In coming centuries, if sea levels were to rise by a staggering fifteen feet, up to 35 percent of Vietnam’s 95 million residents would be affected. And it isn’t just Vietnam. A World Bank Study found that the world’s countries most at risk for damage as a result of rising seas are Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, D.P.R Korea, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and Thailand. A similar one-meter rise in sea levels could permanently inundate 74,000 square kilometers between the twelve countries. Additionally, each of these countries has a per capita GDP’s that pales in comparison to those of industrial giants like the US, and often lacks the same level of infrastructure to be able to cope with such a large crisis.
As sea levels rise, the number of cyclonic storms that surge in these same countries will grow, with six major cities in the Philippines alone labeled as at risk for facing increasingly devastating cyclones. The concurrent loss of South Asian mangroves only serves to heighten the impact that cyclones could pose for the region. Even now, cyclones pose a disastrous risk for the area, perhaps best evidenced by Cyclone Nargis, which, hit the southern Delta region of Myanmar in 2008 and killed over 130,000 people.
Receding glacial buildups at the headwaters of major Asian rivers such as the Mekong, Yellow, and Yangtze caused major Asian river systems to grow increasingly dry, creating major water-supply problems for populous riverside cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Zhengzhou, and Luoyang. This is before even considering the astronomically-increasing statistics on growing air pollution in those same cities and others. In Asia, where the urban population is expected to be double its population from 2000 by 2030, water shortages coupled with skyrocketing air pollution pose a disastrous threat to public health that will be disproportionately shouldered by those with the least resources.
It’s this inequitable distribution of resources that is really at the heart of the matter. Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist, put it most simply in his explanation of the Argentinian petrol industry, which produces a leadless product for consumption in the US, while much of the Argentinian-consumed petrol contains toxic lead. He goes onto explain that Mexico manufactures cars with air filters for the US and Europe, whereas those same models manufactured for sale in Mexico are built without filters. Furthermore, the US regularly exports chemical products that do not meet America’s own health and safety standards.
Salvation from the climate crisis is a privilege. Developed countries such as our own orchestrate the mechanisms for and reap the rewards of global industries while simultaneously pushing the burden of smog-inducing, greenhouse gas-producing production on less developed countries and regions. These are the same countries that lack the resources to effectively deal with the environmental fallout of this inequitable form of globalization.
Climate change may seem like a far off danger for us, but not for the millions around the world onto whom we have pushed this soon-catastrophic phenomenon. In order to correct the systemic failure that consumption-hogging countries like our own have created, it’s time for more than just donating to the World Wildlife Fund or following ocean photographers like Paul Nicklen on Instagram. It’s time to do more than turning off the faucet while you brush your teeth or buying one $200 recycled sweater from Patagonia. The time has long past, and it’s now time for a systemic change of the mechanisms of global industries. One that spares the world’s poorest in less-developed regions the burden of rebuilding lives destroyed by a shifting Earth. One that addresses the inequities that have birthed such a large social crisis amidst an environmental one, and ultimately builds a modern society that can sustain the needs of everyone on this Earth; not just a privileged few.
Alex Wilson ’22 is a prospective political science and economics major and the VPR’s Communications Officer and Senior Policy and Finance Editor. He has interned for multiple Congressional campaigns and worked for Cincinnati non-profit ArtWorks