Climate change is bigger than any political moment

Climate change and its effects are bigger than any political moment in history. Yet 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) — the United Nation’s convention designed to mitigate human interference with the planet’s life-giving systems — was unsparingly political and produced no outcomes proportionate to the climate crisis at hand. Sea level rise, altered weather patterns and the ecological systems that sustain civilization and biodiversity on our planet wait for no one and certainly not for political will. While citizens must elect politicians who intend to do something about this crisis, politics alone, it seems, will not protect us.

The failure of politics at COP24 is driven home by a half-hearted Ministerial Declaration on Forests for Climate (which recommends critical actions occur, not urgently, but by 2050) as well as by the fact that (according to the Rainforest Foundation Norway) none of the six countries harboring the planet’s largest tropical rainforests (Brazil, Indonesia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Peru, Myanmar and Colombia) have the political will to end deforestation. In fact, deforestation rates could actually increase in some of them.

The simplest, most effective, least expensive and risk-free solution to global warming is to protect and expand forests. Simple photosynthesis absorbs about one-third of the carbon dioxide that humans currently produce. Stopping deforestation and rapidly phasing out fossil fuel use could be enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, without a radical shift in policies to immediately halt deforestation and forest degradation and to restore degraded forest and peatlands, it is inconceivable that the COP’s own objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels can be achieved.

We cannot wait for the political interests that drive global governance to produce this radical shift. It must be driven by global civil society, by non-governmental organizations and the citizens who support them.

The planetary health approach our organization takes in Indonesian Borneo is an empowering example of civil society’s solutions and of what is possible when citizens and social change non-profits unite. We are protecting rainforests in Indonesia by reversing poverty and improving human well-being.

We integrate health care, forest preservation and economic transition in villages surrounding two national parks on the Indonesian island of Borneo that were losing tree cover at an alarming rate. This logging was being conducted by people in marginalized communities living on the edge of the park, who saw no other way but logging to provide for themselves or to pay for health care.

In 2007 we spent over 400 hours listening to people in the villages bordering Gunung Palung National Park as they offered solutions that would enable them to stop logging. The key issues identified in all the villages were access to health care and training in sustainable agricultural techniques such as organic farming. The identification of these solutions led to the construction of a clinic and the implementation of a series of programs which support the health of both people and forest. Since 2007, we have seen an 88 percent reduction in the number of illegal logging households in the community of about 60,000 people bordering the 108,000 hectares of Gunung Palung National Park. Satellite imagery shows that loss of primary forest has stabilized, 20,000 hectares (about 49,000 acres) has grown back and habitat for 2,500 critically endangered Bornean Orangutans has been protected.

Better health care has played an important role in achieving a 90 percent decrease in the mortality rate for local children under the age of five. The transition of former loggers to organic farming and small-business ownership has improved economic well-being in the region. By linking human health and ecosystem health, rather than treating them as issues that exist in separate silos, these efforts have reversed some of the significant rainforest destruction that was contributing to the acceleration of global warming. To put this in perspective, the amount of carbon in Gunung Palung National Park that would have otherwise been lost in a business-as-usual scenario was over 79 million tons. This is equivalent to 14 years of carbon emissions from San Francisco.  

The political will of the world’s major polluters to curb emissions was not on display this month at COP24. On the contrary, fossil fuel interests leveraged the United States to use the conference as a platform to promote sustained fossil fuel dependency. As governments retreat from their core responsibility of ensuring our global health and well-being, the climate clock ticks, leaving civil society no choice but to fill the void.

While this is wholly unacceptable, each of us can act today to achieve planetary health. As global citizens we must first take responsibility for the state and stewardship of our planet, both through our vote and through direct action. Protecting our forests — the lungs of the Earth — in ways that improve the lives of local, indigenous communities is one of the lowest hanging fruits where climate mitigation is concerned. Engaging with and supporting organizations that facilitate game-changing partnerships between your community and those inhabiting rain forests can accomplish real change, rapidly, for the benefit of our planet. When our politics are not up to the greatest threat to human civilization our species has ever faced, we citizens must be.

Jonathan Jennings is the executive director of Health In Harmony. Kinari Webb is the founder of Health In Harmony.