No doubt you have seen — perhaps you even have — a licence-plate holder or bumper sticker that proclaims: “We’re spending our kids’ inheritance.”
While that might be a somewhat amusing idea to some, when elevated to the level of national and global policy, as we have just seen in the failed climate change summit in Madrid, there is absolutely nothing funny about it.
In reporting on a United Nations climate change report last month, the CBC quoted Jennifer Francis — a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center — as noting: “It’s important for people to realize the end of the century isn’t really that far away. It is just one lifetime: a mere 80 years from now.”
Globally, average life expectancy is now more than 70 years, and the UN Development Program reported this month that 34 countries had life expectancies of 80 years or more in 2018 (82.3 years in Canada). In those countries, an infant born today would live to see the end of the 21st century — or they would if life expectancy were actually a prediction, which it is not.
At its heart, life expectancy is a sophisticated way of measuring what amounts to the average age of death for people dying this year. So it can only predict the length of life of a child born this year if she or he experiences exactly the same set of life circumstances as was experienced by those dying this year.
But one thing of which we can be certain is that children born today will not have the same life experience. The future will be nothing like the past. Go back to 1940 and think about just how different today’s world is from what it was then — and since then, the pace of change has dramatically increased.
We have seen massive and rapid increases in a range of socioeconomic factors that in turn have driven massive and rapid changes in the natural systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health and well-being and the stability of our societies.
The global ecological change that is most apparent and of greatest concern right now is climate change. The UN Environment Program described the findings in its Emissions Gap Report, released in late November, as “bleak,” noting “countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global [greenhouse gas] emissions.”
As a result, the world is on track for as much as 3 to 5 C warming, as predicted by Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, in November 2018.
A temperature increase of 4 C would be devastating, the World Bank’s president warned in a 2012 report, listing a variety of serious consequences, and concluding: “A 4 C world can, and must, be avoided.”
It is a simple point that seems to have eluded many of the key players in Madrid — the U.S., Brazil, India, China, Saudi Arabia and Australia were especially mentioned. They were far too busy squabbling over money and past wrongs, real or imagined, to spare much thought for future generations.
The collapse of the Madrid climate change summit is something of which the world’s government and corporate leaders should be deeply ashamed.
When push comes to shove, they are perfectly prepared to sacrifice the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people, as well as their own children, grandchildren and subsequent generations — not to mention many of the other species with whom we share the Earth — on the altar of greed and self-interest.
The BBC quoted Adam Currie, with youth climate organization Generation Zero, saying: “We are tired of governments siding with the polluters. We are tired of our lives being negotiated away for money. The people are tired of being ignored while a handful of wreckers and bullies negotiate in bad faith. We know that until we get them out of power they will continue to sabotage our future.”
The level of greed and selfishness on display in Madrid these past couple of weeks is shocking. This is the legacy of our government and corporate leaders, their bequest to future generations — we don’t care if we are blighting your future, we are only interested in making money today, so we are spending your inheritance.
Nothing funny in that at all.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.