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  • Behavior acculturated to ancestral norms is the focus of a new study in China with interesting ramifications for climate change.

    Behavior acculturated to ancestral norms is the focus of a new study in China with interesting ramifications for climate change. | Photo: Reuters

Published 7 September 2018
The question of which people change their environment and which change themselves is important at a time when the world is facing the existential challenge of climate change.

Behavior acculturated to ancestral norms, originally necessitated by occupation, is the focus of a new study in China with interesting ramifications for climate change. In general, farming requires more stable relationships than, say, herding with the constant movement of animals. Now the authors have taken farming a step further.

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They observed that northerners were three times more likely than southerners to push an obstructing chair in a Starbucks out of the way; southerners eased themselves around in order not to inconvenience whosoever had placed the chairs. The behaviors were true to type: northerners are considered brash and aggressive, while southerners are conflict averse and deferential.   

The authors ascribe the behavior to ancestral occupation. Wheat is farmed in the north, and such dry-land farming is more individualized than rice farming in the south. The latter requires complex irrigation systems for paddies and forces cooperation and coordination among multiple families. The interdependence also means it is crucial not to offend anyone.  This ancestral culture prevailed despite the fact that most descendants were no longer farmers. 

The question of which people change their environment and which change themselves is an important one at a time when the world has to face the existential challenge of climate change. In the last couple of years we have seen a cooperative Europe facing a quintessential maverick, as in Donald Trump.

Human Fingerprint

Trump lives in his own world, ignoring the mounting research and irrefragable evidence for climate change with its human fingerprint that can no longer be disputed. Worse still are the consequences and the inevitable danger of conflict fueled by resource needs. Thus the melting of Arctic ice has made possible new sea pathways, opening up oil and gas exploration, and pitting Russia, the United States, Canada and other Arctic countries against each other.

China is now in virtual control of solar panel manufacture through a heavily subsidized industry against which producers in other countries are unable to compete. The United States imposed tariffs in 2017 and India might follow suit.

As electric car use increases, the demand for the rare minerals necessary for their batteries has begun to soar. Unfortunately the Congo, with its incessant tribal wars, is by far the largest producer of cobalt. Nickel has varied sources, including Indonesia and the Philippines, although the largest reserves are in Australia, Brazil and Russia. Chile has the highest reserves of Lithium followed by China, while Australia is the top current producer. The scramble for these resources is underway and producer countries have begun to guard their reserves through tariffs and controls.

Water Wars

Perhaps the most fraught issue is that of sharing water. For millennia, one country has relied on the Nile. The annual flooding in ancient Egypt brought new alluvial soil yielding rich harvests. Even now more than 95 percent of the country's mostly farmer population lives on the river's banks in an area approximately five percent of Egypt's land mass. That whole way of life could be in jeopardy, depending on how quickly Ethiopia chooses to fill a huge reservoir behind a vast damn it is constructing.

China shares the Mekong with six other countries and is the only one not a member of the Mekong River Commission. The problem is upstream dams and delicate negotiations for the equitable treatment of downstream farmers and fishermen.  

Then there are India and Pakistan, perennial enemies, now nuclear supercharged. They share the Indus and some of its tributaries. Thanks to the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, they have never fought a water war, although there have been others. Now India is planning upstream dams. The situation can only worsen if the sources in the Himalayas diminish with climate change.

How To Respond?

How should humans respond to these environmental challenges? Should diffuse bodies deal with associated problems, and/or should there be a world environment court as a last resort against individualistic mavericks?

The Paris Agreement deals with greenhouse gas emissions and continues to function. It has added new members, despite the U.S. withdrawal, which, by the way, is not effective until November 2020, leaving open the possibility of a newly elected president rescinding it.   

The Montreal Protocol, dating back to 1987, protected the depleting ozone layer through the control of substances – chlorine and bromine – causing the problem. The culprits hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were to be phased out and replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  The latter, lacking chlorine, are safe in this regard.

Governor Jerry Brown is independently hosting the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco (September 12-14) to "put the globe back on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement."

Then there is the New York Declaration on Forests (2014), which pledges to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020 and to end it by 2030. It resulted from dialogue among governments, corporations and civil society following the UN secretary-general's Climate Summit in New York.

Meanwhile, China produces 20 percent of emissions and it will need to address the consequences of its Belt and Road Initiative. However, an agreement between China and the Uinted States, the two largest polluters, could open the intriguing possibility of the United States returning to the Paris accord. 

Hopeful Sign

Such diffuse bodies dealing with the myriad problems emanating from climate change and the evident cooperation of different actors relegate an out-of-sync Trump into a discordant minority. While the United States remains a hugely important party responsible for 18 percent of global emissions, a hopeful sign is that other politicians in the country are clearly not following President Trump's lead.

These ad hoc arrangements might work for the present, but what of the future? What of environmental degradation leading eventually to mass migrations, even wars, for scarce resources? We have the benefit of Europe's experience with large numbers of refugees from U.S. wars in Libya, the Middle East and Afghanistan; the welcome mat has been gradually rolled back. How effectively will the UN Security Council counter environmental wars, particularly those involving China or other countries with veto power? That all such questions need to be addressed and soon is a no-brainer, and the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (December 3-14) could be an appropriate venue to begin the discourse. 

Dr Arshad M Khan is a former professor whose comments have appeared in an array of print and online media. This article originally appeared on Counterpunch.org.

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