Por: Alejandro Balaguer Imágenes: Alejandro Balaguer / Fundación Albatros

Climate change, the great crossroad

Sustainability

By: Alejandro Balaguer
Photos: Alejandro Balaguer / Albatros Foundation

There are many voices calling for a paradigm shift in the way we produce and consume energy. The implementation of renewable energy sources has begun to multiply as a response to the effects of fierce global warming and climate events associated with excessive fossil fuel consumption. In this way, it would be possible to reduce the negative climate effects thanks to the alternatives offered freely by mother nature to care for humanity and the planet.

Melting Times

Blue icebergs float on a stormy sea and are raised by currents and strong gusts of wind towards an unavoidable end in the waters of Cape Horn, in the Chilean Patagonia. As we navigate through fjords crowned with ice fields, glaciers become water and agonize because of the effects of global warming.

Glaciers are sounding the alarm. Stacks of ice collapse with a shuddering sound typical of a millennial ice giant that retracts and collapses. Thousands of pure water icebergs float adrift. Their destiny is to be part of the sea. Faced with inevitable flooding, as the result of the elevation of the planet’s waters by melting, it is estimated that millions of people will have to migrate from coastal areas.

Glaciers are a kind of thermometer that reacts to rising atmospheric temperature. They collapse and suffer an accelerated deterioration that has surprised science as it

is happening faster than predicted. The climate crisis caused by unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels has left the absolute certainty that climate change is producing not only an increase in temperature and an increase in sea levels, but also a greater intensity and frequency of catastrophic phenomena.

“Our team of scientists has been measuring through satellite images the retreat of glaciers in eight sectors of Patagonia, and, on average, Patagonian glaciers have shrunk in the last 20 years between 15% and 20%; some of them have exceeded a 20% shrinkage speed. Given the temperature conditions we are currently experiencing, this implies that in 100 years that glacier is going to disappear completely,” says Ricardo Villalba, Director of the Argentine Institute of Snow, Glacier Research, and Environmental Sciences.

For Villalba, glacier melting is the global alarm that tells us that we are experiencing an unnatural warming, which is caused by exaggerated levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to everyday and industrial activities. These gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and others, warm the atmosphere by retaining sunlight.

The effects of climate

Fierce flooding in coastal and landlocked areas, rising ocean levels, sea ingress into available aquifer systems at risk of salinizing them, are news that are repeatedly seen in the media throughout the world.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) warns that more tropical storms and cyclones would intensify as sea temperature rises. Large areas of coral reefs, which act as “maternity wards” of marine species providing substance to millions of species and are barriers against swells, could collapse, as has been seen in numerous El Nino phenomena. As climate change increases, desertification would also become radicalized, followed by stormy rains,

powerful and short, with destructive effects on soils and agricultural activities. Meanwhile, an imminent exodus looms ahead for several islands in the eastern section of the Panamanian Caribbean Sea.

Fleeting Islands

From the sky, a calm, turquoise, and shallow sea is dotted with islands and islets; the Guna Yala Archipelago, a region of the Guna ethnic group, stretches along 200 kilometers of coastline.

The marine landscape has an intricate and extensive reef system with sequences of coral formations, an obvious containment barrier as a result of rising sea levels, and mangroves, carbon dioxide emission catchers that help contain the force of the swell.

Despite having these two strategic ecosystems, the lifestyle on more than 360 islands

that make up the archipelago is extraordinarily threatened, as they are at risk of disappearing underwater. For gunas, who have lived in the archipelago for centuries, in recent times the encroachment of the swell on their islands has become unstoppable.

Inickilipi Chiari, President of the Guna Yala Youth Congress, is convinced that within 20 or 30 years the islands of the Guna Yala region will be underwater due to climate change, and that migration to the continent is inevitable.

“Today, my people are planning to move to the mainland,” he says. Some communities have already taken the lead. It hasn’t been easy for indigenous people, because half of the community is not in favor of the idea of leaving their lives behind. For Chiari, “in the long run, all communities will be moving out. There will be a drastic change in the culture and our daily lives. It’s unfair.”

The young indigenous man is right. His people are not causing fossil fuel emissions, but they are the first to receive the impact caused by the consumption of others. “We are adapting to the facts. For example, one of the adaptation methods I learned from my grandmother is to fill the shore with logs and various materials that the current brings; today, there are many houses built on those sites that [she] filled with her own hands. There we have a simple and efficient adaptation strategy to climate change,” he says.

The young leader’s message is understandable: “We must continue to live with nature with the least possible impact, for which the world must stop carbon dioxide emissions. And, of course, adapt permanently.”

“Climate change is the most troubling issue for young people around the world,” says Vishnu Swaminathan, a world-renowned socio-environmental entrepreneur, an expert in energetically affordable housing and emerging economies. “Almost half [48.8%] of the participants [in a recent poll] chose climate change as their main concern and 78.1% said they would be willing to change their lifestyle to protect the environment,” he adds.

“We must continue to live with nature with the least possible impact, for which the world must stop carbon dioxide emissions. And, of course, adapt permanently.”

Inickilipi Chiari, President of the Guna Yala Youth Congress

“Since the 1960s, more than half of the world’s tropical rainforests have been destroyed worldwide. More than 20% of all carbon emissions come from deforestation, unsustainable use, rural poverty, and the creation of spaces for livestock,” Swaminathan says.

UN alert

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations initiative that reports on the effects of the changing climate, has concluded in 2018 that the impacts and responses of climate change are closely related to sustainable development that balances social well-being, financial prosperity, and environmental protection.

“Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels (…). Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2050 if it continues to rise at the current rate (…), and anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period (from before the Industrial Revolution) to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and continue to “cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as the rise in sea level, with associated impacts,” the report says.

The “Panel” proposes some potential measures for carbon emission reduction that “include afforestation and reforestation, land restoration and carbon sequestration on the ground, direct capture and storage of carbon in the air, improved weathering and ocean alkalinization.”

Another major challenge will be to manage renewable energy production properly and responsibly. Mother Nature offers us a range of energy opportunities to take a positive turn, meet human needs, and restore the balance of climate on Earth. Hopes are placed on a number of alternatives environmentally friendly energies that, acting together, could take us away from the current crises.

Sustainable cities

Since the Industrial Revolution, human beings initiated the extensive use of fossil fuels, but their use was so great that the planet reacted to the weight of development imposed on it, which has led, in a current framework of repowered climate change, to drive new models of consumption, technology, and energy production.

“We have always needed energy, but with the concentration of populations demand multiplied which, in addition to our energy-consuming lifestyle, has led to excesses. In addition to this are the mega-cities that are a concentration of demands and therefore needs and problems that arise in a society, especially the current one, characterized by extreme energy consumption,” says Jorge Arosemena, Executive President of the City of Knowledge Foundation, Panama.

“We must create spaces that allow a low-consumption community life. And young people must be educated, we must teach them a new concept. However, it is not easy because we live in a society that is pushing us to consume, which entails massive demands for energy to produce a series of goods. Now, we have to go towards formulas of collective consciousness. I feel that there is room for optimism because there are new technologies and energy sources, but they need everyone’s willingness to incorporate them,” Arosemena concludes.

Rodrigo Noriega, PhD in International Environmental Law at Yale University (USA), Agrees with Arosemena that the key factor in the pursuit of energy efficiency is education; “and, of course, also the issues of municipal planning, urban planning, energy services aligned with environmental management efforts. Today, we have many environmentally sustainable sources of energy cogeneration, but if I have the motivation, information, and awareness, then I have a greater ability to change my excessive pattern of consumption. Humanity must strengthen the concept of energy-responsible cities. I believe that they are fundamental tasks for the societies of the future. And an example of this is the city of Medellin,” says Noriega.

Several hanging booths mounted on sturdy cables come and go transporting people. They stand out in the Andean foothills of the valley where the beautiful city of Medellin sits. We have arrived in this beautiful Colombian city that has become iconic among sustainable cities.   Medellin was a city with a very high standard of violence in the 1990s, until the large drug trafficking gangs were disbanded. At that time, the decision was made to change its design and make it a sustainable city that proposed a new model in the way energy was consumed, with recreational green spaces interconnected by an efficient public transportation system. One of the strategic issues was to take the transportation systems as multimodal points to group around them large equipment, public spaces, meeting points, and thus also reduce energy consumption.

“In large part, this transformation was achieved by recovering public spaces, by investing in environmental and cultural issues, by rehabilitating green spaces in urban areas, by allowing people to use collective transportation, by having access to community gardens, to a whole range of environmental, social, cultural, and scientific initiatives that reclaimed the city without the need for a dictatorship. They reclaimed it mostly with culture, with environmental protection, and efficiency in public transportation,” says Noriega.

Stunning white clouds run through the indigo blue sky and get lost behind the mountains. “With the cable car we were able to achieve an outreach to the urbanized areas, as well as their integration. And to these places where transportation arrived and the new neighborhoods were centralized, we offered housing systems with eco solar technologies to [have], in addition, energy efficient housing”, says architect Carlos Mauricio Bedoya of the Colegio Mayor de Antioquia.

“What is the purpose of a sustainable city?” says Natalia Green. “First, it’s having decentralized cities. We cannot have inefficient cities where you have to take three hours to get to your workplace. We need to encourage more and more green cities, small towns. Not metropolis cities, which we already have, but small sustainable cities where you have your job, where you have your school, where you don’t have to commute too much, where you include recycling as an inclusive measure, where you can stock up in a single place, and thus decrease the carbon footprint,” the ecologist concludes.

Just as cities need a transformation, the care and restoration of impacted ecosystems—such as basins, forests, wetlands, and coral reefs—is crucial, and humanity’s reconnection with nature is critical because of the environmental services they provide. The restoration of ecosystems reverses the degradation process and preserves biodiversity.

Forest restoration seeks to compensate for damages and improve landscape functionality that provides basic services for humanity.

The fact is that ecosystems are natural barriers to contain some types of viruses and potential epidemics. But we alter ecosystems and shake up viruses from their natural hosts, and they are forced to change hosts; many times, those hosts are us, humans.

In times of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, millions of people have learned to value the advances in science and the benefits of technology and to better endure the discomfort of mandatory quarantines. Without the availability of energy, we could hardly have accessed online work, online education or electronic commerce, that is, living apart from each other.

Today, the search for new energy resources that take pressure away from the planet has led to the search for energy in non-traditional sources and to value ecosystems that provide environmental services to ensure food, water, clean energy, and health.

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