In the framework of the Open Encounter of New Humanism, called “The human being as a central value”, we reflect on the global environmental situation and its effects on health.

By Doris Balvín

What is the state of the global environmental situation today and who are those responsible?

At the 26th Conference of the Parties on climate change, UN Executive Secretary Patricia Espinoza said that we face a climate emergency given the evidence over the past year of “…devastating loss of lives and livelihoods…”; and stated that “…we are on track for a global temperature increase of 2.7°C…”, when we should be heading “…towards a target of 1.5°C…”.

The latest science-based report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that, in the scenarios analysed, we will face irreversible changes even if the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is brought down to zero degrees Celsius; and that many of these changes will be irreversible for centuries or millennia, such as changes in the oceans, ice sheets, and sea levels.

Life as we know it is at risk, we are facing a planetary climate and ecological crisis of an existential nature and it is up to us to respond in the direction of the evolution of life to avoid entering the so-called point of no return, i.e., climate collapse.

What is the root of the problem we are facing?

According to the IPCC, global warming has a human cause; however, it would be appropriate to specify that saying that it has a human cause is insufficient, as those responsible have been identified; and that its root is in the system of social organisation that objectifies human beings and puts the ecosystem that sustains them, i.e., the evolution of life, at serious risk. Already in 2017, the Carbon Majors Project report held 100 fossil fuel producers responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, and half of these emissions can be attributed to just 25 corporate and state producers.2

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How is the climate and ecological crisis expressed in the Latin American region?

According to ECLAC, there is a fundamental asymmetry between emissions and vulnerability. The region’s total emissions represent only 8.3% of global emissions, but at the same time, the region is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change given its geographical, climatic, socio-economic and demographic characteristics.3 In addition to the effects of the ecological crisis it faces due to the degradation and pollution of ecosystems, it is already facing the impacts of climate change. The current environmental problems derived from the extractivist productive structure, as well as the occupation of high-risk areas – given the conditions of social inequality, poverty and extreme poverty – are already triggers for the multiplication of socio-environmental conflicts, the feedback of environmental degradation and the deepening of climate vulnerabilities and their effects on health.

The region is tied to a primary-export economy that also has a tendency to lower its productivity and a greater impact on its carbon footprint; in other words, an economy that maintains the vicious circle of the climate and ecological crisis. The South is faced with the need to rethink its role in the global economy in the context of the climate emergency, in order to break the vicious circle that feeds climate change, which reifies human beings and has serious effects on the evolution of life and human health.

Some notes on the relationship between the climate crisis and health

Let us point out some relevant climatic events and environmental degradation that are currently having a negative impact on human health and that we need to overcome:

  • The French journalist Marie-Monique Robin points out that the best antidote to the next pandemic is to preserve biodiversity, as its destruction is at the root of zoonoses – diseases caused by pathogens transmitted from wildlife to humans and, very often, through domestic animals.4
  • REHUNO denounced in Pressenza that the deforestation of the Amazon forest – to produce animal protein for the markets of the North – is responsible for 45% of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, with effects in the lowering of the waters of the Paraná River to catastrophic levels for coastal populations, ecosystems and health.5
  • Friday for the Future Peru denounced the death of Esmeralda Martin Añasco, one of the children contaminated by heavy metals in the city of Cerro de Pasco, which lives next to the Volcan mine pit. There are many more children who have high levels of lead in their blood, with growth and learning problems and nosebleeds.6
  • According to the latest report of The Lancet Countdown, heat-related deaths have increased by 152%; and Peru is the second country in South America with the second highest mortality rate due to air pollution.7 The Peruvian case is alarming, in 2017 the government relaxed air quality standards by increasing the value of sulphur dioxide and particulate matter; now SO2 emission peaks are allowed in the atmosphere by more than 12 times – compared to previous ones – knowing that 10-minute and one-hour pollution peaks are the most serious for health.
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In conclusion: it is clear that we are facing a crossroads, that few are responsible and that there are accomplices; that the human being is far from being the central value in this society – as can be seen in the consequences of the climate and ecological crisis on human health; and that we need to respond to this crossroads in an evolutionary direction. It will be necessary to stop accepting as “natural” this productivist and consumerist system that benefits a few; to support the climate action of social organisations, indigenous peoples and environmental collectives and especially the youth; to develop or support local experiences of solidarity economy that privilege local and agro-ecological production; to promote scientific developments put at the service of life; but especially to go deep within ourselves to connect with the meaning of the evolution of life and our own meaning.

Doris Balvín is a senior researcher at the Centro de Estudios Humanistas Nueva Civilización, Lima (Peru), specialising in social ecology.

2 https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions

3 ECLAC, 2020, “La emergencia del cambio climático en América Latina y el Caribe ¿Seguimos esperando la catástrofe o pasamos a la acción?” United Nations, 2020, Santiago de Chile.

4 Marie – Monique Robin, 2021, “The best antidote to the next pandemic is to preserve biodiversity”, Friday 26 February 2021 https://www.soberaniaalimentaria.info/otros-documentos/debates/834-entrevista-marie-monique-robin

5 REHUNO, 2021, “Río Paraná en bajante, causas y efectos. https://www.pressenza.com/es/2021/09/rio-parana-en-bajante-causas-y-efectos/

6 https://www.facebook.com/303365223684557/posts/820796471941427/

7 Ojo Público, 2021, “El estrecho vínculo entre la crisis climática y la salud de los peruanos” https://ojo-publico.com/3129/el-estrecho-vinculo-entre-crisis-climatica-y-la-salud-publica, 31 October 2021