The obligation of hope

For farmers in South Asia enduring heat waves, climate breakdown is already here

Farmers in Bihar, across the border from Nepal, tending to their parched fields. Photo: NABIN BARAL / THE THIRD POLE

On a slow, sweltering summer afternoon at the edge of a forest in deep rural northern Thailand, the brain fever bird is doing my head in with its insistent, rising call.

We, like most of Asia south of the Himalaya, are now living on the heating planet which experts have long warned of and science has projected for decades.

Across the world as summer temperatures break record after record, bumble bee nests are overheating, endangering the key pollinators. Warming seas are killing corals, which will then affect fish and then artisanal fishing communities in South and Southeast Asia. Sea surface temperatures are at 34° Celsius in the Bay of Bengal, the highest recorded anywhere in the open oceans. 

Meanwhile, are our leaders and billionaire class - the two often overlap - serious about climate change? The evidence is not compelling. Former US President Donald Trump in April reportedly asked top fossil fuel industry leaders for $1 billion for his campaign to retake the White House. “We’re going to drill, baby, drill,” he has said at his rallies.  

Should he win the White House, climate change mitigation goals will be out of the window in his first days in office. Meanwhile, as if nothing untoward was happening, wars in Ukraine and Gaza are - besides death, destruction and misery - producing staggering amounts of greenhouse gases.

The burning of oil wells by Saddam Hussein’s army in 1990 as western coalition forces drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait generated more than 400 million tonnes of carbon, according to Axel Michaelowa, a University of Zurich climate policy expert.

Even at the most peaceful of times, militaries are massive emitters of greenhouse gases. In 2018 - the most recent year figures are available for, the US Department of Defense alone produced 56 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent - more than many single countries.

But wars and militaries are the sacred cows of national security establishments, and their emission reductions are never a part of climate summits. It's business as usual for the military; total global military expenditure reached US$2443 billion in 2023, an increase of 6.8% in real terms from 2022, says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) — the steepest year-on-year increase since 2009. The ten largest spenders in 2023 were the United States, China and Russia.

In May, the Guardian reported that a poll of hundreds of leading climate scientists found that they expect global temperatures to rise way past the internationally agreed target of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. A dystopian future is not just around the corner: for a farmer in Asia’s heat belt it is already here. Numerous experts told the paper they felt hopeless, infuriated and scared by the failure of governments to act despite the clear scientific evidence provided. 

I asked anthropologist and expert on warfare Brian Ferguson, a professor at Rutgers University, whether the human species is capable of rising above its quarrels to unite in the face of a genuinely existential threat to the biosphere.

Ferguson asked for a week to think about that, and then wrote back: ‘Any way I think about it, the answer is no.'

'Identity is always constructed, with competing versions, often involving an enemy. It is easy to create alternative versions. So people with power can redirect an experienced threat to a target they find more congenial. Which is what we have seen happening in climate debates, and we see in war all the time.'

The many thousands of young people who flood the streets demanding action against global warming, have something in common with the thousands across campuses in the US demanding their schools sever any investments in and association with Israel. They have woken up and discovered what the adults have been up to.

In the energy of those students, there is hope. Like the protests in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s against the Vietnam war, and in the late 1980s against South Africa’s apartheid, they challenge and disrupt the prevailing power dispensation. But they are fundamentally hopeful. They demand peace, not war.

‘You see the kids protesting on behalf of Gazans? See how they risk their careers? DO THAT. And then do it again and again,’ wrote Genevieve Guenther, a climate activist and founder of End Climate Silence, on X.

As psychologist Viktor Frankel famously wrote in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, about life and survival in the Nazi regime’s death camps: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

You could call it survival. We are an ingenious species, and we have no choice. Amid the bad news, we have a responsibility, and an obligation, to hope.

Nirmal Ghosh, veteran foreign correspondent, author and former US Bureau Chief of The Straits Times, co-hosts the podcasts Green Pulse and Asian Insider.

  • Most read