Climate Change's Hidden Damage

Climate Change's Hidden Damage
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Co-Authored with:
Alark Saxena, MBA, PhD
Associate Research Scientist and Lecturer, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
Director, Yale Himalaya Initiative

One of the most devastating effects of climate change is something you can't see. Though hidden from the eye, it deeply impacts those affected, sometimes for years, even for generations. I am talking about resentment, particularly the kind that stems from a basic sense of unfairness.

As is now increasingly well known, the communities most affected by climate change are those that have been historically marginalized and those who are least responsible for it. Count among these the poor, the powerless, and the disadvantaged.

When unfairness arises in this epic of a scale, and vulnerable communities witness the lack of a proportional response on the part of the global community, resentment may be soon to follow. This is the kind of resentment that is often unbearable and paralyzing. So what to do? In addition to stopping the onslaught in the first place, psychology teaches us that repair on the part of the responsible party, while not "undoing" what has happened, can help to mend these relational assaults. Here we are not talking about mere platitudes, but genuine contrition and real repair of the damage inflicted on the poor: in other words, taking real responsibility, while, collectively and in cooperation with these communities, securing the safety and well-being of all citizens of the world (including, to be sure, our non-human residents).

Why this focus on responsibility? Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, in a recent piece on environmental issues, references Buddha in suggesting that responsibility arises from the "power to make a difference." Bringing all of this together, we can say that there is a need to repair on the part of the better off, who, partly as a result of their accumulation, also have the power to do so. But it is debatable as to whether this taking of responsibility has occurred at a sufficient level in the realm of global climate change policy, even after the Paris agreement.

But the trauma and devastation will continue. For instance, imagine if you're facing a situation, like many island nations, where your entire country may soon be under water--literally--taking with it your childhood homes, your cultural landmarks, and your spiritual centers. Your country would exist only in the imaginations of the survivors. What would repair possibly look like in that situation? Who would be responsible for it? Could there ever even be a "repair"?

Given the absolutely staggering estimates of the expected number of climate refugees worldwide--from Bangladesh to the Maldives to our own backyards--these are the kinds of questions that we will need to be asking at a greater regularity, especially if real change and action do not occur.

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