The television three-way split-screen could not tell a more stark tale of both denial and determination in the face of the greatest challenge facing the future of Planet Earth.
On one side of the screen, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and US President Donald Trump, two avowed disbelievers of climate change, cavorted and chortled in the Oval Office of the White House, touting the mining of a fossil fuel. On another frame, millions around the world, mostly students, walked out of their homes, jobs and schools on a global climate strike.
From the Asian continent and the Pacific island and coastal nations, the protests spread westward through Europe to the United States, ending in a massive demonstration, possibly the largest-ever mass protest over global warming caused by humans.
Another image of this digital tableau of the age was the 16-year-old Swedish girl who inspired this global strike for climate change action, Greta Thunberg.
She declared at a rally: “Our house is on fire. We will not just stand aside and watch.”
The strike was called to challenge the world community to act with all deliberate haste to reduce the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the key culprit in the rise of global air and sea temperatures to record levels.
Thunberg appeared before the representative body of the world’s largest superpower, the U.S. Congress, boldly telling the politicians to listen to the scientist’s dire warnings.
Indeed, she had no major speech; she merely offered for their consideration the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned of a rapidly approaching catastrophe of global warming.
Here at home, given the tight grip over our Victorian-era education system, it would have been an unlikely if not fanciful notion to expect students to heed encouragement to skip school to be part of a great global moment of profound implication – the staging of a mass event to raise consciousness about an existential threat to our island nation. Far more important for them to be kept from school this week while teachers used their school hours to chat with their union. Lessons learned.
Nonetheless, the scene today was of the imperfect attempting the impossible while the impervious imperilled the globe yet further with rhetoric no less constituent of hot air than the kind contributing to El Nino and the melting of the polar ice caps.
Australia, who sits on the periphery of a Pacific Island frontline of rising seawater levels and inundation of whole low-lying islands and coastal fringes, is represented by a leader who has pointedly decided to shun next week’s special United Nations summit on the climate crisis.
In a fitting Oval Office lovefest, Morrison, the Australian Premier and the American president were locked in the death-grip of ideological embrace; sceptics with a long track record of acting in direct opposition to, or roll-back of, policies geared at fighting climate change.
The two leaders spoke glowingly about mining coal, as their idea of environmental protection is the intensified exploitation of resources that will lead to more carbon entering the atmosphere, thus contributing to global warming, rising sea levels and the catastrophe of extreme weather events.
This, then, presents the world with a singular problem and a looming tragedy. The world’s biggest carbon emitter, the United States, and one of its biggest allies, Australia, a highly influential member of the Commonwealth, cavalierly ignore public opinion and the most intensely peer-reviewed science in history, the IPCC report.
It is important briefly to state what these powerful politicians are shunning.
The IPCC – the Nobel Peace Prize winners of 2007 – is a United Nations body of scientists dedicated to providing the world with objective, scientific facts of climate change and analysis of its risks to nature, politics and economies.
They are regarded by most scientists and sane, rational political leaders as the singular authority on climate change and its likely impacts on environment and society.
It is the IPCC’s science that urges the world to act now to cap a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures.
Next week, a 900-page report – the fourth such tome within a year – is expected to warn the world community that the carbon-heavy footprint of humans is already ravaging our oceans and icy regions, likely to unleash fresh misery on a global scale.
The projected impacts range from marine and land heatwaves to vanishing glaciers, and from rising seas to unprecedented shifts in human migration – environmental refugees.
Already a tone-deaf Trump administration has slashed aid to Guatemala, instead pouring millions into preventing refugees from entering the US. Most of that money was intended to prevent the displacement of thousands of coffee farmers and the families who struggled against the sweeping attack of a coffee leaf borer pest that is being attributed to climate change.
The four reports, like horsemen of an impending apocalypse, warn humanity to overhaul its production, distribution and consumption patterns on almost everything to avert the worst ravages of global warming.
We are heartened and hopeful to learn that CARICOM will speak with one voice “loud and clear” in defence of a climate crisis frontline: our small island developing states and coastal regions – a mere two weeks after the heatwave that gripped Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean led to record-smashing temperatures.
Yet, our greatest fear may be summed up by another contribution of science; not physics but mathematics, starring game theory as a framework for explaining our not-so-little local difficulty.
Game theory is the science of strategy or optimal decision-making of independent and competing actors. It has been promoted by two of the world’s foremost mathematicians, John Nash and John von Neumann.
One of the many game theory frameworks, the Tragedy of the Commons, might offer explanation, warning or end-story of our fate.
According to Professor Mark Broom, Professor of Mathematics at City, University of London, an authority on game theory scenarios, in the game scenario of the Tragedy of the Commons, a number of farmers share a common area to graze their cattle.
Professor Broom said: “The more cattle an individual farmer has the richer they become, but if there are too many cattle collectively owned, the common resource will be destroyed and everyone suffers.
“How many cattle should an individual farmer have? Where will be an optimal number where the total productivity of the group is maximised, but at this point, it is beneficial for any individuals to cheat and add more cows (it will harm the collective a little, but benefit the individual a lot).
“Thus all farmers add too many cows, and the commons provides a poorer return for all.”
We will all be the poorer, rich and poor nation alike, if individualism, misplaced nationalism or even misguided globalism seeks to extract the wealth of the commons to enhance trade positions and economic power.
In the meantime, they threaten to thwart or neutralise the collective will of the people, particularly young ones like Greta Thunberg who strive to turn back the clock on the greatest existential threat to humanity and the orb it inhabits.
The tragedy of our global commons is a gathering storm. No game.