Cognitive Dissonance: Why Are We So Complacent in the Face of Climate Change?
By Elizabeth Peredo Beltran
It has rained incessantly recently in the Bolivian Amazon and in the Valleys. The waters that have flooded our territory since January, are thought to be the result of the worst rains in 40 years. More than 60,000 families have been affected—at least 350,000 people have had to leave their homes.
They have lost almost everything they own: their animals, their crops, their daily lives. UNICEF has reported that 60,000 Bolivian children have been affected. Nine hundred schools have had to suspend activities for almost a month due to high risk. More than fifty people have died and some of their bodies have still not been recovered. And we cannot yet tell what the magnitude of the impact on health, food and the ability of communities to rebuild their lives will be as the floodwaters recede and the extent of the destruction is slowly revealed. One small example of how poverty triggers the vulnerability of communities comes from the situation of the indigenous people in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) communities.
Though reports speak of huge losses of corn, rice, potatoes, soybeans, vegetables and livestock—with estimates of more than 250,000 head of cattle missing—it remains to be seen in the next few months what the economic impact of floods will be for these peoples themselves, and what the impact will be at both regional and national levels.
In the face of the dramatic situation presented by this disaster both authorities and civilians across the whole country have mobilized to collect food, medicines and everything necessary to bring help to the affected communities. Above and beyond, these good intentions to come together to provide aid for those affected by the floods in the Amazon region and in the Bolivian valleys, we were far from being capable of confronting the dimension of such a disaster. Rainfalls are also far from being recognized as not an occasional event but rather as climate change events that will only repeat more frequently in the future.
Not far from this region, droughts are hitting hard: in both the Chiquitanía region and the Chaco regions of Santa Cruz and Tarija there have been losses of thousands of hectares of crops, which is resulting in a silent forced migration to the cities. Just some months back the Bolivian Defence Ministry reported 247,000 hectares of land affected by the lack of rain, by snow or by fire. Meanwhile the loss of our glaciers is a sorrow to which we are becoming accustomed.
Climate change is not just a scientific issue, nor is it just something which is of exclusive interest to UN negotiations, nor it is a warning for the future: it is already present in our times, in our territories and it comes with violence. Climate change affects people's lives and it is already claiming many victims.
We share this grief with millions of people across the planet who are suffering the same consequences. Just a few months back more than 11 million people were affected by super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. A million people were without electricity after snowstorms caused by the late winter polar vortex in the U.S. Thousands of people affected in the UK in what was considered the worst flooding in 200 years. Thousands of hectares of forest burned annually in Australia by the alarming drought and heat. Thousands affected in Central America, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay and other countries. Twenty-five million souls were driven into uncertainty by water shortages, the result of droughts and heat waves in California. A deadly landslide with more than one hundred people missing in Washington State, the result of heavy rains. Millions of humans and ecosystems at risk in various parts of the world ... News that nobody wants to hear, but which we will inevitably be forced to confront in our own lifetimes, even though the news appears first as cold statistics in the press.
We need to connect the dots to realise that climate change is a phenomenon that challenges us to overcome short-term visions and the empty rhetoric of "Mother Earth," devoid of concrete actions. Climate change is a consequence of the violent exploitation of nature, of endless economic growth systems based on fossil fuel consumption, understood as an irreplaceable condition for human "welfare." This obsolete idea has been inculcated into our lives on a social, a psychological and on a cultural level.
What can we do to finally get on board that the emissions from burning fossil fuels, of large scale cattle exploitation and of deforestation emissions—both in the North and in the South—are destroying our atmosphere? Where are the effective means of caring for the common goods kidnapped by corporations and the global addiction to unlimited growth? How long do we have to wait till the polluters begin to stop poisoning us and prevent worse consequences? When and how will there be compensation for the damage? (almost 71.5 percent of global emissions are from developed countries where only 17.3 percent of the world population reside). What can we do to avoid the likelihood that the so-called "development" of the global South will repeat that same destructive patterns (disguised by the promises of progress and of happiness)?
Unfortunately—and not only in Bolivia—this theme has become distorted. It became an issue of political and economic interest, rather than simply being recognised as a matter of life or death, a challenge for survival.
The Fifth IPCC report has established in an unequivocal way that climate change is caused by human activity and that it is causing climate chaos everywhere. This report has warned that climate change presents enormous risks related to the access to water, food and livelihood. Some scientists and activists have been highly critical of this report for being—when all is said and done—conservative in nature, especially when it comes to expressing the urgency of the matter. They note that climate change is occurring faster than the IPCC scenarios had indicated, and that the Arctic ice-melt—and its consequent methane release (one of the greatest global threats)—has been underestimated due to pressure mounted by the rich nations and by the oil lobby. Other voices are questioning the possibility that the IPCC report has opened up opportunities for false solutions like geoengineering and unproven technologies, instead of insisting in a stronger way on the restriction of the use of fossil fuels.
Denialism Around the World
In the context of this global emergency, surprisingly, a political/ideological current called "denialism" has emerged. Denialists claim that these phenomena do not correspond to the saturation of the atmosphere as a direct result of human action, rather they claim that it is simply due to the planet's "natural cycles." Denialists, as if we have need of such a service, have devoted their activism to denial of scientific reports. They have become a strong global current that accompanies the rhythms of economical development and investment, blaming environmentalists for creating unnecessary uncertainty. Their position is in essence linked with the corporate oil lobby, large corporations and private capital dedicated to the continued exploration for—and exploitation of—fossil fuels. Their political/industry alliances are indestructible.
Bill McKibben, activist founder of 350.org has claimed that if oil reserves recognized by the world stock markets were exploited, this would consume five times the remaining atmospheric carbon budget. A calamity! Meanwhile, denialism among U.S. Republican representatives commands an impressive lobby so that the U.S. doesn't even contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) nor the UN platform on Economic and Social issues (ECOSOC), even more: they promote the "persecution" of their country's scientists who assert that anthropogenic climate change is a reality. James Hansen, a NASA scientists, is one of their favorite targets.
Denialism does have definite concrete political realities as describe above, but the term also describes an attitude in society, a broad social space of indifference to both global and climate change. This attitude holds significant weight in civil society because people find it very difficult to change their lives in order to prevent global disaster. They prefer to close their eyes to the future. In the field of social psychology this is called "cognitive dissonance." Clive Hamilton, Professor at the Australian Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, has concluded that denialism is an expression of the failure of humanity to confront this crisis of global dimensions.
Another form of denialism—although they don't much like it mentioned—is that which comes from governments and from other circles of power and decision-making who disregard the urgent need for action despite the information is available to them. Through their decisions they deny the urgent need to change the current model of development, the energy grid and the management of the response to the crisis of global climate change. The alarming information provided by science is available to governments first hand.
Just remember the Philippine climate change negotiator who moved a global audience to tears during the climate talks in Poland 2013, demanding "an end to this madness," after super-typhoon Haiyan devastated part of his country. Though negotiators responded to his words with minutes of silence and expressions of solidarity, negotiations continued as if nothing had happened. Business continued "as usual," and the production and consumption of fossil fuels throughout the world continued "as usual." Convention agreements fall paradoxically by the wayside; the dictates of the capitalist system are at once stronger and more binding than the multilateral agreements. Negotiators seem to speak in unison: “We can vouch for what we have accomplished in the negotiations, but not for the policies in our own countries." The big decisions—those linked to the economic system, to the energy matrices and to capitalist production, that permanent engine of depredation—are kept in place by regional governments at the territorial and local levels.
Bolivia and the Challenge of Climate Change
The recent floods in Bolivia have brought us one step closer to these big questions. To a greater or lesser extent, our understanding is framed by the controversies that are taking place across the globe. We observe the impacts of the climate crisis: polarisation, crisis, demands, the taking up of positions and proposals that go beyond the scope of the climate negotiations.
In Bolivia this has also brought about controversy. This is mediated by national and regional political tensions. Thus the people from the Amazon villages wonder: “What do we do now? What will sustain our families? Are we less important than cattle?" The tensions unleashed by the floods demonstrate how far we are from responses on the scale that is required. Distancing oneself from that which the government says, from local government demands, from Brazilian silence (motivated by the possible causal effects of recently constructed mega-dams), from the political declarations … what really matters is the construction of a society which is resilient to these global changes, and, therefore, a society able to build a new world based on solidarity and empathy.
There are some lessons that I venture to pinpoint from the dramas that we have lived through in the recent floods in our country:
- We do not need heroes, nor do we need the usual political battles. Rather, we require a long-term view that takes into account climate change and other global changes, seeing the incorporation of cross-cutting measures as critical at every level of public administration and of public life. Nurturing nature and the human rights of the population, especially the poorest people, should be high priorities.
- While negotiations on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) are now the only multilateral scenario for global commitments (though they are near to collapse due to their own inefficiency), today local priorities are more important than ever. This is where we can see whether or not we are making progress in stopping this catastrophe and changing the world to care for and regenerate life.
- Resilience must be considered in a multi-dimensional way, from what it means to meet the challenge of sustainable energy and to restore harmony, to the development of technical skills in agriculture, water management, human settlements, etc. Resilience also means ensuring a healthy social tissue, strengthening solidarity, respect and mutual recognition.
- Resilience means also developing a more complex viewpoint that redefines “development" for these times of global changes. To face properly climate change, states must take seriously the fossil fuels use menace. They have to think how to stop and change “fossilized" economies and societies.
- The care and restoration of nature should become an obsession for all—particularly for governments—learning from the capability of the people (amply expressed in those days of rain) to give solidarity. Learning from Mother Earth itself and from its diversity, from the local knowledge of each people and town from the positive progress of mankind.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
We need to neutralize "denialism" as a collective attitude; it is not an unalterable condition. It is simply because people are unable to change their depredatory habits, because the channels for proactive and restorative activity are blocked by the systems of political power, by energy systems and by the markets that surround us.
There is a growing global consciousness which is looking for ways to activate itself; it is trying to pave the ways to do so and to enable people to build resilient communities not just using technologies and systems, but also in more intimate fabrics—solidarity, love, compassion—which strengthen the possibilities for healthy interactions, and feed the desire to heal nature, nourishing empathy and sentiments for others.
Climate change is challenging humanity. It demands a huge effort from all of us to restore and heal the planet. This requires discipline, rebelliousness and creativity in order to confront a truly global emergency with substantial implications for life and civilization. It is an emergency that by whatever political calculation—from wherever it comes—is simply... unacceptable.
Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán is a Bolivian Social Psychologist, researcher, activist and author. She promotes and coordinates the Blue October Campaign for Water as a Common in her country, Elizabeth belongs the APMM (Mountain People's Association) and is a member of Food and Water Watch' board of directors in Washington DC.
Translation and edition in English: Thanks to Tony Phillips and Monica Stopplemann
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Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.