On Jun. 22, 2015, I was studying in Santiago, Chile as part of the Wake Forest Southern Cone program and witnessed the most polluted day in the city in two decades. The authorities in Santiago called for a “pre-emergency” the night before and mandated that around 680,000 cars stay off the streets for the day to reduce pollution levels. If your license plate ended in a certain number you were required to stay off the streets and would be subjected to a pretty heavy fine if you were caught driving. Needless to say, public transportation was chaotic that day.
On top of this, almost 1,500 businesses had to shut down for the day because of the relatively high levels of pollution they emit in Santiago. A lot of people, especially children and older folk (the most vulnerable), had to remain indoors due to fear that their health could be jeopardized. Every weekend, some families were forced to leave the city on their doctor’s orders and go to the coast because of how unhealthy the air is in Santiago, especially in the winter. However, only those who are fortunate enough to be able to leave the city every weekend — those who don’t have a weekend job, have access to transportation to make the 2-3 hour trip, have the money to spend a weekend away from home or to be able to afford a house on the coast, etc. — can obtain the healthy benefits breathing the coastal air provides.
The rest of the population, who are not as privileged, are forced to stick it out every day and face the sometimes serious health consequences of an increasingly polluted environment. Two months later, I went to Bolivia — one of the poorest countries in South America. There, I got to talk with people whose lives are currently being significantly affected by increases in droughts, flooding, forest fires and accelerated glacial melting (all linked to climate change).
Climate change is damaging their agriculture (with powerful floods and droughts destroying animals, land and resources), threatening their water supply (when glaciers disappear, so does some of their water supply, which relies significantly on glaciers), and costing their economy quite considerably. All these consequences of climate change hurt the poor the most, especially those in the rural areas who rely on the land and who are a significant amount of the population.
To put climate change and emissions into perspective, Bolivia emits less than 0.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison, the United States emits over 20 percent of all global emissions. The total of 136 developing countries together account for around 20 percent of all global emissions. And to further hit home the idea of inequality in emissions, the richest 20 percent of the world’s population (the Global North) are responsible for 80 percent of the world’s emissions and thus are accountable for most of the changes we are seeing today.
Bolivia’s story is not unique. Climate change disproportionately affects and hurts the poorest countries in the world. Yet, these are the countries who are barely producing the emissions creating climate change in the first place.
Santiago’s story is also not unique. Those in contaminated cities who are the least privileged of the population are the most harmed and affected by the high pollution levels. It’s also worth noting that Santiago’s pollution got so bad because of an extreme drought, (it rained twice over the four months we were there) and that this summer the northern part of Chile had one of the worst floods ever that completely decimated areas with poor infrastructure.
Right now, there are lives being destroyed because of the actions of a few countries (especially the U.S.) who have become obsessed with the careless and excessive burning of fossil fuels.
Lives are being destroyed because of the actions of a few companies (Exxon, BP, Shell, etc.) that lied to the public about the potential consequences of their high carbon emission activities and spent millions of dollars funding organizations whose goals are to spread doubt and lies so they wouldn’t be regulated, and, therefore, make more profit. After meeting some of the people whose lives will be destroyed in the future because of the story we have told ourselves for the last 400 years and the actions we have taken over that same time, I find it really hard to be apathetic to what is going on.
Perhaps instead of writing articles with the hopes of getting more people to care and act on these issues, I should just encourage everyone to go visit the people and places that are being affected by climate change the most right now.
Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, was a climate change denier until he visited Antarctica and witnessed first-hand what was happening, while also getting the opportunity to talk with the scientists who do the research there. After this experience, he couldn’t deny the realities of climate change anymore and decided to take action to curb emissions and create a more sustainable world. Because he wanted to protect the planet, he lost his job and was voted out in the following election after spending 12 years representing South Carolina.
Nevertheless, he continues to fight every day for climate action.