We have had more than 50 years of scientific data, economic arguments, books, petitions, documentaries, global resolutions.

We know our planet’s ecosystem is breaking down…much of the destruction is irreparable. So, why haven’t things changed faster?

My name’s Ali Rae and I’m a journalist with Al Jazeera. While there is a lot of good journalism out there telling you how dire things are for the planet, I'm looking at the climate breakdown from a different perspective. I want to understand how power, money, sheer destructiveness and deception have shaped our response to the crisis we’re in.

This series is the result of dozens of interviews with climatologists, activists and specialists around the world.  At the centre of our conversations has been the principle of climate justice, because all too often it’s not prioritised in these kinds of discussions…and it should be.

I’ve learnt a lot - and the result is a series we’re calling All Hail The Planet.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to be releasing new episodes and visualising some of the key social, economic and political forces undermining meaningful global action on climate change.

Jump to a chapter:

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Biodiversity - we hear the word, but what does it really mean?

In the past 50 years, wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69 percent.

It’s an alarming statistic that many scientists say is propelling us into a sixth mass extinction on Earth - a phase when species vanish much faster than they can be replaced.

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And one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss is industrialised agriculture.

If you want to understand how we got to this point, you need to take a step back in history because diversity is not something our global systems of production are very good at or set up for.

Agriculture at mass scale - producing enormous volumes of crops that are predictable, consistent and affordable - has seen us forcing nature to operate like a factory, turning food into a commodity.

There are two steps by which food has been converted into a commodity. The first was the colonial step, where the land that belonged to the peasants as a commons was made the property of England and rents were collected. Forty-five trillion dollars was transferred from India to England in the 200 years of British rule. So the change of food as nourishment into food as a colonial commodity for trade led to famines of a large scale. The second commodification began when chemical agriculture was introduced in the name of the Green Revolution, and food systems were transformed to commodity production systems.

by Vandana Shiva, activist and author

The Green Revolution was one of the most dramatic developments in agriculture in the 20th century.

From the 1940s onwards, technology that had already transformed food production in industrialised countries, especially the United States, was exported - first to Mexico and then beyond the Western Hemisphere. In places like Zimbabwe, Turkey, Pakistan, India and Thailand, the impact was tangible within a decade or so of the agricultural technologies being implemented.

Attention was focused on seeds and soil. High-yielding crops that were easier to harvest with machines were developed through skilled breeding and genetic modification. The soil was also supercharged - watered with modern irrigation systems, sprayed with pesticides and enriched with synthetic fertilisers.

When they introduced the Green Revolution, you know what we thought? We thought it's something which is going to bring health to the people. But the little information we receive, we analysed it and we found it very, very complicated. And these are the transnational corporations who have their own agenda.

by Elizabeth Mpofu, farmer and former leader of human rights organisation, Via Campesina

When something gets bigger, it also means it has to simplify and have less things, but more of them. And that's been sold as convenience. And so as a result, our food system has gone from hundreds and hundreds of species of plants that we eat down to very few.

by Costa Georgiadis, environmental educator

Manufactured seeds and synthetic fertilisers are at the heart of this commodity-based, industrialised system.

A small group of mammoth multinational corporations - like Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina and BASF - in effect own and control key parts of what should be a primarily natural agricultural process.

The crisis of a world dominated by a limited number of proprietary seeds is not something scientists have taken lightly.

Seed collections serve as insurance from the dangers of standardised crop strains, intensive farming and increasing biodiversity loss.

There are more than 1,700 seed gene banks around the world, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is arguably the most famous of them all. It’s been called the "Noah’s ark of seed diversity" or the “library of life”.

If we do not have seeds, if we do not have the genetic varieties and genetic diversity within crops, we would not be able to develop agriculture. So this is about the existence of humanity actually.

by Asmund Asdal, Svalbard Global Seed Vault coordinator

Each and every one of those seed banks, their most proactive activity is the growing of the seeds so that they’re adapting to a shifting climate. So that’s where the idea of growing and saving every year comes from. That’s the incremental insurance, not just tuck the seeds away and hope for the best in 50 years.

by Costa Georgiadis, environmental educator

Biodiversity is the natural world's safety net to safeguard its survival. Without diversity, there is no adaptation, and without adaptation, extinction is simply a matter of time.

Intensive industrialised agriculture is just one part of the wider biodiversity crisis, but it's the most significant part. At the root of it is a flawed system - one that destroys the fundamental elements that make it work: soil, seeds and the cycle of life.

Watch the full episode below:

 

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Who is responsible for natural disasters?

Whether to call a disaster “natural” or not may seem like a semantic argument. After all, who cares what you call it if it makes no difference to the effect on people, animals and property?

The thing is: Yes, this is a semantic argument, but it's not just about labels and words. It's about accountability.

Human choices and actions have meant that many natural hazards now cause record-breaking levels of destruction - they have a huge impact on who lives, who dies and who is injured or left homeless after an event.

However, climate vulnerabilities are not just different between rich and poor countries. The disproportionate impact of extreme weather events on poor people is true within wealthy countries too.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in the United States, the majority of those who lost their homes or who were otherwise displaced were African Americans living in New Orleans's lower-income neighbourhoods.

No matter whether it's a poor country or a rich country, you will find that the poorest citizens tend to be located in the more hazard-prone areas in the places that do not get services as much as the richer places do. And so it reinforces their vulnerability. It reinforces their poverty.

by Saleemul Huq, scientist and former adviser for the Least Developed Countries group at the UN

In the huge amounts of media coverage churned out after disasters, there are stories about human suffering, explainers on why extreme weather events are getting more severe and breakdowns of economic loss.

But in these urgent times, the reporting has to be sharper and get to the root cause of the climate crisis.

So I get really concerned with the use of the term ‘resilience’. It’s very much directed, particularly where I work, at local Pacific villages. And what it fails to say is that there are political choices being made not to address what is a carbon emission problem. And in the Pacific, no amount of resilience is going to help people with the incredible impact of three cyclones at a category five level in five years.

by Siobhan McDonnell, legal anthropologist and UN negotiator

The notion of natural disasters comes with a set of visuals. Not only are these disasters not solely “natural”, the visuals should be entirely different.

Watch the full episode below:

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What is it about climate change that is so hard to get our heads around?

We asked 100 people across the world what comes to their mind when they think of climate change.

It is no wonder people feel like this.

News of climate breakdown is inescapable. And even if you switched off the news or took a break from social media, the effect of global warming is real for many of us. Temperatures are soaring, floods and droughts are getting more frequent and severe, and wildlife is seriously struggling ... never have we been more aware of the dire straits the planet is in.

So why is generating meaningful action on the climate crisis so difficult?

Per Espen Stoknes is the author of 'What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming'.

He says some of the most significant recent advances in our understanding of climate change have not come from the physical sciences - they have come from the social sciences - and a deeper understanding of how our brains work.

I'm not in any way denying that it's oil companies driving this - there are huge campaigns and there is corruption and there is lobbying. At the same time, we have to ask, ‘Why does that propaganda have so much impact when 30,000 scientific studies and 6 IPCC reports is not enough to counter it?’ And that is where psychology can come in.

by Per Espen Stoknes, Psychologist and author of 'What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming'.

Through his research, Stoknes has found five psychological barriers that prevent climate news from sinking in and leading to meaningful response and action. He calls them - the five D's.

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[Per Espen Stoknes on All Hail the Planet/Al Jazeera]

Knowledge of these psychological responses is powerful, but it is just one aspect of the climate response. Over time, our psychological reactions have been played upon - intentionally and unintentionally.

Big industry, politicians and even the media have been able to psychologically target us, warp public understanding and paralyse action on climate change.

Going back as far as the late 1980s, the fossil fuel industry has deliberately attempted to muddy the waters, to poison the well of public debate, and to prevent action by confusing us about what the problem even is ... The idea is to create confusion because if we're confused, in most cases, we won't act.

by Naomi Oreskes, Historian of science and author of 'Merchants of Doubt'.

The war on climate science has petered out. Oil companies stopped pushing overt climate denial more than a decade ago.

And while online attacks on scientists do occur and conspiracy theories claiming climate change is a hoax may surface occasionally - those tactics are no longer as effective as they once were.

Scientists like myself recognise now that the debate over climate change isn't really about the science. It's a proxy war over policy and ideology. And it's essential that you recognise that if you're going to target the denialism and the delay-ism.

by Michael Mann, Climatologist, geophysicist and author of 'The New Climate War - The Fight to Take Back Our Planet'.

There has been a pretty sophisticated psychological operation carried out over decades. Our fears, scepticisms and hopes that someone else is dealing with it have all been used against us, and in some cases, we have made it easy.

Now though, with time as tight as it is, and the need for understanding and action incredibly urgent, getting a grip on our psychological responses is key and working out a strategy to counter fossil fuel manipulation is important.

Watch the full episode below:

Nick Buxton

With every report that comes out on the state of the climate, there's a slew of emission stats: industries spewing more, countries committing to emit less.

Understanding emissions can help us work out what needs to change but there's a big hole in the information we have - military emissions.

These are often poorly tracked and even more poorly reported. And what's worse, they're often a country's most significant emitters.​

There’s one military in particular - the biggest, in fact, with an $816bn budget in 2023 - that leads the pack on emissions: the United States Armed Forces.

“The US military is the single largest carbon emitter looking at it as an institution.”

by Neta Crawford, co-director of Brown University’s Costs of War project

But, of course, the military’s impact on the environment does not stop with emissions. Military forces and wars have left a devastating environmental legacy around the world on people and the planet.

Over the past two decades, Western governments from Washington to Canberra have used the lens of national security to view and frame the climate crisis.

The assumption underlying this framing is simple and seems obvious: Climate change will lead to increased instability, conflicts and migration that require military readiness.

“They broadened the agenda to say, well, the environment is also part of security. And that led to an assumption from the perspective of America, the West, Global North that climate change in the rest of the world will impact resources, creating scarcity, and will be a source of conflict and unrest for the Western countries,” said Marwa Daoudy, professor of political science and Middle East politics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

Some of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are also spending much more on arming security forces at their borders than on climate finance.

For instance, in 2016 US law enforcement agents used tear gas and water cannons - despite below freezing temperatures - on unarmed demonstrators protesting the construction of the Keystone Oil Pipeline on Native American land at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

The power of the military-security framing is so great that those who question it can find themselves targeted with state and paramilitary violence.

Governments around the world have also been proposing and even passing laws that enable them to crack down on activists branded as "eco-terrorists".

The military-industrial complex has a firm grip on its messaging, throwing around words like "threat multipliers" and "national security imperatives". These terms should be taken seriously but not without a good dose of scepticism.

There are vested interests in the mix, and there is a lot of obfuscation about the climate damage inflicted by security forces.

Watch the full episode below:

Joanna Cabello

Why are labels like "carbon neutral" and "net zero" so misleading?

Carbon offsetting is a carbon trading mechanism that enables entities such as governments or businesses to compensate for (i.e. "offset") their greenhouse gas emissions by investing in projects that either reduce, avoid, or remove emissions elsewhere.

Offsetting involves purchasing carbon credits. Typically, one credit permits the emission of one tonne of "carbon dioxide equivalent".

The reason climate scientists and activists seriously question carbon offsetting, "net zero" or "carbon neutral" programmes is because they just do not do what they claim. They can’t. Not when the fundamental premise on which these programmes are based is so deeply flawed.

“There is no such thing as offsetting pollution by planting a tree. Even the scientists agree with this. But the market system doesn’t differentiate that. They package it up together. So we're being scammed,” said Tom Goldtooth, leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

“It’s like a stock market. You buy a stock from a company, and then you can resell it to somebody else, ... so the market can become a monster itself because the final goal of the market is to make profit, not really to mitigate climate change.”

by Britaldo Silveira Soares Filho, scientist and cartographer

Despite decades of international agreements and programmes aimed at curbing emissions through mechanisms like carbon trading, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have continued to rise.

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“After 25-plus years of fighting the carbon markets, I think we can reasonably claim that carbon trading offsets, carbon pricing and all of the iterations of REDD [reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation - a UN based programme], "nature-based solutions", "net zero emissions targets" - it's all the same thing. It is the biggest distraction and scam on Mother Earth, on the planet,” Goldtooth said.

Without reducing the structural demand for fossil fuels, we are not just doing nothing - we’re making things worse.

“Instead of talking about fossil fuels, we are talking about CO2 molecules. And while doing so, it actually conceals all the violence and the abuse of power that the fossil fuel industry is built upon.”

by Joanna Cabello, environmental justice researcher

Watch the full episode below:

Bil McKibben

Can technology "solve" climate change?

The concept of techno-optimism was created by Marc Andreessen - an American billionaire who made his fortune by co-founding the web browser ‘Netscape Navigator’ in the 1990s.

Andreessen, defining his own concept, wrote, “We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology."

Techno-optimism is espoused by many other billionaires like Andreessen, many of them are tech billionaires themselves. While a lot of money is made available for many different causes, billionaire climate philanthropy is controversial for a number of reasons.

Not only is the world’s richest one percent responsible for double the emissions of the poorest 50 percent of society, but some of the biggest inconsistencies are in the businesses that billionaires are involved with - as owners or consultants.

Take this for instance: In 2020 when Jeff Bezos, then the CEO of Amazon, announced the $10bn Bezos Earth Fund, his company emitted more than 60 million tonnes of carbon emissions, 15 percent more than in 2019.

Then there’s the technological spectacles driven by billionaires that suck up media attention to the detriment of so much else. An analysis by US-based Media Matters found that Jeff Bezos’ space flight in 2021 got as much morning show coverage in the United States in one day, as the climate crisis in all of 2020.

In all of the media blitz, one key point hardly got discussed: the reality that innovation, which has its value, cannot be a substitute for the fundamental change humanity needs to make by cutting consumption and slashing dependence on fossil fuels.

One tech solution being bankrolled by billionaires is carbon capture and storage (CCS).

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However, like so much of the climate tech solutionism that gets bandied about, CCS has been promoted with outsized promises of being transformative but has delivered barely a fraction of its purported benefits.

“I think this technical optimism is less about technology and more about how can we avoid making the profound changes that are necessary to the lifestyles of those of us who are responsible for the lion's share of the problems that we face,” said Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change.

All these complex and expensive technologies are framed as being essential to avoid making the climate catastrophe worse. This is despite the fact that in 2020, renewable energy was the cheapest way to generate electricity around the planet - in fact, the cheapest way there’s ever been.

There are realistic ways to approach technology. A lot has changed for the better and that would be one of the strongest reasons for some level of techno-optimism.

“There's a real reason for a certain kind of technological optimism. I mean, scientists and engineers have dropped the price of solar panels and wind turbines 90% in the last decade, and now the batteries to store that energy are going in the same curve.”

by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org

The fundamental change the planet needs is a brake on fossil fuel extraction and use. And until that happens, no amount of carbon capture, solar geoengineering or whatever else is going to amount to the change we need at the speed we need it.

Watch the full episode below:

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From fast fashion to flights, smartphones to skincare, our consumer-based societies today are gobbling up the planet’s resources at a rate that’s 1.75 times faster than it can regenerate.

How do we know?

Well, there’s an international NGO called the Global Footprint Network, which for many years has been tracking something called Earth Overshoot Day. It’s the date on the calendar every year when, according to the available data, more of the Earth’s ecological resources have been used than can naturally be replenished in 12 months.

There are variations, though, depending on where you live.

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But are individual consumers really the main problem?

“There are people who think it's all just about consumers and if consumers could just change we could stop the climate crisis - and I think that's not the right way to look at it. It's much more that production drives the system. And although consumers are a key part of it and they have to play their part to keep the system going, the sort of power in the system is located much more on the production side,” said Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College.

If you have money, then being a consumer has never been easier. Products are cheaper than ever - even the ones that have to travel across the world to get to us. However, the more we're able to buy, the less we know about how our stuff gets made - what goes into it, what it demands of those who make it and what impact this manufacturing has.

“For goods to be consumed by average people in the Global North, the goods in the Global South have to be produced with lower and lower costs, ... and that means that the prosperity in the Global North is somehow dependent on maintaining workers in the Global South in the permanent state of deprivation.”

by Ndongo Samba Sylla, development economist

There's a question that becomes quite hard to avoid when you talk about the incredibly high cost the planet is paying for human consumption: How do we keep economies growing without people buying?

There is a theory that says we're looking at this the wrong way. It's called "de-growth".

"Until we are able to break free from these growth imperatives, then we're going to be in a situation where we watch continued failure over the coming decades, even as climate breakdown worsens before our very eyes,”  said Jason Hickle, economic anthropologist and author of the book Less is More.

Watch the full episode below:

Annie Leonard

Plastics are the lifeblood of a modern culture of speed, convenience and disposability, but we rarely stop to ask where does it all come from.

What a lot of people don't realise is that 98 percent of the inputs of plastics are fossil fuels - mostly oil or fracked natural gas. Extracting these fossil fuels is just the start of a long chain of toxic processes involved in the life cycle of plastics.

In the United States, a stretch along the Mississippi River has gained a notorious nickname that is as frightening as it is controversial - "Cancer Alley".

For decades, oil, gas, chemical and plastics plants have filled this 140km (85-mile) corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. There are roughly 200 chemical plants and oil refineries here - and living among them are communities - mostly poor, largely Black - who are experiencing high rates of sickness like respiratory diseases and cancer.

Plastics production has increased almost continuously since 1950 from 1.8 million tonnes globally to 465 million tonnes in 2018. If current production trends continue, by 2050, annual plastics production will be 26 billion tonnes. That’s four times more than the world has produced to date.

While recycling our waste has become a habit for many of us, even that’s something the plastics industry came up with.

“It's not actually technically possible to recycle plastic in perpetuity because every time that you heat plastic, the chemical chains degrade. They break down, so it becomes a lower and lower quality plastic,” said Annie Leonard, co-executive director of Greenpeace USA.

Alongside the recycling system came the iconic ‘chasing arrows’ triangle. It was meant to indicate recyclability, but the complex process of resin identification was established alongside it. ​

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The problem is, the presence of a code on a plastic product doesn’t actually mean it is recyclable. It is generally only those products labelled 1 or 2 that can actually be recycled.​

“It doesn't mean that when we understand the type of resin, it helps the recycling rate because every product has only one sign. But actually, it's a mix of everything. You can't mix one type of plastics with another type of plastics because the chemicals are different. And when you mix it, it will create a cocktail of toxics,” said Yuyun Ismawati, an environmental engineer.

For too long, the industries that are intertwined and invested in plastics have been obstructing the world's efforts to tackle plastics pollution.

The reality is that throwing things away more smartly or efficiently is nowhere close to a solution. Fundamentally, the world needs to radically reduce the production of plastics.

Watch the full episode below:

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The steady flow of humanity from rural to urban centres has given us the phenomenon of the megacity, a city with a population of 10 million people or more.

In 1950, only New York and Tokyo qualified for the title. By 1980, they were joined by Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Osaka.

In 2010, their number grew to more than 20 megacities, which were dotted across almost every continent.

Today, there are 33 megacities, and by 2030, it is predicted 9 percent of the global population will live in one of 43 megacities.

The push for decarbonisation and green spaces in cities is growing, creating a widely shared template of what "green cities" should look like - shiny residential towers, waterfront parks and primarily wealthy residents.

But the "parks, cafes and a riverwalk" model of sustainability has been critiqued for "green gentrification", a process whereby new green spaces are provided to attract wealthier residents.

​"It's a push towards capturing the 'nouveau riche' emerging middle class, as they say in Africa, ... who are able to access assets, have spending power and aspire to global indicators of status," said Taibat Lawanson, professor of urban planning at the University of Lagos. ​​

Over the past decade, multiple African countries have tried to untangle some of the knots of how their big cities have developed by proposing urban utopias, often called "smart cities" or "tech cities".

However, when you investigate beyond the snappily written marketing spiel, there is often a gap between ambitions for ecofriendly cities and the complications of building ideal urban spaces within existing structures and systems.

It isn't enough for our "green cities" to simply be low carbon or sustainable.

Climate justice, which makes equity and fairness equally as important as low emissions and low waste, needs to be central to modern urban planning as well.

Watch the full episode below:

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Credits:

Presenter/senior producer: Ali Rae
Animator: Pomona Pictures (Pierangelo Pirak)
Camera/editing: Ali Rae
Camera/production assistance: Ben Walker
Commissioned by: Salah A A Khadr
Executive producer: Meenakshi Ravi
Landing page developed by @AJLabs

Source: Al Jazeera