Protecting our fragile planet

It was remarkable that Stephen Hawking took time out from his 75th birthday celebrations to convey a message via the BBC to President Donald Trump that his actions could kill the world.

The renowned physicist said current US climate policies and the billionaire president's decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement could lead to the permanent destruction of a livable climate on Earth.

It is remarkable that the world's most famous scientist is even around to issue the warning. When he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at age 21, he was told that he would not see his 25th birthday. But here he is today, reminding us that our children's future is in peril but the current leader of the free world is completely ignorant about the danger.

"We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible," said Prof Hawking. "Trump's action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulphuric acid."

The Paris agreement, signed by 195 countries and territories, aims to keep the increase in global temperatures "well below" 2.0C above pre-industrial levels and limit greenhouse gases emitted by human activities. The US, the world's second biggest carbon dioxide contributor after China, pulled out of the accord in June. In announcing his decision, Mr Trump fell back on his by-now-boring "America First" mantra.

However, as Dr Hawking pointed out, if we do not do anything now, our children will have no future as our planet cooks in the oven we created. He chose to convey this message by deliberately comparing the possible future of Earth to Venus in this context when most people would think of Mars.

I, for one, do not want my son to live in a country with higher surface temperatures, more floods, longer droughts, severe storms and higher sea levels. Higher temperatures mean even hotter summers, more floods mean we might have to move our house, while longer droughts mean my mother's family in the Northeast could suffer from falling rice crops.

One more degree of global warming could destroy rice crops and a few centimetres of sea level rise could submerge Bangkok and devastate coastal tourism. Take away agriculture and tourism and the Thai economy is in catastrophic trouble.

On a personal level, I am encouraged to know that simple recycling, which I ignored when I was growing up, can make a big difference. So can turning off the lights when leaving a room, using energy-saving lightbulbs, shutting the tap when brushing my teeth, using public transport, and eating less beef.

Who would have thought that just by changing your diet from eating steak and beef noodles to fried chicken and chicken noodles could help save the planet from burning up? Research by scientists at the Oxford Martin School in the UK in 2014 showed that cutting down on meat consumption to within accepted health guidelines would make a large dent in greenhouse gases. If we all started now, global food-related emissions would shrink by nearly a third by 2050.

This is because red meat from cows requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken and 11 times more water, which results in five times more climate-warming emissions. Agriculture is a significant driver of global warming with 15% of all emissions, half of them from livestock.

Beef also has a huge impact because cattle make far less efficient use of their feed. You can only get so much from eating grass that has fermented in your specialised stomach.

"The biggest intervention people could make toward reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat," Prof Tim Benton of the University of Leeds told The Guardian in 2014.

Everyone associates the United States with pollution from cars, as it ranks fourth in the world for most registered vehicles per person. But it is also the fourth largest beef and veal consumer.

Donald Trump may think his people can keep driving all they want and eating all the beef they want, and that they obviously agree with him because he won the election. But maybe he should think about the future of his grandchildren also.

As a former Democrat, a mother of three and one of those who opposed her father's decision to pull out of the Paris accord, Ivanka Trump no doubt had the future on her mind when she decided not to show up at the event where Mr Trump announced his short-sighted decision.

Back to top