BOGOTA — The history of global warming is often traced back to Thomas Newcomen's invention of the steam engine in the early 18th century. He effectively initiated the ongoing race to burn coal on an industrial scale, which already had churned out one billion tons of smoke emissions by the early 20th century.
Warnings of the harmful effect of humanity's actions on the environment are hardly new. By the 19th century, there were observations on the principles and phenomena that could lead to generalized warming as a consequence of man's productive activities.
Discovering the uses of oil, beyond its medieval applications in war as Greek fire, would eventually lead to the car-emissions tsunami overwhelming us today. This fabulous instrument of mobility, which has helped individuals and groups travel what were formerly the most unlikely distances, has become a status symbol and vicious poisoner of the air, especially in cities where populations continue to grow.
Caught between these and many other agents of environmental damage, those of us aspiring to survive the avalanches of progress and disaster are shouting at governments and state actors to take decisive action that will mitigate this unprecedented change in climate around the world.
One might say that outside the economic realm, whose fine points and logic may well escape ordinary folk, or geopolitical and strategic considerations, global warming is easily perceived and felt. We really do not need sophisticated analytical models to establish its existence or provoke the reactions of citizens. Indeed, we may find that the biggest mistake will turn out to have been entrusting the whole issue to states at all.
Children forming the image of a tree, next to a sign reading ''The World We Want'' in Lima on Dec. 4 — Photo: [E]Luis Camacho/Xinhua/ZUMA
Don't call it a dream
The recent Lima climate conference, which fortunately ended with a consensus declaration, was the best example of how countries are unable to confront the problem with disinterested and universalist perspectives. The powerful nations tout themselves as pioneers of progress, innovation and development, barely agreeing to sign proposals they know perfectly well nobody will force them to implement. Lesser culprits that have greater interest in addressing climage change — and yet less to sacrifice — sign on with enthusiasm, but they know they lack the power to really make a difference. And they meanwhile give in to the temptation to protest the "injustice" of the onus and tasks required of them.
The climate convention planned for 2015, which is intended to help clarify some of the proposals that came out of Lima, doesn't look promising in terms of turning back the existing model of inequailty, abuse and impotence. At the risk of sounding utopian, it could be that the world's citizens will be the agents of political intervention, and not the officials governments themselves.
It's not simply about demanding that countries commit, and act on those commitments. It is also about individuals acting and fighting through the irrepressible force of collective action and intelligent use of non-violence to obtain appropriate environmental policies.
It is also about citizens adopting constructive habits and behavior in their daily lives, prompting the principal predators and their political and bureaucratic allies in governments to conclude that humanity prefers having fewer superfluous goods and breathing cleaner air. Progress should not be measured in the accumulation of goods, but in the recovery and preservation of the basic necessities of life — air, soil and water.
This citizen uprising could materialize through existing civil groups and organizations, with existing communication networks fomenting a global consensus about the balance between progress and sustainability. It is not just an act of responsibility toward future generations, but a matter of survival.