By Antonieta Castro-Cosío, PhD.
It has now been over a year since we have been coping with the threats, risks and restrictions imposed by the virus. With the deployment of the vaccine across countries, we are beginning to see some hints of light coming back to cities and communities, which were the battlegrounds where the wars against the menace were fought.
There is, however, another looming crisis ahead of us. Because it has been relatively gradual, we have chosen to ignore it and leave it in the ‘back burner.’ Ever since James Hansen gave his first Congressional testimony back in 1988 raising awareness of global warming, the effects of climate change have relentlessly come to the forefront of the challenges we all face, without exception.
Even though scientists have been working on this issue for years, there is no vaccine that can protect us against this threat. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, cities are and will be the key battlegrounds where the effects of climate change will hit the hardest because of their size, population, and the critical infrastructures that they host. Thus, it is up to residents, communities, and authorities to device the tools, policies, and changes that will enable us to face, adapt to, and mitigate the imminent challenges.
Nonetheless, it is not yet clear if we have managed to grasp the importance of acting now to avoid the devastating consequences in the future. This is what is called “present bias”, which is the human tendency to give a stronger weight to payoffs that are closer in the present when considering trade-offs between two different future moments. Despite the hard evidence that we have of the damaging and persistent progress of climate change and its effects, too many of us continue to make decisions that place a stronger weight on the benefits we might gain in the present moment, thus compromising the situation in the future, not only putting at risk the livelihoods of today’s children and youth, but even putting our own future at peril.
Examples of this bias include deforestation and land clearing, which is often done intentionally to obtain timber and clear land, at the expense of the health of the soil, the atmosphere, and crucial habitats for many species that live in such land. Sadly, offsetting, carbon capture and other engineering procedures cannot make up for the losses and setbacks. As we can see, those pushing for the cutting down of trees and the clearing of land, do not see beyond the present monetary benefits they might get from selling the timber, agriproducts, and pieces of land for human consumption.
As we witnessed last year with the fires in Australia and California, few countries have managed to sustainable protect and enhance their forests, and Mexico has not been the exception. In recent weeks, the city of Guadalajara, which is the country’s third largest metropolis with its population of 5.2 million people, has made national headlines for the fires that have ravaged key forests located around its edges. The Primavera forest (“Bosque de la Primavera”), had a total of seven fires in just one week, which burned down thousands of hectares of land.
To date, only three people have been charged for the intentional burning of one of the sites, where they planned to plant agave, which is in high demand for the production of tequila. Similar fires have taken place in other parts of the country, including Michoacan, where the surging demand for avocados around the world, has pushed farmers and producers to create agricultural land where there were forests in order satisfy and profit from such market opportunity. Unfortunately, such events have not been the only ones, but we can hope that they are the last ones.
Indeed, we must be more aware of the provenance of the food we eat and the impact of our diets on the health of the planet. However, we must also be aware and active about the important role that we, as urban residents, play in pushing for solutions to such situations, not just by voting in elections, but also by advocating for more responsive and impactful policies that might drive change.
About the Author: Antonieta Castro-Cosío, PhD in Public and Urban Policy from the New School for Social Research, is a Senior Behavioral Researcher at Duke University’s Common Cents Lab. In March of this year, she was selected as an Urban Forum Design Fellow. She also serves as a board member for the CSU and the Urban Resilience Research Network.