“On climate change, we often don’t fully appreciate that it is a problem. We think it is a problem waiting to happen”.
– Kofi Annan
I consider myself to be an optimist, but if there is something that contradicts this description, it would be my views on climate change. Weather patterns are drastically changing all around the globe and with all the telltale signs of climate change; I can’t help but take a pessimistic view of the planet’s future. When Hurricane Irma made landfall, closely following Hurricane Harvey, it was the first time that two Category 4 Atlantic storms made U.S. landfall during a single hurricane season in recorded history. Unfortunately that was not the end of it. It was made even worse by the landfall of Hurricane Maria. Scientists need some more time to determine if this devastating past hurricane season was a direct result of climate change. However, it is undeniable that the growing frequency and intensity of natural disasters in the United States and the world over, points a finger in the direction of climate change.
So, what is climate change? Climate comprises of all the weather patterns at a regional and global level, and the changes that occur in these weather patterns can be described as climate change. These changes in weather are interlinked and have a cause-and-effect relationship. Scientists attribute the changes in climate to the increase in the earth’s temperature. Geological evidence suggests that the earth’s temperature has been constantly changing all over the years. It has been both higher and lower than the current global average of about 59F. Scientists say that the natural temperature fluctuations are being overtaken by the warming caused by human activity.
Scientists believe that the current rise in temperatures is happening because, in addition to the natural greenhouse gases that retain some of the heat from the sun’s radiation, man-made emissions are trapping more heat and increasing the temperature. Fossil fuel use and the reduction in forest coverage are the major contributors for carbon dioxide emissions. It’s been estimated that CO2 levels have risen by more than 30% and methane levels have risen more than 140%, since the industrial revolution, and are now estimated to be at levels higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. Records show that the average temperature of the earth’s surface has increased by about 1.4F in the last 100 years, but alarmingly, most of (1.0F) this increase occurred in just the last three decades.
The resultant global warming has serious consequences for the environment. The most obvious effects have been the rising sea levels, melting ice caps, extreme hot summers and severe winters, prolonged spells of drought, erratic rainfall and flash floods. These trends are projected to accelerate and result in human migration, affect food production and fresh water availability adversely, and pose several health risks. An apparently small change in a seasonal rain pattern or a slight temperature variation can set off a chain reaction of unfortunate events. Events like a variance in the blooming of plants, hatching of insects’ eggs and water availability that look unrelated, can affect the cycle of pollination of crops, food availability for migratory birds, spawning of fish, water supplies for drinking and irrigation, and several other things.
However, despite the presence of verifiable scientific analyses and the disastrous consequences of erratic weather conditions, there are several people who believe that climate change is a hoax and point to the evidence that earth’s temperature has always been fluctuating. They argue that the current rise in temperature and the resultant changes in weather patterns are a part of this natural phenomenon. This divergence in opinion and vested interests meant that the steps needed to address this issue have always been non-starters.
Nonetheless, efforts were made beginning with the Earth Summit in 1992, under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was signed by almost all the nations, recognizing the need to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, but it was not a binding agreement. Subsequent studies and more obvious climate change affects made the nations realize that it wasn’t enough and they started negotiations that led to the birth of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It was agreed upon that the industrialized nations would cut their yearly greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2%, by the year 2012 as compared to the 1990 levels.
It was based on the premise that the developed nations were the sole beneficiaries of the industrial revolution for several decades before the other nations joined them, and hence the primary contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. This treaty was a non-starter, as the United States did not sign it. By 2011, some countries and regions, like the European Union, were on track to meet (or exceed) their Kyoto Protocol goals, but America and China’s emissions were large enough to negate all the reductions made by other countries during the protocol period.
During the Kyoto Protocol period, which spanned 1990 to 2012, developing nations caught up with the developed nations in emissions. They had to meet the aspirations of the burgeoning middle class. It became imperative that China and India were brought onboard to make any meaningful attempt to control emissions. This led to the Paris Agreement (also referred to as the Paris Accord) in 2016. To date, 151 out of the 197 countries party to the Convention have ratified the agreement.
According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change:
The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. To reach these ambitious goals, appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework will be put in place, thus supporting action by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries, in line with their own national objectives. The Agreement also provides for enhanced transparency of action and support through a more robust transparency framework.
The Paris Agreement is the most ambitious attempt to date by the world’s nations to fight climate change. It is a clear and present danger, which has the potential to end life on the planet. It is however, unfortunate that the United States has chosen to exit from the Paris Agreement in 2017. On June 1, 2017, President Trump declared that, “As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country”. His administration argues that the Agreement is unfair to the American worker, while being beneficial to countries like India and China. Niklas Höhne, a professor and a founder of the NewClimate Institute says that this is far from truth and that those countries are doing their part.
Experts also say that it is unnecessary to withdraw from the Paris agreement if the concern was solely about emissions targets and financial contributions, because under the Agreement, every country has the right to revise their emissions targets and the financial contributions are only voluntary. Obama administration pledged under the Agreement that by the year 2025, United States would cut its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels.
The Trump administration stated that the United States would try to “begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or [a] really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.” One doesn’t really understand the concern for businesses here, because the problem at hand is about human survival. Humans ought to survive first, before attempting to do anything else. In a scenario, where China, America, India, Russia, and Japan are the top five emitters in the world, America’s walkout from this Agreement would be a serious challenge to achieve the global emission-reduction goals. America shouldn’t abdicate its leadership role in the world. It should instead take the lead in fighting climate change and further strengthen its position as the preeminent nation in the world.
The world is at a stage where it is a case of now or never. It is frightening, when experts say that there are just three years left to take steps to stop irreversible climate change. Eminent theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, said that humans need to prepare for an exodus from earth. We are at a stage where we clearly know how and what has to be done to save the planet. It boils down to the will to execute.
It is sad that the human race was able to bring all the species to the verge of extinction in such a short period of time, considering the fact that the earth is millions of years old. Unbridled population growth is the primary reason for the severe strain on the earth’s resources. In order to feed the billions, we had to farm huge produce and raise cattle in large numbers, which led to a decrease in forest cover and water resources. In the name of a comfortable life, we have exploited every possible natural resource, resulting in massive pollution. We, humans, consumed more than our fair share of the planet’s resources and here we are, facing the consequences.
I’m of the opinion that like all other things, life on earth too will end. It is only a question of when that happens. We can prolong the life of earth by taking remedial actions now, but I think we can only do that much. It’ll be helpful if we can move to cleaner technologies within the next decade or two. It is impossible now to go back and live a primitive life. All that we can do is, slow the pace of climate change.
Change is inevitable and climate is not an exception.
image by: Ian Muttoo