Climate change is heating the planet, endangering the lives of billions of human beings and threatening the survival of other species.
Most dictionaries define climate as the generally prevailing weather conditions of a region—as temperature, air pressure, humidity, precipitation, sunshine, cloudiness and winds—averaged over a series of years.
Over the course of time, many species have gone extinct, new ones have evolved and climate has changed. Today, climate change is being caused not by a volcano or an asteroid, but by human beings.
Climate is complex. There are far too many variables involved. Some of these variables are infernally hard to measure. Some still argue that we do not know enough about the causes of climate change. Yet even most of them agree that climate change is real.
For a start, 2015 is the hottest year since 1880. Cities like Hong Kong, Madrid and Sao Paulo recorded new highs this year. In India, well over 2,000 people died in an unrelenting heatwave. Over 100 people lost their lives in Sudan and Egypt in the first half of August alone because of heat-related illnesses. Even the United States, the only place where politicians still deny climate change, saw record temperatures and supersize forest fires.
The heating up of the planet is because of human activity. Since Scotsman James Watt and Englishman Matthew Boulton came up with their steam engine in 1778, the world has embarked on a tumultuous industrial revolution. In 1864, Siegfried Marcus invented the first modern internal combustion engine in Vienna powered by gasoline and put it on four wheels by 1870. Since then, the world has largely been powered by coal and oil. These fossil fuels will continue to supply 80% of the world’s energy till 2040.
Fossil fuels have changed the diurnal rhythms of human life by increasing productivity, providing mobility and generating electricity. However, there is an ugly underbelly to fossil fuels. They release carbon dioxide, particulates, methane and other greenhouse gases, which absorb the heat that the Earth radiates back to space.
In short, greenhouse gases cause global warming. NASA estimates that “average surface temperatures could rise between 2°C and 6°C by the end of the 21st century.”
Why is Climate Change Relevant?
Climate change or global warming is important because of three major reasons.
First, it is melting glaciers alarmingly quickly. In 1910, Glacier National Park in the US had an estimated 150 glaciers. That number has fallen to below 30 and the glaciers that remain are a third of what they once were. Glaciers are melting even in the North Pole and the Himalayas. In the words of Lonnie Thomson of the Ohio State University, Himalayan glaciers “are wasting from the top down, which means they are losing ice volume rapidly.”
Melting glaciers have terrible consequences. As is well-known, they lead to rising sea levels. Far too many coastal areas and some of the most dynamic cities on the planet are likely to submerge, causing dislocation of hundreds of millions. As snow and ice give way to moraines and land, less sunlight gets reflected back and more gets absorbed by the Earth. The environment enters a vicious cycle of ever increasing temperatures. It is important to remember that many mighty rivers flow out of glaciers, many of which are melting away. If these trends continue, then people in places like South Asia will no longer have enough water to grow crops or even to drink. The specter of drought and famine is all too real.
Second, climate change is causing extreme weather conditions. Deadly floods in Chennai, collapsing dams in Brazil and Hurricane Sandy in the US are part of a worldwide pattern. Extreme weather is killing many people and damaging property worth billions of dollars. It is also disrupting the lives of millions and threatening their livelihoods.
Third, climate change is affecting poor, marginalized and vulnerable populations disproportionately. Those who have contributed least to climate change are likely to suffer the most. A classic example is Sudan. It has suffered terrible droughts that have led to failed harvests and death of animals. Millions have become destitute and embarked on vast migrations. A United Nations study concluded that climate change was putting “unavoidable pressure on people through migration, displacement, food insecurity and impoverishment, possibly ending in conflict.”
Therefore, it is little surprise that the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) is taking place in Paris to belatedly address climate change. US President Barack Obama has given a rousing speech outlining “the urgency of the challenge” of climate change. Yet for all his rhetoric, the US is still wedded to an economic model of wanton consumption that contributes to climate change. The upper crust in other countries has embraced Mammon as their God: Wabenzi Kenyan elites, India’s nouveau riche and Russian super rich are classic examples of new robber barons leading their societies to environmental disaster.
… climate change is affecting poor, marginalized and vulnerable populations disproportionately. Those who have contributed least to climate change are likely to suffer the most.
Climate change is a clear and present danger. It requires radical and bold solutions.
First, human beings have to learn how live more frugally and use less energy. This is easier said than done, but people like Mahatma Gandhi provide an inspiration. For those who are not as ascetic, carbon and consumption taxes might lead to some restraint.
Second, clean energy through solar, wind, geothermal et al sources needs investment. Clean energy might be expensive today, but its cost will fall over time.
Third, we need to get better at storing and transporting energy. Smart grids, capacitors and new technologies will help.
Fourth, leaders at COP 21 have to come up with plans to deal with the adverse effect of climate change on people’s lives and set aside money to address this. The $100 billion budget right now will neither go far nor last very long. It is just a bit more than a fourth of the Greek government’s debt, and the rich countries who have plundered the planet need to cough up more cash. Better rainwater harvesting, drought-resistant crops and largescale afforestation will help.
Finally, new technologies such as desalinating seawater and geoengineering projects such as spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space are also worth a shot.
Human beings can no longer live as they have in the past. It is high time we started living more frugally, cleanly and sustainably.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.