Can we weather this storm?

21 02 2007

This article started off my column with The Post (http://thepost.com.pk) which is an English language daily newspaper published from Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan.

It was published on 7 February, 2007.

You can find all my writings for The Post at http://thepost.com.pk/PrevColumns.aspx?src=Aniket%20Alam

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The new year 2007 opened its innings with New York bereft of snow and cherry trees blossoming in a strange premonition of spring as the Big Apple experienced one of its warmest winters in living memory. It was perhaps a fitting harbinger of bad news!

A month later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) released its fourth assessment report (FAR) on climate change which reinforced its earlier warnings that climate change was not only real but also irreversible. Human activity in the industrial period (1750 to 2005) has added more carbon di-oxide (the main green house gas) to the atmosphere than was added by natural causes in the past 650,000 years!

This has led to unprecedented levels of heating of the planets climate leading to a chain of processes which may threaten the very existence of life on Earth. Not only does the FAR provide very strong evidence to show that global temperatures have increased due to human activities in the past few centuries (the past 11 years were among the 12 warmest years of the last two centuries), the FAR notes that this global warming is irreversible! Even if all green house gas emissions are stopped today, global temperatures would continue to rise for the next 1000 years melting the polar ice caps and raising the sea levels by six to seven metres.

But we do not have to wait for this new millennium to end to experience the devastation caused by global warming. In January 2002, scientists recorded the disintegration of a 12,000 year old, 3,250 square kilometre wide Antarctic ice sheet in just 35 days. One can see photographic evidence of this tragedy at <http://nsidc.org/iceshelves/larsenb2002/&gt;. Glaciers are in retreat all over the world, from the Poles, Greenland to the Alps and the Himalayas. The Arctic is slated to lose its permanent ice cover by 2050, while the Antarctic has already reported its first all season grassland.

These melting polar ice-caps will not only increase sea levels but also sweeten sea water, putting the existence of hundreds of thousands of marine life forms in jeopardy while drowning out coastal cities and islands like Karachi, Bombay, Calcutta, Dhaka, Maldives, Pacific islands, Los Angeles, New York, London and Singapore.

This will also change ocean currents leading to significant shifts in rainfall patterns and dry seasons. In fact, the FAR predicts an increase in precipitation in the temperate zones and a sharp reduction of rainfall in the sub-tropical areas (which are where countries like Pakistan and India fall). The drying up of the Himalayan glaciers in the next five decades (most glaciers in South Asia are receding faster than predicted) would mean that the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej would become seasonal rivers dependant on the monsoon (if that survives!) for water. What all this means for the economy and survival of billions of people can only be imagined.

The FAR also notes that weather extremes are likely to increase in both intensity as well as occurrence. The list of likely weather events are like a checklist of hell. Tropical cyclones are predicted to increase in strength and rate of occurrence. Droughts will be longer and more dry than usual. Experts have also predicted that desertification is a likely consequence of these weather patterns, specially in the dry sub-tropical areas with a total amount of arable land witnessing a sharp fall. The ecological patterns of all life will be impacted with this climate change. Early flowering of plants will orphan them from the pollinating services of birds and bees which, combined with changes in rainfall patterns will cause massive disruption to agriculture. Many experts predict a large scale dying out of species as their nurturing ecosystems are destroyed by rising temperatures. A particularly frightening prediction is the emergence and spread of diseases spawned by longer hot spells and more intense rainfall.

This litany of terrors, though, is not without its skeptics and critics. Even though much of the world today accepts the reality of global warming and human induced climate change, the government of the United States of America has refused to accept this reality. This refusal is crucial to all efforts to address the issue of global warming as the USA, with six per cent of the global population, contributes as much as 25 per cent of the man-made greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

The FAR report states, “Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values… The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture.” With its energy guzzling economy and lifestyle remaining unhindered under the banner of “The American Way of Life”, the USA is today not only the single largest absolute consumer of fossil fuel, but also one of the highest per capita consumers of energy. Its per capita energy consumption is double that of other developed countries like Germany and Japan and about 24 times that of countries like Pakistan and India. Its business lobbies have effectively blocked all attempts at joining global efforts at reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses with both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush refusing to accept any cap on carbon emissions.

But with the evident increase in the tropical storms hitting the USA’s southern coast (remember Katrina) and cherry blossoms in New York’s New Year, there seems to be a palpable softening of US opposition to accepting globally mandated caps on carbon emissions. States like California have already enacted laws to reduce carbon emissions while Al Gore, former Vice President, has carved quite a name for himself with his single minded campaign on global warming. But the administration of George Bush is still unwilling to whole-heartedly accept the findings of the FAR. US Government and businesses have arrayed a phalanx of scientists to rubbish the claims of the IPCC report and there is still no word on the USA joining the Kyoto protocol which imposes definite, if moderate, reductions in carbon emissions for each country. Countries like China and India, which have very low per capita emission of greenhouse gases have till now escaped any commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But these two countries are, nonetheless, major absolute contributors to global warming due to their billion plus populations and with their economies starting to pick up steam along the same old hydrocarbon based track, they too need to do much more to address this problem.

But it may all yet be too late for any meaningful impact on climate change.

Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC argues the real task at hand is to prepare to adapt to these dramatic changes brought about by global warming. Significant reduction in carbon emissions are near impossible as the entire world is heavily dependant on hydrocarbons to feed, clothe, house and sustain its six and a half billion people. The main challenge before humanity, and it’s squabbling governments and businesses, is to adapt to climate change.

Climates have always been dynamic and all species have continuously adapted to changing ecologies. When this ability to adapt stops, that species faces extinction. But never has any species been called upon to adapt to ecological changes so quickly to such massive changes as global warming is demanding from us humans.

Will we be able to weather this storm?

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