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Monday, May 30, 2016

global warming

All that mankind has accomplished since industrial revolution “will evaporate like water under a relentless sun”, if climate change is not checked soon.

Over the last five decades, the relationship between economic growth and environment—in terms of its finiteness of resources or its preservation—has been extensively studied both by economists and scientists. The main driving force behind these studies is the urge to save the earth for our next generations.

And thus emerged the concept of ‘sustainable development’—the “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission, 1987)—towards the end of the 20th century as a new paradigm of economic development.

This development has indeed emphasized the need for: one, participatory, multi-stakeholder approach to policy making; two, mobilization of public and private resources for development; and three, using the knowledge, skills and energy of all the groups concerned with the future of planet and its inhabitants.

However, accomplishment of 12 out of the 17 sustainable development goals calls for action on climate change. True, during the last 10 years, the concern for global warming or climate change among the public has considerably gone up, but nothing substantial is happening. For, the success of the deal on climate change depends on the rich countries’ agreeing to offer substantial funding to the poorer countries to help them cut their carbon emissions by adopting alternative technologies, besides of course, undertaking substantial cuts in their own emissions.

On the other hand, the unabated rising emissions and stocks of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—currently, coal supplies 41% of the world’s electricity and 29% of the world’s energy, the highest for the last four decades; current atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is 40% higher than what it was at the beginning of the industrial revolution—are ringing alarm bells: at the current level of emissions the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is feared to rise from the present 400 ppm to 700 ppm by the end of the century, which is expected to increase the global temperature by 3.5 oC.

The consequences of such a rise in global temperature is well recognized by the scientists: likely occurrence of killer storms stronger than the presently known, disintegration of large parts of polar ice sheets, rise of sea that could drown the coastal cities of the world before the end of the century, etc. Scientists are indeed very candid in their warning: by burning fossil fuels at an amazing pace and releasing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, humanity is unwittingly paving the way for an abrupt climate shift. India is already witnessing the ill-effects of climate change: monsoon rains have become less and less reliable, Himalayan glaciers are observed to be retreating questioning the perennial nature of river systems, densely populated coastal towns are facing the threat of sea erosion and inundation, etc.

Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman, the authors of the book, Climate Shock, drawing our attention to the likely repercussions of a hotter planet, advise that we should insure ourselves against the climate change—a challenge that is “almost uniquely global, uniquely long-term and uniquely irreversible and uniquely uncertain.” Asserting “what we already know is bad and what we don’t know is potentially much worse”, they insist that policy makers, shedding their ‘cognitive dismissal’ and treating climate as a risk management issue, must take reasoned action more urgently.

Despite such accumulation of knowledge about the potential of climate change to cause grave harm—every single year of this decade has been hotter than every single year before 1998—global leadership is still grappling with the challenge of promoting an ethical shift toward a world of low carbon emissions aided by pro-environment living norms.

Although every leader worth his salt keeps saying, “Yes, we must try to limit the global warming to 3.6 oF above the preindustrial level”, no “durable, ambitious” and realistic program is in the offing, at least in the foreseeable future.

Reacting to the outcome at the latest Paris meet, Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, well captured the present impasse when he said: “It sometimes seems that the countries of the UN can unite on nothing, but nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. … The Paris agreement is only one step on a long road and there are parts of it that frustrate, that disappoint me, but it is progress. The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”     
One good thing to happen at the Paris meet is: unlike in the past where nations have submitted to caps on greenhouse gas emissions imposed by global bodies, countries have now volunteered to reduce their emissions or at least restrain them. This “intended nationally determined contributions” might offer the advantage of ‘inclusiveness’ but that in itself is not sufficient, for whatever stabilization of greenhouse gas emissions we are talking about is already at an exalted level and hence no downward slope in the plateau is likely to result. As promised at the Paris meet, China might burn less coal in the coming years, but what a think-tank from Copenhagen says, “A lot of poor countries are going to get a lot richer by burning fossil fuels”, turns out true, no steep fall in emissions can be hoped for. Which means, no hope of not breaching the 2 oC limit!

So, the imperative is: tackle the climate change urgently, more intelligently. More capital to be committed for research: invent technologies that make alternate energy sources cheaper, invent crops that tolerate high temperatures and yet yield good harvest, invent ways to artificially cool the earth, and ultimately learn to live with the changing climate more meaningfully.


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