The chilling message they convey cannot be ignored. While chances of containing climate change appear dim, we can at least cope with the consequences
One would have thought that the acrimonious and high-decibel campaign for the Lok Sabha elections would push issues like climate change into oblivion. Fortunately, it has not. While the elections hold the centre-stage of discourse, reports of unusual temperature changes appear in TV channels and print publications.
This is hardly surprising given that climate change has been affecting our lives for quite some time now. Two examples can be cited. Most of March was unusually cold in Delhi, the National Capital Territory and some areas around it. It began warming up only towards the end of the month. Himachal Pradesh experienced four times more snowfall this year compared to the last. It has not just been India. The United States and Britain have had rather strange weather patterns. Several places in areas around Los Angeles in California experienced the rather unusual phenomenon of snowfall, besides heavy rain, in February. Seattle and the adjoining areas in Washington State in North-West US witnessed heavy snowfall — a rarest of rare event. New York and the north-eastern seaboard of the US have been visited for some years now by high-speed storms and heavy blizzards spreading thick layers of snow on the ground and paralysing public life.
If the situation in the US warrants concern, it is much more so with Canada, which is warming up faster than the rest of the world, according to a report commissioned by the Canadian Environment and Climate Change Department. According to the latter, its rate of increase is double that of global warming.
Britain, too, has been facing punitive weather for some time. Prior to the storm Gareth, which hit the country’s north-western parts on March 12 this year, it had witnessed two winter storms, Freya and Eric. Last year, starting February 22, 2018, Britain and Ireland were affected by a cold wave christened the “Beast from the East” by the media, and officially named Anticyclone Hartmut, which brought unusually low temperatures and heavy snowfall to large areas. The cold wave combined with Emma Storm, which was caused by freezing winds from Siberia — resulting from a disorderly polar vortex — reached Central Europe via the British Islands.
The results have been disastrous everywhere. In the US, Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2005, left 1,883 people dead. Katrina and the three other severe hurricanes that struck the US that year — Emily, Rita and Wilma — together claimed a total of 4,000 lives and caused $160 billion in damages. All other devastating hurricanes visiting the US — Charley (2004), Superstorm Sandy (2012), Harvey, Irma and Maria (2017) — caused severe damage and loss of life. Storm Gareth wrought severe damage in Britain.
In varying degrees, the pattern of unusual weather can be seen worldwide. Hence, the inevitable question: Is all this a result of global warming? Yes, but in some cases not directly so. According to experts, the recent snowfall in California was only indirectly so. Until the last two decades or so, there used to be snowfall in the region every five or 10 years when it used to be much heavier. It was much lighter this year because of the warming process. If anything, snowfalls would altogether cease over time with continuing global warming.
The average temperature of the whole world has been rising over the past 30 years, with the first decade of this century (2001-2010) being the hottest since the late 19th century when reliable records of temperatures came to be kept. The consequences of warming are well-known — rising sea levels, drowning of island nations, extreme and volatile weather patterns (which we are currently discussing), desertification, diminishing food production, famine, water shortages the flooding of cities, mass migrations of humans and other living species, creation of climate refugees, extinction of plant and animal life, mass destruction of forests and a situation in which playing and working in the open could be dangerous for people in the hottest parts of the year. The worst victims would be the poor who would be the hardest hit both by rising food prices following declining production and intensified weather disasters.
South Asia will suffer severely. According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published in the journal Science Advances, vast areas in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would become too hot for human survival by 2100. Of particular concern to us is the ominous message contained in the latest World Bank report titled, ‘South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on living Standards,’ unchecked climate change, causing high temperatures and poor rainfall, would diminish the living standards of half of the county’s population, particularly farmers in Central India by 2050.
Unfortunately, given US President Donald Trump’s truculence and his administration’s trashing of the dangers of global warming, the chances of containing the latter appear dim at the moment. What can be done is coping with the consequences. While a detailed plan needs to be drawn up by experts, two areas of action may be mentioned here — the establishment of dykes to prevent the flooding of as much of our coastal areas as possible and providing for the rehabilitation of climate refugees. The effort must begin without delay.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)