From the front
Political leaders worldwide must push the issue of climate change into the forefront, combat misinformation and lead the charge against its causes
The catastrophic bushfire raging across much of Australia that has swept large parts of the country since October is further proof of global warming and a clear sign of unsustainable development. This type of development in the name of progress cannot meet the needs of the present. Moreover, it will simply destroy the basic requirements for future generations. As a result of climate change, hurricanes are becoming larger and more powerful than in the past. Floods cover vast regions, causing people to lose their homes. Droughts cause crops to die, which means people go hungry. The sea level is rising and will one-day swallow up entire countries. For confronting this climate change problem in which the stakes are high and solutions can be blocked by collective action problems, leadership is essential.
Leadership can only make a decisive difference by providing a model that encourages others to follow. There is another serious aspect in that leadership has the potential not only to unite but also to divide public opinion over this issue. In the absence of political consensus within countries, the implementation of policy to effectively address climate change is bound to be weakened. Influence of many political leaders in confronting this acute global problem is always contradictory to climate change activists despite the threat to humanity.
Scientists have strongly pointed out that climate change has caused a greater number of violent storms than usual, including 70 tropical cyclones in the northern hemisphere, compared with the long-term average of 53. Storms brought devastation to the Mariana Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Korean peninsula and Tonga, while hurricanes Florence and Michael caused substantial damage in the US. Wildfires also raged in Greece, Canada, California and other areas, while floods devastated Kerala in India and displaced more than 1.4 million people. Japan also experienced serious flooding, as did east Africa. The record-high heatwaves, record-low Arctic sea ice, above average tropical cyclones and deadly wildfires are the resultant effects of climate change.
It is pertinent to mention that the African savannah, the Australian bush or the US conifer forests have evolved with fires over many thousands of years. But the plants and animals living in the Amazon do not have the traits needed to survive a big fire and regenerate after the blaze. This is because fires were not very common before humans settled in the area. In addition to these, countries, particularly island nations, are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change because of losing landmass on account of rising seas. Since the world has witnessed more and more such devastation, we are likely the last generation to be able to do something about it. Unfortunately, many political leaders contribute to distrust in climate science and other environmental sciences though we are in the midst of a climate crisis. The meteorological report spells out the worsening threat in startling clarity.
Despite the devastating fires in his country, President Morrison practically ignored the linkage of this fire with the impact of climate change and told them that the fires were nothing new for Australia. He also stated that his government was not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries. The International Panel on Climate Change concluded more than a decade ago that human-caused global heating was "virtually certain" to increase the intensity and frequency of fires in Australia. Average temperature rises in Australia were about 1.4 C above pre-industrial levels before this season's fires, showing a more rapid rate of heating, more than the global average of 1.1 C. The total area burned stands at more than 10.7 million hectares as of January 8. Smoke plumes posed a significant health threat even to those living miles away as the wind carried heavily polluted air to Sydney and Canberra, as far as New Zealand.
Meanwhile, scientists fear that when rain does fall, it may taint drinking supplies in cities and kill even more wildlife by washing charred debris into rivers. With reference to the Amazon forest fires, it is pertinent to mention that deforestation to make room for crops and cattle grazing have contributed to this year's devastating fires in the Amazon. The trees in the Amazon have relatively thin bark, so during a fire, the heat can seriously damage the cells inside the tree, which eventually kills it. Previous research in the Amazon has found that more than 40 per cent of trees die up to three years after a fire. This means that the carbon stored in their trunks, branches and leaves is released into the atmosphere, either while the fire is burning or later as the dead trees decompose. The habitat of the endangered southern brown bandicoot has been obliterated by fire on Kangaroo Island. It is one of the many Australian species whose survival has been threatened by this summer's bushfires. The full effects of these fires will not be felt for months or years to come but it will certainly cause the extinction for some of Australia's most iconic, fragile and beautiful inhabitants on account of habitat loss and non-availability of food. This piquant situation arises because the new Brazilian government does not intend to honour the commitments it made as part of the Paris agreement.
Similarly, the US president, Donald Trump said in willful ignorance, that science is wrong and that nothing needs to change, indeed forests must be felled and fossil fuels are to be further subsidised and promoted as 'clean coal'. In 2017, Trump administration began pulling the US out of the landmark Paris agreement of 2015 with a comment that the Paris accord is an unfair economic burden for the U.S. economy. However, he has realised the necessity of clean water and clean air. For this, he emphasised on massive tree plantation in America but this approach cannot be the alternative to forests, both in a structural and functional system. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, do not deny the science but coldly calculate how much they would lose and try to water down commitments. Chile has committed to a 30 per cent reduction in CHG emission below what they were at in 2007. But between 1990 and 2016, Chile's emissions increased by 115 per cent which shows that the country has a poor history of tackling climate change.
India is the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, the US and the EU. In 2018, carbon emissions rose worldwide, primarily due to increased coal consumption in China and India. Although both countries signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, they continue to rely on coal as an important source of energy. This poses a problem for climate change. Sadly, climate issues in Indian elections were not as prominent though citizens are demanding climate action. If this is true, we should expect political parties to speak prominently of their climate policies as compared to their stance on NRC and CAA. The good news is that governments, both in centre and states, have started talking about climate issues.
These examples show that political leaders in many countries are not taking climate change seriously enough. Many countries are also not doing enough. Unfortunately, corporate influence on the climate change debate and policy process has at many levels been cited as a key reason for the relatively slow progress of both the UN process and national-level climate legislation.
The lesson here is very simple, climate change must be our number one priority because of the regular occurrence of floods, fires, droughts, heat stress, species loss, sea-level rise, ecological change and many more. Our great satisfaction is that these effects could shake people all over the world. Perhaps that is the silver lining in all this. It can be strongly recommended that people who can vote in elections should consider voting for parties that promise strong action on climate change. Another option is to support global movements organised by many climate activists. By turning up to rallies and showing support for groups, we can send a strong message to politicians that you care about the planet and all the life on it.
A legal challenge can make politicians understand the extent of the passions running through people. If we send these messages to politicians, there's a chance to make them do better and stop climate change before the worst effects of global warming become a reality.
Now there is an emergent need to tackle the human-induced climate crisis. If not now, when?
Dr Debapriya Mukherjee is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are strictly personal