The UN’s report on climate change makes for a chilling read. The threat of global warming is very real and requires a mass movement else it may lead to the end of life on earth
The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at Incheon, South Korea on October 7, 2018, makes chilling reading. Most of the predictions made in it — or their almost identically-articulated equivalents pronounced elsewhere — have been heard before. If these are most daunting, much more so is the new and breath-taking statement that at the current rate, the global mean temperature — which is already one degree Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution level — is likely to rise to the 1.5-degree mark sometime between 2030 and 2052.
It is important to recall here that the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed on December 12, 2015, calls for holding the increase in global average temperature to well below two degree Celsius above the pre-industrial revolution level and to try to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius above it, stating that this would significantly reduce the risks and impact of climate change.
The world has already warmed one degree Celsius since the industrial revolution, hence it is really a question of a difference of another half-degree. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, however, clearly indicates that warming, even if limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, would not reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. Sea levels will continue to rise beyond 2100, threatening coastal ecosystems and infrastructure. Flooding, drought and extreme weather events will wreak havoc on communities around the globe. Many species will continue to be driven toward extinction and marine ecosystems could face “irreversible loss.”
A warming of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) would make things much worse with global sea levels rising 10 centimetres higher, and the Arctic Ocean being free of sea ice in the summers at least once per decade instead of once per century, as is forecast under a 1.5 degrees scenario. Coral reefs, which have been devastated in recent years by mass bleaching events, could decline by between 70 and 90 per cent with 1.5 degrees of warming, and by 99 per cent at two degrees.
The IPCC’s Special Report enumerates several ways of pegging down global warming at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). These require unprecedented reduction of fossil-fuel use by half in less than 15 years and almost total elimination of their use in 30 years. This means no gas or oil heating of homes, business or industry establishments; no running of vehicles by diesel or gasoline; closing down of all coal and gas power plants; wholesale conversion of the petrochemical industry to green chemistry; and heavy industry like steel and aluminium either using carbon-free energy sources or employing technology to capture Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions and permanently storing these.
Besides, the Special Report further states, that depending on the speed of reducing the emissions, between 0.4 and 2.7 million square miles of land may have to be converted to growing bioenergy crops and up to 3.86 million square miles of forests added by 2050. Even that would not be enough, the report warns. Every pound of CO2 emitted in the last 100 years will continue to trap heat in the atmosphere for hundreds of years to come. By 2045 or 2050 there will still be excessive CO2 in the atmosphere. More forests or some form of direct capture that takes CO2 out of the atmosphere will be essential to stabilize global temperatures at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), above the pre-industrial revolution level.
Even if the proposed cuts in the use of fossil fuels were to begin immediately, it would only delay, not prevent, a 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming. Worse, as of now it would seem impossible to achieve these goals. This is clear from the fact that the current pledges to cut CO2 emissions are so inadequate that that the global warming rate is set to rise by 2100 to at least 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (three degrees Celsius), risking natural tipping points such as thawing of large areas of permafrost. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement has made things worse. While it would become effective from 2020, steps to dismantle measures to implement the goals set up by the Paris Agreement have already been initiated.
The question is: What is to be done? As long as Donald Trump is President, one can hardly expect the US to reverse its decision to walk out of the Paris Agreement or change its attitude toward global warming. He has been publicly dismissive about climate science and had even called it a “hoax”. His initial observations about the Special Report, available at the time of writing, did not reflect any inclination to take it seriously, to say nothing of accepting it. Saying that the report had been given to him, he had added, “And I want to look at who drew it. You know, which group drew it. Because I can give you reports that are fabulous, and I can give you reports that aren’t so good. But I will be looking at it. Absolutely.”
In many cases Governments are stymied by the opposition, sometimes violent, by sections of the public to the implementation of measures critically important for impeding global warming. For example, it is known that post-harvest burning of plant stubbles in agricultural fields in north India is a major cause of air pollution in Delhi and the surrounding areas from roughly the time around Diwali to the end of winter. Nor is it a secret that it continues because farmers would not hear of ending it and Governments are unwilling to use compulsion.
The answer clearly lies in building up pressure from below to compel Governments to take politically-difficult decisions and groups of people to abandon their opposition to measures critically important for combating global warming, which affect their individual or sectional interests. This would require a mass movement. The latter is also necessary to persuade people to give up ways of living — such as compulsive use of air conditioners — that conduce to global warming, and adopt lifestyles — shifts to vegetarian diets — that hinder it. If it was possible in the pre-Independence days to turn Khadi clothes into virtually the uniform of freedom fighters, there is no reason why we cannot persuade people to adopt an environment-friendly lifestyle by showing that the alternative is the extinction of human and other living beings, including plants, through global warming.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)