FeaturedInternationalVolume 13 Issue # 02

A climate disaster in the making

There are tell-tale signs that the Earth is warming up, and we must take action before the planet becomes unlivable.

According to the annual State of the Climate report, 2016 was the hottest year in recent history. The year saw the highest air and sea surface temperatures since the industrial age began, as well as the highest concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. There was an alarming acceleration in the melting of Arctic ice cover as glaciers the size of entire countries break off from the ice mass and float off into the waters. The highest-ever sea levels have been recorded as well as the most extensive drought in the world.

The report has noted that a range of key climate and weather indicators shows the planet is growing increasingly warm, a trend that shows no signs of slowing down: “Last year’s record heat resulted from the combined influence of long-term global warming and a strong El Nino early in the year”. According to the report, unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases are polluting the atmosphere, acting like a blanket to capture heat around the Earth. All major greenhouse gases that drive warming, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide, rose to new heights. Atmospheric CO2 concentration reached 402.9 parts per million (ppm), surpassing 400 ppm for the first time in the modern record and in ice core records dating back as far as 800,000 years.

Melting glaciers and polar ice caps swelled the world’s oceans, and the global average sea level rose to a new record high – about 8.25cm higher than the 1993 average. In the polar regions, sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic hit record lows. Land temperatures warmed too – the average Arctic land surface temperature was 2 deg. C above the 1981-to-2010 average. This represents a 3.5 deg. C increase since records began in 1900.

Some extreme weather events increased, such as unusually high tropical cyclone activity. A total of 93 tropical cyclones were observed worldwide last year, well above the 1981-to-2010 average of 82 storms. Record-high annual temperatures swept Mexico and India. Over the northern and eastern Indian peninsula, a heat wave at the end of April saw temperatures exceed 44 deg. C, contributing to a water crisis and to 300 fatalities.

Drought was unusually widespread as well. At least 12 per cent of land surfaces experienced severe drought conditions or worse each month of the year: “Drought in 2016 was among the most extensive in the post-1950 record”. Meanwhile, the weather phenomenon known as El Nino, which warms waters around the equator in parts of the Pacific Ocean, was strong in the first half last year, leading to increasingly wet conditions in some places. Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay saw repeated heavy flooding, while parts of eastern Europe and central Asia were wetter than usual.

Rightly said, it is no longer climate change. It is climate calamity which is slipping out of our control. The Global Climate Risk Index 2016, which made a survey of 195 countries facing varying degrees of climate risks, 10 are the most affected, including Pakistan, Honduras, Myanmar and some other countries. Altogether, less developed countries are generally more affected than industrialised ones. Most of the countries wich made it in the top 10 for extreme weather in 2014 had suffered exceptional catastrophes. Tolls from disasters are also affected by development strategies, such as population growth in vulnerable areas.

The Global Climate Risk Index ranks Pakistan eighth, two spots higher than last year’s 10th spot, on the list of countries most affected by the extreme weather in the last 20 years (1995 to 2014). The climate risk report is a red signal which the world can ignore at its own peril. Scientists point to the mounting threat from storms, floods, droughts and rising seas if mankind does not brake emissions from heat-trapping greenhouse gases, especially from fossil fuels. It is pertinent to note here that the report has only looked at the direct results of extreme weather, whereas the indirect consequences of extreme weather such as drought and famine resulting from heat waves can be much more deadly. Global warming is a direct cause of gradual sea-level rise, glacier melting and more acidic and warmer seas. It is yet to be fully recognized that the Climate Risk Index indicates a level of exposure and vulnerability to extreme events that countries should understand as a warning to be prepared for more frequent and/or more severe events in the future.

 

After a long wait, the Paris climate summit served as a useful forum to discuss several international policy issues relevant to the impacts of extreme events. The Paris climate change accord committed 195 countries, especially the industrialized ones, to cut the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement also called for keeping the “increase in the global average temperature well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”. The lower threshold was a victory for small-island states threatened by the rising seas. Another milestone agreement at Paris was for “global peaking of greenhouse emissions as soon as possible” followed by “rapid reduction thereafter”. Each country has to deliver every five years a new pledge to further reduce emissions and “bend” the emissions curve down.

The Paris deal represented a historic breakthrough on an issue that has foiled decades of international efforts to address climate change. Previous attempts at climate control mainly focused on action by developed economies like the United States to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But under the Paris deal the obligation is total, all across the board, requiring action in some form from every country, rich or poor. The Paris pact has built in a series of legally binding requirements that countries strengthen their climate change policies in the future. They are required to reconvene every five years, starting in 2020, with updated plans that would tighten their emissions cuts. Countries will also be legally required to reconvene every five years starting in 2023 to publicly report on how they are doing in cutting emissions compared to their plans. They will be legally required to monitor and report on their emissions levels and reductions, using a universal accounting system.

Despite tell-tale signs of climate disaster looming on the horizon, the government of Pakistan has not yet addressed the issue with the seriousness it deserves. As we can see, the weather patterns and cycles are changing fast. Summers are hotter than before, while frequent bouts of freezing cold mark the winters. Monsoon flooding is now a regular annual feature. These are danger signals indicating that worse lies ahead. It is time the government woke up and put its act together to meet the challenge of climate change. To start with, we must review the policy of setting up coal-fired power plants to solve our energy problems. There is need for a comprehensive environmental policy to tackle the looming climate disaster.

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