Global Warming and Climate Change
By Prof Soodursun Jugessur
Climate change due to global warming is the biggest issue facing mankind today. This is because of the devastating effects of this phenomenon on a planetary scale, all caused by mankind’s unsustainable development paths. Millions of lives are at stake, including our own.
It is recognized that the last Copenhagen Summit was a failure as developed nations could not agree on the assistance they need to provide for saving the planet from further global warming, with related climatic changes. They only agreed on the need to limit global temperature rise to a maximum of two degrees Celsius by 2020. They however recognize that they now have to change their lifestyles, consuming less fossil fuels, and enhancing the production of new and renewable energy from the sun, wind, wave, rivers, geothermal, and bio-fuels. Globally we are producing less than 20% of our needs from renewable sources.
The earth has already registered significant temperature increase (between one and two degrees Celsius) that has caused major catastrophes in different parts of the globe. These days while Asia is experiencing severe floods, Russia is suffering from a heat wave that is devastating huge forests and affecting the lives of millions. At the same time severe hurricanes are affecting parts of the United States, and cyclone prone regions are in danger of very damaging climatic disturbances. Coastal regions will be badly affected by sea-level rise, and while some islands will just disappear from the earth’s surface, flooding will cause huge devastation to coastal towns and cities. By the end of this century, sea level rise is predicted to be 59 centimeters. Bangladesh and other places will be very severely affected.
Food production has already been badly hit and prices are rising everywhere. New strains of microbes and viruses have appeared and health authorities are under severe strain. Poor countries with huge populations are the most affected, along with young children and old people who have less immunity against diseases. All this is the result of our having accepted a development pattern based on the models adopted by the developed nations where concentration of industries and manufacturing enterprises are gobbling massive amounts of fossil fuels.
We need to realize that this development pattern is releasing 80 million tons of carbon dioxide daily, and this amount keeps on increasing. While only a quarter of this is absorbed by the oceans, the rest is responsible for a ‘green-house effect’ that is increasing the temperature of the earth. Even a two-degree rise in temperature means that 375 million people on the globe could be affected by climate related disasters by 2015. What are the effects of this on human, animal and plant life around?
Just an increase of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius in global temperature (we are very near it!) will lead to a loss of 20-30 percent of world species that will die because of lack of proper food or because of natural calamities. There will be a mass movement of plants and animals northward to more temperate new zones, entailing new adaptation problems, and massive costs. ‘The earlier we act, the less costly it will be,’ says Nicholas Stern, the British Adviser to the Prime Minister. The International Organization for Migration will have a difficult task coping with the mass of migrants, while birds and animal species will fight for their own survival.
Loss to Biodiversity
The overall loss in biodiversity (animals, plants, birds, insects…) will be enormous. Human development impacts on nature will compound this loss. Already we have lost two-thirds of earth species by destruction of forests that were the source of food, energy and raw materials for creatures living there. Within the last thirty years we have destroyed half of the existing forests, the equivalent of 33 football grounds per minute! All this to allow humans to encroach on the natural environment further, building houses, towns, dams, highways and mining! And the devastation continues! Destruction is the other name of civilization!
In the southern hemisphere, an increase in temperatures will also increase the sea temperature, and marine life will be affected. Coral bleaching has been noted as the concentration of CO2 in sea water, and hence its acidity, increases. This affects fish population consequently, and decreased fish production ensues. It is said that maintaining CO2 levels as at present will require thousands of years to bring back the ocean acidity to pre-industrial levels.
Increasing Food crisis
With climate change and its ensuing severe droughts, severe floods and severe winters, food production has already been badly hit. Food prices have been rising and many parts of the world, especially within the African continent (Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Mali…) have experienced starvation as people had no money to buy food. Along with wheat, maize also will have suffered from decreased production.
In Mozambique, an elderly woman has this to say: ‘The weather has changed a lot. In our time there was the cultivating season, the rainy season, the time for sowing and harvesting, but now it can rain, we sow our seeds, we get so far, then the rain stops and everything dries up.’ Even in Russia, where forest fires are still raging (August 2010) and millions of hectares with plantation around villages are burning, the cereal crops are drying, and world wheat prices are likely to go up, as Russia could stop export of wheat for some time so as to meet its own requirements. As a consequence of the destruction of agriculture in rural areas, migration to urban areas will follow. No doubt the poor and the weak will suffer the most.
Increasing temperatures also give rise to proliferation of harmful insects, and this will require greater use of pesticides that adversely affect the environment. Even unwanted weeds will increase. Agriculture will thus be badly hit.
Implications on health
When it comes to diseases, extremes of heat and cold pose serious risks to older people, as their immunity is weakened by age. Those especially with heart problems will be at greater risk. The rising temperatures will bring an increase in mosquitoes and malaria, chikungunya and dengue fever as new viral diseases that thrive in warm temperatures. In parts of Kenya a seven fold increase has been noted in such diseases over what obtained a decade ago. Also water borne diseases are likely to increase. A higher increase in salmonella poisoning and cholera is again a real threat.
As temperatures rise in the northern hemisphere, migration of bacteria and viruses will follow, thereby leading to the North experiencing malaria, dengue and other diseases now in the South. Africa and parts of Asia have been struggling with these crippling diseases for centuries, and multinational pharmaceutical companies have still not succeeded in eradicating them and in providing the basic malaria treatments to millions. There was much drum-beating on new and cheap miracle treatments for malaria by researchers, but the fall out on the poor south has been minimal. Perhaps when the North experiences the spread of the disease, more will be done to fight the disease and the poor will then benefit.
Urgency of change in lifestyle
All these point to the need to adopt new lifestyles where we consume less fossil fuel, develop and use more renewable forms of energy, and generally reduce our consumption of natural resources. We should be prepared to sacrifice many of our luxuries in order to ensure a sustainable livelihood for this and future generations. We should travel less by car and plane, use the bicycle and other modes of communication. We should opt for smaller cars using renewable energy like biofuels. And promote smaller industries using locally produced energy and empowering the people rather than enriching the rich. It is essential to appreciate that enhancing the quality of life is better than increasing the standard of living.
1 United Nations, Copenhagen Accord, 2009
2 Suffering the science, climate change, people and poverty, Oxfam 2009
3 Ageing and development, May 2010