Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An Overdose of Warmth

Among the environmental hazards that plague our planet, global warming has widely been acknowledged as the single biggest threat to humanity

The term ‘Global Warming’ refers to climate change that causes a gradual increase in the average temperature of the lower atmosphere of Earth. In the past, the changes in the Earth’s climate have been brought about largely due to natural causes but over the last fifty years human interference has been acknowledged as the main cause of increased warming.

The major cause of climate change is an excessive release of CO2 due to burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – used for producing different forms of energy. Deforestation also causes reduction of CO2 utilization and, by default, an increase in CO2 level in the atmosphere. This excessive buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases forms a thick layer around the Earth allowing the Sun’s heat to enter the atmosphere but not go back into space. The more greenhouse gases there are, the greater the percentage of heat trapped inside. Thus, global temperatures rise and climatic changes are brought about resulting in serious repercussions for life on Earth.

Jennifer Morgan, former Director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Change Programme, states that “Every bit of coal, every litre of oil or gas that humans burn adds to the load of gases in the atmosphere that engulf the planet like a blanket, trapping heat, smothering people and nature.”

Her assertion is also supported by the data from the World Resources Institute (WRI) which shows that the last 200 years have seen an addition of 2.3 trillion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – shockingly, half of this in the last 30 years alone. (WRI, Navigating the numbers, based on data from IEA, ELA, Marland et al, and BP.)

Figures compiled by the UK Meteorological Office and the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) bear clear testimony to the warnings of scientists and environmental protection agencies worldwide regarding the upward global warming trends. According to their records, the eleven warmest years ever measured are: 1998 and 2005 jointly – 2005 also being the warmest on record - 2002 and 2003 (joint), 2001, 1997, 1995, 1990, 1999 (joint), 1991 and 2000 (joint).

The effects of increasing global warming are already seen to devastate populations across the world, and predictions by some government agencies and NGOs as well as independent scientists speak of worse times ahead. While experts acknowledge that it is not always possible to link specific events to global warming, reliable estimates show that the increasing temperatures are likely to cause climatic changes resulting in flooding and drought, and an upsurge of diseases like Malaria and Cholera. A change in agricultural yield is expected and some species might even be pushed to extinction. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by 2025, over 5 billion people will suffer severe water shortages while northern Europe will witness increased flooding due to swelling water levels resulting from glacial melting.

In the Asian region, which is home to over 3 billion people, the effects are obvious through change of climate and disturbance of the natural ecosystem. In some South Asian countries recorded events have been directly linked to global warming like heat waves, costal flooding and glacier melting; while events such as spread of disease, droughts and fires, coral reef bleaching, heavy downpours and snowfalls are expected to worsen with rising levels of global warming.

A brief overview of the effects of global warming on some South Asian countries based on information available on the IPCC website is as follows:

India has experienced a warming trend at the rate of 1degree Fahrenheit/century. In May 2002 the State of Andhra Pradesh recorded temperatures up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It resulted in the highest one-week death toll on record. (National Climatic Data Centre, Asheville, NC.) The Geological Survey of India, 1999, has noted that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating at an average rate of 50 ft/year. The glacial retreat recorded for The Dokriani Barnak Glacier was 66 ft/year in 1998, and for the Gangorti Glacier 98 ft/year. At this rate, it is estimated that all central and eastern glaciers will be lost by 2035. (1998. Himalayan glacier backing off. Science 281: 1277)
Pakistan has had to bear the effects of climate change in the form of droughts and fires. The longest drought on record occurred from 1999-2001. Though it covered most of South West Asia, more than 2.2 million people and 16 million livestock were affected in Pakistan alone. (WMO, Geneva, Switzerland.)

Bangladesh continues to suffer serious effects of sea-level rise and the resulting coastal flooding. More than 18,000 acres of its mangrove forest have been flooded over a period of three decades. (The implications of sea-level rise and Bangladesh: A preliminary analysis. Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue.)

Afghanistan has seen periods of unusually warm weather due to recurrent heat waves. There was an increase in temperature of 1-2 degrees Centigrade during the 20th century. In 2001 Afghanistan also experienced its warmest winter on record. (WMO, Geneva, Switzerland)

Bhutan is in a similar dilemma – the temperature rise being the same as for Nepal, the average glacier retreat is at 100-130 ft/year. The Himalayan glacial lakes are thus at a high risk of flooding. (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and United Nations Environment Programme.)

Nepal is home to 3,252 glaciers. Due to rapid melting of glaciers, 25 of its 2,323 glacial lakes are feared to be on the verge of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) threatening humans and nature. High sensitivity of mountainous regions to climate change has also been revealed by a study which shows that the average air temperature measured at 49 stations in Nepal has risen by 1.8 degrees F since the mid 1970s, with high altitude areas showing greater warming. (Maximum temperature trends in the Himalaya and its vicinity: An analysis based on temperature records from Nepal for the period 1971-94. Journal of Climate, 12: 2775-2787)

The beautiful tourist destination of Maldives is looking towards a massive relocation of its population and drastic measures are urgently required to check the rapidly rising sea level. The 1200 tiny islands that make up Maldives consist of some of the lowest islands on earth – the highest point being only 2.4 meters above the surface of the ocean. The IPCC in a report states: "If the higher end of that scale is reached, the sea could overflow the heavily populated coastlines of such countries as Bangladesh, cause the disappearance of some nations entirely (such as the island state of the Maldives), foul freshwater supplies for billions of people and spur mass migrations." The high end scale, according to IPCC, means that a sea-level rise of three feet would be enough to sink 80% of Maldives under water.

The Kyoto Protocol, which is an agreement made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into force on 16 February, 2005. It binds countries that ratify it to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, or engage in Emissions Trading. Despite the difficulties of monitoring, Emissions Trading has been found to be a positive step towards checking the rapid ascent of global warming trend. It has been defined as an administrative approach which is used to control pollution by providing economic incentives for achieving reduced amounts of pollutant emissions.

The US with less than 5.5 % of the world’s population is considered to be responsible for 25% of the world CO2 emission. The US Government has been heavily criticized for its lack of cooperation with regard to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. In a meeting of the world nations in Milan, in 2003, Jeff Fiedler of the Natural Resources Defence Council said: “The White House is pretending its talk about science and technology is serious, but at home and abroad it opposes any actions to reduce emissions now.” Richard Worthington of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg also pointed out that, “In the rich countries there are still mercenary professionals paid to put loopholes into the Climate Treaty, while the developing world is forced to deal with the impacts of climate change.”

With increasing awareness and determination, many responsible governments and citizens all over the world are working to find effective solutions to save the planet. Clean energy solutions like wind, solar, bio-energy, hydroelectric and nuclear energy are under review; checking deforestation and effective population planning is also advocated as an important part of the solution to the threat posed by the heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Each one of us must persevere to preserve life – however small the contribution – and support efforts to reduce or reverse the effects of global warming. Our future generations deserve to inherit a cleaner and friendlier world.

SouthAsia Magazine, An Overdose of Warmth May, 2008

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