In recent years there has been a growing recognition that climate change is a problem that can seriously disrupt the life-nurturing conditions of planet earth.
Earlier, scientists had reached broad agreement that it is necessary to restrict global warming to 2 deg. C above pre-industrial levels. But then it was realised that even this could have catastrophic consequences. Hence there has been increasing consensus in the scientific community about the need to restrict global warming to a level of 1.5 deg. C above pre-industrial levels.
As an increase of 1 deg. C has already taken place, this leaves us very little room but again the scientific community is clear that it is still within the realm of science (and human effort) to achieve this if there is a very firm global commitment. It is very important for humanity to make this commitment because otherwise the catastrophic impacts of climate change will be unacceptably high. Restricting global warming to this level calls for immediate and farreaching changes not just in energy, industry and transport systems but also even wider changes in economy, living patterns, social and political mobilisation.
In October 2018, a widely cited and discussed report of the most important scientific body on climate change (the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change or the IPCC) warned that there are only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to the limit of 1.5 deg. C. Debra Roberts, cochair of the working group on impacts, said this was the largest clarion call from the scientific community. This report tells humanity that this is the moment and we must act now, Roberts said. If we succeed in restricting climate change to 1.5 deg. C it will be a very significant achievement, but it will not mean there will be no significant adverse impacts of climate change at this level.
A range of serious adverse impacts are being experienced even now at 1 deg. C above pre-industrial levels. Significant adverse impacts will certainly be there at 1.5 deg. C above pre-industrial levels. But we will hopefully be able to keep these within tolerable limits. James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who played an important role in drawing attention to climate change, has said that both 1.5 deg. C and 2 deg. C would take humanity into uncharted and dangerous territory as they are both well above the Holocene era range in which human civilization developed but there is a big difference.
He said, “1.5 gives young people and the next generation a fighting chance of getting back to the Holocene or close to it.” Will humanity seize this chance for the young generation and generations to come? To make this a possibility, as the IPCC report mentioned, the window of opportunity available to us will remain open only up to around year 2030 or so. In other words, the decade 2020-30 is going to be the most important for saving the life-nurturing conditions of planet earth.
While discussion is more in the context of climate change there are several other serious environmental problems which are also reaching a critical stage around the same time. These problems may also impact the crisis of climate change in several ways, aggravating it and adding to it, while at the same time these may also be worsened further by climate change impacts. These problems include scarcity and pollution of freshwater, air pollution, pollution and disruption of ocean life systems, species extinction and habitat loss, rapid decline of bio-diversity and food production systems, serious risks from proliferation of dangerous chemicals and radiation.
The fact that so many people and children in the world still suffer from poverty, hunger, malnutrition and other deprivations increases the adverse impact of these serious environmental problems in several ways. At the same time the risks posed by weapons of mass destruction are also increasing. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterras said some time back that global anxieties regarding nuclear weapons are at their highest levels since the end of the cold war.
A little before this former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said, “The worst thing that has happened in recent years is the collapse of trust in relationships between major powers. The window to a nuclear-free world…is being shut and sealed right before our eyes.” We may add that since these statements were made the situation has deteriorated because of the failure to renew a crucial treaty to reduce nuclear weapon risks and the increasing doubts being expressed that another critical treaty due for renewal in 2021 may not be renewed.
This is as far as the treaties concerning nuclear weapons of the USA and Russia are concerned. However, there are also serious concerns regarding growing tensions and nuclear weapon risks in other countries possessing nuclear weapons, perhaps most notably the increasing tensions between India and Pakistan. Hence the coming years are going to be critical from the point of view of efforts for decreasing nuclear weapon risks.
In addition the future risks from robot weapons are extremely high. As the world is now in the early stages of development of robot weapons, the next few years will be crucial from the point of view of any major initiatives to reduce the growing and unpredictably high risks from robot or AI weapons. Hence it is clear that a number of serious problems appear to be converging around the same time leading to an unprecedented humanmade survival crisis on planet earth.
Urgent steps need to be taken to resolve this crisis without further delay and the next decade will be the most crucial from this perspective. There are very compelling reasons to declare the next decade as the Decade for Saving Earth as this will help to focus attention on the most important challenges ahead of us. This is a campaign that I have taken up with a lot of hope and if some of the readers of the book I have written also join such efforts then my efforts will be amply rewarded.
(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives. His book Planet in Peril, Survival Crisis – People’s response the Only Way Forward has just been published by Vitasta, Delhi)