The catastrophic bushfires raging across much of Australia that have swept large parts of the continent since October, leaving more than 20 people dead, destroying thousands of homes and devastating wildlife are further proof of global warming and a clear sign of unsustainable development. This type of development in the name of progress cannot meet the needs of the present.
Moreover, it will simply destroy the basic requirements of future generations. As a result of climate change, hurricanes are more powerful than in the past. Floods cover vast regions, causing people to lose their homes. Droughts cause crops to die, which means people go hungry. The sea level is rising, and will one day swallow up entire countries. For confronting this problem in which the stakes are high and solutions can be blocked by collective action problems, leadership is essential.
Leadership can only make a decisive difference by providing a model that encourages others to follow. There is another serious aspect – that leadership has the potential not only to unite, but also to divide public opinion over this issue. In the absence of political consensus within countries, the implementation of policy to effectively address climate change is bound to be weakened. Influence of many political leaders in confronting this acute global problem is sometimes contradictory to climate change needs. Scientists have pointed out that climate change caused a greater number of violent storms than usual, including 70 tropical cyclones in the northern hemisphere, compared with the longterm average of 53.
Storms brought devastation to the Mariana Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Korean peninsula and Tonga, while hurricanes Florence and Michael caused substantial damage in the US. Wildfires also raged in Greece, Canada, California and other areas, while floods devastated Kerala in India and displaced more than 1.4 million people. Japan also experienced serious flooding, as did east Africa. The record-high heat waves, record-low Arctic sea ice, above average tropical cyclones and deadly wildfires are the results of climate change. It is pertinent to mention that the African savannah, the Australian bush or the US conifer forests have faced fires over many thousands of years.
But the plants and animals living in the Amazon do not have the traits needed to survive a big fire and regenerate after the blaze. This is because fires were not very common before humans settled in the area. In addition to these, countries – particularly island nations – are most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change because they are losing land to rising seas. Since the world has witnessed more and more such devastation, we are the last generation to be able to do something about it.
Unfortunately many political leaders contribute to distrust in climate science and other environmental sciences though we are in the midst of a climate crisis. The meteorological report spells out the worsening threat with startling clarity. Despite the devastation, Australian Prime Minister Morrison practically ignored the linkage of the fire with the impact of climate change and said fires were nothing new for Australia though the blaze reached new dimensions. He also declared he would not write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries. The International Panel on Climate Change concluded more than a decade ago that human-caused global heating was “virtually certain” to increase the intensity and frequency of fires in Australia.
Average temperature rises in Australia were about 1.4C above pre-industrial levels before this season’s fires, showing a more rapid rate of heating than the global average of 1.1C. The total area burned stood at more than 10.7m hectares as at 8 January. Smoke plumes posed a significant health threat even to those living miles away, as the wind carried heavily polluted air to Sydney and Canberra, and as far as New Zealand. Meanwhile, scientists fear that when rain does fall, it may taint drinking supplies in cities and kill more wildlife by washing charred debris into rivers.
The habitat of the endangered southern brown bandicoot has been obliterated by fire on Kangaroo Island. It is one of many Australian species whose survival has been further threatened by this summer’s bushfires. The full effects of these fires will not be felt for months or years to come, but it will certainly cause the extinction for some of Australia’s most iconic, fragile and beautiful inhabitants on account of habitat loss and non-availability of food. With reference to the Amazon, it is pertinent to mention that deforestation to make room for crops and cattle grazing have contributed to this year’s devastating fires. The trees in the Amazon basin have relatively thin barks, so during a fire, the heat can seriously damage the cells inside the tree, which eventually kills it. Previous research in the Amazon has found that more than 40 per cent of trees die up to three years after a fire.
This means that the carbon stored in their trunks, branches and leaves is released into the atmosphere, either while the fire is raging, or later as dead trees decompose. This piquant situation arises because the new Brazilian government does not intend to honour commitments made in the Paris agreement. Similarly the US president, Donald Trump says in wilful ignorance that this science is wrong and that nothing needs to change – indeed forests must be felled and fossil fuels be further subsidised and promoted as “clean coal”.
In 2017, the Trump administration began pulling the U.S. (one of the world’s leading carbon emittors) out of the landmark Paris agreement of 2015 with a comment that the accord was an unfair economic burden on the U.S. economy. However he has realized the necessity of clean water and clean air. For this he emphasised on massive tree plantation in America but this approach can not be the alternative to forests. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, do not deny the science but coldly calculate how much they would lose and try to water down commitments.
Chile has committed to 30 per cent reduction in CHG emission below what they were in 2007. But between 1990 and 2016, Chile’s emission increased by 115 per cent which shows the country has a poor history of tackling climate change. India is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, the US, and the EU. In 2018, carbon emissions rose worldwide, primarily due to increased coal consumption in China and India. Although both countries signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, they continue to rely on coal as an important source of energy.
This poses a problem for climate change. Sadly climate issues in Indian elections were not prominent, though citizens are demanding climate action. The good news is that governments both at the Centre and in states have started talking about climate issues. But what India thinks about climate change is not adequate considering its extreme vulnerability with reference to in changed monsoon patterns, higher incidents of heat waves, drought, migration, and so on. These examples show that political leaders in many countries are not taking climate change seriously .
Many countries are also not doing enough. Unfortunately corporate influence on the climate change debate and policy process has at many levels been cited as a key reason for the relatively slow progress of both the UN COP process and national-level climate legislation. The lesson here is very simple – climate change must be our number one priority because of regular occurrence of floods, fires, drought, heat stress, species loss, sea level rise, ecological change and many more. Our great satisfaction is that these effects could shake the people all over the world and even ordinary people are now discussing it.
It can be strongly recommended that people who vote in elections should consider voting for parties that promise strong action on climate change. Another option is to support global movements organised by many climate activists. By turning up at rallies and showing support for groups, we can send a strong message to politicians that we care about the planet and all the life on it. Also a legal challenge can make politicians understand the extent of the passions running through people. If we send these messages to politicians, there’s a chance to make them work harder before the worst effects of global warming become a reality.
(The writer is former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board)