Global warming and climate change have become an existential threat to humankind. In this article, Nanditha elucidates these ideas and explains how close we are to a global catastrophe if we do not act now. She also describes how India would be one of the worst-hit nations.
Greta Thunberg’s rise to fame with the movement “School Strike for Climate Change”, which shone a light on the view that humanity is facing an existential threat due to human-made climate change. This reinvigorated the long-standing climate change debate: how much of a threat is it, and what are the best steps forward? Before we delve into debates, let’s take a quick look at what global warming is.
Global warming refers to the phenomenon of the increase in the Earth’s average temperature over a period of time. The Earth’s average temperature, which is 14.6 C, is increasing at a faster rate than usual.
Climate change refers to the more general changes happening to Earth, partly as a result of global warming. These adverse changes include shrinking mountains glaciers, melting ice caps (and rising sea levels), changes in flowering patterns, etc.
Global warming is caused by the “greenhouse effect”. CO2 and other air pollutants (methane, ethane, polychlorocarbons) get trapped in the atmosphere instead of escaping into space. These pollutants retain the heat from sunlight – like in a greenhouse, thereby increasing the global temperatures. There is sufficient data today to suggest that the causes of increased temperature started in the industrialization era, and aligns closely with the increase in demand and use of coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity. The Climatic Research Unit, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have all reported that the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, except for 1998. The warmest year on record was 2016.
Some of the most adverse effects of global warming may seem far away because they include imagery of melting ice caps, and polar bears losing their habitat in Antarctica. However, the effects are closer to home – it is predicted that South Asia, and particularly India will be one of the worst-hit nations in the world. India has the highest Social Cost of Carbon and thus, with a greater increase in the global temperature, the cumulative damage will increase. These consequences are represented as heatwaves, water shortage (already a threat in many regions of South India), sea-level rise, unpredictable precipitation patterns. Climate change is an intersectional problem. As we lose the power to predict harvest seasons, there will be a significant shift in the growth of important crops like rice. This could result in severe famine across the country and as much as a 9% decline in India’s GDP, due to reduction or stoppage of export. Increased sea levels pose a big threat to those who live in the coastal regions, with a legitimate possibility of destroying entire cities and towns, in a not so distant future. Without any surprise, the poor are the most vulnerable to these threats despite them contributing least to the problem.
With about 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agreeing on the man-made effects of rapid global warming, it is not a debate of whether there is climate change, but a debate on best solutions to go forward. Currently, the highest carbon emitter is China, contributing to 27% of the total CO2 emissions. The USA is a close second (15%), followed by the European Union (9%), and India (7%). But the per capita and total cumulative CO2 emissions are the highest in the USA (16%). Although India has increased coal demands due to rapid development, the per capita contribution has been low. Besides, India is also emerging as a leader in renewable energies. That majority of the new electricity generation capacity added in the past decade has been through renewable sources, offers hope. Despite a few countries’ efforts to strictly follow the Paris Climate Convention’s suggestion, USA has stepped back on provisions to curb greenhouse gases and pulled out of the Paris Accord1. These are extremely alarming and may set in motion a global scale of events that are detrimental to human lives as we know it.
The Indian government has taken ambitious steps toward addressing climate change issues. For example, the usage of non-renewable sources to fuel India’s increasing energy demands is set to decline by 33% in the next ten years. This means that around 33% less non-renewable fuels will be used to generate the same amount of energy. This is just one of the many goals set forward by the country towards an energy-efficient, sustainable future. They look promising, given the previous achievements of the National Mission on Enhancing Energy Efficiency.
Such positive policies have also been adopted across the world. These measures are reassuring, but we have a long way to go. Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr’s words have never been more apt since his original speech, “Beyond Vietnam”: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
1 “The Paris Agreement is a landmark environmental accord that was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015 to address climate change and its negative impacts. The deal aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels while pursuing means to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees”