The Hype and Beyond
Climate change has been the buzzword around the globe during the recent years. From governments to civil society organizations to academia, everyone is talking about it, and is wary of the adverse impacts this phenomenon is going to have on terrestrial life. There is hardly any difference of opinion that climate change is occurring – difference of opinion, however, exists over where it will lead. Majority believes that if left unchecked, climate change will ultimately make life on earth a rarity, if not impossibility. A small section of experts holds that it will be set off by nature in times to come, like multiple events of warmer temperatures followed by ice age in the past.
What is Climate Change exactly?
Definitions vary. In general, it is a change of climate, which is directly or indirectly related to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere, and which is in addition to natural climate variability over comparable periods of time.
A 2001 statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) read: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen. Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” The most recent scientific assessment by the IPCC suggests that the global average surface temperature on Earth will increase by 1°C to 3.5°C (about 2°F to 6°F) by the year 2100, with an associated rise in sea level of 15 to 95 cm (6 to 37 inches).
Causes of climate change are multiple but all of them are brought about by human activities. Main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the “greenhouse effect” – warming which results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from the Earth toward space. Certain gases in the atmosphere block heat from escaping. Long-lived gases that remain semi-permanently in the atmosphere and do not respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature are described as “forcing” climate change. Gases, such as water vapour, which respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature, are seen as “feedbacks.” Gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Human activities are changing the natural greenhouse effect. Over the years, burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, emissions from industries and vehicles, decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture, especially rice cultivation, use of commercial and organic fertilizer and burning of biomass have increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (increased from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years), methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons. To a lesser extent, clearing of land for agriculture, industry and other human activities, as well as deforestation have increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.
Some quarters argue that changes in the sun’s energy output have caused the climate to change. Evidence, however, shows that current global warming cannot be explained by changes in energy from the sun because NASA’s data establishes that since 1750, the average amount of energy coming from the sun has either remained constant or has increased slightly. Moreover, if the warming were caused by a more active sun, scientists would expect to see warmer temperatures in all layers of the atmosphere. Instead, they have observed a cooling in the upper atmosphere, and a warming at the surface and in the lower parts of the atmosphere. That’s because greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the lower atmosphere.
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A look at the possible effects and impacts of climate change presents a picture that necessitates focused, persistent and coordinated actions. There is growing global consensus that climate change is mankind’s greatest threat in modern times and is likely to have profound consequences for socioeconomic sectors such as health, food production, energy consumption, security and natural resource management. The projected increase in the duration and frequency of heat waves is expected to increase mortality rates as a result of heat stress, especially in areas where people are not equipped to deal with warmer temperatures. It is also expected to effect an increases in the potential transmission of vector-borne diseases by extending the range of organisms such as insects that carry these diseases into the temperate zone, including parts of the United States, Europe and northern Asia.
And, it is not limited to predicted impacts only; rather many harmful impacts of this global warming are already manifesting around the world in the form of extreme weather events like storms, tornadoes, floods and droughts, all of which have been mounting in frequency and intensity. Studies have found that the world today suffers, on average, 400-500 natural disasters a year, up from 125 in the 1980s. There has been an increase in average surface temperature by 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other manmade emissions into the atmosphere. Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. Similarly, increase has been recorded in average sea temperatures by 0.4°F, resulting in increase in the mean global sea level by 1-2mm per year over the last century.
Worldwide retreat of glaciers and shrinking of ice sheets have been recorded; data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost an average of 281 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 119 billion tons during the same period. The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade. Moreover, shifts of plant and animal ranges, increased events of coral bleaching whereas 30 percent increase in the acidity of ocean waters have also been recorded. This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons a year.
Climate change will also have severe repercussions for global economy and social strata. People who live in poverty around the world will be hardest hit by climate change because the poor are more dependent on natural resources and have less of an ability to adapt to a changing climate. Lower agriculture yields will not only constrain food supplies across the world but will also hinder supply of crucial raw materials for numerous industries. Together with increased level of natural calamities, all of this does not augur well for global economy, development and the vision of lower income inequalities.
Developing countries are the least responsible for climate change, for these countries contribute only 10 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. However, the geographical location and socioeconomic fragility of most of the developing nations makes them more vulnerable to the environmental, social and economic ramifications of climate change and the lack of resources and capabilities to adapt to the changes will worsen the situation, and Pakistan is no exception.
Pakistan is among the countries most affected by climate change. Global Climate Risk Index 2017 ranked Pakistan 7th among the most adversely affected countries by climate change. The country contributes very little to the overall Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, but remains severely impacted by the negative effects of climate change in ways such as increased glacier melt in the Himalayas, which can cause high floods similar to the ones witnessed in 2010 and 2012. It will affect water resources within the next two to three decades and will be followed by decreased river flows over time as glaciers recede. Freshwater availability is also projected to decrease which will lead to biodiversity loss and reduce availability of freshwater for the population. Coastal areas bordering the Arabian Sea in the south of Pakistan will be at greatest risk due to increased flooding from the sea and in some cases, the rivers.
Being a predominantly agriculture economy, climate change is estimated to decrease crop yields in Pakistan which, in turn, will affect livelihoods and food production. Combining the decreased yields with the current rapid population growth and urbanization in the country, the risk of hunger and food security will remain very high. Endemic morbidity and mortality due to diseases primarily associated with floods and droughts are expected to rise. Increases in coastal water temperatures would exacerbate the abundance of cholera. The impact of climate change will also aggravate the existing social inequalities of resource-use and intensify social factors leading to instability, conflicts, displacement of people and changes in migration patterns.
Climate change has been causing severe weather patterns, decrease in rains and phenomena such as smog in the country, which is a byproduct of air pollution. Crop burning is one contributing factor while other factors are emissions from vehicles, cement factories and brick kilns. Smog is not common dust particles rather comprises micro particles such as PM 2.5 that are too small to be caught by rain drops, hence smog isn’t lifted even after rain. Instead of emergency responses, the country needs measured policy responses including, but not limited to, enforcement of higher Euro standard fuels, making catalytic convertors compulsory, controlling crop- and waste-burning, building capacity to monitor and forecast and planting maximum trees possible.
As mentioned in early passages, some quarters, most notably American President Donald Trump, believe the biosphere will adapt to climate change so there is no need to panic or take any actions. They argue climate change is not a new influence on the earth and its atmosphere, and that the ecosystems will gradually adapt to it without significant effects on their form or productivity. However, three factors negate this line of argument.
First, the rate of global climate change is projected to be more rapid than any to have occurred in the last 10,000 years. Second, humans have altered the structure of many of the world’s ecosystems. They have cut down forests, ploughed soils, used rangelands to graze their domesticated animals, introduced non-native species to many regions and intensively fished lakes, rivers and oceans. These changes in the structure of the world’s ecosystems have made them less resilient to automatically adapt to climate change. Third, pollution, as well as other indirect effects of the utilization of natural resources, has also increased since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In short, climate change cannot be tackled without efforts and actions.
The way forward with regard to climate change can comprise multifarious approaches. Adaptation to climate change is one. It refers to actions intended to safeguard, people, communities, businesses and a country against the vulnerabilities and effects of anticipated or actual climate change. Adaptation aims to allow vulnerable groups to adjust and live with the changes in the environment and economy that will be caused due to climate change.
The second approach is mitigating climate change. It entails taking actions to tackle the causes of climate change. In other words, it means taking measures to reduce the emission of GHGs into the atmosphere and halting the global warming trend. This approach is the key to addressing the imminent dangers climate change poses, as it involves an array of policy decisions and operational steps with a clear line of action – from changing the ways natural resources are used to adopting innovative solutions to fulfil world’s energy needs.
There is a need to increasing access to high quality information about the impacts of climate change so that maximum human population stands sounded on gravity of the issue. Thereafter, sustained in-the-field steps would include improving technological responses by setting in place early warning systems and information systems to enhance disaster preparedness, practicing energy efficiency through changes in individual lifestyles and businesses, reducing the vulnerability to livelihoods to climate change through infrastructural changes, promoting good governance and responsible policy by integrating risk management and adaptation, developing new and innovative farm production practices, including new crop varieties and irrigation techniques, improving forest management and biodiversity conservation, empowering communities and local stakeholders so that they participate actively in vulnerability assessment and implementation of adaptation, and mainstreaming climate change into development planning at all scales, levels and sectors.
Of all the problems requiring integrated efforts by world community, climate change stands out because there is absolutely no way it can be tackled without joint efforts. Climate is beyond all geographic boundaries, racial considerations, ethnic divides and religious lines, so should be the actions to tackle it. In Pakistan, Environment has become a provincial subject under the 18th Amendment and this arrangement exacerbates problems in tackling climate change challenges facing the country. When world is required to move forward on climate change the beyond country borders, there’s no point in separating the climate change action at a much smaller provincial level. The world in general and Pakistan in particular need to understand the significance of joint and coordinated efforts if there exists a real will to tackle climate change.
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