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Global Climate Change: Threat
To Nature And Human Society

By Sanjeev Ghotge & Ashwin Gambhir

05 October, 2007

Anthropogenic causes of global climate change

The last two decades have witnessed a sharply accelerated global concern over climate change. The first indications of global climate change emerged from observations of a gradual yearly increase of average temperature, measured continuously in the island of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Many years were lost in the debate on whether the increase of global average temperature was due to anthropogenic causes or due to natural causes such as a slight change in the tilt of the Earth's axis, increased solar activity impinging on the Earth's surface etc. As the amount and accuracy of measured data increased, the consensus in the scientific community coalesced solidly behind the emerging paradigm that global warming was being caused by human industrial activity around the world - the increasing combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas to power activities such as power generation, transportation and all types of industrial production. Needless to say, the emergence of this scientific consensus has been opposed by many global vested interests – both political and economic – who have sensed the imminent threat to their position of dominance and privilege. Leading these vested interests have been industrialized countries such as the US and Australia in which fossil fuel companies play a major controlling role in their internal political processes. They have managed to increase their global lobby by harnessing the fears of the oil producing nations of West Asia whose economies survive on massive oil revenues. From the beginning, it has been clear to these countries and their vested corporate interests that any rapid cut back in the emissions of carbon dioxide by their economies will lead to a collapse of industrial production and consumption in their economies, an end to their global dominance and the material privileges conferred by wealth. This is the core of the global politics centred around the question of global climate change and the possible ways of dealing with it. It is, therefore, imperative to understand the scientific and institutional basis that has been established for determining the phenomena and consequences of climate change.

Establishment of the scientific basis of global climate change

If the Earth were the size of an onion, the atmosphere around the Earth would be as the outer skin of the onion. Since the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century in England , all industrial societies started burning coal to obtain motive power which was used to power machines. The decisive invention was the steam engine, which used energy from burning coal. Through the nineteenth century, more sophisticated energy converting inventions were created – the internal combustion engines (petrol and diesel) for powering transport, the steam turbines for generating electrical power and so on. In the twentieth century, millions of automobiles started using the internal combustion engine. In addition, the new invention, the jet engine, also used the combustion energy of hydrocarbons to power turbines to power air transportation. All these processes released carbon dioxide in large quantities into the thin onion-skin atmospheric of the Earth. Unfortunately, carbon dioxide has a property like glass – it allows solar energy to reach the surface of the earth but obstructs the release of heat energy back into space, thereby trapping the heat in the atmosphere. This was discovered as the basic cause of global warming and these emitted gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, methane etc – were named as Green House Gases or GHGs.

Since the size of the atmosphere around the Earth is finite and very thin compared to the size of the Earth, being about 100 km thick, the continuously growing burden of GHGs in the global atmosphere started disturbing the delicate balances that had created a stable atmospheric envelope around the Earth.

Through their decade long deliberations, scientists from all countries of the world concluded that the two major earth systems – ocean surfaces and land surfaces – have a limited capacity to reabsorb carbon dioxide and to reconvert it to carbon and oxygen. Their current estimates indicate that the oceans can reabsorb about 1.7 to 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon every year whereas the land surfaces can reabsorb 0.9 to 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon every year. In total, these two systems can reabsorb about 3.1 billion tonnes of carbon every year. This is the maximum annual limit above which the carbon dioxide starts accumulating in the global atmosphere, leading to the end-effect of global warming.

Scientists have mathematically correlated the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (and its equivalent in terms of other gases) to the gradual rise of global average temperature. Sometimes, some degree of confusion is created in the public mind since scientists sometimes speak in terms of emissions of carbon or carbon dioxide equivalent. This can be avoided by remembering basic chemistry that one tonne of carbon is equivalent to 3.66 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Similarly, scientists have worked out the global warming equivalents of other important gases – thus, methane has about 22 times greater power to create global warming effects as compared to carbon dioxide, whereas nitrogen oxides have about 296 times greater power. However, the relative quantities of these two gases emitted into the atmosphere are much smaller. The main quantitative culprit is carbon-dioxide, emitted from fossil fuel origins. Moreover, scientists have also concluded that carbon dioxide emitted from burning biomass does not pose a significant threat as it is part of the recycled CO2 which was earlier absorbed into the biomass whereas fossil fuels combustion result in the release of carbon stored in the earth over millions of years. Thus, keeping a track of the carbon emitted and absorbed to and from the atmosphere is the simplest way of understanding the global phenomenon now under way and uses the smallest magnitude involved. Another simplification is to remember that 2.1 billion tonnes of additional carbon in the atmosphere results in an increase in concentration of 1 part per million (ppm).

The scientists also estimated the total quantity of GHG gases emitted annually into the atmosphere. In 1990, the estimation was 5.4 billion tonnes of carbon emitted per year, by 2001 this had increased to 6.3 billion tonnes carbon per year and by now it would be about 7.2 billion tonnes carbon per year – an increasing trend well above the absorption capacity of the ocean and land systems combined. Converted into atmospheric concentration, this is about 1.5 -2.0 ppm increase every year

A simple analogy may serve to clarify the global situation. It is like pouring water into a leaking barrel – if the rate at which water is poured into the barrel exceeds the rate of which water leaks out of the barrel, there will be a net rise of water level inside the barrel. Replace the barrel in the analogy with the global atmosphere and we begin to understand what we are doing – we are pouring more carbon dioxide every year into the atmosphere than can leak out in terms of ocean and land uptake. Like the rise of water level in the barrel, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing year by year, in turn accelerating global warming.

At this stage, it would seem that obvious good sense necessitates that we should be firstly stopping the increase of annual carbon emissions and then bringing the annual emissions below 3.1 billion tonnes carbon to enable the Earth systems to reabsorb the atmospheric carbon and reduce the levels of concentration. But obvious good sense is far removed from global economics and politics. This departure from good sense is even more startling when viewed against the backdrop of the consequences to be unleashed by the anthropogenically induced global warming.

Consequences of anthropogenic global warming

Beyond quantifying the global emission and absorption rates and establishing the mathematical correlation between increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and temperature rise, the scientific debate has also mapped out the major likely consequences of climate change.

The first consequence will be the melting of both polar ice caps which will lead to a gradual rise in sea levels across the world. This has placed all the small island countries of the world as well as several low lying countries such as Holland and Bangladesh under threat.

The second consequence will be the gradual drying out of the major land masses of the various continents due to the higher temperatures, leading to prolonged drought like conditions in many parts of the world.

The third consequence will be changes in oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns which may lead to changes in monsoon and precipitation patterns and climate changes due to changes in hot and cold ocean currents.

The fourth consequence will be likely increases in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as storms, cyclones, typhoons etc and these will affect coastal areas in various parts of the world.

The fifth consequence will be greater climatic variability leading to alternation between droughts and floods, hot and cold waves in different parts of the world.

The sixth consequence will be gradual acidification of oceans which in turn may lead to the extinction of oceanic species which have exo skeletons made of calcium carbonate which dissolves in an acidic environment. Indeed, most life forms do badly in an acidic environment and if particular species are eliminated then entire natural food chains in the oceans may get disrupted, placing many other oceanic life forms under threat of extinction.

The scientific discussions and debates have uncovered patterns and correlations that link changes in physical and chemical parameters with changes in the ecological conditions necessary for the continued existence of many life forms on earth. It has forced us to consider the great fragility of all the supportive ecosystems that have hitherto permitted human societies to flourish at the apex of these ecosystems, laying them waste in the process of development. In a sense, the debates have closed the circle, bringing human societies face to face with the present and future consequences of our actions. The dilemmas that confront us are both deeply ethical and deeply political, with one element of certainty – there is no escaping the web of consequences of our present actions. There is no scope for the continued pretence that life and economics can continue as usual, that continued economic growth is the only answer to all our problems.

Webs of ecological consequences

As if the story uncovered thus far by the scientists were not sufficiently dismal, there is worse to follow in terms of webs of consequences that may follow from the processes unleashed by global warming. In the language of scientists, these are referred to as "positive feedbacks". In simple terms, when the consequence of a particular change in a system tends to bring about a further change in the system orientation in the magnitude and direction of the original change, the scientists refer to it as "positive feedback" i.e. change leading to further acceleration of change.

A simple analogy may serve to clarify. Most of us are familiar with the automobile. When the steering wheel of an automobile in motion is turned in a particular direction, the steering linkage is designed in such a way that it will automatically revert to the straight position – this would correspond to "negative feedback", restoring the system to stability. Suppose, on the contrary, that the steering linkage was designed such that a small turn of the steering wheel kept on turning the whole automobile further in the direction of the initial turn of the steering wheel – that would correspond to "positive feedback", and an accident would result.

The scientific community is deeply concerned that global warming may initiate a chain reaction due to several identified mechanism of "positive feedback", driving the entire climate system towards further instability. The identified feedback mechanisms are :

§ global warming leads to polar ice melt, replacing ice with water; whereas ice reflects incoming solar radiation back into space, water tends to absorb and retain incoming solar radiation, thereby increasing the warming effect;

§ atmospheric warming increases evaporation of water, adding water vapour into the atmosphere and this water vapour is itself a contributor to the greenhouse effect, trapping heat in the atmosphere;

§ atmospheric warming leading to drying out of forests and grasslands, leading to spontaneous fires over large areas which will contribute large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere

§ shorter winters leading to earlier melting of ice on land, opening the land to greater absorption of solar radiation and contributing further to atmospheric heating

§ atmospheric warming leading to warming of ocean surface layer, causing it to release dissolved carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect

§ atmospheric warming causing pools of water to form on polar ice surfaces; these warming pools of water tunnel through the polar ice caps to land surfaces below, lubricating the interface between land and ice cap and causing ice shelves to disintegrate rapidly into the surrounding seas, decreasing the ice areas which reflect solar radiation back into space

§ atmospheric warming leading to heating of permafrost areas in high northern latitudes; these permafrost areas release huge quantities of trapped methane gas, accelerating atmospheric heating

These seven "positive feedback" cycles, many scientists feel, will start becoming operational at a stabilized atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration level of 450 ppm. Today, we are already at a CO2 equivalent level of 430 ppm, and increasing at the rate of about 2 ppm per year. It does not take any great mathematical skill to arrive at the conclusion that we have at most 10 years time to stabilize concentration at 450 ppm, which corresponds to a stabilized global temperature increase of 2º C. However, even the 2º C limit to prevent "positive feedbacks" from getting triggered is, at best, an educated guess by scientists. The simple truth is that nobody knows the exact limit, beyond which an irreversible ecological chain reaction would be set into motion. Moreover, the meaning of a 2º C average rise in temperature needs to be understood within the overall context of the climate system. In climate terms, the difference between the last ice age and present average temperature is 6º C, so that a 2º C temperature is very significant.

The reason we have called these ecological consequences as a "web" is because they are not likely to be linear but will probably interact with and affect each other.

The scientific community has also indicated the likely social consequences of global temperature rise.

The web of social consequences

Briefly, the major social consequences that have been identified in the course of the scientific discussions are :

Displacement of coastal and island populations due to global sea level rise. The melting of Greenland ice may add 7 metres to global sea level rise, while melting of West Antarctic ice will add a further 5 metres and the East Antarctic ice another 55 metres to global sea level. Small island nations in the South Pacific such as Tuvalu will be submerged, as probably will Maldives . Many major coastal cities across the world will also be severely affected, as will densely populated low lying countries such as Bangladesh and Netherlands will also be severely affected. This will be a gradual but inexorable process which has already started and the earlier estimate was a sea level rise of 3-14 cm from 1990 to 2025. However, many scientists consider this to be an underestimation. Moreover, the damage will be caused by storm surges or extreme events around coastal areas that will make them hazardous, while destroying delicate coastal ecosystems.

§ Long term food shortages due to decreases in crop productivity in tropical areas. This will be caused by temperature increases in combination with increased evaporation from crops. Many tropical crops are already at levels near to the maximum temperature tolerance so that even small but sustained temperature increases may result in decreases in crop yields. Tropical societies may have to face food deficits as a consequence, resulting in, at a mass scale, in malnutrition or starvation unless social security systems can compensate.

§ Reduction in annual flows of perennial riverine systems which are fed by glaciers in their upper reaches. The retreat of glaciers has already begun. Particularly affected will be rivers which do not have their upper catchments in high rainfall areas such as the Indus and its northern tributaries.

§ An increase in intensity and/or frequency of extreme weather events such as storms, floods and cyclones would cause much greater social damage as compared to present level of damage. It is already known that, worldwide, the insurance industry paid five times more in terms of weather related natural events in the nineties as compared to the previous decade i.e. the eighties.

§ Greater climatic variability will increase the intensity of heat waves and cold waves. An unprecedented heat wave hit France in 2003, resulting in an estimated 30,000 additional deaths. Particularly affected were the elderly, pensioners and those not in good health

§ Finally, increases in atmospheric temperature and changes in patterns of precipitation will probably lead to increased incidence of vector borne diseases such as malaria and dengue as well as diseases caused by viral and bacterial agents. These may spread to areas and populations previously unaffected by them, leading to greater mortality and morbidity in these areas and populations. The affected populations may number in the tens or hundreds of millions worldwide.

This web of social consequences will, in general, be accompanied by an unprecedented wave of destruction of many species of both plants and animals wherein 30-40% of all known species may face extinction. Less visible though not less real will be the destruction of life forms in the oceans of the world. Just as tropical rain forests are considered to be rich treasure houses of plants, insects, birds and animals similarly, in the oceans, that role is played by coral reefs. Studies indicate that coral reefs have already started bleaching and dying due to ocean acidification and temperature increase.

As a community, scientists across the world are not generally given to flights of fancy or to exaggeration. Yet, shorn of their myriad qualifications and uncertainties of current knowledge, the above account may be said to represent the core of the scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of climate change. Viewed impartially, this consensus indicates that we are at the brink of a disaster of our own making.

Before proceeding further, we need to appreciate the slow and painful institutional process through which this consensus has emerged.

The institutional process underlying the findings on climate change

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio in 1992 saw the emergence of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the establishment of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In due course, 160 countries around the world have signed the UNFCCC. The process followed by the IPCC has seen the participation of about 2500 scientists from across the countries of the world. The IPCC Assessment Reports are part of the UN system; thus far, the IPCC has presented 3 sets of reports to the UN system and the governments of the countries of the world. The first report was presented in 1993, the second report in 1996 resulted in the Kyoto Protocol in which an agreement was reached that the industrialized countries of the world would cut back their carbon dioxide emissions to 5.2% below 1990 levels by the year 2012. The Third Assessment Report, published in 2001, covered the entire range of issues, from the Scientific Basis to the Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability and also Mitigation. The Fourth Assessment Report also consists of three volumes along the lines of the Third Assessment Report along with a Synthesis Report to be released in November 2007.

Apart from the Assessment Reports, the Kyoto Protocol has been one of the most significant outcomes of the IPCC process. The protocol excludes the developing countries, including China , from binding obligations for emissions reduction, at least upto 2012 when it next comes up for discussion. However, the US and Australia have consistently refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that unless large countries like China and India also undertake obligations for reduction, it is pointless for developed countries to reduce their emissions. These two countries are using this argument to mask their own interests, since the US economy has been the largest emitter and Australia is the largest exporter of coal and would not want the future growth of its coal exports to be curbed. China and India argue that they have a developmental imperative for the removal of poverty and associated ills for large parts of their population and hence cannot get tied down with binding obligations. In any case, they argue, the problem of over loading the atmospheric is the historical creation of the developed countries so they need to bear the major responsibilities (and by implication, the costs) of GHG abatement. There the matter rests, even as emissions keep on accelerating.

Economics and politics underlying the Kyoto Process

Even as the countries of the world have begun to manouvre for positions of advantage, the emerging battle lines leading up to Kyoto II are already evident. Ranged on one side will be the US and Australia; supported by some self-serving West Asian regimes and possibly some silent support from other developed countries; targeted on the other side will be China and India and possibly Brazil and a few of the larger developing countries. China in particular will come under a lot of pressure because it has recently overtaken the US as the world's largest emitter. India too will come under pressure as it is probably the fourth largest emitter in the world, not withstanding the fact that India's per capita emissions are one quarter of the world average and probably one-twentieth of the developed country average.

At stake in Kyoto II will be two central issues:

§ One of the largest cost-free transfers of technology, particularly energy/fuel technologies from developed to developing countries. The developed countries would like to receive payment for these technologies in market related terms which the developing countries cannot afford. In the absence of such technologies, developing countries cannot escape the carbon-emitting pathway to "development".

§ One of the largest transfers of wealth from developed to developing countries to prevent further ecological damage to the world that is inherent in the present pathway of development that rides on the back of chaotic, fossil fuel powered industrial development that favours a small rich world minority at the cost of the poor majority of the world.

Negotiations on these are possible and imperative if the world is to emerge relatively unscathed from the current path to disaster. What needs to be constantly remembered is that we can only negotiate between ourselves. Nature is beyond all power to negotiate.

Adaptation and Mitigation

Though the language of international negotiations is rarely simple, the term "adaptation" means adjusting to climate change by reducing the vulnerability to impacts; "mitigation" means intervention to reduce carbon sources and to increase carbon sinks – of these two, since our ability to increase carbon sinks – both on land and sea, are extremely limited, mitigation essentially reduces to emission reduction or changing over to non-emitting sources of energy, transportation and industrialization, these being by far the major carbon emitting activities. In a similar way, adaptation essentially implies a rapid transition to sustainable development in anticipation or response to inevitable climate change. Many informed observers have commented that the technology for making a transition to sustainable development already exists but political, economic and institutional processes are the major obstacles. Some observers have recently commented that we have wasted too much time and effort on mitigation, with little success; we should now concentrate on adaptation. This implies that the battle to halt the rise of carbon concentrations is already lost, all that time permits is how best to minimize the eventual damage by adaptation.

Kyoto II will probably represent the most important collective negotiations in world history, though too few citizens of the world recognize it as such. These negotiations will probably be more important to the future of both humanity and nature than all the previous treaties on security, trade, finance, terrorism or disarmament.

This time to Kyoto II is rapidly approaching.


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