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It Is Now Or Never

By Aditi Munot

04 February, 2009

‘We have spent too much time thinking, supposing that if we weigh in advance the possibilities of any action, it will happen automatically. We have learnt rather too late, that action comes not from thought, but from the readiness of responsibility’ – Dietrich Bonhoeffer ( written while in prison resisting Nazis )

Any change will come about only from the readiness of responsibility. Mankind needs to own up to the responsibility of the changes brought about in the climate of this planet over the past 150 years and act accordingly.

Global temperatures are higher by about 0.8°C over pre industrial temperatures. Another 0.6°C is already built into the system. These changes have occurred solely on account of human activities like clearing of forests, endless burning of fossil fuels and so on. In less than 200 years, we have unleashed into the atmosphere the green house gases that nature took billions of years to bury.

All this reckless burning of cheap fuel has resulted in increasing forest fires, loss of permafrost, intensifying desertification, extinction of innumerable species of plants and animals, rising diseases and so on. The urgency of the problem of global warming is such that if we do not act today, change our needs and habits today, it will probably be too late to do anything. Our lack of action now will lead to global warming attaining certain tipping points which in turn will trigger positive feedbacks in the system. Many rainforests like the Amazon, which are the biggest carbon sinks will eventually become the largest carbon emitters of our planet. Similarly global warming not just results in loss of polar ice caps and glaciers, but also ensures more sunlight is absorbed by the earth as ice is an important reflector of solar radiation. More so, melting permafrost releases trapped methane and carbon dioxide further enabling the cycle of global warming. Once these and such other positive feedbacks like the soil and ocean carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, the situation will be irreversible forever.

The rate at which we are going, sea levels could be higher by meters in a matter of few decades. Even a 20 -30% loss of Greenland ice could result in flooding of major cities located in coastal areas. Increasing forest fires and desertification will result in lowering arable land putting an immense pressure on the food supply of an already starving planet. Warmer seas will result in acidification and decaying marine life and loss of plankton – another important protector against sunlight.

We are at a level of over 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the opinion of leading climatologist James Hansen of NASA, we just do not need to stop further emissions but we need to remove some carbon from the atmosphere and cool the planet. And we clearly are nowhere close to doing anything on these lines. In fact emissions are expected to rise by 60% up to 2030.

In a recent seminar, Tim Flannery, the Australian climatologist pointed out that major climate changes in the past have occurred over very short time spans – 2 to 4 decades. He also noted that actual rise in temperature in the past decade has been close to or above the forecasts of worst case scenarios. This simply indicates, the time and rate of climate change are going to be much earlier and faster than any forecast model or prediction suggests.

All global goals are set for reduction and caps in emissions by X% up till 2050. Similarly, the global community is debating on how much developed countries should curtail emissions vis a vis developing nations. These goals, debates, seminars, Kyoto Protocol, IPCC are all meaningless if they do not opt to act now. It might be too late 40 years from now. Temperatures are expected to rise by 0.3°C per decade. At that rate, the global temperature by 2050 will be higher than what the earth has experienced in the past 3 million years, when the temperature was higher by 2-3°C.

Most plant and animal species will not be able to adapt to drastic changes in climate. As of today the list of extinct and on the verge of extinction is ever increasing. More importantly, impediments like roads and highways created by humans will tremendously restrict the migration of forests and animals to safer climate zones. It will be impossible to sustain a human population of over 6.7 billion in the face of higher sea levels and increased deserts. There will be mass scale diseases and epidemics, poverty and starvation, riots and wars.

The truth is, climate change is no longer a difficulty to be faced by our children or grandchildren. It sure is going to happen in our lifetimes. If we do not change today, correct our lifestyles and consumption patterns now…. There will be no tomorrow. We, the entire global community have to make a choice today, to be able to live tomorrow. Each one of us, every individual, every country, the whole world needs to take it upon ourselves to keep this planet liveable…. For us, our children, all other species with whom we share this planet.

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