Climate change: A manmade calamity

Climate change: A manmade calamity

It is widely accepted that the homo sapiens is the only species of life on earth that is capable of indulging in acts that endanger the integrity of the very environment that sustains it.

It is widely accepted that the homo sapiens is the only species of life on earth that is capable of indulging in acts that endanger the integrity of the very environment that sustains it.

Another species that comes close to possessing such a propensity towards self-destruction is the lemming - an animal, if one goes by the literal dictionary meaning, given to actions that are stupid, dangerous or harmful.

One look at the lifestyle of the human civilisation, especially that which is adopted by the present generation, is enough to convince us that this would constitute an apt description.

"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children" – variously attributed to diverse sources from a native American Indian to Ralph Valdo Emerson, this profound saying also carries with it a corollary, saying that we do what we do, not out of a sense of duty, but because we love our children and their children.

One unfortunate, albeit inevitable, fallout of inefficient management of natural resources is climate change.

The process of economic growth and development of a nation involves many processes that necessarily lead to undesirable consequences such as the emission of greenhouse gases that pollute the atmosphere, discharge of poisonous effluents into water bodies and seepage into the soil of harmful chemicals on account of the use of fertilisers and pesticides for agricultural activities. While these may constitute what we may call invasive acts, there are other practices that exacerbate the adverse impact on the environment such as deforestation and defective land use planning.

It is in recognition of the importance of the phenomenon of climate change that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), in which this columnist had the privilege of functioning as a member soon after it came into being, following the enactment of a law by Parliament in 2005, took due note of this aspect while finalising the recently released National Disaster Management Plan.

Air, water and land are resources endowed to mankind by nature. Harnessing the energy and power that they provide is no doubt necessary for the sustenance of the human race.

One only wishes that, while doing so, due attention is paid to the fact that sustainability is the key factor in the management of natural resources. And it is here that the rub lies. The attitude that one encounters most commonly is either one of blindly swearing by the overriding imperative of preserving natural resources, even to the extent of locking them up and throwing the key away, or reckless exploitation unmindful of the attendant dangers. The trick, as in all such matters, is to find the golden mean and follow the path of wisdom and maturity.

And, while doing so, we need to remember that it is the poor people who are the worst sufferers on account of neglect or abuse of natural resources. Similarly, underdeveloped countries are the ones that find it difficult to deal with the conflict between the imperatives of development and the dangers that can result from practices that cause degradation of air, land and water.

The layer of air that surrounds the earth which includes the atmosphere, the earth's surface and the oceans, constitute the biosphere. It also has the name "Gaia" - the Goddess of Greek mythology.

The emission of greenhouse gases or chlorofluorocarbons has, over time, caused what is known as an "ozone hole" in the atmosphere. The consequent rise in temperature has caused an increase in glacial melt which, in turn, has led to a sea level rise causing erosion of land, a phenomenon that affects poor communities in particular.

Glaciers are receding at an average rate of 10–15 m per year. And the consequent sea level rise and possible immersion of large tracts of land may cause migration of people, especially from Bangladesh to India. The phenomenon therefore has political implications of an international nature as well.

Exceeding the 1.5°C global warming limit, even if only temporarily, will lead us into a highly uncertain world. Such an overshoot will push a number of natural and human systems beyond the limits of adaptation and into possible futures about which we have limited scientific knowledge and no institutional or governance experience.

Impacts on agriculture in livelihoods can also increase the number of climate refugees.

Droughts are expected to be more frequent in some areas, especially in the north – Western India, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. Crop yields are expected to fall significantly because of extreme heat by the 2040s.

Millions of subsistence and smallholder farmers will experience immediate hardship and hunger because they will be less able to predict climate well enough to make adequate decisions about when to sow, what to grow and how to time inputs.

Sea–level rise and storm surges would lead to saltwater intrusion in the coastal areas, impacting agriculture, degrading ground water quality, contaminating drinking water.

Climate–related impacts on water resources can undermine the two dominant forms of power generation in India – hydropower and thermal power – both requiring substantial water supply.

India is highly vulnerable to climate change on account of the diversity in its socio–economic profile and heterogeneous climatic regimes, including along coastal area.

It has already taken several steps including increasing the green cover through tree transplantation, introducing water conservation at the farm and household level as well as in commercial establishments providing the installation of solar energy and other fossil source energy generators at each household or habitation to reduce burden on critical thermal/hydropower.

Most of these interventions, have been unfortunately failures, by and large.

The global campaign to organise a robust response to the threat of climate change, started decades back, has remained static in recent times on account of the strong divide between the developed and developing economies. It is a little like the agreement on the use of atomic weapons – both sides have the same potential for global destruction!

It was as early as in 1979 that the first world climate conference took place. Nine years later, in 1988, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up.

Thereafter the intergovernmental negotiating committee adopted the text for constituting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Kyoto protocol, a watershed in the management of the fight against climate change in the international arena, was adopted in 1997 with 195 countries as parties to it. It was then that the committee of parties (COPD) was first set up.

Several summits have taken place ever since the first one in 1995 at Berlin, the next one being scheduled to be held at Santiago in December this year.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

(The second part of this article will appear on May 23, Thursday)

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