By Sharukh Vazifdar
How much longer are we going to ignore the fact that our lifestyles and belief systems are destroying the planet, and with it, us? with global warming on the rise, can we heed this global warning and change our ways?
Picture this: It is the year 2025 and dark clouds loom over India in March, before letting loose a deluge that floods the streets, ground-level homes and brings all rail, road and air traffic to a halt. You struggle against the raging floods for hours to reach home at the wee hours of the night. As usual, there is no power – there has been no power for longer than you care to remember. You pull out your stock of candles and light one. The windows are shut as the polluted air outside has given you severe allergies and bronchitis. You make yourself some dinner – a couple of potatoes are all you can afford, since food items are scarce, and expensive, since the food crisis a few years back. You reminisce about the good old days 15 years ago, when you lived in your sea-facing house and enjoyed the whiff of the salty water and a plenteous wholesome meal. You had to leave that house when the sea levels rose, leaving thousands homeless.
This could be our possible future. Global warming is a big cause for concern and a lot has been spread by the media about it. What is it? Can you list a few effects of the warming? Here are a few facts about climate change:
• Between 1905 and 2005, average air temperature has risen by 0.75°C and the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) climate model predicts further rise of 6.4°C by 2100.
• Ocean acidification by absorption of CO² has decreased average pH levels from 8.25 to 8.14 in 2004. Acidification of the oceans has disrupted marine ecosystems leading to oxygen-depleted or ‘dead’ zones in the water. Plankton, which accounts for 50 per cent of the plant life on the planet (!) and absorbs most of the CO², is very sensitive to such a change
• Sea levels have risen 18 cm between 1900 and 2000, and 3 cm between 1994 and 2004. Sea level rise, which has been steady at 0.1-0.2 mm/year for the past 3000 years has increased to 1-2 mm/year between 1900 and 1990 and has been 3 mm/year since 1993. IPCC predicts 88 cm rise by 2100.
• The surface area of glaciers worldwide has reduced by 50 per cent since 1950. Antarctic glaciers are thinning and permanently retreating at a rate of 1.2 km/year.
• Sea ice in the Arctic, which has decreased by 40 per cent in the last 40 years, is setting records every year for new lows. It could disappear in the summer by the next 20 years. The last time the North Pole was ice-free was three million years ago.
• The 10 hottest years on record have all occurred in the last 14 years. 1998 and 2005 were two of the hottest years in the last 200 years.
• The increase in temperature has caused a larger number of natural disasters, which are more severe in nature. The average number of storms and floods occurring in the ’70s was 27, in the ’80s, it was 50 and in the ’90s, it was 93.
• In March 2004, a hurricane struck the coast of Brazil causing massive destruction. People refused to evacuate because hurricanes do not happen in the colder southern hemisphere waters. Almost 40,000 people died in a heat wave in Europe in 2003; and in 2008, it snowed in the desert country of Saudi Arabia.
• The possible slowing down of the ocean current system, the ‘great ocean conveyor’ will alter the season pattern, affecting all living organisms, industries and agriculture. It happened 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, and caused a mini ice age in Europe.
Global warming, the most direct threat faced by mankind, is brushed off by many as a myth, or a natural occurrence. But the 0.75°C rise in temperature and the 18 cm sea level rise over the last hundred years shows otherwise. The CO² levels which were 284 ppm in 1832, and had been stable for the past 10,000 years, have now jumped to 384 ppm. CO² levels have not been so high in the past 650,000 years! Water bodies and rainforests reabsorb the 220 billion tons of CO² emitted by nature through decay of organic material per year; it has been part of the natural cycle since hundreds of millennia. It is the other 27 billion tons of CO² emitted through human activity that is causing a problem. It can be seen empirically that the post-industrial era has caused a rapid rise in the CO² levels and it has been growing ever since.
CO² absorbs the infrared radiation from the sun and prevents it from leaving our atmosphere. When these levels rise, as is happening now, there is more heat trapped and this creates a global oven, the implications of which are disastrous. With rapidly rising sea levels and disappearing glaciers and lakes, our planet is on the brink of an environmental disaster.
The most deservedly best-known piece of film communication over the environment is An Inconvenient Truth, by former presidential candidate, Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He has been going to cities all over the globe giving presentations to the public about global warming. He has given more than a thousand such presentations.
A predicted 6.4 °C temperature rise by 2100 may not be much to you and me, but there is something called the albedo effect that will cause a corresponding temperature rise of twice that amount at the poles. This is because the polar ice caps being white in colour, reflect most of the sun’s rays back into space, but with temperatures rising and poles melting this reflection is greatly reduced. There is already a 2°C temperature rise at the poles. The critical melt threshold for Greenland is 2.7°C, after which there would be no stopping it. If all of Greenland’s glaciers melt, sea levels are predicted to rise by 6 m. This could submerge all coastal cities. With this amount of cold freshwater introduced into the oceans, the great ocean conveyor, which circulates all of the world’s ocean currents, could stop, leading to a stagnation of ocean currents, affecting wind patterns and playing havoc with the weather. Interestingly, the average temperature of the last ice age is only seven degrees Centigrade lower than today’s average; just goes to show that it doesn’t take much to cause an apocalyptic change. Mount Kilimanjaro, which in Swahili means ‘shining mountain’ because of its ice cap, has already lost 80 per cent of its ice, and could lose the remaining by 2015. Some glaciers lost 10 per cent of their ice in the 2003 heat wave in Europe. Himalayan glaciers are also retreating at the rate of 15 m a year.
In Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, journalist and author Mark Lynas gives details of progressively degrading planetary ecosystems, from one to six degrees rise of temperature on the planet. Among these degrading ecosystems, Mark describes floods and droughts in Africa, drying of the Indus and Amazon, and a population increase to eight billion.
A carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by a person, organisation or product. The average American person’s carbon footprint is 10 tons of CO² per year. America is the leader in CO² emissions with six billion tons per year, China following with five billion tons per year, and Russia with 1.5 billion tons per year. India is next emitting 1.3 billion tons per year and is growing by three per cent annually. That makes the average Indian’s carbon footprint 1.3 tons of CO² per year. It is our large population that lessens our individual footprint, but not the fact that we are the fourth largest polluter in the world.
We can see the effects of these changes first hand, here in India. Unusually severe or mild summers and winters, off season rainfall and uneven rainfall during the monsoon speak for themselves. The unpredictable rainfall seen all over the world is causing disruption of crop cycles and leading to large loss of life and property. The Himalayan river systems provide water to 1.5 billion people on the Indian subcontinent and China. Loss of this will leave them without water for domestic, agricultural and industrial uses. The large-scale extinction of plant and animal species, which has already started, will affect our entire food chain and ecosystem.
A moral problem
Why is global warming featured in a body-mind-spirit magazine? Because, self-development is not limited to just the self, but everything around us. The macro-cosmos reflects the micro-cosmos. This is not as much a political problem as much as it is a moral one. Many politicians and even individuals are holding global warming at arm’s length because if they acknowledge it, the moral responsibility to take action follows. It is unethical to let this ‘inconvenient truth’ go its course and just stand by and watch. It is time we realise that there are threats other than of the militant type. We could very soon be refugees of climate change. Our children may never see a ‘normal’ weather pattern or a stable environment.
“We are witnessing a collision between our civilisation and the earth,” says Al Gore. It is our duty to hand over the planet to our children as we inherited it from our parents. Each one of us owes it to our children and grandchildren to wrest back the environmental health of the planet, just as our ancestors fought for our freedom during the British Raj. Let us be heroes to our future generations.
In October 2007, six Greenpeace activists entered a highly secure coal-power plant in India and defaced one of its chimneys. Retribution was swift. They were arrested and sent to jail and, nearly two years later, the charges against them are yet to be dropped. Unreported by the media, the case drags on in court. “My daughter Johanna was four years old when I went to jail for that crime. She is six years old now. In these two years, instead of shutting down coal-power plants, our government has been building more of them. The unfair part is that the people building these coal-power plants will not be around when climate catastrophe finally hits us. They will not be running from refugee camp to refugee camp. They won’t be escaping hunger and drought and famine and disease, but Johanna will,” says Gene Hashmi.
Bharat Mansatta, an environmental activist involved with natural regeneration, says the erratic monsoon has hit us badly this year. Farmers have planted seeds when the monsoon started this year, but the lack of rain has left the saplings to die. “When I swam in the river Narmada in July this year, there was no flow or current in it. When a river is idling in the middle of the monsoon, you know something is very wrong,” says Bharat. Ground- water levels have severely dropped, leading to dry wells during the monsoons. “Fossil fuels have taken millions of years and millions of tons of dead vegetation and sunlight to form. When we use it all up in just a span of 150 years we are releasing a lot of energy, which is proving disastrous,” says Bharat. He advises planting trees as part of the solution. Trees absorb a lot of CO², provide food security, protect and regenerate the soil, help raise groundwater and stop soil erosion. It is the most direct and renewable use of solar energy.
Ashwajit Wahane, an entrepreneur in the field of solar energy, says, “This is all our doing, and it’s now up to us and the government to undo it. Or be prepared to face the consequences, which, as we are seeing, are deadly. The common man in India does not know about global warming, but only sees hotter summers, colder winters and an erratic monsoon. The rest are not bothered; it’s something too big to comprehend or bother about.” The Batti Bandh campaign which started in December 2007 in Mumbai, aimed to raise awareness about global warming and waste of resources. Rustom Warden, one of their initial members says that although only a few million of the city’s 24 million inhabitants switched off their lights for an hour as planned, the message of conservation got through to all of its citizens. Once awareness is generated, positive initiatives are sure to follow, says Rustom.
On a recent purchase of footwear from Reebok, I was surprised and happy to find them giving out biodegradable plastic bags made of plastic, vegetable starch and organic minerals. With animal agriculture being the cause of 34 per cent of our methane (another greenhouse gas) emissions, going vegetarian is one way of saving the planet. I remember the newspapers reporting on global warming on a daily basis. That is, until the economic crisis hit. It just shows how easily we get distracted by what is in front of our nose and ignore that which lies two steps ahead. It is time we gave up some of our comforts and privileges for the global good. Simple things such as using energy efficient appliances and lighting, using public transport and renewable energy are the need of the hour. Incandescent bulbs have just been banned in Europe and are being replaced by compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Water and fuel, the most critical resource, yet the most heavily misused ones, need to be conserved. We cannot afford to say, “It is not economical to fight climate change.” There may not be a tomorrow if we are engrossed in making money today. There is nowhere to hide from the warming, and it will not be less for the rich or privileged. Let us set our priorities straight and work for a greater good.
Al Gore describes a photograph of Earth taken by the spacecraft Voyager 1 from the edge of our solar system, saying, “That pale blue dot, that’s us. Everything that has ever happened in all of human history has happened on that one pixel, all the triumphs, all the tragedies, all the wars, all the famines, and all the major advances. It is our only home, and that is what is at stake, our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilisation.”
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• Reduce, reuse, recycle – anything – clothes, paper, packing materials, and other amenities
• Conserve fuel, use public transport or carpool
• Buy locally grown or manufactured products and help save transport fuel
• Conserve power; switch off unused lights, fans, phone and chargers
• Use green power, generated from non-polluting resources (solar/hydro)
• Turn off your air conditioner, find other natural ways of cooling your house
• Use compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) as they consume less power
• Compost your waste – 70 per cent of house waste is organic and polluting
• Conserve water so that there are no shortages later
• Support green businesses
• Buy products which use less packing material or none at all
• Use a cloth bag when you go out shopping
• Carry water from home, bottled water has a huge carbon footprint
• Take a train. Planes cause the maximum air pollution among vehicles
Carbon Footprint Facts
• Driving a car for 100 km causes 20 kg of CO2 pollution
• Riding a motorbike for 100 km releases 10 kg of CO2 pollution
• One trip from Mumbai to Delhi by plane releases 240 kg of CO2 per traveller Do you think you can cut down on these?