The electronic and print media over the last few days have been focusing on different continents being on fire, on the melting of glaciers, and also coral reefs dying in different oceans all over the world. This has led prominent political leaders as well as environmental activists to draw attention to this deteriorating situation and urge all to save our planet.
In this context, environmentalists have been pointing out that climate change has been driving the scale and impact of recent wildfires that have been raging in California, United States, Australia and also several parts of Brazil. There have also been instances of such wildfires in other parts of North America and in Europe. Scientific analysts have noted that there is an "unequivocal and pervasive" role for global heating in boosting the conditions for fire. They have, in this context, also disputed claims by President Trump that land management issues are the real cause rather than climate variability. Some have referred to this as an example of political football.
A recent research carried out on origins of wildfires in Australia during 2019-20 has shown that climate change was behind an increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather -- defined as periods of time with a higher risk of fire due to a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall and high winds. It may be mentioned here that in the 40 years from 1979 to 2019, fire weather conditions have increased by a total of eight days on average across the world. However, in California the number of autumn days with extreme wildfire conditions has doubled in that period. The authors of the review have concluded that "climate change is bringing hotter, drier weather to the western US and the region is fundamentally more exposed to fire risks than it was before humans began to alter the global climate". This is proving to be so also in other parts of the world where the encroachment of human settlements into forested areas has put many more homes at the risk of these blazes.
Jonathan Amos of the BBC has noted that conditions are becoming alarming also in the Arctic where sea-ice has shrunk to near record low. This summer's Arctic sea-ice has apparently shrank to its second lowest ever extent in the era of satellite observation. The floes had withdrawn to just under 3.74 million sq km by the middle of September this year. It would be important to note here that the radar altimeters that gauge the thickness of the floes do so by measuring the difference in height between the top surface of the sea-ice and the surface of the ocean -- the ice freeboard.
It has also been observed that shorter autumn days and encroaching cold could mean that the floes might start to regrow. However, this fresh growth could possibly melt faster during the coming year. That is bad news for the climate. We need to remember that larger area of sea-ice helps cool the Arctic and the rest of the planet. On the other hand, in its absence, more sunlight will be absorbed by the darker surface waters of the ocean, which will promote further warming and further loss of ice. Other climate analysts have also pointed out that heat waves in the Siberian Arctic where temperatures were 8 to 10 degrees celsius above normal for much of the year and the forest fires might eventually end up in an ice-free Arctic Ocean and this would be another nail in the coffin due to human-caused climate change. The loss of sea ice would threaten Arctic wildlife, from polar bears and seals to plankton and algae.
Antarctic sea-ice has also been known to be highly variable in space and time. In winter, it can extend to encompass an area touching 18 million sq km-- more than the land area of the continent itself. In summer, the floating ice melts away to as little as 2-3 million sq km. However scientists till now have been unable to have an accurate assessment of the third dimension -- floe thickness and thus volume.
There is, however, growing consensus among climate scientists that summertime Arctic waters is also eating away at the ice sheets covering Arctic lands in Canada and Greenland. That dynamics would be unacceptable for many parts of the world with low lying coastal regions like Bangladesh. The faster those ice sheets melt into the surrounding ocean, the faster sea levels will rise worldwide. That is a sobering aspect where tens of million will be more exposed to the devastating effects of climate breakdown.
We need to remember here that the 2015 landmark Paris climate deal enjoined nations to limit global temperature rises to "well below" two degrees celsius through a rapid and sweeping reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, emissions have continued to rise despite the agreement. This has led several strategic analysts to warn that without a thoroughly re-tooled global economy prioritising green growth, the pollution savings due to the COVID-19 pandemic will have an insignificant mitigating effect on climate change.
It would be pertinent at this point to draw attention to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's article on various dimensions of climate change that has recently appeared the British newspaper The Guardian in the third week of September. She has highlighted the devastating impacts of natural calamities and noted that the world 'must act on climate'. She has also observed that "the climate crisis, Covid-19 and its economic fallout are crying out for international leadership and cooperation. No country should turn its back on the rest of the world at this time." She, presently Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), has also reiterated that "at the next UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, countries must commit to enhancing their nationally determined contributions and ultimately give us hope for tackling all the other problems that afflict our collective existence."
In her presentation, she has also drawn attention of the readers to the fact that not only one-third of Bangladesh had been under water last month but also heaviest rains in almost a decade had still not abated after nearly two months. This had displaced more than 1.5 million Bangladeshis and washed away tens of thousands of hectares of paddy fields. This had taken place soon after the cyclone Amphan calamity.
This development coupled with the Covid pandemic had resulted in economic lockdowns that have hit our textile industry and exports and forced hundreds of thousands of our international migrant workers to return home, with the vast majority remaining unemployed. By pointing to these after effects, Prime Minister Hasina has shared the fact that like many other countries affected by climate change and the pandemic, we all need to work together to save lives, shore up healthcare systems, cushion the economic shock for millions of people and through inter-active engagement avoid fiscal collapse.
We need to understand that there is need for international commitment to solve these complex problems. This aspect needs to be particularly understood by the world's largest emitters, especially by all the G20 countries. They are responsible for about 80 per cent of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for 3.5 per cent. Economists consequently underline that the world cannot successfully tackle the climate challenge without significant action from everyone.
It has consequently been heartening to see China taking a more positive approach towards reducing carbon emissions as compared to United States. President Xi Jinping addressing the UN during the current 75th session of the UNGA has announced that China will aim not only to hit peak emissions before 2030 but will also try for carbon neutrality by 2060. This announcement today was a major fillip for the European Union, whose leaders recently urged President Xi to take exactly this step as part of a joint push on lowering emissions.
This is good news, given the fact that China is the world's biggest source of carbon dioxide and responsible for around 28 per cent of global emissions. One can only hope that these are not just mere words but that China will spell out medium-term and long-term plans on how it intends to move away from fossil fuels during the forthcoming global climate negotiations -- COP26 -- to be convened in 2021 in Glasgow, U.K.
Such an approach by China needs to be carefully monitored by the CVF - a group of 48 countries disproportionately affected by a warming planet-- Bangladesh among them.
It may be noted here that CVF nations have been at the forefront of climate adaptation as well as climate change, promoting initiatives such as building stronger shelters against cyclones and replanting mangrove forests to protect coastal communities from sea surges. It would be worthwhile to point out that Bangladesh has already built 4,291 cyclone shelters and 593 flood shelters. More than 56,000 volunteers have also been trained for providing support in times of dire need.
Apparently, according to the Sustainable Development Report 2020, 43 countries in Africa and many more across Asia and Latin America have also almost achieved their climate action goals.
One needs to conclude by pointing out that ambitious climate initiatives are unlikely to succeed without introduction of greater renewable energy efforts, use of world-class technology and pioneering climate research.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.