The Financial Express

The paradox of climate change

| Updated: December 23, 2021 21:35:13

The paradox of climate change

Arguably, climate change offers a baffling paradox. No country disputes the scientific theory and evidences gathered so far that human behaviours over the past decades have changed the ecology of planet earth adversely impacting climate conditions to the detriment of sustainable living for many species including humans. People everywhere, except the minority group belonging to the extreme right nativists in America, also agree that the process of climate change needs to be stopped in its tracks before damage is wrought. The paradox of climate change is not because of the presence of the minority at the fringe who are in denial mode about the need for action to address climate change in America or elsewhere but the soft-pedaling by national governments of most countries, particularly the industrially developed ones, when it comes to making firm commitments about concrete actions in the  near term. To understand the paradox one has to revisit what climate change means and what are its implications for human lives, livelihood and bio- diversity. Only then it will become clear why there is a gap between rhetoric and reality, especially in respect of the countries who are major  actors in this evolving drama  that is likely to have a tragic denouement unless they intervene now.

A serious discussion on climate change requires a reappraisal of the basics involved, both scientific theories and evidence-based facts. Let us begin with the question : what is climate change? Climate  is the average weather in a place or region over many years and climate change is a change in these average conditions. Some climate change occurs automatically through natural process in course of time. These changes are incremental and tardy in nature posing no clear danger to human activities and their lifestyle. But the climate change we have witnessed in recent years is rapid and in major scales disrupting existing human living conditions threatening the lives of those in the forefront of these abrupt and continuous changes. There is consensus now that the these changes posing an existential threat to humans have been in the making for many years and have reached critical limit now.

The main reason behind this change is not the natural process of change in nature but the warming of the global atmosphere by emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (co2) and methane, mainly the former

greenhouse emission, particularly co2,  takes place by human use of oil, gas and coal for domestic use, in factories and transportation. When these fossil fuels burn, they release greenhouse gases, mostly  carbon dioxide(co2). In addition, methane gas from industrial agricultural production and other uses also adds to greenhouse gas. As is now common knowledge, when greenhouse gases are released, these trap the sun' s heats and cause planet earth' s temperature to rise. As a result of sustained and increasing degree of green house gas emissions the world is now 1.2 degree centigrade warmer than  it was in the 19th century. During this period the amount of co2 in the atmosphere has risen by 50 per cent.

Based on these evidences and the recent experiences in many countries, scientists are saying that temperature rise must slow down if humanity wants to avoid major catastrophic consequences of climate change like droughts, frequent and severe cyclones and storms, heat waves leading to wild fires, heavy rainfall followed by flood, melting of arctic ice caps raising sea level threatening low lying lands and rendering of vast tracts of land uninhabitable by humans and other species. Scientists   have been saying unanimously that temperature rise must slow down if we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. According to them  global warming needs to be kept  to 1.5c by 2021. But scientists are not policy makers or decision takers. They can warn about the impending danger and advise the policy makers but cannot  make them share their sense of urgency leading to prompt action. Unfortunately, even while agreeing  with the  the scientists  (excepting the conservative nativists like Donald Trump and his ilk) the policy makers of the major actors in climate change find themselves in a quandary because of national interests. They are neither able to launch into major national and international actions nor deny the truth behind the warning by the scientists. The key to this paradox will be discussed later. Before that it will be helpful to recapitulate what the scientists are saying about climate change. According to scientists , unless immediate actions are taken  the planet will  warm by 2 degree centigrade by the end of this century. A Report by the Climate Action Tracker Group calculated that the world was heading for 2.4 centigrade  higher temperature by the end of 2021 which is more or less similar to what other groups of scientists are predicting.

If nothing is done, scientists think, global warming could exceed 4 degrees centigrade by the middle of next century leading to devastating heat waves, drought, wild fires, severe storms and rise in sea levels. This will cause  millions of people losing their homes and livelihood and irreversible loss of plant and animal species. Extreme weather conditions  are already wreaking loss and damages in several parts of the world, as seen in recent years. These events have threatened lives and livelihood and with further worsening some regions would become uninhabitable as farmlands turn into deserts. In other regions, the opposite is happening, with extreme rainfall causing historic flooding as seen recently in China, Germany, Belgium and Spain.

But the adverse  impacts of climate change are not evenly spread  spatially and are not being experienced by all countries to the same degree  and at the same speed. As only low lying countries  lose parts of their landmass due to sea level rise and many Pacific Ocean islands are likely to be under water in the near future, for others it is only of academic interest.

Similarly, the incidence of desertification as seen in sub-Saharan Africa is not shared by other regions in the world. This is because climate change feeds on existing vulnerabilities in terms of natural disasters. Not only climate change has differential impact on regions and countries, its advance and speed of occurrence also vary from country to  country. The least developed countries, Sub-Saharan Africa and small island countries numbering about 100 are exposed to fast approaching natural disasters due to climate change more than other countries. Finally, poor and developing countries have limited or no financial capacity to cope with the consequences of climate change and can ill afford to bear the costs of adaptation.

While the adverse impacts of  climate change are  being experienced  disproportionately more by the poor countries, the prospect of similar crisis for developed countries is  in the mid to long term. As a result, the sense of urgency to address climate change is not shared equally by all countries, the public pronouncements notwithstanding.

The fact that developed  countries are better positioned to counter the crisis at national level also lulls them into a sense of complacency or engender a gradualist approach. Even some developing countries like China and India are reluctant to take immediate action to reduce carbon emissions  because the adverse impact is not seen in immediate future while their growth strategy is very much dependent on fossil fuel. These countries back up their mid to long term goal of reducing carbon footprints (2070 for India, 2050 for China) with the argument that developed countries have contributed the maximum to global warming with their past reliance on and reckless use of fossil fuels and therefore bear a greater responsibility  for mitigating the crisis.

The paradox to climate change in terms of the difference between rhetoric and actual actions taken  is thus made clear when the above factors are taken into account. While all countries believe in the scientific theories and the evidences provided in their support, the differential impact of the crises and the  different time lines for the major actors  make them see  climate change in different perspectives.

The fact that as major polluters they are being asked to do the most by way of mitigation, adaptation and compensation  for loss and damage is also an explanatory factor in resolving this paradox of different response by the developed countries. But sooner, rather than later all countries, whatever their present loss from climate change and timeline for ultimate disaster may be, there is no escaping the fact that the world today is much too integrated to be considered in parts with safety fences built around national boundaries. A global crisis like climate change is simply a global one that brooks no division into national perspectives and different timelines for urgent actions. This is one of those global crises where no country is safe if all countries are not. 


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