Are We Listening to the Climate Doctors?

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If you have not been living under a rock, you would have heard that never before in recent recorded history has 7 billion tons of rain fallen on the Greenland Ice Cap. If you didn’t know, it isn’t supposed to be raining in either one of the planetary poles. According to the Danish Meteorological Institute, ice core samples have shown that above freezing temperatures have occurred only six times in the last 2,000 years and three of them were around the last decade alone! Furthermore, scientists at the Summit Camp base station in the Arctic who have been taking measurements since the 1980s, have come to the dire conclusion that an area four times the size of the United Kingdom has had surface melting. This cannot be good for the Earth.

To add to our planet’s distresses, The European Space Agency has calculated that yearly forest fires affect an area as large as entire India per year, or half the size of the United States of America. This summer alone, Turkey has seen the worst wildfires in the country’s history, and in Greece, people have been forced to leave their homes as 250,000 acres of forests burned in just one month. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, the town of Lytton has been completely destroyed by wildfires and the village of Monte Lake this past week has been seriously affected. Fire fighters are routinely seeing that the fires are behaving in a way that has never been seen before. And in June, mussels and clams were being cooked alive from the heat in beaches in British Columbia. The bottom line is clear, our planet is ailing and we must act immediately.

The old saying, that the developed countries polluted for the last 100 years, made monumental strides in economic success and therefore the poor countries should be able to do the same, is an egregious way to address the poverty-climate link. A good way forward to enable developmental opportunities for poorer nations while reducing climate risks is through common but differentiated responsibility. It was first officially declared in the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, setting the foundation for a sound planetary action to address climate change and ensure that poor nations are not left behind.

Yet, almost 30 years later, carbon dioxide emissions are still exponentially rising, forest fires continue to grow as the planet continues to warm and unsustainable economic development continues on its dirty path. Since the first climate conference, the hard truth is that we have failed to reduce our emissions. And with our egregiously overlooked responsibility as stewards of this planet, we are destroying other species along the way, and we will very likely destroy ourselves as well.

Fortuitously for us, there is hope being constructed as we speak. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports are an assessment report that coalesces thousands of cutting-edge data and research from hundreds of scientists from across the globe to bring immediate attention to climate change challenges. It provides strong scientific analysis and recommendations that helps to inform policy and potential national and international law. It isn’t country specific but planetary specific, and since climate change does not follow political boundaries it’s applicability rests on the entire planet and therefore every country.

The IPCC report culminates three areas of focus organized by three working groups and one final synthesis report. The 6th assessment report contains “The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change” published in August 2021, followed by “Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability” in February 2022, “Mitigation of climate change” in March 2022, and the final “Synthesis Report” to be published in October 2022.

Over 200 scientists from 66 countries helped to contribute to the working group 1 report on the “Physical Science Basis of Climate Change” published this August. This particular report sounds the alarm in many critical areas. First, it is unequivocally certain that climate change is anthropogenically (by humans) caused and hampering our land, oceans and atmosphere. Heat is increasing in both intensity and frequency that we have not seen in recorded history of our civilization. The report further supports that 1.5 degrees Celsius increase is very likely to occur within the next two decades, and it is safe to conclude that a lot needs to be done at the national and global scale to curb Greenhouse Gas emissions to net zero. If not then it can be inferred that a cascading number of climate extremes can make many areas of the planet uninhabitable.

The report also states that rainfall frequency and intensity will increase as we have already seen over the Greenland Ice Cap just this past month. As the planet warms, rains will increase over the Arctic Pole, and melting ice from both poles, can set up a domino effect that the human species will have a hard time running away from. A critical point to remember is that 1.5 degrees rise or not, what may seem like a miniscule rise of 0.2 degrees Celsius can mean the monumental difference between a freezing and a thawing event in either of the poles. In past IPCC reports, the scientists’ assessments were rather conservative in many areas including sea level rise by 2 meters without addressing scenarios of the melting of polar ice caps.

However, this time, it is clear that sea level will rise to 2 meters, even if the planet’s temperature stabilizes at 1.5 degrees Celsius and even if we go towards net zero emissions. This can spell disaster for low lying countries such as Bangladesh, Maldives, Tuvalu, to name a few, and thus the reports from working group 2 and 3 will be critical for long-term planning for all low-lying countries. The conclusion is clear, in that we have irrefutable evidence our climate is racing towards a new tipping point.

While the warnings are clear, there is a silver lining running through the report. The clearer scientists are, the clearer will be the global mitigation efforts. Thus far, we can be certain that going towards net zero emissions will enable us to slow the heating of the planet over the 1.5 degrees threshold, even if it means we may not be able to stop global sea level rise. Thus, when policy makers and scientists convene in the next COP meeting to be held in Glasgow, the data will be explicit and the policy should reflect the needs of the planet.

Carbon emissions aside, methane traps heat more than carbon dioxide, over 80 times more potent and thus has a monumental effect on the planet’s warming. What is absolutely shocking is that the European Space Agency data showed that one of the largest methane gas emission plumes was over Bangladesh. This is not good news for Bangladesh as it negotiates in the next COP meeting since mitigation will be a key factor in the IPCC report going forward. Bangladesh undoubtedly will have to do strong research to find the exact cause of this massive methane emission and figure out solutions with international help to address it.

However, there is another important point to be made. Generally speaking, our overt dependence on data has in fact greatly slowed us down to take action. While our predictions have vastly improved in many areas since the industrial revolution, planetary changes in a geologic time scale have an incredible number of variables. The key should be this: as long as we are generally certain that the planet is ailing due to emissions from the use of fossil fuels, then we must act immediately, data or not. We cannot afford to wait for yet another perfect set of data due to the immense number of variabilities involved. The information we have from working group I in the IPCC report is good enough for all regions of the world to work cohesively and take decisive action.
The question looms over us if we will continue on this down trodden path of climate injustice, and merely re-act to climate change? Or will we be proactive by instilling national climate policy that addresses our national and international obligations using evidence from the IPCC Reports? When we are sick, we go to the doctors to get advice and prescribe us medicine. If, for example, the doctor tells us to consume less sugar, we comply or else we suffer the consequences. And yet, when renowned scientists who have given off their entire lives to study the planetary sciences, inform us with utmost urgency that we are causing irreparable harm to our only home, we act strangely lethargic.

Written by Shams-il Arefin Islam. Shams studied under the U.S. Climate Diplomat Todd Stern, the former Assistant Director for the Environment, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Professor Paul Anastas, and Professor Harold Koh former Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State, at Yale University in the United States of America. He was also a student of one of the Lead Authors of the IPCC Report Dr. Mizan R. Khan.

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