Global Warming Unfolds
The sudden rise in temperature this year affected humans as well as other organisms
With deforestation and fossil emissions increasing the average temperature of the earth, climatic and weather events are now happening more intensely than before. This year, both the Arctic and Antarctic as well as many countries around the world were in the grip of an early arrival of heat waves. Heat waves now come regularly every year, and this year saw the astonishing phenomenon of their early arrival with a vanishing of the spring season in almost every country as the summer arrived prematurely.
This phenomenon has been happening continuously from one region to another this year. The rapidly rising heat waves and the record-breaking rise in temperature are not a natural phenomenon, but the result of intrusive human activities particularly by wealthy individuals, businesses and nations that are overexploiting nature.
An increase of 40°C in the average temperature was recorded at the Concordia Research Station in Antarctica in March. Initially scientists believed that there was a massive error in the recording of temperature. However, it only became clear that the temperature was rising when an increase of 30°C was recorded in the same month at the Svalbald Station in the Arctic. This concurrent rise is a matter of grave concern, and sends a dangerous signal regarding the end of human life on earth.
If the earth's average temperature keeps on rising at this rate it will cause the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic to melt even faster thus causing the sea level to rise faster. Rapidly rising sea levels will engulf millions of acres of fertile land and coastal cities, towns and villages, leaving millions jobless and homeless and endangering their livelihoods. Rising sea levels will also increase the frequency of oceanic disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis and the depth of their impact.
Even in our neighbouring country of Pakistan, above average temperatures have been recorded in recent months. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, April and May saw temperatures of 5 to 8°C above average in many parts of Pakistan, affecting harvests just as in India. And a recent report by the World Metrological Organization states that with global warming the incidence of extreme heat is likely to increase 30 times in India and Pakistan in the near future.
The early arrival of heat waves was also recorded in some European countries. The temperature in parts of Spain and France was as much as 10°C above average in June, while May this year was the warmest month on record for much of southwestern Europe. Due to the extreme rise in temperature, France and Spain are experiencing not only increased droughts but also wildfires, which have also expanded in the Himalayan region.
Asia and Europe are not alone witnessing an increase in the number of heat waves. They are hitting around the world. In north America, the trend of heat waves started from the western states of the United States and has reached the central states. Death Valley in California recorded a temperature of 50°C on June 11, breaking all previous records. Last year too the average temperature in June across the USA was 4.2°F higher than the average and was the highest in over a century.
The early arrival of heat waves and their increasing frequency and intensity is the result of a 1.1°C increase in the earth's average surface temperature compared to the period before the Industrial Revolution. As the fifth report of the IPCC has highlighted, no country in the world will be able to escape the scourge of natural disasters due to the increasing average temperature of the earth.
Although in 2015 under the Paris Climate Agreement a number of non-binding emissions targets were agreed upon and each country was required to report to the United Nations on its reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, no country other than those of the European Union has reduced its domestic greenhouse gas emissions.
Another conference was held in Glasgow in November 2021 to continue the Paris Climate Agreement. At the Glasgow Conference, 197 countries agreed not to allow the average global temperature to rise "preferably" by more than 1.5°C by the end of the century over the preindustrial period.
This will require a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, and net zero emissions by 2050. At the conference, 90 countries agreed to cut their methane emissions by 30% by 2030, 100 countries agreed to ban deforestation by 2030, and more than 40 countries agreed not to generate energy from coal. As many as 140 countries have signed up to achieve the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Action has been short.
India too made a lot of promises at the Glasgow Conference in November, but the unfulfilled promises have been exposed by the power cuts caused by coal shortages during the heat waves in April and May. Our country is still generating 75% of its electricity from coal, which causes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other source of energy.
The USA, which had released the most greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by 2006, has made many promises at all the conferences so far, but has always backtracked on them. When rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021, the rest of the world thought the United States might cut its share of greenhouse gasses, but the country's Supreme Court ruled on 30 June 2022 that the US Environmental Protection Agency's power to issue orders to reduce emissions from thermal power plants is restricted. This shows that even the current US President Joe Biden could hardly fulfill the promises made in the climate agreements.
Natural disasters meanwhile are increasing rapidly as the earth's average temperature rises. This year perhaps the worst damage was recorded in Spain's Sierra de la Culebra in the northwestern province of Zamora where 74,000 acres of carbon-storing forest were consumed by wildfires after a heat wave, and eighteen villages had to be evacuated. Fearing wildfires in Germany, three villages near Berlin were evacuated. And according to the US National Interagency Fire Center there were a total of 32,954 wildfires in the country as of June 28, 2022, in which 3,608,939 acres of vegetation were reduced to ashes.
The rising heat has a devastating effect on the health of all kinds of organisms. According to the Maharashtra State Health Department, 25 people died in Maharashtra this year due to the onset of heat waves. According to a report by the World Metrological Organization, 25,692 people died in India as a result of heat waves between 1992 and 2020. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, between 1979 and 2018, 11,000 people in the United States died of heat-related causes. Last year, 600 people died in June in the Canadian province of British Columbia due to heat waves. The Tata Centre for Development and the University of Chicago in a 2019 study estimated that by 2100, more than 1.5 million people will die each year as a result of excessive heat brought on by climate change.
The sudden rise in temperature this year affected humans as well as other organisms. In the spring, the birds usually build nests and lay eggs. Hundreds of newborn birds have died this year due to the early leaving of nests in southern Spain. According to environmentalists, the birds left their nests prematurely to escape the extreme heat, but they still could not escape the effects of rising temperature. Due to the sharp rise in temperature in India, birds in the western region of Gujarat, and northwest region of Gurgaon fell from the sky due to heatstroke and were treated in hospitals for protection against heat stroke, fever, and dehydration as temperatures rose to over 45°. Last year more than a billion marine animals died in the northwestern region of Canada and the United States of America due to a marine heat dome, and hundreds of wild animals died in wildfires.
Rising temperature also affects crop productivity. The reduction in food grains will reduce the income of farmers and reduce their purchasing power which will affect the economy of the country. On the other hand, the shortage of food grains will lead to increase in food prices which will make them inaccessible to the poor people and as a result more and more poor people will starve. Chronic undernourishment is already a severe epidemic in India and the problem can be expected to get worse.
Economically well-off people use air conditioners to protect themselves from heat waves. Although these air conditioners provide temporary relief to people from the heat, the huge amount of greenhouse gases emitted from them further warm the atmosphere. Thus, the use of air conditioners and other greenhouse emitters will be responsible for bringing even more heat waves in the future.
We need to take action at every level to stop global warming and protect people from heat waves. Some of these measures can include painting roofs white to reflect the sun rays, protecting all kinds of local water bodies, local shade trees, and climbing plants on the walls of houses and buildings which would protect people locally from the effects of heat waves.
Poor people suffer the most because they work in factories, at construction sites, brick-kilns, farms, or in places where there is lack of basic facilities, even shady trees. Therefore, to provide them relief, employers should change their working hours and provide them better facilities.
At the national level, every country should move towards the goal of increasing forest cover to 33 per cent. The State and Union governments should plan to sow local crops and plant local trees in every part of the country. Just as the Delhi government is trying to save Delhi's environment and groundwater by cutting down vilayati kikar (Prosopis juliflora) from Delhi's Central Ridge and planting local trees there, so is required in the case of eucalyptus trees in Punjab and Haryana.
Similarly, cutting down the pine trees in the Himalayan region and planting local trees can help achieve the dual goal of controlling rising temperature and conserving groundwater.
The recent IPCC report also lays special emphasis on restructuring the means of transport in a bid to tackle the rise in temperature. That is why all the countries of the world should focus on car-free infrastructure as the growing number of cars is also contributing to the rapid increase in emission of greenhouse gasses. We need to make public transport more efficient. While electrifying vehicles, the top priority should be given to the vehicles owned and operated by the public transport undertakings. In addition, separate lanes must be provided for pedestrians and cyclists.
At the international level, the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases make big promises at international conferences but do not even seriously plan what to do. India promised in 2015 to generate 450 gigawatts of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 under the Paris Climate Agreement and 500 gigawatts under the Glasgow Climate Agreement in 2021 – but is still generating 75% of its electricity from coal.
The United States of America and China too have not yet taken their greenhouse gas emission reduction programmes seriously. These three countries release about 45% of the total greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. These countries, like the European countries, should take immediate steps to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and take immediate steps to protect the rest of the world and its people from natural disasters caused by the rapidly rising temperature. The costs will be far less than what we will have to bear for future climate adaptation.
Dr Gurinder Kaur is Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala