According to many scientists and commentators, the greatest threat to human survival on Earth today is climate change as a result of the inexorable warming of the atmosphere due to greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. In T&T this issue incites casual discussion perhaps because the total volume of our emissions (though not our per capita) is small compared to other countries and also because of our insignificant leverage on the world stage.
However, globally, the matter is deemed vitally urgent and an attempt is currently being made at a UN Climate Change Conference in Poland to address this urgency. Nevertheless, the prospects for effective timely action to curb harmful emissions do not look promising.
The warning signs have been evident for many years with increasingly unpredictable and unusual weather patterns. The incidence of catastrophic droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves have dramatically increased not to mention earthquakes and tsunamis. The United Nations has stated that since 1970 natural disasters worldwide have quadrupled with the most experienced in the United States, China, and India. Vast tracts of arable land have become barren wastelands with devastating effects on humans, animals, and crops. The prospect of significant food shortages and famine loom large.
Drought conditions induced by a dearth of rainfall would reduce the availability of the most precious world resource for human existence which is fresh water on which humans, cities, industries, and agriculture critically depend. The United Nations reported that even today two billion people (or about one-third of the world population) do not have access to safe water supplies and 4.5 billion (considerably more than half the world population) lack adequate sanitation. The water shortfall could be as much as 40 per cent by 2030 and the situation would considerably deteriorate in the succeeding decades aided by climate change. We cannot discount the possibility of serious armed conflict between and within countries over access to water.
Melting glaciers and receding polar ice caps would give rise to higher sea levels and the consequent inundation of low-lying island states and the coastal areas of many countries. Harsher winters and hotter, simmering summers will take its toll not only on food crops and animals but also on human health. Greater heat exposure would place millions world-wide at higher risks of heart and kidney diseases and heat stress. Higher temperatures will provide the environment for the proliferation of many disease-bearing insects as well as harmful bacteria.
As a result of many natural and man-made catastrophes in the coming decades, there will be attempts at human migration not seen before as millions seek more liveable conditions. The consequences for conflict, starvation and human misery would be immense. Even the few thousand migrants to Europe from the Middle East and Africa created immense social and political trauma in some countries.
The scenarios mentioned above are not meant to be alarmist but are realistic outcomes if climate change proceeds unchecked. While scientists have warned about dire consequences if no action is taken to limit global warming, there has been little agreement among countries in the past on the desirable target limit and even less on action to be taken to achieve it or on a formula for sharing the costs of compliance. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 saddled only the industrialised countries with obligations to reduce their pollution emissions but placed no limits on larger developing countries such as China and India. The majority of the industrialised countries failed to meet their deadlines.
The Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009 collapsed in bitter contention and confusion. The Paris Conference on Climate Change in 2015 seemed to offer a ray of hope in that it was the first time that all countries acknowledged a responsibility to limit greenhouse gas emissions. However, the deal struck did not commit countries to legally binding targets and schedules. It was all voluntary. One newspaper headline characterised the Paris Agreement as a “Melting Indifference to Climate Change”.
Then there was the contentious issue as to who should bear the cost of the developing countries converting to clean energy sources such as wind, solar, nuclear etc, which could run into trillions of dollars. It was felt that the developed industrialised countries which had a long history of atmospheric pollution and was responsible for 80 per cent of it should bear the cost. These countries, however, baulked at the idea.
Subsequently, the United States under President Donald Trump not only withdrew from the Paris Agreement with claims that it placed shackles on US industry but offered encouragement for the increased production of coal which is regarded as the most polluting of fossil fuels. So did some other countries in Europe and Asia.
Thus, while world leaders fiddle, the planet continues to burn. One can, therefore, be excused for looking at the future with some foreboding if not fatalism.