Like a blind man swishing his cane in abstraction until his obstacles become obvious, a sighted human being also take his/her own sweet time to identify and acknowledge the obvious, and to mark causal relationships based on scientific scholarship. Countless apples might have fallen on the heads of people, but it took Newton to identify that there exists some force pulling everything towards the centre of the earth. Similarly, people knew ages ago that longer strokes help one keep afloat on water, but it took an Archimedes to put it in scientific terms that a submerged body is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of water displaced by the body. Everything sounds rather hunky dory until now but stakes to identify causal relationships get a lot higher when an unstoppable force like climate strikes vulnerable objects like human beings. And it has taken us an alarmingly long time to acknowledge the fact that via health, climate change is cataclysmically impacting us at as personal a level as gravity.
Despite the first sighting of smog in 1943, it took scientists and policymakers years to identify the problem of air pollution itself and the cause of that problem, ie, emissions. This lag gets further stretched when it comes to acting on the identified information and it stretches even today in an era where according to WHO seven million people embrace premature deaths annually due to air pollution via respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In a deadly cascade like setup it is punishing us not just directly but also indirectly via climate change, which has led to a chain reaction and has brought on calamities once thought unimaginable by the human race. Be it the extreme weather events like recurring floods, droughts and heatwaves themselves or their resulting maladies like food insecurity, climate-induced displacement, mal-productive crops, infectious water-borne diseases and allergies; climate change has unleashed all-encompassing forces that operate in a cascade and seem to affect almost anything and everything.
All the afore-mentioned pandemonium has intensified instead of getting mitigated because of this lag of identifying solutions despite them being rather obvious. Every possible forum on climate change keeps hammering on mitigating CO2 emissions which is undoubtedly crucial to the cause but is also harder to solve in an energy intensive world. One solution that is staring us right in the face is controlling the emissions of Short Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) that include carbon particulates, methane and ozone gases. IGSD reports that SLCPs are responsible for half of the global warming and air pollution can actually be halved by 2040 if serious SLCPs emissions cuts are undertaken. Furthermore, according to UNEP such undertakings can reduce the expected Earth’s temperature in 2050 by 0.5 degrees Celsius.
In South Asian countries such as Pakistan where 90 per cent of natural disasters in the past 40 years have been triggered by climate changes (WHO), the SLCPs provide a window of opportunity not only because the benefits of mitigating SLCPs can be achieved in a shorter time but also that these benefits are experienced pretty much in the vicinity of decision-making jurisdictions which gives a tangible incentive for the vulnerable regions to serve and save their environment. Therefore, switching from private transportation, solid fuels and substandard cooking stoves is need of the hour because the resulting carbon particulates not only present a direct health hazard but also have the heating potency that is tens and hundreds or even thousand times greater than CO2. Furthermore, such actions should be coupled with proper solid waste disposal and wastewater management to reduce methane emissions which again is a stronger heating agent than CO2.
As per the preceding argument that states ‘we take long to identify and even longer to act on the obvious’, it comes as no surprise that a rather ‘un-obvious dimension’ of climate change has remained largely unexplored. The potential long-term impacts of climate change like migration, food insecurity, loss of social and economic support have serious consequences for mental health. This year, a vital report by the American Psychological Association (APA) claimed that climate-induced extreme weather events like floods, droughts and heatwaves impact mental health acutely through trauma, PTSD, compounded stress, substance abuse, higher rates of aggression, fatalism and deep feelings of loss. Similar studies, including a 2015 report by the Lancet Commission, have been popping up during the last few years but minimal importance has been given to this slow poison that has already forced 60,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide due to climate-induced depression (Report in PNAS). This certainly rings a bell for the whole South Asian region where the most vulnerable group of people belong to the most climate-affected sector of the economy — agriculture. Therefore, this dimension deserves some serious investigation and attention, and recommendations mentioned explicitly in the APA’s report are worth a read.
We have thus far struggled and lagged behind in both identifying and acting on the obvious, because our efforts and scholarship have largely been disproportionate to the magnitude of the task at hand. As a result, climate change has got a head start against us, which means that even acting immediately on the obvious will only mitigate consequences at best until this lag starts churning out more and more health hazards which we can ill afford, therefore eliminating it would require covering more bases and going beyond the obvious. We can learn a thing or two from a blind man who uses his cane to identify every hazard in its way and neutralises it long before it starts to affect him. The cane of sighted people is the scientific scholarship that can help bridge the gap of uncertainty, therefore, in a nutshell — longer the cane, lesser the bane.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2017.