Climate change: time to panic?

Heatwave in 2018 killed dozens from Quebec in Canada to Japan

Shahid Javed Burki February 25, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president of the World Bank

The question posed above is about climate change; the age of climate panic is here wrote The New York Times in a special report on the subject of what mankind faced if it did not urgently address the issue of global warming.

The heatwave in 2018 that produced the fourth hottest year in the history of the United States killed dozens from Quebec in Canada to Japan. There were the most destructive wildfires in the Californian history that turned more than a million acres to ash. Pacific hurricanes forced three million in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

There are many other climate-related stories from around the world. We are experiencing a world that has already warmed one degree Celsius since the late 1800s when records began to be kept.

Scientists have determined that we are adding Earth-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than any other point in history since the beginning of industrialisation.

Scientists no longer quarrel about their findings. In October 2018, the United Nations Panel on Climate Change issued what has come to be called the ‘Doomsday’ report — a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen, as one United Nations official described the document — outlining climate consequences at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming.

They have also begun to examine the consequences of temperatures moving beyond three to four degrees Celsius. In the latter case, the world as we know today would cease to exist. There is no one in the already crowded Democratic field for the presidential poll of 2020 in America who does not endorse an agenda concerning climate change. Panic has hit the Democrats in the United States. Panic has also hit the American youth.

An initiative taken by Alexandria Villasenor, a 13-year-old girl from New York has grown into a global movement. She is one of a group of young, mostly female, activists behind the ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ campaign.

On March 15, with the support of some of the world’s biggest environmental organisations, tens of thousands of kids in at least two dozen countries and possibly 30 states in the United States plan to skip school, come out in the streets and march, and demand action.

“Their demands are uncompromising: Nations must commit to cutting fossil fuel emissions in half in the next 10 years to avoid catastrophic global warming,” wrote The Washington Post in a front-page coverage of the movement. “And their message is firm: Kids are done waiting for adults to save their world.” Said Villasenor: “My generation is really upset.

The deal struck at COP24, the United Nations climate meeting in December 2018, was insufficient. We are not going to let them hand us down a broken planet.”

A United Nations report produced to help the COP24 delegates address the issues governments faced found that humanity has until 2030 to achieve rapid and far-reaching transformation of society if it wishes to avoid the dire environmental consequences of warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The story is well known.

Humans keep emitting greenhouse gases, temperatures keep increasing, and the outlook for the future keeps growing more and more bleak. Yet the agreement reached in December’s climate gathering by the conferees fell far short of what scientists say is urgently required.

Government action will only come if there is willingness on the part of policymakers. That may have begun to happen in the United States, the country that under Donald Trump has retreated a great distance. There was a dramatic change in the United States’ political climate as a result of the mid-term elections of November 2018.

In early February 2019 Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sponsored the Green New Deal that has the support of four leading Democratic contenders for the presidency. The ideas they laid out aspired to power the US economy with 100 per cent renewable energy within 12 years and called for “a job guarantee programme to assure a living wage to every person who wants one,” “basic incomes programmes” and “universal healthcare,” financed, at least in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy.

But some on the left of the political spectrum were not supportive of the Green New Deal agenda. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, waved off the initiative as impractical. But those who supported the effort were of the view that it had not been fully explained by its sponsors.

For instance, Jedediah Britton-Purdy, the author of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, made a case for the Green New Deal’s approach. “In the 21st century environmental policy is economic policy. Keeping the two separate isn’t a feat of intellectual discipline. It is an anachronism,” he wrote in a newspaper article. He argued that carbon emissions are basically about infrastructure.

For every human being, there are about 1,000 tonnes of built environment: roads, office buildings, power plants, cars, trains and trucks. Human beings have created an artificial world which cannot survive unless far-reaching policies are adopted.

What role should Pakistan play in the renewed effort to address the problem posed by climate change? The government headed by Imran Khan should operate at three different levels — local, regional and international. At the local level there is an urgent need to improve the quality of air in the country’s large cities.

This will require the removal of brick kilns that burn soft coal; the banning of burning of crop residue after harvests; and strict regulation of motor vehicles, including rickshaws, pertaining to the fuels they use.

At the regional level, Prime Minister Imran Khan should seriously consider convening a conference involving all the countries that receive river waters from the Himalayas.

This would mean inviting Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal to a well-prepared regional policy document to discuss and take action on.

This effort would contribute to Pakistan playing a major role at the international level. Imran Khan has the name recognition and charisma to pull off such an initiative.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 25th, 2019.

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