The globe headed towards a climate catastrophe

y 2050, the World Bank estimates, erratic rainfall, combined with rising temperatures

Shahid Javed Burki December 02, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

This article will be published as those responsible for making policies concerning global warming gather for their annual session over how to avert a climate catastrophe. This time the meeting is being held in Madrid, Spain. The gathering was preceded by an assessment issued by the United Nations on Tuesday, November 26. The report was produced by the United Nations Environment Program and is formally known as the Emissions Gap Report. The summary findings are bleak. The world’s 20 richest countries, responsible for more than three-fourths of worldwide emissions of three global warming gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxide — must take the biggest, swiftest steps to move away from fossil fuels, the report emphasised. Few of these countries are moving in the right direction.

“For ten years, the Emissions Gap Report has been sounding the alarm — and for ten years the world has only increased its emissions,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a statement issued before the convening of the Madrid meeting. “There has never been a more important time to listen to the science. Failure to heed these warnings and take drastic actions to reverse emissions means we will continue to witness deadly and catastrophic heat waves, storms and pollution.”

The richest country of all, the United States, has formally begun to pull out of the 2015 Paris Accord. Donald Trump, the country’s ill-informed President, has made no secret of his disdain for climate science. At one point he called global warming a China-inspired hoax spread around the globe to arrest America’s economic progress. He has followers among some of the leaders around the globe who lead the countries that are vital if the world was to achieve the ambitious goals articulated in Paris four years ago. Among those who have joined the Trump camp is the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, who is encouraging the burning of the Amazon forest to make way for agriculture and livestock production. “The reason the Amazon is burning is because Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who followed Donald Trump’s populist, anti-establishment playbook to win election last year, wants it,” wrote The Los Angeles Times in an editorial. “He thinks the Amazon should not be protected, and that lands reserved for indigenous peoples should not be recognized — all in the name of economic growth.”

Even if every country that signed the Paris Accord fulfills its current pledges — and many including large emitters such as the United States, China, India and Brazil are currently not on track to do so — the Emissions Gap Report found that average temperatures are on track to rise by 3.2 degrees Celsius from the baseline average temperatures at the beginning of the industrial age. “We are sleepwalking toward a climate catastrophe and need to wake up,” says Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The youths in rich countries have woken up and may be able to influence policymaking by members of the older generation. Some of the new members of the United States Congress have come up with what they call the “Green New Deal”. This is a programme of investment and regulation that, if adopted, would place the United States in front of the row of nations taking action to avoid global climate catastrophe.

There are many negative consequences of global warming in the South Asian Sub-continent. Among them is the way South Asians have treated the region’s resource base. One of them is water, which largely because of the way it is used, and how its supply is affected by the way nature is delivering it, are causing severe problems in the region’s major cities as well as in rural areas. In its issue of November 26, The New York Times devoted several pages on discussing what it called “A Desperate Relationship with Water”. Some of what the paper said has relevance for all of South Asia. “No season is as central to Indian life as the monsoon,” wrote the newspaper. “It turns up in ancient Sanskrit poetry and in Bollywood films. It shapes the fortunes of millions of farmers who rely on the rains to nourish their fields. It even has its own music. Climate change is now messing with the monsoon, making seasonal rains more intense and less predictable. Worse, decades of shortsighted government policies are leaving millions of Indians defenseless in the age of climate disruptions — especially the poor.” What is true for India is also true for the rest of South Asia.

The future is ominous for the Sub-continent’s 1.75 billion people. By 2050, the World Bank estimates, erratic rainfall, combined with rising temperatures, stand to “depress the living standards of nearly one half of the region’s population.” The majestic Himalayas are the source of water for all of Pakistan and Bangladesh and a good part of India. The mountain range also feeds China’s mighty rivers. It is projected to lose a third of its ice cover by the end of the century if greenhouse gases continue to rise at their current pace.

These emissions were built over several decades by what are now the world’s richest countries. South Asia is now paying the price for economic growth in the West that was fueled by the burning of fossil fuels. But as scientists are quick to point out, climate change is not the only culprit to blame for the Sub-continent’s woes, in particular the stress that is being caused for those who don’t have the means to bear it. Decades of private greed and government mismanagement are far more responsible. Forests have been destroyed, roads have been built over waterways, plastic refuse is clogging drains, and the quality of groundwater is being compromised.

One example of the pain that is being caused is to be found in South Asia’s largest cities located near the sea. Karachi with a population of over 20 million and Mumbai with 13 million are their country’s financial centres. Both cities got more rain this year than they had in the past 65 years. Roads flooded, drains got more garbage to plug them, and there were power outages, more in Mumbai than in Karachi. In both, the city governments were paralyzed. Criminals took advantage of the cities in stress and crime rates went up. These two cities are becoming increasingly unlivable. One consequence of climate change might be to significantly slowdown migration to the two cities. In fact, the reverse may happen. Some of those who are suffering the most may decide to move out.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2019.

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