From areas experiencing floods to the same area experiencing droughts – the range of weather changes we have seen over the past few years has been extreme. Not only has a dangerous trend started due to climate change, but there is also no immediate solution in place. The extreme weather and health hazards were one of the major topics of discussion during the recent UN Climate Action Summit 2019. As the world gears up to combat against climate change, here is an overview of our journey so far:
What is climate change?
Climate change is the term we use to collectively describe a possibly irreversible change in the global weather pattern at a dangerous, unnatural pace as a result of human activities. Two-thirds of extreme weather events in the last 20 years have been the result of these human activities.
This can be interpreted to give two major conclusions: 1) Human activity is dangerously influencing the environment, and 2) The Earth is currently experiencing a Climate Emergency. Global climate change is changing the way we interact with our environment. The human – environment relationship is shifting from that of mutual benefit to mutual destruction. The scale and range of climate change make it more dangerous for human survival than anything in history.
Human Influence on Climate Change
Human activities since the Industrial Revolution, such as the widespread burning of fossil fuels, large-scale deforestation have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, disturbing the balance between incoming and outgoing heat energy.
When the heat energy leaving the earth is less than the energy entering, the earth warms until a new balance is established. Hence human influence in the form of these greenhouse gases, other particles, aerosols that absorb or reflect sunlight and land-use change have been responsible for artificially speeding climate change, making it both dangerous and destructive.
Why is this harmful?
Climate change was, for the most part of the history of the earth, a natural phenomenon. But the pattern of climate change we are experiencing right now is not in any sense natural. This is because of 3 major observations:
- The current climate change is dangerously paced, changes in sea levels, and global temperatures are happening faster than ever.
- Over the last 2000 years, the only time the global climate has changed synchronically has been in the last 150 years when over 98% of the surface of the planet has warmed (Maslin, 2019). Hence the term global climate change has come forward.
- The present climate change pattern has no historical precedent or natural external cause. Scientists have proved time and again that human activity is the cause of this climate change and exorbitant global warming is not part of any natural cycle.
The Basic Impacts of Climate Change
The impact of climate change can be broadly divided into its effects on :
Physical Systems: The average global temperature has increased by 1.1 degrees, with the most warming happening in the last 35years. Heatwaves are on a raise both in frequency and severity. Rising temperature and low precipitation have doubled the number of wildfires since 1970.
Droughts have become longer and more widespread in the last century. The sea ice extent and volume have constantly been decreasing with a 20cm increase in sea-level since 1870, causing recurring floods. The coral reefs have become extremely vulnerable to increasing temperature. The world’s physical system is experiencing attacks more frequently than ever, along with an increase in the area affected and extent.
Biological Systems: Climate change has led to death and displacement of flora and fauna. Increased Wildfires have destroyed forest ecosystems. The rise in the sea levels, for example, led to completely losing five small reef islands, part of the Solomon Islands and this is just the beginning.
The coral reefs which support a quarter of marine species are bleaching. Ocean acidification is yet another concern for the marine ecosystem. Dry conditions, warm air, and sea surface temperatures have led to the devastation of mangroves. Plant/vegetation cycles are changing, and many species may experience extinction. The threat that saltwater can intrude freshwater can be detrimental for food chains and lead to the destruction of the biosystem.
Human Systems: Climate change has led to Human health being affected both directly and indirectly with new diseases and uncontrollable spread of diseases like malaria. Fisheries and farming, along with other economic livelihoods will be lost as the sea level rises. Heatwaves, floods, and other natural disasters will cause death and destruction. Food production will take hit, leading to a more widespread food crisis.
Droughts are another major concern. Coastal cities will now require costly and reliable infrastructure or migration. Freshwater and energy sources will be scarcity. Creation of migrants who lose their homes to climate change as climate refugees has already begun.
The changes related to the three systems are interconnected and without taking action today, combating climate change in the future is going to be extremely difficult and expensive – both monetarily, and in terms of human and other species life, we will lose.
Types of Extreme Weather Hazards
Extreme Weather Hazards can be divided into the following categories:
High Precipitation Disasters: They are the kind of disasters that occur due to an unusual increase in rainfall or heavy non-seasonal rainfall. It has the ability to kill and make a large number of people homeless as it usually affects a large area. They include floods, storms, and even landslides.
They can also lead to harmful diseases, mainly due to an increase in the mosquitoes as an aftermath of the disaster. Though the prevention of such disasters is often impossible, early warning systems can be used to detect potential impact areas.
Low Precipitation Disasters: They are the kind of disasters that occur due to very low or no rainfall. This not only increases heat in affected areas but also usually harms food production and water availability. It leaves a long lasting impact on the health of survivors through heat strokes, respiratory and heart diseases and often causes malnutrition among children.
It includes droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, etc. The major issue with such disasters is that they last a considerably long time and hence require external assistance for basic facilities like food, water, and healthcare even months after the intensity of the disaster reduces.
Sea -Level Rise Disasters – Around 40% of the world’s population lives in a 100km radius of water bodies. As sea level rises due to increased precipitation and melting of icebergs, more and more cities will be submerged, causing a section of climate refugees.
This not only causes large scale displacement but a loss in terms of life, livestock, and resources. Countries like Bangladesh are already experiencing this. It is seen as a direct threat to human survival and health.
Climate Change Report
According to the 2018 Global Report on Internal Displacement, 30.6 million new internal displacements associated with conflict and natural disasters were recorded in 2017 across 143 countries and territories. Climate change is indeed affecting all across social and geographical spheres, but developing countries and the poor in particular are the most affected due to disproportionate impact.
The poor are most vulnerable to the food crisis, unavailability of water and health facilities. Further, they are also the least equipped to combat disasters. India has about 500 million people who are poor by international standards and require immediate assistance in this matter.
The United Nations is fulfilling three major initiatives in the fight against climate change:
- Bringing the conversation and awareness about climate change into the mainstream with scientific research evidence, predictions and by hosting conferences for climate change since as early as 1972.
- Initiating, forming, and promoting various climate goals for countries and stimulating international agreements for the same. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement are all examples of the same. Though most goals have not been met, these actions have shown hope for the future.
- The UN has taken various steps like providing country based need assessment to promote climate technology to help and encourage countries to meet their emission goals
To make itself more effective and to combat climate change, the UN can and should do a lot more. From financially supporting underdeveloped countries to diplomatically handling political fluctuations, the UN is capable of creating a greater impact.
Measures to be taken
#1. Financial Investment in Climate Technology: To encourage developing countries to get rid of present polluting methods, they must provide technological solutions, capacity building ideas, and policy measures upon request.
#2. Sustainable Forest Management – Today, only 31% of the land is the forest, and this number is decreasing. Countries across the world need to engage in sustainable forest management as it creates outcomes that are “socially just, ecologically sound and economically viable – the three pillars of sustainability.”
#3. Disaster Risk Reduction– Countries need to cooperate with the UN in developing early warning systems and creating local disaster risk reduction programs. Countries like Bangladesh are already under risk and DRR is a requirement for such countries to not only prevent the socio-economic loss but also to retain the capacity to combat climate change.
#4. Natural Climate Solutions: With a focus on climate technology, we must not ignore the natural solutions like protection and restoration of a living ecosystem, planting tree species which act as fire breakers
#5. Cities as a solution: Cities are the biggest contributors to climate change. More than half of the world population currently lives in cities, and more towns and villages are expanding into cities. We can create a huge change by improving the ways in which we plan, build, manage, and power cities.
#6. Political Will and Climate legislation: It is important to help nations across the world understand their various needs, environmental issues, present resources, future predictions and establish a framework to strengthen the environment
The Way Ahead
India is the fifth country in terms of losses due to climate change. It is necessary for everyone to take measures to not only prevent further damage but also combat the current impacts. Such conflicts and incidences affect the poor the most and further lead to an increase in poverty and displacement, pushing people into a vicious trap across the globe.