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Mainstream, VOL LV No 22 New Delhi May 20, 2017

Climate Change: Tracing the Inception of its Scientific and Political Discourse

Saturday 20 May 2017


by Prashant Kumar Sharma

The climate change issue has become a significant part of the global discourse today. Climate change poses an ‘existential challenge’ to the entire humanity. This could lead to the greatest environmental threat facing the planet. Moreover, this daunting challenge is often described as the ‘defining challenge of our age’. But there is a visible dearth of unanimity over the question of inception of the phenomenon of climate change.

Scientific Discourse

However, these issues became part of the scientific discourse since 1896, when Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, analysed the linkages between the atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature in order to clarify the existence of the ice ages. Svante’s analysis of the atmosphere helped him to forecast that if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled, the earth’s mean average annual temperature would be warmer by varied degrees. His estimates, nevertheless, attracted little public attention and concern.

In 1824, the first theory of global warming came to light at a time when Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician, exposed that the temperature of the earth was slowly increasing. He argued that solar radiation is trapped by the earth’s atmosphere that is again reflected back towards the earth. Prof P.C. Joshi, in his article titled, ‘Antiquity and Novelty of Climate Change’, revealed that the phenomena of warming of earth were recognised by John Tyndall in 1859. Tyndall argued that the water vapour, carbon dioxide and other ingredients were primarily responsible for the warming of the earth. Thereby, it is considered that Tyndall was the first person to assess the phenomena of global warming; and the very same phenomena are identified as the basic cause for adverse climate change.

Etkins and Ho, in their work, ‘Climate Change: Perceptions and Discourses of Risk’, stated that sensing the susceptibility to the future climate change thrust due to the high concentrations of greenhouse gases, that might be detrimental to humankind and natural ecosystems, there have been an extensive commotion on this subject that encompasses scientists, politicians, special interest groups and the general public. From the late 14th century to the end of the 19th century, the earth went through the ‘little ice age’. By that time, severe cold and insensitive conditions led to a number of famines and the expansion of glaciers, particularly in the Alps, Scandinavia, Iceland and Alaska. The scientists were in search of finding an answer, as the temperature of the earth had steeply soared by the 1850s.

Climate change is often linked to the changes in modern climate, which have resulted due to human activities in recent usage. It is strongly believed that human beings have always influenced their environment, and it is only since the inception of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century that the impacts of man-made activities have begun to traverse globally. R. K. Pachaury, in his ‘Global Climate Change: Indian Perspective Revisited and Restated’, has enumerated that the problems of climate change came to light in 1988 at a time when North America incurred severe drought and an unusually hot summer. This thing not only led the experts to make an assessment of the situation, but also the global worries for the phenomenon of global warming and climate change resulted in the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 through the efforts of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Political Discourse

Nitin Desai, in his ‘Climate Change: economic and historical perspective’, has clarified that the issues of climate change did not came into focus very long ago. For him, it meant that the climate change phenomenon is a recent one. Desai believes that atmospheric scientists were the early movers on the concerns of climate change rather than the activists of the Green movement. The references to the climate change are embedded in the Brundtland Commission’s report titled as Our Common Future, published in 1987. The green movement could not exert its pressure upon the issues of climate change when this Commission report was being made, and not even in the Rio process. At this stage, the focus was much on the issues of classical conservation.

Moreover, Desai stipulated that at the second level, that is political in nature, the first two heads of state from the developing world who highlighted the matter of climate change at the global level were President Ershad of Bangladesh and President Gayyum of Maldives. These heads of state raised the issue in the 1980s. President Gayyum was the one who mentioned climate change for the first time at the United Nations General Assembly, and not any leader from theOrganisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The first intergovernmental organisation to set up a process on climate change was not in the UN, but the secretariat of the Commonwealth. This secretariat set up a group under Martin Holgate. Therefore, the concerns came mostly from the developing countries, scientific community, and certain NGOs outside the UN.

The President of Maldives, Mohammed Nashid, in the first gathering of the newly established Climate Vulnerable Forum, underlined the great ordeal his country was facing from the inescapable fury of climate change. He argued, “For us, climate change is no distant or abstract threat; but a clear and present danger to our survival. We are not responsible for the hundreds of years of carbon emissions, which are cooking the planet. But the dangers climate change poses to our countries means that this crisis can no longer be considered somebody else’s problem. For all of us gathered here today, inaction is not an option.” (Quoted in The Environment Emergency: Exploring solutions for a sustainable future, Teri: 2010). Hence, the political process that we see today emanated mostly from those concerns of developing states and the scientific world. In the early days, people used to use the term ‘global warming’ that, in the view of Desai, was misconstrued. In the Northern Hemisphere, folks did not think of warming of the world as a bad idea. Therefore, the terminology got changed to climate change.

As far as the milestones in climate change negotiations are concerned, the year 1979 has been remarkable as the first World Climate Conference took place in that year. This conference recognised for the first time that climate change is a serious problem. In 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in Rio de Janeiro with the ultimate objective “to achieve the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentration and to prevent ‘dangerous’ human interference with the climate system”. Nevertheless, the first Conference of Parties (COP1) took place in 1995 in Berlin, where the parties pointed out that commitments in the UNFCCC were not adequate and decided to set up a process whereby developed countries will take the lead on climate change. At COP3 in 1997, the Kyoto protocol was formally adopted under which it was agreed upon that signatory parties would have to commit to internationally binding emission reduction targets, with a much heavier burden accorded on developed countries. This protocol came into force in 2005. The most recent agreement that is known as the ‘Paris Agreement’, was adopted in COP21 in 2015, with the “goal of keeping the temperature rise to ‘well below 2° C above pre- industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C’”. This agreement came into force on November 4, 2016 and it has been ratified by 110 members.

Following the above enumeration on the area of climate change, it is understandable that the enigma of climate change is not new to the scientific world. Rather, we can say that this phenomenon is new to the political world at a time when its adverse impact is being felt socially, economically and politically across the nook and corner of the globe. What is most important is that as of now people are becoming aware at least of the climate change phenomenon, if not to the full extent.

Prashant Kumar Sharma is a Ph.D Research Scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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