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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 25

Climate in Turbulence

Saturday 9 June 2007, by Deepender Kumar


The issue of climate change has once again come to the global centre-stage. The recent report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has created an upheaval at the international level. A cursory glance of the report is sufficient to realise that doomsday is awaiting for some of the vulnerable countries.

If one goes by the statement of Dr R.K. Pachauri, Chairman of the fourth Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, it would be clear that climate change is man- made. Dr Pachuri stated that “we are endangering all species on earth and probably we are beyond the stage where we could have called it urgent. I would say that it is urgent.” The statement coupled with the IPCC report is likely to raise alarm and send across indication that some basic wrongs are taking place on the climate front. Apart from Dr Pachauri’s statement, the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released by the WMO in 2006, stated that quantities of carbon dioxide were measured at 379.1 parts per million (ppm) for 2005, up 0.53 per cent from 377.1 ppm in 2004. It further stated that the 35.4 per cent rise in carbon dioxide since the late 1700s has been generated by missions from the combustion of fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas.

In 2001, the third assessment report of the IPCC brought together scores of countries to act in an urgent way to address the issue of climate change. The efforts led to the enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol after three years. At the same time the sinister design of the US also came to the fore when it withdrew itself from the Protocol on the pretext that that would adversely affect its economy. This view was contested by Bill Clinton, the former US President, during the Eleventh Conference of the Parties at Montreal in 2005. Clinton, speaking at the side event, stated that President George W. Bush’s main reason for not joining Kyoto—that it would damage the US economy—was “flat wrong”. Clinton said:

If the United States had made a serious effort to apply clean energy and energy conservation technologies…we could meet and surpass the Kyoto targets in a way that would strengthen our economies.

The Recent Turbulence

THE recent turbulence on the climate front has strengthened the belief that the global climate has become fickle. The report by the scientific community has also strengthened the belief that unusual weather, namely, incessant rainfall, cyclones, warmer temperatures, untimely snowfall etc. would become regular features. To address the recent climate turbulence all countries have to come together to see that this phenomenon does not go beyond control. The 2001 report had stated that the temperatures would rise by 0.6 degrees to 5.6 degrees Celsius and the 2007 report has stated that temperatures are likely to rise by 1.1 degree to 6.4 degree Celsius by the year 2100, with probable 2 to 4.5 degree range if levels of carbon dioxide double from the pre-industrial levels. The report has also tried to discard the illusion that changes are taking place due to the natural cycle and in unequivocal terms asserted that the probability of the link between human activity and global warming is more than 90 per cent. (This was earlier 60 per cent).

The term ‘environmental refugee’ was quite rare in the past but gradually it has gained currency, significance and has indeed become a reality. It is reported that the Carteret Islanders of the Pacific have lost their battle to stay on their Islands. The inhabitants will be relocated to neighbouring Bougainville. This is the first instance of an entire cultural group forcibly displaced by climate change, and could be the beginning of what is estimated to be up to 200 million people displaced a year. Similarly in case of India a study conducted by the Jadavpur University has come out with the very startling information that two islands—Suparibhanga and Lohachara—are no more in existence. The submergence has rendered over 10,000 people homeless. The day is not very far when the people in such affected areas would scramble for safer places.

The projected range of the sea level is likely to threaten the sovereignty of coastal countries like Maldives, Bangladesh and even some coastal areas of India. Maldives is most vulnerable because it is half-a-metre above the see level. In case of Bangladesh a one-metre rise in sea level by the middle of the century is expected to inundate about 5.608 million acres of existing coastal land, which is about 15.8 per cent of the total area of Bangladesh. A total of 62 Upazilas (out of 464 Upazilas) of 13 new districts (out of 64 districts in the country) will be affected by a one-metre sea level rise. In case of India it is reported that a one-metre rise in the sea level would lead to submergence of 576,400 hectares of land. This would subsequently displace approximately 7.1 million people.

Apart from the rise in the sea level the world is also facing erratic weather temperatures—rugged Tibet hit record highs in the recent past. Similarly, Delhi recorded only 0.9 mm of rainfall in the first month of the year 2006. This was abysmally low— below the normal amount of rain for January, that is, 22.6 mm. It is also reported that the last eleven years of the twelve year span under scrutiny were the warmest years of the century.

Initiatives on the Global Front

IT may be recalled that the issue of climate change came to the global centre-stage when during the late eighties the world experienced unusual happenings on the climate front. The initiative taken as a response led to the culmination of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change and subsequently from 1995 the members of the UNFCC are meeting annually to address the menace of climate change. More than 15 years have passed and yet the global communities are just playing with the issue.

The only significant development that has taken place is the enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol. The enforcement was also not easy going because it took years to muster the requisite number of developed countries to bring it into force. It could only become possible with hard bargain and the self-interest of the developed states but still a global consensus has been eluding on how to address the long-term issue of climate change.

The US, which contributes 25 per cent of green house gas emission, has still not joined the Kyoto Protocol. The only solace is that now US President George W. Bush has started acknowledging that it is one of the serious issues. Still one would have for some time to wait to see the US as a part of the Kyoto Protocol.

Twelfth Conference of the Parties

THE twelfth Conference of the Parties was held in Narobi, Kenya from November 6-17, 2006. The President of the Conference, Kenyan Environment Minister Kivutha Kibwana, in his inaugural address, said that
Climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the most serious threats that humanity may ever face.

He called on parties to work together to ensure that real action is achieved on the issue of adaptation to climate change. On the slow progress of climate negotiations the President told the reporters: Frustration is justified.

It is going slowly. The problem is that the countries’ interests conflict in a number of areas.

For example, oil-producing states fear the impacts of carbon limits on their income, small island states fear they will be inundated by rising sea levels, while developing countries want to put poverty eradication before emission-cuts. If one goes through the proceedings of the preceding eleven Conferences of the Parties one would observe that politcs has played a predominant role in scuttling the efforts to make headway on the issue of climate change. No progress on this front is increasing the vulnerability of the vulnerable, that is, the poor people. In this regard during CoP-12 Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, drawing the attention of the member-countries, stated that the poorest people in the world, who do not even create much pollution, bear the brunt of rising temperatures. He also eloquently pointed out that the issue of climate change should not be seen in isolation and it should also be the concern of Energy, Finance, Transport and Industry Ministers, and even Defence and Foreign Secretaries.

It needs to be underlined that it is time for the global community to wake up. The recent happenings in the area of climate change are most alarming and an assiduous effort to rectify past mistakes is overdue. If not for the world then at least for one’s own country prompt steps must be taken. Or else we shall face the wrath of another civil war due to the change in climate. In the absence of immediate measures the world is likely to fight for a safer place to relocate the affected inhabitants. This could also result in clamouring for a space which till now has not been found suited for habitation, namely, Greenland.

The author is a Ph.D scholar, South Asian Division, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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