I wish to discuss the most debated issue of the day by first seeking to define it, and then tracing the historical developments and the underlying factors that have precipitated a crisis due to global warming leading to climate change. I will conclude by suggesting some novel solutions.
Global warming is defined as the long-term trend of increasing average global temperatures; alternatively, climate change is defined as a change in global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases arising from the use of fossil fuels. After the Industrial Revolution in 1750, carbon dioxide levels increased 38 fold until 2009, and methane concentration increased 148 per cent. Since the Rio Summit in 1992, there have been numerous activities to meet this challenge.
Underlying factors of climate change and their impact
The cooling and warming of earth have occurred throughout the history of mankind. The climate varied depending upon the availability of sunlight. However, in the past decade, development has given a sinister dimension to this change. Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, natural factors were at the centre [of the earth cooling and warming] and not the human activity. Using modelling, it has been shown that the temperature may rise by 2 to 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the current century.
The impact of global warming is far greater than just increasing temperatures. This alters rainfall patterns, increases coastal erosion, prolongs the growing season in some regions, melts ice caps and glaciers, and changes the ranges of some infectious diseases. Some of these events are already occurring. Heat waves, droughts and intense rains have occurred more frequently during the last 50 years, and human-engendered global warming has been the likely explanation. The global community has acted, but not enough to combat greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was a milestone, with developed countries agreeing to set legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions. In 2008, World Health Assembly recognised the importance of climate change for human health, calling for stronger commitment by member states to address climate change–related health threats.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference, 2015, held in Paris, led to a new agreement to contain the increase in average global temperatures to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels which in turn would help curtail the damage being caused by global warming. At the end of 2015, the UN adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals. One of them, SDG 13, addresses the need to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact”.
As the New England Journal of Medicine wrote in an editorial on the public health aspect of the issue, “In recent decades, international connectivity has increased on many fronts, including the flow of information, movement of people, trading patterns, flow of capital, regulatory systems, and cultural diffusion. The resultant environmental effects are now altering major components of the Earth. The current geologic epoch is being called the Anthropocene in recognition of the global force that Homo sapiens has become, pushing or distorting Earth’s great natural global systems beyond boundaries considered to be safe for continued human social and biologic well-being. The loss of biodiversity, the greatly amplified global circulation of bioactive nitrogen compounds, and human-induced climate change have already reached levels that are apparently unsafe.”
The global population may increase to 9.3 billion by 2050 from the current 7 billion. According to Readings in Global Health: Essential Reviews from the New England Journal of Medicine (edited by David J. Hunter and Harvey V. Fineberg), “The negative-feedback loop of excessive population pressure on regional environments (involving soil exhaustion, water depletion, and the loss of various wild animal and plant food species) not only exacerbates various ongoing worldwide environmental and ecologic changes but also entrenches conditions of poverty and disadvantage. In these latter circumstances, fertility rates tend to remain high.”
The roadmap for future
In order to effectively address global warming, we must significantly reduce the amount of heat-trapping emissions. Individuals can take action to reduce personal carbon emissions. I envisage future economic development that relies on clean energy, employs energy efficient technology and promotes industrial activity based on efficient energy and technology use. We should reduce dependence on coal and other fossil fuel. We must plant more trees and create more green spaces.
Our government and my ministry are part of this change. We have made tremendous strides in generating solar energy. We added 5,525MW solar power generation capacity last fiscal, taking the total from this clean source to 12,288MW. We will achieve 40 per cent cumulative electric power capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030.
Our ancient wisdom has many lessons that can help in meeting the crisis of global warming. Living a simple life, switching to vegetarianism, frugality to conserve resources and to prevent pollution, respecting every living being (biodiversity) and keeping air and water clean, to name just a few. Already a number of rural Hindu communities such as the Bishnois, Bhils and Swadhyaya have maintained strong shared practices to protect local ecosystems such as forests and water.
The challenge thrown up by global warming is one of the most severe tests that human society has faced in its entire history. The world has to work together, but the developed nations have to shoulder greater responsibility so that we hand over a livable, healthy and safe planet to the next generation.
Harsh Vardhan is Union minister of environment, forest and climate change, science and technology, and earth sciences, and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.