On 25 September, two days after the UN Summit on ‘Climate Change’, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released its special report on ‘Oceans and Cyrosphere’. The report is about the impending climate catastrophe that might take place much earlier than expected!
The report warns that “ global sea levels are set to rise by at least 1m by 2100 if carbon emissions go unchecked, submerging hundreds of cities, including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Surat and in some cases entire countries”. Extreme events such as storm surges are likely to occur once a year rather than once a century because of accelerated global warming, said the report. The dire warnings by the IPCC are a call to action for governments and business leaders across the world to reduce carbon emissions that can jeopardize life on the only habitable planet known to humanity.
The 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 74) just concluded in New York. Once again the focus of the Assembly is ‘Climate Change’. On 23 September a ‘Climate Action Summit’ was convened by the UN Secretary General. The outcome was on expected lines- many promises, but in the long run, like in the previous years, little is translated into concrete action. The summit, focused on convincing countries to scale up their climate action ambitions, failed to get higher pledges from most member nations.
Greta Thunberg , the sixteen year old Swedish environmental activist was the star of the summit. She minced no words when she told world leaders, “ the eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say- we will never forgive you.” Adding for good measure, "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” Concluding her fiery speech with, "We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not”. " My message is that we'll be watching you!” On expected lines Greta’s speech went viral on social media; her legion of fans include children, youth and elders very concerned at what is happening to world. Sadly, some world leaders and TV channels even pooh-poohed her valiant efforts in a subtle way implying ‘what does she know? She is only a kid’- and blaming leftists and liberals for ‘setting her up!’
The world has witnessed enough of disasters in the recent past: cyclones and hurricanes, tsunamis and major storms, torrential rains and disastrous flooding, droughts and famines, earthquakes and forest fires, melting of glaciers and rising sea levels. Many have dismissed these as ‘natural disasters’; however, there is enough of scientific studies to show that the insensitivity of humankind to our ‘common home’ is a direct cause of these catastrophic happenings. Further, the unfortunate reality is that whilst millions are affected all over – those who bear the brunt are the poor and marginalized , those who live on the fringes of society. These catastrophes have also forced vast sections of the world’s population to migrate or seek refuge in less hostile environments.
It goes without saying that the climate catastrophe today is overwhelmingly created by the wealthiest strata of society: Almost 50 percent of global emissions are produced by the richest 10 percent of the world’s population; the wealthiest 20 percent are responsible for 70 percent. But the impacts of those emissions, as said earlier, are hurting the poorest first and worst, forcing growing numbers of people to move, with many more on the way.
A World Bank study of 2018, estimates that by 2050, more than 140 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will be displaced because of climate stresses. Many consider this estimate as conservative. The numbers may eventually be much more: though most will stay in their own countries, crowding into already overstressed cities and slums( as we see in several of the urban areas in India today); many will try for a better life elsewhere.
The victims of a crisis of other people’s making would be owed justice, in any moral universe, guided by basic human rights principles, that justice would and should take many forms. First and foremost, justice requires that the wealthiest 10-20 percent stop the underlying cause of this deepening crisis by lowering emissions as rapidly as technology allows (the premise of the Green New Deal). Justice also demands that one heeds the call for a ‘Marshall Plan for the Earth ‘that Bolivia’s climate negotiator called for a decade ago: to roll out resources in the global south so communities can fortify themselves against extreme weather, pull themselves out of poverty with clean tech, and protect their ways of life wherever possible.
When protection is not possible — when the land is simply too parched to grow crops and when the seas are rising too fast (as the latest IPCC report warns) to hold them back — then justice demands that world leaders clearly recognize that all people have the human right to move and seek safety. That means they are owed asylum and status on arrival. In truth, amid so much loss and suffering, they are owed much more than that: they are owed kindness, compensation, and a heartfelt apology. In other words, climate disruption demands a reckoning on the terrain most repellent to conservative minds: wealth redistribution, resource sharing, and reparations. Significantly, the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (WDMR) on 29 September has for its theme “It is not just about migrants…it is about building the city of God and man!”
Pope Francis, has demonstrated a passionate commitment to address climate change. In a video message to world leaders gathered at the UNGA he challenged them saying, “ With the Paris Agreement of 12 December 2015, the international community became aware of the urgency and need for a collective response to help build our common home. However, four years after that historic Agreement, we can see that the commitments made by States are still very "weak", and are far from achieving the objectives set. Along with so many initiatives, not only by governments but by civil society as a whole, it is necessary to ask whether there is a real political will to allocate greater human, financial and technological resources to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and to help the poorest and most vulnerable populations, who suffer the most”. He emphasized the need of honesty, courage and responsibility in addressing “ one of the most serious and worrying phenomena of our time: climate change”.
Earlier, on 1 September in a written message for the ‘World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation’, Pope Francis challenged governments to take “drastic measures’ to combat global warming and reduce the use of fossil fuels, saying that the world was experiencing a climate emergency. His message was direct, “This too is a season for undertaking prophetic actions. Many young people all over the world are making their voices heard and calling for courageous decisions. They feel let down by too many unfulfilled promises, by commitments made and then ignored for selfish interests or out of expediency. The young remind us that the earth is not a possession to be squandered, but an inheritance to be handed down. They remind us that hope for tomorrow is not a noble sentiment, but a task calling for concrete actions here and now. We owe them real answers, not empty words, actions not illusions. In this regard, the forthcoming United Nations Climate Action Summit is of particular importance. There, governments will have the responsibility of showing the political will to take drastic measures to achieve as quickly as possible zero net greenhouse gas emissions and to limit the average increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius with respect to pre-industrial levels, in accordance with the Paris Agreement goals. Next month, in October, the Amazon region, whose integrity is gravely threatened, will be the subject of a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Let us take up these opportunities to respond to the cry of the poor and of our earth!
India has a long way to go in dealing with the imminent catastrophe. In his address to the UNGA on 27 September, Prime Minister Modi was high on rhetoric but did not specify substantial action to address climate change. Earlier at the United Nations’ ‘2015 climate Change’ talks in Paris, he has gone on record saying , “Climate change is not of our making. It is the result of global warming that came from the prosperity and progress of an industrial age powered by fossil fuel. But we in India face its consequences today. We see it in the risks of our farmers, the changes in weather patterns, and the intensity of natural disasters.” Though the Paris agreement was ratified unlike other developing nations, India did not agree to cap emissions. Instead Modi pledged to bulk up on renewable power and reduce emissions relative to GDP by roughly a third from 2005’s emissions by 2030.
Today, the use of fossil fuels continues unabated in India who accounts for 4.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, so it plays a crucial role in combating climate change; because of the risks of flooding and high temperatures, perhaps no country has a greater incentive to slow global warming. For example the IPCC warns of what may happen to Mumbai which is one of the world’s most populous cities and India’s financial capital; the city is already below the sea level at high tide and is flooded almost every monsoon season. It fails to drain regular floodwater during excess rainfall, a situation that could worsen due to the rising sea level. The impact would also be felt on marine heatwaves and extreme El Niño and La Niña events, which are likely to become more frequent. These ocean phenomena are critically linked to the south-west monsoon that accounts for over 75% of the annual rainfall in India. El Niño’s impact on India became evident in 2015, when it faced a severe drought.
In India there is a clear nexus between powerful lobbies (like builders), vested interests (who are involved in rampant quarrying/mining work and deforestation and of course the politicians . India, where one in every seventh person on the planet lives, has no national study on the impact of climate change, although about 600 million people are at risk from its effects. “Climate change will soon be critical and India is ill-prepared to handle it” says N H Ravindranath , a climate scientist at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) . Ravindranath is currently heading a study that will assess the impact of climate change across regions and sectors. His assessment, which is likely (and hopefully) to be the bedrock that will inform climate-related policy, will be submitted to the Indian government and the United Nations (UN). Climate change is likely to make rainfall erratic (as we have been experiencing), lead to rising seas and make extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods and heat waves – like the one currently sweeping large parts of India
The situation is serious, needing an urgent and sustainable response. But is anyone listening? When will we stop pacifying ourselves with mere promises and cosmetic actions? Here, we continue to complain about the floods, famines, cyclones that wreak havoc everywhere. We lack however, the courage to take on those who have no qualms in destroying our fragile ecosystems and the environment. Unless we do so now in a concerted effort we will be only hurtling towards a catastrophe of no return!(Published on 30th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 40)