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A world of fire, floods, droughts, and storms

  • Published at 12:21 pm August 11th, 2018
Not all is lost BIGSTOCK

All countries should commit to renewable energy and conservation

Alarm is spreading, as most of the northern hemisphere is suffering a prolonged period of unusual heat and lack of rain. Massive forest fires, almost impossible to control, are raging from California to Siberia, with Sweden, Portugal, and Greece hit particularly hard in Europe.

In much of the Middle East and North Africa, water shortages, compounded by electricity shortages, are causing extreme distress across wide areas, both to city-dwellers and to rural farmers. In Iran and Iraq, protests have multiplied, and in south Iraq, have had to be contained by army deployment. 

In Algeria and in the vast Sahel region to its south, temperatures of 54C have been registered. Conditions for the many tens of thousands of families displaced by terror and conflict across Northern Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Niger have become even more intolerable. 

Extreme heat and drought has also hit much of South Asia, especially Pakistan and North India, and parts of Southeast Asia. Deaths by heatstroke have risen alarmingly.

In every country, particularly hot summer conditions, though rare, are not without precedent. What is alarming is not just the records set this year but even more the underlying clear trend to an increased frequency of extreme weather conditions.

These involve not only heat and drought. In many countries, they can also take the form of extremes of rainfall and of typhoon storms. In Bangladesh, this April saw the highest rainfall in 35 years, followed in June by sweltering heat, with Dhaka recording 35.7C. 

More rain and flash floods are forecast, particularly in the northeast. Japan and both Koreas have equally experienced record heat levels and in July, western Japan had its worst floods in 36 years.

Then there is the increased frequency and intensity of typhoons. One recently hit Shanghai. Vietnam is experiencing its third so far this year. The Philippines has been badly hit. 

Typhoons and floods are to be expected at this time of the year, but World Bank studies point out that as average temperatures have risen in South and Southeast Asia, typhoons now average 50% more intensity than 40 years ago. 

Another study estimates that heat stress alone will significantly reduce labour capacity as temperatures rise.

The wider context of explanation is of course climate change. We all are threatened by the steady trend of rising temperatures. A rise of “well below” 2C was agreed by the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015 as the target absolute permitted maximum and likely tipping point. 

At anything beyond that temperature, rises would accelerate and perhaps become irreversible. The world average temperature has already risen by 1 degree centigrade, and we are already seeing the early results.

An average rise of 1C may not sound enough to produce climate changes, and it has been difficult to distinguish particular extreme events as due to man-induced increases in CO2 rather than from natural climate variations, as in the El Nino effect. 

Much of the initial CO2 impact has been absorbed by the oceans. Their warming alters major currents and weather conditions. The complexity is enormous, but the warming trend and its connection to CO2 levels is now regarded as scientifically fully established. 

President Trump maintains that climate change is a “hoax” and many of his supporters still agree. Yet fortunately, many US state governments and corporations disagree. Many are taking steps to cut or store carbon emissions, to switch to increasingly cost-effective renewable power sources such as solar and wind, and to save energy.

By the Paris Agreement, 194 countries are pledged to end the use of coal for power by 2030 or, for developing countries, by 2050. In the UK, where the first industrial revolution was built on “king coal,” the target is 2025 and is already nearly reached. In Asia, notably China and India, coal is still the primary power source and rising demand, despite pollution challenges.

While efforts to cut carbon emissions must continue and intensify, so much CO2 has accumulated in the upper atmosphere that even if the Paris Agreement targets are met, world average temperatures will continue to rise for many years. 

The effects will vary from region to region. In some, extra warmth might be welcome -- though not if it starts to release the immense quantities of methane locked up in Siberian permafrost. On present trends in some regions, including much of northern China, life could become almost impossible during this century.

Can the ordinary individual do anything that would make any difference; especially in developing countries with urgent needs for more electric power to fight poverty and unemployment? How should Bangladesh, India, or Pakistan balance the development of new coal-based power stations against other urgent needs? 

These are difficult issues. Bangladesh already faces huge problems of high urban growth and population density. Increasingly frequent irregular or excessive monsoon rains and floods, or droughts, threaten to continue poverty and rural/urban migration. Higher sea levels will increase problems of coastal salinity. Resources to meet such new threats will be difficult to find.

The answers to global threats from climate change must themselves be both local and global. All countries must be committed not only to renewable energy and conservation, but to social and infrastructural adaptation according to local challenges. 

In Bangladesh, mangrove swamp defenses can be maintained and strengthened. Massive river sedimentation can be used to build up land levels at strategic points and to consolidate new chars.

There is no need for despair, but there is certainly a need for greater combined awareness and effort. 

All governments will need their citizens to be aware both of the multiple threats from climate change and of the resources of science that can be developed and shared to enable adaptation and defense. 

Bangladesh has already made good progress in developing saline tolerant crops. But much more needs to be done. UN and international cooperation and leadership will be crucial, with or without President Trump.

Selina Mohsin is a former Ambassador.

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