The world’s attention is focussed on the Putin’s war on Ukraine. This is not surprising for the scenes of destruction and death playing on global television screens and accessed over the internet grip attention. The war has also been brought home to India not only by the efforts to evacuate and airlift our students in Ukraine and by the death of a 21-year-old youth from Karnataka in a Russian missile attack in the city of Kharkiv.
Amidst these incidents of tragedy and pain very little attention is being paid to the latest report prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Climate change is the greatest challenge, present and long term, that confronts our species for it threatens human life as we know it. Hence, it would be logical for the media to ensure that what the scientists are making known is fully brought to the attention of the people. However, the nature of the news is such that the immediate and urgent more often than not virtually blanks out the more important if it is long term and does not arrest attention. The same is true of the political class which keeps its eyes on the present and largely ignores the future.
Significantly, this was demonstrated by even US President Joe Biden who is a believer in climate change’s threat to humankind; he did not refer to it at all in his State of the Union speech to the US Congress on March 1. Unlike his predecessor who took the US out of the Paris Climate Change Accord Biden did well to accept it on behalf of the US on the day he took office last year. But it is necessary for the holder of the most powerful political office in the world to emphasise the dangers of climate change to his people at every significant opportunity.
In a summary for policymakers the present report notes “Human induced climate change, including more frequent intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability. Across sectors and regions the most vulnerable people and systems are observed to be disproportionately affected. The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt”.
These sobering words are expanded as policymakers are informed, inter alia, that food supplies and water availability have been adversely impacted in some regions more than others. Significantly physical health of people has been globally affected and mental health too. As the world continues to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a zoonotic disease, the climate scientists note “Animal and human diseases, including zoonoses, are emerging in new areas”. In view of the devastation wreaked by COVID-19 the highest priority needs to be given to putting in measures to prevent such diseases and to the ability to limit their damage to the minimum if they occur. However, there is no evidence that political leaders are willing to do so.
The report asserts that the vulnerability of people to climate change differs between and within regions. This is caused, among other factors, by “marginalisation, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism and governance”. On this basis it assesses that “3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change”. As the current global population is about 7.8 billion roughly 46% of the world population has to bear a greater brunt of climate change for which most of them are less responsible than the rest. The per capita emission of green-house gases is the highest in the affluent world because of their historical and current consumption patterns. And ironically it is the affluent world which talks a great deal about sustainable development. For that to succeed there will have to be a fundamental shift in lifestyles which are currently based on excessive consumption. Indeed, at present, all over the world the good life is associated with extravagance and waste. As long as that remains the ideal emphasised by the push of advertising can sustainable development be achieved?
If the current scenario is bleak the future is dark. As the report states “Global warming, reaching 1.5% C in the near term would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to eco-systems and humans”. It goes on to assess that by taking action to limit global warming to close to 1.5% C will mitigate these risks but cannot eliminate them all. Beyond 2040—which is less than two decades away--- the risks caused by climate change to human life will increase manifold.
While considering adaptation the report acknowledges that efforts are being made but states that it is focussing on the “immediate and near term” when what is required is “transformational”. These will be effective to lessen the burden of climate change on the vulnerable who are at greatest risk. Can this ever be done?
The fact is that combating climate change needs at least a regional approach if not a whole of planet approach. That is simply not possible at the present stage for the international system is essentially based on nation states and the preservation and promotion of national interest in the near term is the greatest priority of all leaders, including those of the most powerful countries. They are unwilling to tell their people that they will have to change their entire approach to life for the welfare of the planet. That will mean a very painful transition and that is nowhere on the horizon. Hence, the warnings of scientists is, in reality, shrugged off despite the plentiful political rhetoric.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.