Even in a country habituated to the periodic spread of epidemics, the current outbreak of bird flu in West Bengal fraught with disastrous consequences for human life and poultry, needs to be combated on a war footing. Its spread, however, in winter appears a trifle unusual. Link this with the recent surfacing of chikungunya in Italy, a disease so far confined to warmer tropical climates. Suddenly, the recent global summit on climate change emerges critical to this horizon.
For nearly a decade, experts had been warning that global warming is fuelling the spread of epidemics in areas hitherto unaffected. Climate change is not merely confined to the growth of such life-threatening diseases; it threatens the very future of human civilisation. The Human Development Report (HDR), 2007-08, shows that global temperature is expected to increase by 5º celsius in the 21st century, while the danger mark threatening the sustainability of life on the planet would be crossed at 2º celsius. If this is not arrested, then the worst sufferers would be 40 per cent of the world’s poor people — 2.6 billion. This will come on the top of the fact that around ten million children die each year before the age of five and around 28 per cent of all children in the developing countries are undernourished.
Climate change occurs through the emission of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, which trap heat in the atmosphere. The current global release of such gases has exceeded the normal range of the last 650,000 years in the life of our planet. The main reason for this is the pattern of capitalist industrialisation, in pursuit of ever higher profits. The US’s carbon emission footprint is over 15 times that of India. If every person in the developing world were to have the same carbon footprint, then the level of emissions would be nine times higher than the limit required to sustain our planet, not merely life on Earth.
Climate change will impact rainfall, temperature and water availability adversely, affecting the livelihood of billions dependent on agriculture in the world. Needless to add, India would be one of the worst sufferers. The melting of glaciers will affect the flows of river waters, affecting the lives of billions of people. Particularly, the whole of South Asia would be affected with the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. A three-four degree increase in temperature will displace millions due to flooding. The warming of the seas and land would lead to the extinction of one-third of our species.
The effects of such changes are already being felt. Some 262 million people have been adversely affected by climate disasters between 2000 and 2004. Ninety-eight per cent of these are in the developing countries. Such poor people are often forced to sell their productive assets or save on food, health and education, creating ‘life-long cycles of disadvantage’.
While the facts are startling and warrant immediate global attention and action, the proposals to tackle the situation have become controversial. The HDR prescribes a 50 per cent global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared to the 1990 levels for a sustainable future. To achieve this, it suggests that the developed countries must cut their emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 growing to 80 per cent by 2050. The developing countries are being asked to reduce emissions by 20 per cent by 2050.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, which runs till 2012, the major thrust of reducing emissions was on the developed countries. This was naturally so because it is the developed world that is overwhelmingly responsible for triggering this climate change. True to its nature and with imperialist arrogance, the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It is, indeed, unfortunate that the Bali summit did not produce the much-needed tangible results. The only silver lining is that it has kept open a roadmap to 2009 when new actions to reduce emissions would be decided upon.
Unlike this HDR report, which prescribes solutions on the basis of total global emissions, the Indian Prime Minister at the recent G-8 Summit in Germany proposed that per capita emissions must be the basis for a solution. For instance, India’s per capita emission is 17 times less than that of the US. The US, today, emits around 20 tonnes per capita while India emits around one tonne per capita. Reducing 80 per cent in the US would mean an emission of three tonnes per capita by 2050. Reduction of 20 per cent in India would mean 0.8 tonnes per capita by 2050. Thus, the threat to the planet and civilisation caused, in the first place, by the advanced capitalist countries is now to be met by the victims of this pattern of development — the developing countries — by bearing a burden three times greater. This imperialist logic of ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ cannot be accepted. India must insist, in 2009, that the criteria of per capita emissions must be the basis for a solution.
Unless collective, concerted action is urgently taken to reverse this global warming, our generation may well be presiding over the possible end of life on this planet. Alarming as this may sound, it must be remembered that we have already inherited another legacy of such potential liquidation — the nuclear arsenal. We have enough to blow up this planet a number of times over. For the future of humanity, both these scourges must be eliminated.
In this context, recall a popular scientific hypothesis that was circulating (originating in the former USSR) in the 1970s. The ‘Popovich reflections’ are on the mysterious origin of Pluto (made much before Pluto was stripped of its rank as a planet) from a planet called Phaethon that supposedly orbited the Sun between Mars and Jupiter some 75 million years ago. This planet apparently, one day, was mysteriously torn asunder by a tremendous thermo-nuclear explosion. While much of it exploded (orbiting the Sun as today’s asteroid belt), its core received an impulse to its orbital velocity and just raced away into outer space.
On reaching Saturn, it upturned one of its satellites to orbit in the opposite direction and split up another to form the famous rings of Saturn. It impacted upon Uranus so powerfully that it appears to be lying sideways. Phaethon’s kinetic energy finally petered out and it settled down as today’s Pluto. Did Phaethon explode because of the activities of intelligent life on the Planet? Upon reaching Pluto will we find traces of a lost civilisation? Svetlana Savetskaya, the second space woman after Valentina Tereshkova, was asked if she would bear and rear children in space, as it takes longer than average human life span to travel to Pluto and come back to Earth, to confirm this hypothesis. She said she would try! The USSR no longer exists. Are there any other takers?
The validity or otherwise of this hypothesis, interesting as it is, may or may not be established in the future. The moot point is that human beings have created in two different ways the possibility of reducing our planet Earth to Phaethon’s agony! Prevent this by acting in concert to rid our planet of all nuclear weapons and to irreversibly reverse this climate change.
Sitaram Yechury is MP, Rajya Sabha and Member, CPI(M) Politburo.