The 2018 Kerala floods that killed nearly 500 people were the worst deluge in the coastal state in nearly a century.(Amal KS/HT Photo)
The 2018 Kerala floods that killed nearly 500 people were the worst deluge in the coastal state in nearly a century.(Amal KS/HT Photo)

Climate crisis takes a toll on the planet

The climate crisis has indubitably stamped its signature on the world’s oceans, the atmosphere and the cryosphere — the frozen water part of Earth.
By Jayashree Nandi | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON DEC 29, 2019 12:59 AM IST

It has been a trend seen since the 1980s -- each decade has been warmer than the previous one. The past decade has been the warmest ever on record. And 2019 is expected to be the second or third warmest year ever.

That’s the toll climate change is taking on the world. A graph in a provisional statement released this month by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) captured how climate change’s impact on warming is unprecedented. Average carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018 and 410 ppm in November 2019, according to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said it was worth recalling that the last time earth had experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to 5 million years ago, hinting that the world couldn’t even begin to imagine the impact of such large concentrations.

Climate change has indubitably stamped its signature on the world’s oceans, the atmosphere.and the cryosphere -- the frozen water part of Earth. Sea water is 26% more acidic than it was in pre-industrial times, ocean heat is at record levels, causing strong marine heat waves and leaving an irreversible impact on marine ecology, according to WMO.

The Arctic Report Card for 2019 by NOAA also warned that the average annual land surface air temperature in the Arctic between October 2018 and August 2019 had been the second warmest since 1900. The Arctic sea ice extent at the end of summer 2019 was the second lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. Loss of sea ice and changes in bottom water temperature caused Arctic fish species to shift to more northern waters.

The global mean sea level rise increased from 3.04 millimeters per year (mm/yr) in 1997 to 2006 to 4 mm/yr during 2007-2016, according to the UN Science Advisory Committee.

These trends show that the planet’s adaptive capacity is being challenged.

“Our three special reports on warming of 1.5°C, climate change and the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate indicated that the impacts of current warming are much more severe than previously understood: e.g. accelerating sea level rise and ocean warming, some key ecosystems becoming much more vulnerable, and increasing risks of reaching limits to adaptation,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chair, Hoesung Lee said in Madrid recently.

IPCC’s land report said land surface temperature had already increased by 1.53 degrees C since the pre-industrial period. IPCC had warned earlier that a global mean temperature rise --land and oceans combined -- of 1.5 degrees C can trigger dangerous climate change impact.

Perfect Recipe for Disasters

IPCC’s ocean and cryosphere report released in November warned that oceans had been affected by “unprecedented” conditions and that extreme sea level events, which are historically rare, are occurring once per century; their frequency is projected to increase to at least once a year in many locations, particularly the tropical regions, by 2050.

“Until now we have been looking at individual extreme events- say for example heavy rainfall events or sea level rise or cyclones. The recent IPCC reports show that these events are going to co-occur, at higher intensities, if the current rate of carbon emissions and human activities are to continue. Signs of that are already at our doorsteps, where both global and local changes are brewing the perfect recipe for disasters. We might be able to mitigate these impacts at least partially, by acting locally,” said Roxy Mathew Koll, scientist at Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune.

This year has also seen a spate of extreme weather events both in India and outside. After a delayed onset of the south-west monsoon, the lifeline of India’s economy, on June 8, the month ended with a deficit of 33% ,triggering a massive water crisis in Tamil Nadu and central India .July, August and September received 105%, 115% and 152% of their long -eriod average rainfall respectively.

The monsoon started withdrawing only on October 9 against the normal date of September 1 and prolonged rains brought a deluge to parts of Maharashtra, Kerala and Bihar in August when rains usually reduce.

Climate scientists and meteorologists were taken aback by the scale of extreme rainfall events which were not reflected in the India Meteorological Department’s forecasting models. There were at least 1,400 heavy and extreme rain events during the monsoon months, of which more than 1,000 were recorded in August alone.

According to the IMD, “a very heavy rainfall event” occurs when there is more than 12 cm rain in a day, and when the rainfall amount is 20 cm a day, it is called an “extremely heavy rain event”.

Parts of Kerala that were hit by landslides which killed over 100 people received exceptional rainfall. Mallapuram received 500% more rainfall (594.3mm) than the normal of 99.1mm and Wayanad received 401% excess rains, 707.5mm against a normal of 141.1mm between August 8 and August 14.

An analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment said some parts of Maharashtra and Kerala had received over 3000% more rainfall in a day in August. Though meteorologists at IMD and climate scientists directly attributed such rainfall patterns to climate change, the phenomena were exacerbated by land use change locally like quarrying and monocultures in the Western Ghats.

Aggravating factors

“An example is that of Western Ghats, where heavy rainfall events have increased by threefold since the 1950s. Take the case of recent Kerala floods, where land use changes at an accelerated pace over heavy slope areas have made the region increasingly vulnerable to multiple landslides,”said Koll.

“So, when there is more rain than soil can absorb, water will run off overwhelming streams, drains and rivers, carrying with it soil particles and huge boulders. The story does not end there. The water which flows downstream does not get flushed out to the sea immediately since the sea level has risen. The flooding becomes prolonged when it coincides with a high tide, as in the case of 2018 Kerala floods,” added Koll.

People in Kerala fear devastating floods will be an annual affair now.

The Central US, Northern Canada, Northern Russia and Southwest Asia received abnormally high rainfall. The 12-month rainfall averaged over the US for the period from July 2018 to June 2019 was the highest ever on record. Two major heatwaves occurred in Europe in late June and late July with maximum temperatures well above 40 degree C recorded in France, Belgium and even some Nordic countries.

WMO said more than 10 million new internal displacements were recorded between January and June 2019, 7 million were triggered by Cyclone Idai in Southeast Africa, Cyclone Fani in South Asia, Hurricane Dorian in the Caribbean, and flooding in Iran, the Philippines and Ethiopia.

Global scene

But in December, all these alarming reports and dire warnings proved futile at the UN Climate Change negotiations in Madrid.

There was virtually no progress on the world meeting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the global mean temperature increase under 2 degrees and pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degree C.

Next year will mark a milestone -- parties to the Paris Agreement are expected to update their climate change pledges, which are woefully inadequate and likely to take the world to a 3.2 degree C warming by the end of the century. But large polluters with historical responsibility have been largely indifferent to this call.

The United States, responsible for the largest share of historical emissions (29.3%) between 1850 and 2002, has started officially withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and is likely to be out completely by November 4, 2020. Despite this, the US allegedly tried to avoid any reparations to be paid to vulnerable nations for climate change-induced “loss and damage.”

The United Nations climate talks -- or Conference Of Parties 25 (COP25) in Madrid -- once again was a David vs Goliath story with vulnerable countries speaking up and demanding justice, while large emitters stayed silent; some even tried to dilute the spirit of the Paris Agreement. It’s a travesty and tragedy…could be interpreted as a crime against humanity,” Tuvalu negotiator Ian Fry said of US tactics.

Brazil, the US, Canada, Australia and others pushed for double counting of carbon credits. This means counting of emission reductions both by the country selling and the country buying carbon credits. Civil society organizations have termed it “cheating,” which could jeopardize environmental integrity and lead to no overall mitigation in global emissions.

The same countries are likely to push for such loopholes at COP26 in Glasgow.

Forest activism

In India, 2019 was also marked by protests by tribal and environmental groups against mining projects that are likely to fragment biodiversity-rich contiguous forests in Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

The environment ministry gave environmental clearance for open cast coal mining in Parsa in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand forests in March. Parsa is one of the 30 coal blocks in Hasdeo Arand and opening up these blocks could mean destroying one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India, spanning about 170,000 hectares. Villagers here have been protesting for over two months now.

In Odisha’s Sambalpur and Jharsuguda districts, 130,000 trees are to be felled over the next three years for yet another opencast coal mine. In these forests, at least 10,000 Sal trees have already been cleared. Locals have alleged that their consent was forged for the project. Shockingly, a site inspection report of the Odisha forest department, said the felling of the 130,000 trees will have a “negligible impact on the region’s ecology.”

Indigenous people have been opposing these projects because of their dependence and ownership over forests but for all of 2019 forest dwellers across the country remained anxious because the Supreme Court is hearing an 11-year-old public interest litigation (PIL) by wildlife activists challenging the Forest Rights Act.

A bench led by justice Arun Mishra on February 13 ordered the eviction of over a million forest dwellers whose forest rights claims had been rejected. The order was, however, stayed on February 28 after the Centre and Gujarat government sought modifications of the order following protests by tribal rights activists.

The case has brought to light abysmal recognition of community forest rights (less than 5% according to analysis by civil society) in India despite the law mandating forest dwelling communities the right to conserve forests.

“Most of the debate around the Forest Rights Act has been about individual forest rights (IFR). While the IFR provisions are crucial for settling conflicts over cultivated land created by incorrectly notified forest boundaries, the Community Forest Rights and the Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights provisions are crucial for community-based management of forests used by the forest-dwellers. Our estimates suggest that between 50% and 80% of the forested land in the country should come under CFRs. But only Maharashtra state, which has granted about 7,000 CFR titles, and Odisha state (~6000 titles), have made some significant progress,” said Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow in environmental policy and governance at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE).

In October, videos of a river changing course and impounding and flooding a coal mine in Chhattisgarh exposed how coal mines are sited dangerously close to rivers, contributing to severe siltation and pollution.

Several such mines are sited so close to rivers in Chhattisgarh that they can impact the course of the rivers. All these mines have been cleared by the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC).

“Biodiverse and ecologically important areas have been subject to intense conflict. Approvals for mines, roads and projects have been pushed through despite poor assessments and habitual non-compliance of environmental norms,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research.

“Impact assessment procedures including public participation and expert appraisal have to be given their ethical due. 2019 saw them being both administratively diluted and legally flouted. Compliance of environmental standards and safeguards require public audits. This is because the present mechanism has been extremely lenient violators allowing for environmental injustice to persist,” Kohli added.

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