The climate crisis is not the third wave. It is the permanent flood
It seems the world is looking for offsets without wanting to make any changes to lifestyles — hoping for a climate crisis “vaccine” to come along to save the day
The Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis of a nature that we have not faced in our lifetimes. The climate crisis, while operating on a longer timescale, is a catastrophe for which there is no historical precedent. We are the first species with the sentience to foresee the change we are causing while it is happening, and the prowess to prevent it.
The goal of the Paris Agreement was to limit global temperature increase to below 2, and ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in comparison to pre-industrial levels. In a report released on Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounded a dire warning — at the current rate of emissions, we will not meet Paris targets. It seems the world is looking for offsets without wanting to make any changes to lifestyles — hoping for a climate crisis “vaccine” to come along to save the day.
In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates spelled out the bleak future that awaits us if we do not restrict emissions. “By mid-century, climate change could be just as deadly as COVID-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly... in the next decade or two, the economic damage caused by climate change will likely be as bad as having a COVID-sized pandemic every 10 years.”
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This is a critical time for humanity. If we are not able to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade, we will not be on track to cut all emissions by mid-century. But currently, not enough is being done to decarbonise economies quickly. And unfortunately, the climate crisis is not like a virus that recedes once there are no longer people to be infected. Greenhouse gases will remain in the air even after we stop emitting them — their effects felt for hundreds, if not thousands of year. Coral reefs will continue to die. Ice will continue to melt, and sea levels will continue to rise.
There is no vaccine for the climate crisis that will fix the problem of emissions. Carbon capture by planting trees and through technology are necessary, but can’t keep up with the current rate of emissions. And there is yet to be an agreed upon set of measures that can be taken both at an individual and country-level to mitigate the climate crisis.
There is no equivalent of masking or getting vaccinated, partly because of the ubiquitous nature of industrial activities that led to modern society. We spent trillions of dollars in creating extractive societies without sparing a thought about consequences. Averting the climate crisis is not just a technological problem — we need a change in development models, values, and behaviours.
Unfortunately, the climate crisis is simply not a priority for most citizens or elected officials. Even when acknowledged, it proceeds on a longer timeframe than a news-cycle or election term. In the light of this, there is little incentive to make difficult decisions.
During this pandemic, rich nations fared relatively well in securing doses of vaccines for their residents. They are now clamouring for additional booster shots while residents of poorer countries remain completely unprotected. Every country will look after its own interests first. This does not portend well for the climate crisis. Many of the countries that exploited resources unsustainably and put the planet in this precarious position are located outside of the equatorial belt. While they will suffer heatwaves, they may be able to weather some of the effects better.
It is in the best interest of many countries that are in the equatorial belt to avert the climate crisis, even as they seek to raise the standard of living of their citizens. The challenge here will be pitting lives against livelihoods, as we saw in the pandemic.
Despite technological advances, most humans live in a very narrow window of the Earth’s existing climates. Modeling changes in temperature, Marten Scheffer and other scientists reported last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that in the next half century, up to 3 billion people might live in climate conditions outside of those that humans have found tolerable throughout history. Many of these people will be subject to temperatures that currently exist only in a few places such as the Sahara. Given that most of them will be poor, they will not be able to relieve themselves of these horrendous conditions simply through migration to cooler countries.
We have seen travel entry restrictions imposed on countries where coronavirus transmission were rampant. The climate crisis will result in economic migrants — we can expect exclusionary borders by countries that have more natural resources and are far from the equator.
Like many others, I read William Thackeray’s poem about King Canute wishing the tide to recede in school. I have been thinking about this poem recently in light of the ongoing climate crisis, not metaphorically, but literally. Melting glaciers and ice sheets in the Artic, Antarctica, and Greenland are causing sea-level rise. We can wish it were not so, but the reality is that rising sea waves do not heed the recriminations of the suffering.
It may be too late to save Arctic summer ice. But if the Antarctic ice sheets disappear then part of the world that my ancestors lived in for thousands of years — coastal Odisha and Bengal — will be inundated. The consequences for metropolises such as Miami, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Kolkata will be devastating.
We may be in the middle of a devastating pandemic, but the time to act is now. The climate crisis is not the third wave, it is a permanent flood that does not recede.
Anirban Mahapatra, a microbiologist by training, is the author of COVID-19: Separating Fact From Fiction.
The views expressed are personal