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Saturday, Aug 24, 2019

There are no technical fixes to deal with ecological changes

The IPCC Report acknowledges that “the pathways to avoiding an even hotter world would require a swift and complete transformation not just of the global economy but of society too.”

opinion Updated: Oct 19, 2018 17:53 IST
Shyam Saran
Shyam Saran
People take part in protests ahead of the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 2, 2017
People take part in protests ahead of the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 2, 2017(REUTERS)
         

The Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the implications of a 1.5 degrees C rise in average global temperature, which was released on October 8, 2018, confirmed what we have known for years but stubbornly ignored. Climate change from human-induced causes is already taking place and is both accelerating and intensifying. Average global temperatures have risen about 1 degree C since the start of the Industrial Revolution and, the report says: “We are already seeing the consequences... through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes.”

Even if the temperature rise could be limited to the current level, these observed climate changes would not only continue but will intensify because of strong feedback loops. The Earth’s ecosystem is a dynamic one. A derangement in one variable feeds into derangement in another, causing a cascading series of changes throughout the ecosystem. Further temperature rise, even of 1.5 degrees C, may result in catastrophic and irreversible changes. I believe that the IPCC report is unusually optimistic in positing a relatively benign outcome with a 1.5 degrees C temperature rise. The report presents a striking example of impending disaster — at 1.5 degrees C temperature rise, 70-90% of coral reefs across the world would die. At 2 degrees C rise, none would be left. But is a loss of 70-90% of coral reefs somehow less of a disaster?

What has been happening with just a one degree temperature rise so far has been conveyed in stark terms in the report. What has not been spelt out clearly is that even if there were no further increases in temperature, there will still be rising intensity of the negative consequences, which we are already experiencing. A one degree hotter planet is not a steady state. True, as the report states, the planet will be less at risk with a 1.5 degrees C temperature rise than with a 2 degrees C rise but that deflects from the reality that we are already in deep trouble.

Why is a one degree hotter planet not a steady state? The answer lies in the dense interconnectedness of all life on Earth and the strong feedback loops which link the entire ecosystem. Global warming so far may have led to the loss of over 40-50% of the coral reefs , but the damage does not stop there. The loss of corals affects marine life as they provide habitat for fish. Their loss makes coasts more vulnerable to wave erosion because they act as wave breakers. The loss of fish populations will have an impact on food security which, in turn, affects human health. All these then have second order effects which escape reckoning.

The report has pointed out that while average global temperature may rise by 1 degree C, there are parts of the planet which are already past the 2 degrees C threshold. Arctic temperature has risen by 3 degrees C. This is not only leading to a loss of ice at an alarming rate but also affecting ocean currents, ocean chemistry and weather patterns. A warmer Arctic Ocean is leading to the steady loss of the ice sheets covering Greenland and the perma-frost areas in the northern parts of the Arctic littoral.

Once these ancient stores of ice begin to melt, they will release vast quantities of methane that lie locked in the ice. Methane is several times more temperature forcing than carbon dioxide. We may already be in the middle of this dynamic and the consequences will be planet wide. Each phenomenon may appear as a crisis in a particular domain or a particular location but the reality is that our planet’s ecosystem is one single domain, one single location. Our current knowledge systems progress through increasing categorisation, identification and study of individual phenomenon. This abstraction has advantages but in the process the larger picture, the awareness that there are myriad threads which bind the planet’s ecosystem, is obscured. The true scale of the challenge that humanity faces, here and now, not in some distant future, has been apparent for some time but there is a collective blindness which compels us to pretend that all will be well. The reasons for this are clear. Acknowledging the true enormity of the challenge we are confronted with will demand that we alter our lifestyles, change our value systems and re-connect humanity with Nature: Man in Nature, not Man Against Nature.

There is also the influence of boundless techno-optimism that leads us to believe that before disaster strikes, the wonders of technology such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing and geo-engineering will be able to find answers to the dilemma we face today without our having to alter the patterns of living we are attached to. This is a delusion. There are no technical fixes to deal with the scale and rapidity of ecological change.

The IPCC report acknowledges that “the pathways to avoiding an even hotter world would require a swift and complete transformation not just of the global economy but of society too”. This will only be possible if the world is able to reject resurgent nationalism and parochialism and adopt collective and collaborative responses to this crisis. India’s civilisational attributes, which lie obscured, point us in the right direction but await being rekindled by a far-sighted leadership imbued with an internationalist spirit.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary, and has served as India’s Chief Negotiator on Climate Change

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 19, 2018 17:23 IST

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