Later this year, UK will host the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow to bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Pakistan’s efforts at the international level to tackle challenges of climate change, especially with its Ten Billion Tree Tsunami project and Ecosystem Restoration Fund, have been acclaimed with our re-election as Vice President for COP 26 and being made a member of six important committees, such as; Clean Development Mechanism Executive Board (CDM), Adaption Committee, Technology Executive Committee, Paris Agreement Compliance Committee, Adaptation Fund Board, and Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) (Loss/Damage) Committee. This is a laudable achievement by any standard.
To underscore the importance of the Glasgow Summit, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently released the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on the physical science of climate crisis. It is a comprehensive 3,000 pages document which has synthesised 14,000 scientific articles and 70,000 comments based on over 100 different climate models produced by dozens of modelling groups. It is significant because it has removed all major uncertainties of the past and confirmed that human activities have changed our climate and are now on the verge of changing planet Earth forever.
It has been pointed out that changes in oceans, ice sheets, seas, and land are nearing irreversible levels and leading towards tipping points. It warns that global surface temperatures are 1.09 degree Celsius higher in the period of 2011-2020 than that in 1850-1900. At this rate, a 1.5 degrees Celsius change could possibly occur by 2030-2035 as opposed to 2050, as anticipated previously. About three years ago, Nawabshah experienced 50.2 degrees Celsius temperature, which is believed to be the highest ever recorded on earth in centuries. A 1.5 degrees Celsius average increase in global temperature is considered as the benchmark where we will likely experience many natural systems beginning to cross dangerous points of no return, triggering permanent changes and transforming life on earth.
The report has drawn attention to global trends of compound extreme events such as drought coupled with heatwaves, coastal flooding coupled with wind hazards, sea-level rise and storm surge, and tropical cyclones followed by heatwaves. The world is already witnessing such phenomena on their TV screens; from Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh in India, in Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany, Henan in China, and heatwaves in British Columbia. The intensity of these events has generated a heated discussion amongst world scientists on whether their projections were what they call a ‘false positive’, which generated a misplaced sense of comfort but turned out to be much worse. They are now wary of not stretching it too far in the other direction by giving ‘false negatives’, even though every available data points to the fact that all climate models underestimated the scale of impact.
It is interesting to learn that increased rainfall from global warming has turned what was previously a ‘once in 500-years’ flood into a ‘100-years flood’. This has major implications for the governance and regulatory machinery in Pakistan, which now needs to have a fresh look at all policy directives and planning in various domains such as building permissions for housing, adequate drainage, surveillance against encroachment, reliable power generation, sturdy electrical distribution system and to take corrective actions where necessary.
Alarmingly, the report has pointed out that due to carbon dioxide being already locked in the atmosphere, global warming will continue beyond 2100. Furthermore, if we continue to produce carbon dioxide at the present rate, the impact of global warming will only get worse and more rapidly than scientists had predicted till now. This needs to be seen in tandem with the melting permafrost, which is another concern for global warming. Arctic permafrost holds nearly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. On current trends, up to 89% of near surface permafrost could disappear by 2100. This would release tens of hundreds of billions tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane, adding to warming. Weather, which could result from Arctic permafrost thawing projections 70 years in the future, is happening right now.
Since we are not a seafaring nation, we seem less concerned with the rise in sea levels but it is noteworthy that melting ice is now the single most important cause for the rise in sea levels. Revised estimate in the IPCC report predicts an over one meter rise in global sea levels by 2100. The problem is compounded as blue sea absorbs more heat than white sea ice. Melting sea ice, therefore, creates a feedback loop – more heat is trapped in the sea water which triggers more thawing. Arctic ice melt, the worst in 1600 years of earth’s history, has slowed down the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation – a major ocean current that circulates warm water from South to North – which could adversely impact the rain patterns from South America to Asia.
The dilemma faced by the human race as a whole is that climate risks are nonlinear and the past is not a good predictor of the future. It might be tempting to dismiss such cautions as distant possibilities and something not of our immediate concern, but it is in our collective interest to take a serious note that henceforth warming anywhere will impact our future everywhere.
In the recent years, Pakistan has already experienced freakish weather phenomena such as abnormal temperatures and unprecedented rainfall which has resulted in urban and rural flooding, infrastructural damage and loss of life. These were indelible signs of a surging climate crisis coming closer to home and a compelling reminder that the country is woefully underequipped to tackle many of its effects, especially those which affect the financially stressed segments of our society.
The challenge of rapidly changing weather phenomenon is a reality staring in our face and its proper understanding is important to help us make informed choices about managing risks. It would, however, be imprudent if only global warming is blamed for weather related disasters in the country, since there is enough evidence to suggest that frenzied and unregulated construction also augments the impending danger.
The overburdened and silted drainage systems, exacerbated by unchecked encroachment, has added to public miseries in urban areas while rural areas have suffered due to insufficient thought to natural topography and hydrogeomorphology during the development of infrastructure.
Pakistan’s Meteorological Department, as of late, has been doing a reasonably good job of weather forecasting but its capabilities will need to be brought at par with international standards. In view of the rising global concern for climate crisis, there appears to be a greater inclination in donor countries for capacity-building in meteorological departments in developing countries which needs to be explored. A highly professional meteorological department, besides the safety of the citizens, can help in crucial decision-making such as turning weather related calamities into opportunities by channeling floodwater for useful purpose through the construction of appropriate engineering structures. No gainsaying, water in the not too distant future could become an even more scarce commodity than what it is today.
The climate system on our earth is under unprecedented stress in the entire human history. It has become more complex as the toiling masses are under the illusion that they can adapt to harsher patterns, while the elite feel they have the resources to move to safer nests when in danger. But either way, there is no escaping from the fact that climate crisis, if not addressed seriously, will lead to untold misery, infrastructural losses, widening an already disproportionate inequality gap, and social instability.
The writing on the wall is clear: the distant is here and the future is now; the time to act was yesterday. At the global level, only by achieving net zero reductions in emissions will there be a chance of saving the world from a miserable future. It remains to be seen if the world leaders in Glasgow in October can grasp the nettle.
The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy.
E-mail: [email protected]
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