Growing Pangs

So you think climate change is not really happening?

[Book excerpt] Earth will adapt to changes; just as she has in the past. All earthlings may not be so lucky.

 |  Growing Pangs  |  12-minute read |   10-02-2017
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If you were to stick a thermometer in the earth's armpit right now, what would it say?

Thermometres don’t speak. (Actually they do, as there are talking thermometres. So there.)

But back to the question — the thermometer would show that the Earth is getting warmer than ever before in the history of mankind. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Climatic Data Center, in 2014, "the global temperature was 1.24 degree Fahrenheit (0.69 degree Celsius) above the long-term average for the 20th century".

They have data dating back to 1880! And from then, 2014 turned out to be the warmest year officially on record. After that 2015! And the mercury, it seems, just keeps on rising.

rtxhss8-polar-bears-_021017042225.jpg Are we all going to be toast? or well, roasted like khakhras? Photo: Reuters

In December 2015, world leaders met in Paris where many of them agreed to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius. Fingers crossed!

But lots of people say that climate change is not really happening. I mean... humans can't possibly change the weather, it's just a natural phenomenon.

It’s true that the climate is always changing and has been changing for some five billion years now. But over the last century, the problem is that human activity — such as fossil fuel burning, population burst, pollution, deforestation — is accelerating the change.

We are sending up Green House Gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels. We’re sending too much, too fast for Earth to rebalance it on her own. This is called the Anthropocene age — where human beings are impacting the planet with their actions.

Of course, natural phenomena, such as when a volcano erupts, adds tons and tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Annually, the gross total CO2 they emit is around 260 million metric tons!

Yet, now humans are adding 30 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere — that’s 100 times more than the poor volcanoes. Humans: 100. Volcanoes: 1.

Around 97 per cent of prominent climate scientists agree that climate change is a fact.

Here’s what they say, "Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities."

873ss_021017042935.jpg In 2016, Australian scientists declared the Bramble Cay melomys, a critically endangered mosaic-tailed rat to be extinct! And they think human-induced climate change is the culprit. Photo: Queensland government

PS. For the purpose of this book, we will ignore the wee 3 per cent and not concern ourselves with "climate-change deniers".

I know for a fact that not all places on the planet are heating up. (Ha! Got you there.) Some parts are actually getting cooler—so much for global warming.

One more time—s...l...o...w...l...y this time — global warming is the gradual increase in Earth’s temperature. With more amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the climate is changing and making the weather more unpredictable (kind of like the class teacher’s mood when you haven’t done your homework).

For example, when the Earth gets heated up, the oceans absorb some of the heat. Throw in some melting ice caps next. And what you see is that the oceans expand due to the heat and extra water from the melting ice caps.

Pretty much like boiling a pot of water, and then adding more water to it. What do you think will happen? It will boil over.

environment+cover_021017043203.jpg So You Want to know About The Environment; Bijal Vachharajani; Illustrations: Sayan Mukherjee 

As oceans become warmer, that means the major air currents get intensified, and we can expect stormier weather. There could be heavier rainfall or snowfall as well. As oceans expand, we can expect more floods.

At the same time, the warming of the planet can mean droughts in already water-starved areas because in some places it means lesser rainfall.

And because the Arctic is getting hotter, Korean and European scientists have found that it creates what they call "a bulge of warm air in the lower atmosphere". Now this forces the jet streams — which are fast moving air currents in the upper atmosphere — to dip further south in some place. The jet stream carries cold Arctic air causing extreme cold in some regions!

Remember, the increase in temperature is calculated on a global average, which means as a whole, the Earth is getting warmer. Specific locations may differ, and weather changes on a day-to-day basis, even if the longer trend of climate says something different.

Everything is connected — once something changes in one place, it will have repercussions in other parts of the system.

Meet the people who created smog meringues

Can you eat smog? Yes, according to Zack Denfeld, one of the founders of The Center for Genomic Gastronomy. In case you’re wondering, smog is a type of pollution, usually a mix of smoke from coal and sulphur dioxide. UGH!                         

Fog + Smoke = Smog.

When you whip egg, what happens? Air gets trapped as the egg foams, right? If you have ever eaten a meringue, then you know it’s basically egg whipped until it becomes stiff white peaks. Sugar is added and then it’s baked. Meringues taste amazing with whipped cream and strawberries.

The people at the CGG realised that egg foams are up to 90 per cent air. So they trooped off to various places across the world, to beat smog into eggs to harvest air pollution!

They first conducted the experiment in Bengaluru, where they went to different locations and whipped the eggs along with dollops of polluted air. This was then baked and displayed on a map of the city.

The batter can be tested to see how many pollutants it contains. Smog, said Zack, can be tasted and compared this way. You definitely don’t want to eat these, but would be fun to whip up a smog egg meringue. What say?

Rewind July 2015

As the month of July slips into the calendar year, it’s time to dust those umbrellas and raincoats. Teachers start to wonder how they will complete their term portion, while students rejoice at the thought of a rainy holiday.

Tiger reserves close for the monsoon to allow the forest to replenish without the steady footfall of human beings, streams fill to the brim, and tigers make tiger cubs in peace (without tourists gawking at them).

In villages, farmers sow seeds in anticipation of a healthy rainfall, which will nourish the seeds, nudging them to grow into fluffy cotton balls or shiny purple brinjals, or tall stalks of paddy that wave happily in the wind.

But 2015’s July didn’t bring with it the promise of rain for farmers in Telangana. Already, the year was threatening to be hotter than 2014, the warmest year on record since 1880.

A newly formed state, Telangana was witnessing one of its worst heat waves. Farmers waited for the rain, with the cotton and soya seeds sown, but there wasn’t any rain to even plough their fields. By August, the region had a deficit rainfall of minus 21 per cent (that’s a lot, by the way).

clime_021017041224.jpg Illustration: Sayan Mukherjee 

What can such a scenario possibly mean?

a. Less rice, because Telangana farmers grow paddy and the crop needs a lot of water.

b. More problems for the farmers who are forced to borrow money from crooked moneylenders. These moneylenders charge crazy interest rates for loans—even up to 60 per cent.

c. Water problems for people.

Answer: All of the above!

Weirding, all of this

A lot of scientists and activists are using the phrase "Global Weirding", which according to their website, explains "how the rise in average global temperature leads to all sorts of crazy things — from hotter heat spells to colder cold spells, more drought and intense flooding, as well as slow-onset changes such as ocean acidification and sea level rise. Also includes oddball things such as jellyfish clogging up the pipes of nuclear power plants, forcing them to shut down."

You can check out to see what different scenarios of temperature rise can mean for the planet and for us.

Huh fact of the day!

It’s against the law to use the words "climate change" in Florida and Wisconsin in the USA in certain departmental papers. In Florida, they are calling it "Extreme Weather Events".

Are we all going to be toast? or well, roasted like khakhras?

The fact is that Earth will adapt to these changes; just as she has in the past. Humans, and some other earthlings, may not be so lucky. We are already facing many issues related to climate change and we don’t even realise it.

Unpredictable weather: Unpredictable weather can wreak havoc upon harvest that includes mangoes and cacao beans (the main ingredient in chocolate). In Africa, the weather is becoming too dry to grow cacao. And pests are also attacking the pods!

That means farmers will grow lesser cocoa and grow other crops to make ends meet. And all this while, we have been eating too much chocolate, far more than the supply. The world is not going to be a good place without chocolate and good food, that we can agree upon.

Huge losses: Unpredictable weather leads to a loss of human life and infrastructure. Some of the changes we’ve seen are extreme events like hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, etc. that are occurring more often and more severely.

Storms are bigger, faster, more frequent, and more unpredictable than they were before. For example, people could lose their houses or even their lives in a flood, like the one which hit Chennai in 2015.

all-is-well_021017044146.jpg Illustration: Sayan Mukherjee 

Or a tornado could crumble down a school building. No school for a while sounds fun, but forever? Nah!

Habitat loss: It’s not just us, even animals are suffering, thanks to umm... us. Species are getting threatened with extinction at a faster rate than ever.

In 2016, Australian scientists declared the Bramble Cay melomys, a critically endangered mosaic-tailed rat to be extinct! And they think human-induced climate change is the culprit.

Costing us a pretty paisa: All of this is creating a huge dent in our collective wallets, because governments have to figure out how to repair all these problems.

In 2012, a study called "Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet" found that climate change is "contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, wiping 1.6 per cent annually from global GDP". (That’s Gross Domestic Produce) This is just the beginning. Imagine the costs if things get worse.

Health issues: We all know that the weather affects our health. According to the World Health Organisation1, "climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrence".

Respiratory illnesses from air pollution may seem obvious, but there’s a long list of diseases including malaria, dengue and cholera from water contamination.

WHO knew

According to the World Health Organisation, as far back as the late 19th century, humans knew about the link between climatic conditions and epidemic diseases. Roman aristocrats would head off to the hills during the summer to avoid malaria, which sounds suspiciously like what the Britishers did in India.

Climate refugees: As sea levels rise, islands are going to get engulfed by water, and people will be forced to leave their homes. It’s already happening—a documentary film, Sun Come Up, tells the story of the Carteret Islanders, a community living in the South Pacific Ocean, who are forced to look for a new home because of rising sea levels.

Earlier in 2016, news filtered in that five tiny islands that were part of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific went under water2! Luckily, no one lived there. But their neighbouring islands are seeing their villages destroyed by water.

If you think "It’s not my problem", then imagine for a minute what it would feel like to lose your home because someone else was sending up carbon in the atmosphere! How awful would that be?

A cranky planet: When it’s hot, you become cranky; and if you’re stuck in the rain with your school books being soaked inside a non-waterproof school bag, it is just not happy news.

And now research shows that weather impacts our mood, and that means with unpredictable weather, our moods could also be pretty much unpredictable.

cranky_021017041241.jpg Illustration: Sayan Mukherjee 

Climate change affects all of us in different ways — from plummeting and rising temperatures to unpredictable weather patterns, complicated health issues and it also threatens food security and livelihoods. Let’s face it, the planet will adapt.

We, the human species, may not be so lucky. Ignoring these problems may just show that our empathy levels are slowly eroding away, being washed away by rising sea levels and melting away in this ferocious heat. Uh oh.

Adapt and/or mitigate?

Countries across the world are looking to reduce climate change impacts in two ways:

Mitigation: Reducing or removing the GHG emissions; which mean moving to cleaner energy sources to reduce the emissions. Or removing them by technological methods (see the postcard on geo-engineering to get a teensy-weensy idea).

Adaptation: Looking at ways to reduce the impacts of climate change through systemic change to limit the damage.

For instance, farmers could perhaps grow different kinds of crop in the same field, some of which are drought-resistant or start rainwater harvesting in preparation for delayed monsoon.

(Excerpted with permission from Red Turtle by Rupa.)


Bijal Vachharajani Bijal Vachharajani @bijal_v

The writer was the former editor of Time Out Bangalore and writes about education for sustainable development and sustainable livelihoods.

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