‘Global boiling’ – The hot air between words and action

Headline events reflect the reality of climate change. Theinadequacies of response are visible. The implications for the future are manifest and terrifying.
Flames burn a forest in Vati village, on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece.(File Photo | AP)
Flames burn a forest in Vati village, on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece.(File Photo | AP)

The Saguaro cactus can grow to heights of 16 metres, sport over a dozen branches which resemble arms, weigh as much as up to two tonnes and is known to survive extreme heat for over 150 years. The genetic coding which enables it to survive dry and intense heat earned it the legendary sobriquet of the Sentinel of the South West. This summer the legend and the moniker are both at risk. Such has been the intensity of the heat wave across Arizona - with temperatures hovering above 40°C – the Saguaro cacti are collapsing and dying.

Extreme weather is not limited by geography or political boundaries. As per the World Meteorological Organisation global mean surface temperature has been the hottest July ever observed as per records – scientists using millennia of climate data extracted from sediment cores estimate it is the warmest in 120,000 years. July witnessed the three hottest days recorded in history and the highest ever ocean temperatures recorded in history for this time of the year.

Large parts of the northern hemisphere are in the grip of heat waves worsened by wildfires from Canada to Greece. Nearly two thirds of the US population is under heat alert -- ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida touched hot tub levels. Catalonia in Spain shattered records to report 45.4 °C, Sardinia in Italy recorded 48.2 °C, Xinjiang in China reported 52.2 °C, and Tunis in Tunisia set a record with 49 °C.

And it is not just heat waves. Floods inundating regions across Asia illustrate the complexity and consequences of climate change. Mumbai smashed records with the wettest July ever in history. Last month heavy rains and swollen rivers triggered floods in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. This month from Junagadh in Gujarat to Raipur in Chhatisgarh to Jorhat in Assam cities across India witnessed floods.

The impact of global warming is illuminated by data out of the Arctic and Antarctica too. The National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates that sea ice around Antarctica “declined faster than the 1981 to 2010 average”. In mid-July Antarctic ice had dropped below average by 2.6 million sq km -- roughly as large an area as Argentina. Sea ice in the Arctic zone is 1.3 million sq km below the 1981-2010 average. Since 1979 the Arctic region has lost 1.99 million sq km - roughly the area of Mexico - of ice.

This week, UN Secretary General António Guterres, deployed evocative phraseology and declared that the “era of global warming has ended and the era of global boiling has arrived.” The events unfolding across the world have been debated and predicted. Since 1990 five IPCC reports have presented comprehensive evidence of the changing climate system. In fact the 2007 report concluded that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”.

Three decades after the first IPCC report it is hot air that distinguishes the gap between words and action. Suffice to say the world has been a warmer place since 1990. Central to the comprehension of climate change and the design of policies for mitigation is the anthropogenic aspect – that is, emission and therefore warming caused by human activity. The world’s population was around 1 billion in 1800. It took 127 years for it to touch 2 billion and just 12 years to rise from 7 billion to 8 billion. Action on climate change is afflicted by poor definition of needs, wants and wastage.

The consequences of inaction are laid out in various studies. As early as in 2008 a technical report of the IPCC observed “records and climate projections provide abundant evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable and have the potential to be strongly impacted by climate change”. Citing studies the report stated water supply fed by glacial and snow melt water “on which hundreds of millions of people in China, Pakistan and India depend, will be adversely affected”.

The impact on hydrology will inform food security – the panic witnessed last week following ban of rice exports by India illuminates existing imbalances. Rising temperatures, shifting patterns of precipitation and extreme events can and will impact yields and production. Ocean warming and acidification constrains output of fisheries and aquaculture. The Sixth Assessment of IPCC observes “Climate-driven food insecurity and supply instability, for example, are projected to increase” and worsen effects of non-climatic risks.

The needle has scarcely moved beyond setting targets. Consider reduction of carbon emission. There is much celebration of the move towards electric mobility. Globally electric cars account for barely 10 million of 65-plus million car sales. Green credibility depends on the source of charging. China, which leads the EV race, depends on coal-fired plants for over half the electricity generated. There is movement on renewables and scale is enabling better costs. That said, renewables generate less than 30 per cent of total electricity produced world over. Emissions from coal-fired plants have grown! Unsurprisingly the IPCC estimates emissions will exceed net zero goals.

In its 2023 assessment the IPCC states that gaps in adaptation policies persist and continue to grow. The reason: “Current global financial flows for adaptation are insufficient for, and constrain implementation of, adaptation options, especially in developing countries”. There is the reality of per capita emission and then there is the asymmetry of resources.

Headline events reflect the reality of climate change. The inadequacies of response are visible. The implications for the future are manifest and terrifying. The price- in human and economic costs- could be humongous. The window of opportunity to secure “a liveable and sustainable future” is rapidly closing.

Shankkar Aiyar
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India

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