From rhetoric to reality: Hot air to a hot climate!

Thursday, 24 November 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Chunks of sea ice, melt ponds and open water are all seen in this image captured at an altitude of 1,500 feet by the NASA’s Digital Mapping System instrument during an Operation IceBridge flight over the Chukchi Sea on Saturday, 16 July – Credit: NASA/Goddard/Operation IceBridge


The first six months of 2016 were the warmest six-month period in NASA’s modern temperature record, which dates to 1880 – Credit: NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies


I was observing a Hummer moving in front me trying to move and not quite succeeding. With bumper-to-bumper traffic, Hummer or a Nano had no choice but to crawl. The difference in the picture is not in the speed as both in that particular condition will have the same. The difference which most of us may not understand or forget is in emissions and in lifecycle costs. These are factors that escape those with rich tastes and pursuits, with little or no long-term responsibilities other than to themselves. Behind the wheel of a untitled-11Hummer the self-gratification can reach a new zenith!

This September and this year are becoming quite different and not for any good news either. How many of us know or care? Purely becoming hysterical over the fact would have no benefit. Data are demonstrating that this particular September is the warmest recorded when considering the modern temperature monitoring and recording. We have had many months of record-breaking temperatures this year with almost all the months achieving the dubious record of warmest on record. This is going to place the current year 2016 as the hottest on record. 

With so many months of record breaking values contributing to the annual average, the remaining months perhaps need to be quite cool on average global surface temperatures to save 2016 achieving this dubious record. The world becoming warmer is the issue that faces us and the reactions manifest in many different ways and some even say even as rising crime! Almost all the situations predicted due to global warming are not good news and yet we appear to turn a blind eye. We continue to pamper ourselves with ever-expanding habits of consumption with costly carbon tags.

The US and climate change

In United States the people have voted and the Electoral College has completed the selection for the next President. Coming from the stable of business, the incoming president perhaps had been more fixed to securing one bottom line than fostering triple bottom line practices. 

It is no secret that the incoming US President elect Donald Trump is a climate change sceptic. He has been quite vocal about his very clear views on climate – with pledges to move away from the Clean Power Plan, build pipelines for fossil fuels from a distance and above all abandoning the recent Paris Climate Agreement – the ink perhaps is still not dry from some of the signatories. 

He has openly identified his position to the electorate and the views were in the open for all to hear and see. The democracy has placed the economy first and climate last. If the deeds going to match the statements, the world’s biggest and the most influential economy is to turn their back on lots of steps taken on behalf of saving the planet. Of course we argue from a position of believing those steps as useful as we subscribe to the concept of climate change as real due to manmade contributions. The reason for us to think in that direction is totally due to the enormous amount of peer-reviewed scientific evidence. 

If the most powerful person on earth is not going to subscribe to those theories and concepts and if decisions are taken as per his belief, the world and all of us are in for an inconvenient period! It is interesting to note the quoted remark of a democrat staffer who had left a post-election meeting saying: “I am going to die of climate change!” 

However, Nature’s realities may force the incoming most powerful man on earth to change the rhetoric. Perhaps the data once made available in a more organised format to the President of the United States, as it usually happens, may mean that the rhetoric may have to be replaced with reason. Fact checks that were seen during the gruelling electioneering will have to be replaced with reality checks. Globally when there is the call for united action to halt climate change, the United States is demonstrating the presence of climate sceptics at the highest level. It is evident though we may be awash with information that there are sizeable pockets of ignorance.

How hot are we talking

The deviation from the temperature scale is identified to be 0.91C above average which is the average of 1951-1980 recordings. Considering that the Paris Accord is to limit the change to 1.5C from the times of the pre-industrial levels, a prevalent 0.91C is not a simple change. 

While we concentrate on the twin aspects of global surface temperatures and arctic sea ice extent, the primary contributor appears to be slowly displaying a continuous rise. Carbon dioxide concentrations when measured to go over 400PPM in May 2013 made such big news. However today we find the value almost always above 400 PPM and there is also less consensus on what value we should never exceed – is it 420 or 450 PPM is the question. 

The month of September also witnessed the CO2 readings averaged for the month and for a week over 400 PPM for the very first time – another dubious first! Anyway cutting down carbon dioxide emissions is the primary aim of most of the climate-related activities. The way forward is in switching to non-fossil fuel energy sources which means following a low carbon development strategy. Some countries really have shown the possibilities that one has – Bhutan and Costa Rica are examples.

Global warming 

The question of global warming is not a recent construct. Men of science have opened up this question long time back. More than a hundred years ago, in 1986 Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius – 1903 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry – asked the question: “Is the mean temperature of the ground in anyway influenced by the presence of heat absorbing gases in the atmosphere?” He appears to be the first person on record having posed the question as well as attempting to answer though this area of work appears to have been his hobby! 

He had carried out calculations apparently over many months. He had calculated the change possible for each zone of latitude and minus any computational tools that we have today. His final solution was that doubling the CO2 in the atmosphere would raise the earth’s temperature by some 5 to 6C. Arrhenius coming from chilly Sweden is on record about being happy over the prospect rather than alarmed. He went on to suggest that an increase in carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels could be beneficial – make the climate more equal and with chances for more food for a larger population (a possibility with enhanced CO2 concentration). He had identified the concept at an early age and described his findings as the “hot-house” theory of the atmosphere. However consensus across is still elusive 130 years later!

Gas guzzling Hummers is a premium brand in US and the magic has spread. Trying to increase the price of gasoline in Unites States is always a contentious issue. Placing more tax on vehicles in Sri Lanka too will make the headlines. Prices of motor vehicles are an emotional issue and when someone else receives a duty free allowances to buy cars, it also causes anguish in many others. 

We live our life for a vehicle, it appears. Transport is a significant contributor to the global greenhouse gas emissions. This is true for Sri Lanka as well. For us there is a double whammy as we have to purchase all our fuels and almost all our vehicles from abroad, which accounts for a significant portion of our export income. Any inefficiency will have economic as well as environmental impacts. 

A decent public transport system of road and rail could significantly bring down the transport sector greenhouse gas contribution plus yielding a better and healthier urban system. However, such activities which should be carried out do not evoke much interest let alone passion. 

A warming planet will need a concerted effort of many to ensure its wellbeing. We should not forget that some hard decisions will be necessary as cures. In the political arena we may see the rise of populists who by virtue of speaking out for indignant masses appear to confound best of predictions. The masses at present are not similarly engaged over the state of our world. Time will tell whether we will work towards bringing the temperatures down or perish with belligerence!

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