The last coffin to the cemetery!

Thursday, 5 June 2014 00:34 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It is important to face reality and take appropriate measures if the situation so demands. However, in the absence of some sense prevailing it is equally important to put forward ‘the issue’ strongly so as to receive attention and to indicate growing despair on observing business as usual while ignoring all signs of a growing crisis. What a better time than the week when we all across the globe would be celebrating or reminiscing on our environment – hopefully with right intentions? It is also taking place at a time when Mother Nature in our country has unleashed her brute force towards some of our communities in quite a few locations and has already claimed many lives.                       We are also witnessing ‘weather refugees’ due to loss of shelter and livelihoods. We may be busy as usual engaged with providing meals and shelter and related support – an aspect that our communities are well known for. However, once floods recede and lives come back to normal for those who were fortunate enough to weather through the event, that any event should lead to some lessons to be learnt and incorporated into the way we work and live, is forgotten. Until another crisis happens, for all communities, it is again business as usual. Sustainable development pillars under stress June 5 is celebrated as World Environment Day, picked by the UN remembering the day when many nations came together in Stockholm in 1972 to discuss environment as a topic. A lot of water has flowed under many bridges since then and world today is grappling with much more problems too. All three pillars of sustainable development are under stress and strain. We have a multitude of topics to discuss under the theme of environment. Perhaps the issue given most prominence is climate change. We will also witness the synthesis report of IPCC fifth assessment coming out in November this year. The substantive reports that had gone in to generate this are already out and are available. The conclusions are quite clear and call for some concerted action amidst very clear realities. The fifth assessment report is quite clear and if there were any doubts in earlier reports with regard to who has been responsible for this state of planetary affairs, they have been pushed aside. Climate change is happening and man is at the centre of this change. The only chance we have is to come alive to the issue, take action now – preferably today itself! If 10 May 2013 witnessed the carbon dioxide concentrations going above 400 ppm for the first time after millions of years, we continue to observe values over 400 ppm now. The readings of the Mauana Loa observatory which one can read online are showing the path the Keeling Curve is taking. The new benchmark is 401.6, which was recorded on 12 March 2014. Carbon dioxide is the main contributory emission to the planetary problem that is going to spell disaster to our existence. We continue to act as if we do not care. We still push to ensure that our economic indicators are right and acceptable at any cost. With mounting evidence, it is really difficult to understand the apathy displayed by those who can make an impact. Science has also indicated that there is also a point of no return if the carbon dioxide value exceeds a certain level and though this is not exact, we are coming closer to some of those predictions day by day. Climate change The IPCC summary report from the current series for the policymakers has the following opening statement – Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, the sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Another highlighted statement is that human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system. These recent disclosures however have meant even President Obama joining in to spell out action towards mitigating climate adverse contributions. Remember that the United States did not sign Kyoto protocol and was one major outlier in working towards climate-friendly behavior. President Obama who addressed the nation recently was different. His logic was forceful enough and almost as if he believed in the importance of climate-friendly low carbon policies from day 1 of his presidency. The US President’s most recent announcement perhaps his boldest step so far to reduce US’s biggest source of pollution blamed for global warming – carbon emissions from power plants. Expected in such bold directives would spur innovation and investment and to get the US economy from polluter status to a clean energy economy. This incidentally clearly asks the US to move away from coal which at present contributes by 37% to the energy mix. His bold announcement was greeted in typical fashion by the industry. Climate agenda could drive economic losses, kill jobs was a newsline. President Barack Obama’s aim to address climate change could lead to $ 50 billion a year in economic losses and 224,000 job cuts, the US Chamber of Commerce said in an analysis. The intentions of the new directions are ignored and that different ways of doing things may be necessary at this juncture is not given much of thought. The resistance is mooted based on maintaining status quo. The world’s first economy too is thus parochial in its approach. Washington lobbyists notwithstanding, Texas oil companies and fracking communities dissenting, it is still too early to witness the US Government walking the talk. Devastating consequences If we continue to ignore the warnings, and stay true to the mantra of GDP and growth, we will be bringing about our own demise. We continue to observe many adverse natural events and with greater regularity and each time perhaps with much more devastating consequences. We have also witnessed politicians continuing to ignore warnings and to beat the messenger as was seen in Australia when the well-known climate writer and scientist Tim Flannery was removed from his position in the climate secretariat. It is true that we humans are the only species that can wake up in the morning and think, plan and execute action to support sustainable living rather than living. No other species wake up and consider how to eke out a sustainable living. Yes, we are unique but we should not ignore the simple message stated by Rachael Carson – the environment can survive and thrive without us being there but the reverse is not at all valid – we are inextricably linked to the environment and environment vitality is critical for our sustenance. Stated simply, butterflies can be there without us but we the humans cannot survive for long without butterflies. Albert Einstein was more exact – He is on record having said take out honey bees totally from the face of earth and within four years the world is going to witness the demise of man! Although there is some question about the attribution of the statement to Albert Einstein, there is much truth in the statement. Moving in the wrong direction We must be moving towards a green economy one that is circular in its approach – a cradle-to-cradle approach. Today it is an economy with a one-way ticket. We make, use and dispose. The return path is anathema to many, unnecessary and too trivial to be bothered about. The earth is supposed to have a never-ending supply of all that we want. Worshiping on the altar of Porter’s value chain, the current economies are moving on ‘in the wrong direction’. We will perhaps carry on doing it until the last man indulging in self denial that we are not at fault. No one with a deeper understanding of human climate interaction can deny that nature’s fury is not going to happen under these conditions. The net result has to be humanity killing itself off. The dignity and the respect required for the last man surviving the climate holocaust is perhaps interesting to contemplate. Who indeed will carry the last coffin to the final resting place? Who indeed will do that? The rest of the fauna perhaps will rally round in paying their last respects, as the species that were too good for their own good perhaps deserves one last rite courtesy the community that is going to live on! [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on]

Recent columns