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The Biggest Crisis of the Century


(Disclosure of the First Part of the Sixth Report of IPCC)

Gurinder Kaur

On August 9, 2021, IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report(AR6)’s first part ‘Climate Change 2021’ raised alarming warnings about natural disasters due to rising global temperature. According to the report, the earth’s average temperature is rising faster than earlier estimated. According to the estimates of scientists, the average temperature of the earth was estimated to rise by 1.5 degree Celsius by 2050 from the Pre-Industrial Revolution period. According to the report, in the next 20 years by 2040, the average temperature of the earth will cross the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold set by the Paris  Climate Agreement (2015).

This threshold is shockingly going to be met 10 years sooner than what was earlier estimated to cross by the end of this century. The increase in the average temperature of the earth, oceans, and atmosphere is due to human activities. The report also states an increase in sea level by up to 2 meters by the end of this century, which cannot be ignored. Scientists preparing the report also warned that the Arctic is likely to be ‘practically sea ice-free’  in September at least once before 2050.

The report also states that each and every decade in the last four decades has been hotter than the previous ones. As seen from data, after 1970 the temperature began to rise sharply. Looking to the future, predictions are that summers will be longer and winters will be shorter in the coming decades. Extreme temperatures are expected in multiple geographical locations where temperatures could rise several degrees above the average. The frequency of heat waves incidents will increase rapidly.

Prolonged summers will inevitably impact the rain patterns and an increase in the incidents of heatwaves will adversely affect the agricultural sector. Heavy rains in some places will lead to floods and droughts in some places due to low rainfall. Rising temperatures will cause polar ice caps and glaciers to melt, rising sea levels, which could be a major problem for the coastal villages, cities, and islands. Rising ocean water temperature will further increase the probability of marine disasters, such as cyclones (hurricanes) and tsunamis.

In the report, the scientists made it clear that the rise in the earth’s average temperature is due to human activities whereas the earlier reports suggested the possibility of human activities. While human activity is playing an important role in the increasing average temperature of the earth, the real reason for it is the economic development model. Most countries in the world have indiscriminately depleted natural resources in the blind race for economic growth. According to a special report of the IPCC titled ‘Climate Change and Land’ released in 2019, human activities have changed 70 percent of the earth’s (ice-free) area.

The oceans are also being severely damaged by human activities. According to a study by Harvey, two-thirds of the ocean area is under extreme pressure from human activities. The amount of acidic matter and pollutants in the oceans are increasing which is causing various diseases to marine life, hence they are becoming extinct in large numbers. In the last week of June 2021, more than a billion marine animals died due to the heatwave in the western United States and Canada. Rising ocean temperature is increasing the number of natural disasters like cyclones and tsunamis and the magnitude of their effects.

According to a study by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, a 0.5 meter rise in sea level could increase the risk of tsunamis by 2.4 times and by one meter 4.7 times. According to a study by Daniel Levitt and Nico Camnada, a one-degree rise in sea water temperature would increase the wind speed in a hurricane by 5 per cent and a high-speed hurricane would wreak havoc.

Some prominent hurricanes we have seen recently are Harvey, Florence, Maria, Irma amongst others. The report also highlighted that the sea level could rise by 2 meters by the end of this century. If the sea level rises so much, many islands in the Pacific Ocean and cities along the coastal areas will suffer a lot.

The report makes it clear that by the end of the century, limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius (the safe limit set by the Paris Climate Agreement) is becoming out of reach. Due to the rapid emission of greenhouse gases in the last century, the average temperature of the earth has risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Pre-Industrial Revolution period and we are only 0.4 degrees Celsius away from crossing the 1.5 degree Celsius limit. Every part of a degree of temperature rise is very important. With every one-degree rise in temperature, there will be a 7 percent increase in the intensification of extreme rain events.

A special IPCC report released in October 2018  indicated that a mere half-degree Celsius rise in temperature could raise sea levels by up to 8 feet, causing damage to the human population of 3 to 8 million. At the same time, 410 million urban population will suffer from water scarcity, and 18 percent of insects, 16 percent flora, and 8 percent four-legged animals will disappear from the face of the earth forever.

With the increase in the average temperature of the earth, the frequency of heatwaves is increasing rapidly. A one degree Celsius increase in temperature is likely to increase the heat waves 5 times and a 2 degree Celsius increase is expected to increase the frequency of heatwaves 14 times. Rising temperature is not only increasing the recurring incidents of heat waves but is also increasing the frequency of other natural disasters such as droughts and wildfires. Lytton, a small town in Canada, was devastated by wildfires after a  heatwave. A similar phenomenon recently occurred in Galatsona village on Evia island in Greece and the Northern California Dixie fire, to recall a few.

Climate change coupled with rising temperature is increasing the incidence of droughts. According to a 2020 report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, 68 percent of India’s areas are facing drought-like conditions. California in the western United States is currently suffering from drought where drought used to occur once in a decade but now it has increased by 70 percent.

The incidence of floods is also increasing with climate change. In July 2021, Western Europe experienced the worst floods for the first time in the last many decades western, hundreds of people were killed in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Netherlands caused by heavy rains. In China, flash floods in Henan province in July 2021 killed at least 300 people and affected more than 1.3 million people. All over the world, the incidence of heavy rains has increased by an average of 30 percent.

In fact, droughts and extreme heatwaves have an increased frequency and the duration of forest fires. Due to the long dry weather, the severity of wildfires is on the rise. According to CalFire, six out of the top 10 largest wildfires in California have occurred in 2020 or 2021, which reflects the severity of the situation.

The report has indicated that India will also continue to be prone to natural disasters resulting from rising sea levels and rising temperatures. These disasters will affect people living in its coastal areas. With the rise in seawater temperature, the number of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal and as well in the Arabian Sea and their impact will increase.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that the report raises serious concerns. We have very little time left to save the earth and its people from the damage caused by natural disasters. According to the Paris Climate Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions have to drastically be reduced to meet the target of 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global average temperature from the Pre-Industrial Revolution period to the end of the 21st century. The use of diesel, petrol, and coal must be reduced. Alas! Instead of declining, their use is growing at a rate of 2 percent per annum.

China, the United States, and India, which are currently emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country in the world, should shut down their coal-fired thermal plants as soon as possible. Coal-fired plants are still being set up in China and India. China and the United States must quickly switch to renewable energy sources for economic growth. These countries should cut their carbon emissions as fast as European countries have done.

Although India has a very small share of global greenhouse gas emissions (2.65 Gigatonne) compared to China (10.06 Gigatonne) and the United States (5.4 Gigatonne), this does not mean that India does not require any action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, 75 percent of the districts in India are suffering from one or the other kind of natural disaster. The steps to be taken to deal with climate change are in the interest of our country and its people.

The IPCC report comes just six months before the 26th session of the United Nation led Conference of the Parties. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the leaders of all world leaders to come up with a solid plan for the reduction of greenhouse gases. So far, 90 countries have submitted their plans to the United Nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but that would reduce emissions by only 2.3 billion tonnes by 2030.

The need of the hour is ten times more reduction in greenhouse gases otherwise our planet will warm by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Therefore, China, the United States, and India should play their role in cutting down their greenhouse gas emissions as these three countries emit 50 percent of the total emissions into the atmosphere. All the nations of the world must unite and take firm and concrete steps. These steps include changing the current economic development model and people’s way of life, as well as ensuring clean technology and financial assistance to the developing and least developed countries by the developed countries.

About the Author :


Dr. Gurinder Kaur is Visiting professor at IMPRI and a Former Professor of, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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