On 21 June 2021, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “2021 is a make-or-break year.” He was referring to climate change. Mr Guterres also cast the spotlight on the narrow window there is to contain this phenomenon’s most severe impacts. These include intense droughts, floods, storms and even wildfires that are increasing with alarming frequency.
Major climate events in 2021
The effects of climate change are not limited to any one territory or region alone. It is a worldwide predicament, that affects all countries. In that sense, climate change does not discriminate. One need only observe the events across regions to gain a first-person insight into this enormous threat staring our way.
India. On 7 February 2021, rock and glacier ice collapsed from the steep Ronti Peak’s north face. The rock and ice avalanche rapidly transformed into an extraordinarily large debris flow that moved boulders larger than 20 metres across. The calamity also wore out the valley walls up to a height of 220 meters above the valley floor. It caused widespread devastation, and damaged two hydropower projects. The human casualty number was pegged at 200.
Canada. The western North American heat wave set a new all-time high Canadian temperature, at 49.6°C (121.28 °F) in 2021. The World Weather Attribution highlighted that heat waves of such intensity would be at least 150 times rarer without human-induced climate change.
In future, there is a strong possibility that Canadian weather will be akin to Australia’s if such intense heat waves become a regular occurrence. A large chunk of the tundra country’s snow cover would be lost, leading to massive habitat losses.
Europe. Since 12 July 2021, several European countries were affected by floods. Some were catastrophic, claiming many lives and wreaking widespread damage. The floods started in the UK — beginning as flash floods that caused some property damage and not-so-major inconveniences.
Later, heavy downpours affected several river basins across Europe, including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Residents in these European countries were shaken to see the loss of life and property. They always thought floods struck third world countries. This nightmarish experience only drove home stronger the point that climate change is a looming threat.
US: Hurricane Ida was a deadly and destructive category 4 storm. It went on record to become the second-most damaging and intense hurricane to strike Louisiana. It was superseded only by Hurricane Katrina that had made landfall in 2005.
The storm also caused intense flooding across the northeastern US. In terms of related losses, Ida was the ‘sixth-costliest’; it caused an estimated USD50.1 billion in damages. Fortunately, the current US administration made the wise decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord.
China. Heavy torrential rains hit China in August 2021. Its northwestern province of Shaanxi was severely impacted by the resulting floods and landslides. Over 80,000 people were affected, and in some parts of Chongqing municipality, in southwestern China, water levels reportedly rose at a rate of about 30-40 cm per hour.
On its part, China has strong plans afoot to counter climate change effects. But there is need for closer focus on eliminating causes as opposed to finding counter-measures.
It is imperative to heed the warnings
Many climate scientists say the trend is clear. “The answer is yes — all major weather these days is being affected by the changes in climate,” said Donald J. Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois. A key reason for heavier downpours can be understood in terms of basic physics.
Warmer air holds more moisture, making it more likely that a particular storm will result in higher precipitation. The globe has warmed by a little over 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century. This was when the steam-power led industrial revolution was beginning to take off. Manufacturing facilities, at the same, began emitting untold volumes of noxious gases into the atmosphere.
For every 1 degree Celsius of warming, the atmosphere holds about 7 percent more moisture. Hayley Fowler, a professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University, UK, warned there will be an increase in extremely heavy, slow-moving storms across Europe that lead to more frequent floods.
Erratic weather trends are set to become the norm. And they will cause massive damage to both human life and property.
Human history is a product of its environment
Eric Clines, a renowned archeologist and ancient historian says some great civilisations vanished overnight. Examples include Knossos in Greece, Mycenae in Greece, Hattusa in Turkey, Ugarit in Syria, Megiddo in Israel, Mayan in Guatemala and the mother of all — the Egyptian civilisation.
It dawned on Mr Clines that archeologists, geologists and climate scientists were all talking in parallel at conferences, without crossing paths. They were studying in isolation, and were now only collaborating for the first time to unearth how these mighty civilisations vanished without a trace.
Some of these civilisations were modern for their day and age, but they fell victim to forces beyond their understanding. Could there be a possible linkage between their disappearance and climate change?
One interesting example is that of Atlantis — the lost city off of Japan’s coast. The entire city is today underwater, much like what climate change experts forecast may happen to island states like Kiribati, Tuvalu and Malta. By some estimates, Malta could well be underwater in as little as only three decades from now. What is even more alarming is the fact that several Indian cities– including metropolises like Kolkata and Mumbai–could meet with the same fate.
There is still time to make amends
As common individuals even, the effects of climate change are in plain view. Although I have spoken of severe effects in regions afar, I must share an observation I’ve made closer home. For instance, ceiling fans were unheard of in Kurseong when I was a child growing up. Today, the majority of new constructions have them as a common fixture.
We have no alternative but to heed the call and make all possible efforts to reduce our individual carbon footprints. Reducing emissions is not just for industries to follow. Rather, we can reduce emissions by simply refraining from open burning.
Both government and business leaders must lead by example. They have to set the tone of being more environmentally conscious and take steps to safeguard the planet for future generations. Come to think of it, it’ll seem mighty foolish to have found ways to establish colonies on Mars but while having destroyed our own homes in the process. We might also be viewed as the first species who–despite making tremendous advances–expedited our own extinction.
Carl Sagan put it thus: “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit? Yes. Settle? Not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. … To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve, and cherish, the pale blue dot; the only home we’ve ever known.”