The Changing Planet

The quest for a different planet good enough to be inhabited by the human race will fast take the shape of a real mission if conditions here on Earth continue to change the way they are doing at the moment and the way they are predicted to in the future.

Sushmita Dutta and Deepak Nagpal

The quest for a different planet good enough to be inhabited by the human race will fast take the shape of a real mission if conditions here on Earth continue to change the way they are doing at the moment and the way they are predicted to in the future.

While ‘change is the only constant’, climate change is one phenomenon the entire human race is trying to halt, or at least slow down.

In the literal sense, climate change is a change in the statistical distribution of weather over periods of time that range from decades to millions of years. This change of weather patterns is currently happening mainly due to global warming, which is caused by the rising emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that trap heat.

Temperature on Earth is rising due to global warming, and it is rising at a speed for which a majority of scientists are blaming human actions.

"Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations," the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in one of its reports.

The Scary Scenario

While climate change or global warming has yet to take full effect, and it is still decades away as predicted by scientists, the signs of ‘change’ are already visible. Weather has begun to change dramatically and the increasing number of droughts, floods, storms (hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones) etc, is pointing at it.

The IPCC has predicted that more intense heat waves and droughts, heavier rains, stronger storms and rising sea levels would be the result of global warming.

The data from the International Disaster Database of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at Belgium`s Louvain University, backs this claim of the IPCC. It has already recorded a sharp rise in weather-related disasters since the middle of the 20th century.

According to CRED, from 1900 to 1909, 28 such disasters were recorded. Between 1950 and 1959, there were 232 such disasters. And in the 1990s, the number surged to 2,034. In the first five years of the 21st century alone, there have been 2,135 hydro-meteorological disasters.

According to the IPCC, the past century has seen a rise of nearly 0.75 degrees Celsius in global temperatures and if nothing is done to stem the rise, they are bound to go up further.

Also, a warming atmosphere is already leading to melting glaciers, which are in turn causing the oceans rise. Melting of ice at the Earth’s Poles is also causing the global sea level to rise.

While floods and droughts may be temporary phenomena, changing climate is likely to leave behind permanent scars on the Earth’s face. Glaciers, for example, in Asia’s Himalayas are likely to be wiped out as a result of global warming. In fact, some of the world’s glaciers have already lost a major portion of their ice to rising temperatures.

Melting Glaciers in the Himalayas would not just affect populations around but far across in India, severely limiting availability of fresh river water. The highly revered river Ganga, a source of drinking water to the majority of Indians, would eventually dry up after initially swelling, it is predicted.

In the Arctic, the temperature has drastically risen, which is the cause of melting of the ice-cap there. It is getting thinner and thinner by the day and will eventually collapse, flooding the water systems with water. The largest single block of ice, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, started cracking in the year 2000 after standing firm for 3000 years. Now it is breaking into pieces and one day is likely to just disappear. Scientists fear that if this is the rate of melting of the polar ice-cap, then by the end of this century, the Arctic could well be ice-free. This would translate into merciless floods.

Climate change has affected India in other ways too. Erratic climates and bizarre weather phenomena are becoming the norm of the day. Temperatures in cities are gradually rising. Summers are getting prolonged whereas winters have become shorter. Even winters are no longer as chilly as they used to be a few years ago. Delhi is one big example of such climate shift. Increasing number of automobiles and rapid industrialization are only adding to this change.

There was a sudden flood in the desert state of Rajasthan. Hill stations are every year getting less cold and more crowded. Rivers are either getting dirty or are drying up due to industrial effluents and also because of being used indiscriminately as garbage bins by people.

While researchers at CRED agree that global warming or climate change per se is not the sole reason behind the surge in the number of natural disasters, they do acknowledge that climate change is definitely an actor in such events.

Madeleen Helmer, head of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, agrees: "Climate change is leading to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, like cyclones, droughts and floods across much of our globe."

The Human Impact

While the planet might be able to bear the impact of the changing climate, the human race will find the coming years the toughest ever to survive. Not just the changing climate, but its consequences too will affect every human being. While 200 million to 250 million people alone would get displaced by 2050 due to natural disasters triggered by the changing climate, the conflicts and migration that would start as a result of climate change would impact an uncountable number of people.

The world’s poor, most of who live in developing and underdeveloped countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia, will bear the strongest impact of climate change. A large part of the population in these countries would have to find alternative habitats as floods and rising sea would devastate their present homes. The scarcity of food and potable water too would push populations in migrating to more habitable places.

"Climate change is the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our times, causing suffering to hundreds of millions of people worldwide," Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general and president of the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF), has said.

The data provided by the GHF shows factors related to climate change kill over three lakh people every year worldwide. Also, more than 30 crore people are affected by climate change every year in some or the other way and this number is likely to double in the coming two decades.

UN climate adviser Janos Pasztor said it fittingly: “The latest science is telling us we are in more trouble than we thought.”

The Realisation

Hundreds of thousands of human follies over centuries have ravaged Earth for long, but nature is a fearsome warrior; it takes its revenge in its most dangerous form. The sudden fires in the forests of Australia, the melting of the Gangotri glacier, the thinning of the ice in the Arctic etc are results of years of exploitation of mother Earth.

Hollywood movies like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and ‘2012’ are ample eye-openers. It can be said that the Mayan prophecy about the world ending in 2012 is wrong, but the expiry date of Earth would be near if we continue to ravage it.

It is true that governments of all major nations have woken up to this threat and are trying to avert apocalypse. But the damage we have already caused cannot be undone by a handful of heads of states. Everyone has got to take a stand and clear the filth from the air, water and land. Only a cohesive effort can save the planet.

Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed amazed and amused the world when he held a cabinet meeting under water. But this was definitely not a laughing matter. It was his way of drawing attention of the world to the fact that rising sea levels, as a result of melting polar caps, could drown the island-nation of Maldives in the near future. It is the lowest lying country of the world and Nasheed’s fears are not unfounded.

Governments around the world have started making concrete efforts in an attempt to save the planet.

But we have to remember one thing: we cannot just rely on our governments to turn around a situation for which each one of us is guilty. Such summits and conferences can make laws, but not save the planet. If we have to save it, we ought to wake up now, and contribute in our own ‘green’ ways. We need to stop unnecessarily exploiting the Earth or giving it step-motherly treatment.

If we don’t start making taking action immediately, nature has its own way of vengeance; tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, climate shifts, are claiming thousands of lives every year. The effort of each individual counts. And the time start is Now.

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