Make-or-break decade for climate action
One week before the United Nation’s 25thConference of Parties (COP25) began in Madrid the World Meteorological Organisation warned that by 2100 the average global temperature is likely to increase by 3 to 5o Celsius above the preindustrial average. This is almost three times higher than the goals set by the 2015 Paris Accord.
Earlier, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) had said that in the coming decade global GHG emissions need to fall by 7.6% annually to meet the goals of Paris Accord. But this goal seems unachievable, and we will likely be seeing increasing impacts on natural systems in the coming ten years up to 2030 and beyond.
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A January 2019 assessment by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) had warned that if the present emissions rates continue (which from the waffling in Madrid looks certain) two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers will be gone during this century.
‘Even if the average global temperature is kept below 1.5̊oC, as envisaged by 2015 Paris Accord, glacier volumes will decline by one-third,’ the report said. ‘Snow-covered areas and snow volumes will decrease over the coming decades due to increased temperatures and snowline elevations will rise.’
In 2019, Iceland's Okjokull and Switzerland’s Pizol glaciers disappeared. Will Himalayan glaciers and snow volumes face a similar fate? Referring to the Gangotri Glacier, Journalist George Black in his book On the Ganges, Encounters With Saints and Sinners Along India’s Mythic River writes: ‘When glaciers decay, they become sad, derelict things. The ice cracks and crumbles and turns dirty pale blue before melting away altogether.’
The disruptions in the Himalayan snow ecosystem are real and will occur along with similar disruptions in the midhill and the plains. Changes in rainfall patterns are affecting conditions that sustain ecosystems, leading to the depletion of springs in the midhills with significant implications on the health and livelihoods of people living in them. Frequent and high-intensity rainfall, landslides, and floods damage communities, decrease diversity of species, and increase disease and pest dynamics.
The changes in rainfall and snowmelt will continue to lower dry season river flows in the coming decade, leading to declines in the availability of fresh water, resulting in lower crop yields, reduced electricity production and increased water stress Longer hot periods, increased energy needed for running air-condition for example will be hallmark of the 2020-2030 decade.
The implications of these decade-long changes have not really hit the political class and civic leaders in Nepal and in other South Asian countries which have always shown short political time horizons. Most of them consider climate change to be something in the distant future, nothing to worry about now, a problem that someone, somewhere (mostly in developed west), will provide technical and financial solutions for.
Yes, solutions will be technical and require new funds, but how we deal with the impending changes are fundamentally governed by cultural, economic and political considerations. Greenhouse gas emissions are not decreasing fast enough,and adaptation is unlikely to be automatic, linear or straightforward.
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Sea level rise is a perfect example of this complexity. A 2019 report by US based Climate Central suggests says that by 2050, 42 million Bangladeshi and 36 million in coastal India are likely to be vulnerable to sea level rise. An earlier estimate was only of 5 million each in the two countries. Displacement due to sea level rise will present major challenges for governance, urban development and alternative livelihoods for those seeking safer locations. This new wave of migration will not begin 30 years from today, but is already happening and will accelerate.
A recent OXFAM report says that climate fueled disasters were the number one driver of internal displacement over the last decade, forcing more than 20 million people a year to leave their homes. Given the current political backlash against migrants and refugees seen in many countries, the movement of people across borders will more even more curtailed. Yet people will keep moving, though migration will be much harder and increasingly unsafe. Though landlocked, Nepal may not remain immune to this upheaval, as the arrival of Burmese Rohingya refugees through Bangladesh and India has shown.
Throughout human history, entire civilisations have been affected by droughts and floods. It is also a strategy to escape poverty and insecurity stemming from political hazards. Migration is not only the result of such push factors, but many pull factors such as jobs and better livelihoods. Today, about 2-3 million Nepali people live outside the country, mostly as wage workers.
Climate change is likely to further accentuate prevailing societal imbalances, inequalities and other societal fault lines. These will seriously stretch institutional capacity to manage any new wave of migration The socially excluded, marginalised, uneducated and those with limited livelihood options will be pushed into greater desperation.
In the past year, 15 major reports have come out warning of the threats to humanity and ecosystems from the climate emergency. The tens of millions of people at the frontlines facing these new threats will be the aged, women children, peasants, fisherfolk and those making a living off already-depleted natural resources. The political challenge is to act now to avoid potential social and political catastrophe in the future. The longer we wait, the bigger will the price humanity will pay.
Ajay Dixit is Executive Director of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal. His monthly column Climate for Change in Nepali Times deals with the impact of global heating in Nepal and the region.