Climate Change: Facts Melt When Opinions Rise

Manoj Pandey*

IPCC or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given its latest report on the status of climate change in recent decades and likely future scenarios. To be precise, Working Group I of IPCC has given its report, which is yet to be ‘finalized’. There will sure be changes that may look insignificant but will be carried out after a lot of discussion – because nations are touchy less about the issue and more about how their points of view are included in the document.

The issue – as big as the impact of climate change – is that nations, societies and individuals are wary of sacrificing their present for a more liveable future for their future generations. There are others who voice the concerns as forcefully as they can. It is the tug of war between such opinions rather than science that will decide the fate of climate change. 

Defining climate change

Before we move further, let me give working definitions of some jargon used when discussing this subject and other relevant expressions:

  • Climate change: Major changes in the global climate, spanning over a long time. Since the state of climate of a place or the entire earth is measured in terms of temperature, precipitation (rainfall, snowfall or other forms of water falling on the earth from the atmosphere) and wind, climate change refers to a major shift in these parameters.
  • Global warming: Gradual rise in the average global surface temperature over a long period of time. Human activities, especially the emission of greenhouse gases, is supposed to be the main cause of global warming since the advent of industrialisation; in turn, global warming is supposed to be the main cause of climate change.
  • IPCC: A UN body, of which 195 countries are members, created ‘for assessing the science related to climate change’. That includes collating andstudying climate change data and research generated by other organizations, and offering possible solutions. Set up in 1988, it has brought out five assessment reports and is in the process of bringing out the sixth report (AR6). Out of three working groups set up for AR6, one has submitted the report in August 2021 and the others will do so in 2022. In between, it also brings out special reports related to climate change.
  • Aerosols: Small solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere. Aerosols impact climate change by absorbing or reflecting sun rays. For climate change discussion, we leave aside water vapour (clouds and fog) from the definition of aerosols. 
  • Greenhouse effect: Greenhouses tend to turn warm, because the glass or plastic roof allows rays from the sun to come in but stops the reflected rays from going out (because the reflected rays are less powerful in penetrating the sheet). A similar phenomenon happens when the atmosphere is full of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases: they let the sun’s heat fall on earth but trap the reflected heat – thus raising the earth’s temperature.
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG): A gas that has the potential to trap solar energy and lead to a rise in atmospheric temperature by greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is the most common GHG. Others include chlorofluorocarbons (used mostly in refrigeration), methane (natural gas, also emitted by cattle and in marshlands), nitrous oxide (emitted during burning of fuels).
  • Permafrost: Frozen ground (soil and ice), found in regions that remain below zero degree Celcius for many years. It could be at the surface or below it, and can be a thin or very thick layer.
  • Radiative forcing: Sunlight (solar radiation) falls on the earth and is radiated back, leading to a radiative balance. When this is disturbed due to man-made or natural factors, that is called radiative forcing. This has been adopted by IPCC as a measure of global warming or cooling due to greenhouse gases and other factors.  
  • Carbon sink: A natural entity that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it generates. Thick forests and oceans are important carbon sinks. 
  • Carbon footprint: The amount of carbon (in the form of greenhouse gases) emitted into the atmosphere over a given time. The carbon footprint can be measured for a person, family, building, industrial unit, company, nation, etc. 
  • Carbon market: A mechanism for trading greenhouse gas emission. An industrial unit with low GHG emission can sell its points to the one that emits high levels of GHG. It is argued that this incentivizes less production of carbon dioxide, but sceptics say it allows the rich nations to meet their GHG reduction obligations while continuing to emit high levels of GHGs.

What does science say on climate change?

We need not go further than study the latest ‘AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis’ report of the IPCC. It is a voluminous report with a lot of technical jargon, and I have tried to summarise it in the following points for the sake of the present discussion.

The report – 6th since – has no surprises in terms of major findings or likely scenarios. However, it has stated the likelihood of associations between factors and climate change with much stronger evidence and precision. It is also much detailed, area wise, and carries detailed modelling of future scenarios.

  • The report unequivocally states the truth: there is no doubt that human activities are causing climate change: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” it says.
  • Widespread and rapid changes in the status of atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred in recent decades, including a rise in rainfall, change in seasons, retreat of glaciers, melting of polar ice, and shifting of some seasonal storms northwards. Many of the recent changes in the global climate can, with a fair level of confidence, be attributed to human influence. 
  • There has been an average decadal rise of 0.99 degree Celsius in global surface temperature since 1850-1900 till 2020, and most of it (average 1.07 degree) has happened due to man-made causes. There was also some atmospheric cooling for about 15 years in the second half of the last century due to rise in aerosol levels and loss of stratospheric ozone.
  • In upper layers of oceans, perceptible rise in temperature and acidity, and lowering of oxygen levels are most likely the result of human actions.
  • The sea level has risen by 20 cm, on an average, since 1901. The yearly increase has become higher in recent years, and there is strong evidence that this is happening due to human actions.
  • The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is unprecedented: Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere today are greater than they had been in at least two million years.  Methane and nitrous oxide levels are higher than at any point in at least 800,000 years.
  • There is a stronger evidence now that human-caused warming of the earth is intensifying the global water cycle and the severity of wet and dry periods. 
  • High temperature events are occurring more frequently and with higher intensities. Between 1850 and 1900, these occurred once in a decade but now, they occur about thrice in a decade. 
  • Heavy rainfall happening within a day used to be rare earlier, but such events are happening at a higher frequency and intensity.
  • Extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, extreme precipitation and fire weather are on the rise, and human-made climate change is the most likely culprit.
  • The net radiative forcing (see definition above) is going up despite more heat dissipating from the earth to the space, more aerosols in the atmosphere cooling the earth, and due to natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions and carbon sinks (defined above).
  • Carbon sinks, which have been absorbing a lot of extra carbon dioxide generated in recent years, seem to be getting saturated now. 
  • The report draws five possible scenarios based on how humanity conducts itself, based on a huge set of data – including detailed regional data, new understanding of the working of climate and other processes, and with new modelling tools. It has further projected the possible scenarios over short, medium and long terms. A simple projection of global temperatures in the five scenarios can be seen in the graphic below. 
  • The report strongly emphasizes the earlier set threshold of 1.5C (temperature rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius as compared to 1850-1900). What it means is that the impact will be unsustainable if average global temperature rises above this limit. (Of this, we have already reached nearly 1C by 2020.) 
  • The best scenario – with strong GHG mitigation – can lead to slight reduction in the global temperature in the second half of the century – not before that! – when the temperature is likely to stabilize just below 1.5C.
  • Under all the likely scenarios of the rise in global temperature, the impact is likely to be felt everywhere on the earth. At macro level, the impact is likely to be the worst on the polar climate, especially that of the North Pole and surrounding regions. 
  • The urgency comes from two main projections: (i) if immediate actions are not taken, it will be difficult to contain the temperature rise to 1.5C; and (ii) even in the best scenario, the damage will continue to happen for decades. The impact of human activities on global climate is/ will be felt after many years, not immediately. So, even if all human activities that add to rise in atmospheric temperature are stopped now, the impact of the damage already done will keep rising till the middle of this century. 
  • The changes in the global water cycle, saturation in the capacity of carbon sinks, etc, (as mentioned above) which have been found to have been caused by global warming will worsen, if the temperature rise is not controlled. Some of these changes will be irreversible for many centuries.
  • Sea levels will continue to rise till the end of this century, even if temperature rise is stopped at the current levels. The most likely scenario is a rise between half to one metre, which is huge and will result in submergence of huge tracks of farmland, forests and cities. Extreme sea events will also rise in number and intensity.
  • Hurtful changes in climate systems will be more frequent and intense, in direct proportion to the rise in global temperature. These include hot extremes, marine heatwaves, heavy precipitation (mostly rain), agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, intense tropical cyclones, and decline in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.
  • It is possible, with strong and timely measures, to contain the temperature rise to 1.5C. We must substantially reduce GHG emissions in the 2020s and get to net-zero emissions by around 2050.

Discussion

Let us now scan the spectrum of opinions: how people, societies, governments and activists perceive climate change.

A. A significant number of people believe that climate change is a fad. According to a recent survey, 30% of Americans believe that climate change is being hyped too much. The number of those concerned about climate change has been increasing over the years, but a third of the population discarding or ignoring science has a significant weight, isn’t it? On the other hand, climate change is reported to be leading to anxiety among youth and children. Another study found about 50% of the Americans too worried about the future, so much so that a sizable number of them not wanting to have children for this reason.

B. Many people think, nature is too big and has the ability to cure itself. Some think, natural factors would reduce the temperature as much as greenhouse gases raise it. 

The facts are as follows: Nature has, indeed, been trying to heal itself. We talked about carbon sinks above. These natural systems absorb carbon dioxide; if these sinks were not there, the temperature on earth might have been much higher than what it is today. However, their capacity is getting saturated. In addition, such systems (e.g. forests) are under threat from human activities (mining, urbanization, agriculture, etc).

There are natural and man-made factors that cool the earth temperature. Ozone depletion in the upper layers of atmosphere, caused due to human and natural factors, is harmful for the life on the earth but does help in reflecting radiation from sunlight escaping to the outer space. Pollution is one big reason for creation of aerosol in the atmosphere, which also leads to cooling. Volcanic eruptions spew huge amounts of smoke and ash into the atmosphere; these stop sun rays from falling on the earth, thus causing cooling. Scientists have found that such factors do lead to some cooling of the earth, but that is minimal and usually localized. 

It has also been projected that within this century, there could be one big volcanic eruption that could bring down the temperature by 2-3 degrees for a couple of years.

C. There is another section of the society that feels, natural cycles will reduce the temperature, as there have been ice ages in the past. 

The fact is that ice ages happen over many thousand years, and the next one is too far away yet. Smaller natural cycles seem to have been subsumed in the near-constant global warming, as is evident from the temperature records or other evidence for the last many centuries.

D. Some people quote their recent experiences to deny climate change happening. If there is heavy rainfall or chilly winter, some people take it as a proof that there is no long-term climate change, and if the earth heats up at times, strong cooling events take place now and then. US ex-President Donald Trump is stated to have said in 2020 winters, “It’s freezing in New York – where the hell is global warming?” and also, “The weather has been so cold for so long that the global warming hoaxsters were forced to change the name to climate change to keep $ flow!” 

E. However, Trump is not alone. A not insignificant number of people even think that climate change is a conspiracy. There are some who feel that climate change is a bogey created by scientists and advocacy NGOs for garnering funds. Some even think that it is a campaign created by anti-development lobbies. The climate change conspiracy theorists also say big renewable energy corporations are fuelling climate change fears, climate change is part of leftist agenda against market economy, and climate change has become a multi-billion-dollar economy and people have vested interests in sustaining the issue. Some even think, major world powers are playing climate change against each other. To quote Trump again, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”

In fact, there was a supposed ‘ClimateGate’ scandal going on for a decade in a frontal research facility for unethically propagating climate change. After thorough investigation, it was found that the said ‘scandal’ was a fake, possibly to derail climate change research and debate.

F. It is also spread by sceptics that scientists are deeply divided over climate change. An online petition, signed by 31,000 ‘scientists’ debunking climate change is cited as an example. A scrutiny of the outcome of this petition shows that most of the signatories are not linked to climate change research, and may indeed not be scientists at all.

The reality is that there is a near-consensus now among the scientists that climate change is happening, it is happening mostly due to human activities, and it has serious consequences. 

G. Energy giants are reported to be investing big in promoting scepticism about climate change. It is no secret that energy companies fund campaigns against climate change activism. For example, a 2011 study revealed that 9 out of 10 prolific authors against climate change narrative were linked to ExxonMobil, a US energy corporation. 

H. In intergovernmental policy discussions, environment is often juxtaposed with development. Developing countries want a concession in GHG emission commitments so that they can industrialize themselves faster using fossil fuels, and they want rich countries to reduce their emissions by a big margin; rich countries are not prepared to buy these arguments and want poorer countries to reduce emissions in a big way. The collective lobbying power of developing countries falls short because they are not able to have a common ground due to their own specific ground realities such as level of poverty, availability of fossil fuels or sources of renewable energy, population, etc.   

I. A good number of climate action enthusiasts feel, every local extreme weather event is a proof of climate change.

The fact is that while some extreme events and trends have been found to be linked to climate change, many others seem to be occurring due to local factors. As discussed above, the frequency and intensity of extreme events has gone up in recent decades, and the trend correlates with climate change, but there are numerous local factors that create or diminish a local extreme event.

J. Climate action advocates often exaggerate facts. They also present doomsday scenarios, e.g. climate change is causing bushfires in Australia and will soon lead to extinction of keola and rare wildlife, the rising frequency of fires in California forests is due to global warming, and a large number of children will die due to climate change consequences in a decade from now. Some scientists in the forefront of climate change activism seem to believe that presenting an apocalyptic scenario is justified for shaking people and policymakers from their ‘business as usual’ attitude. Unfounded exaggerations are also seen in mainstream media and social media. 

Why do opinions matter as much as the science?

Public opinions matter, especially in democracies. Policymakers tend to ignore environmental issues in favour of economic growth unless the public puts pressure. It also operates the other way round: the opinions of major political parties, political leaders and other policymakers shape the opinion of people. When a government can afford to behave in an autocratic manner, it does not care for people’s opinions, and uses its machinery to impose its opinion on the masses.

Whatever the case, opinions matter more than the underlying science when it comes to action on the ground.  

Opinions also matter, because global warming is not a thing that scientists or even governments alone can handle without societies’ and individuals’ willing participation.

An individual nation’s – in fact the ruling party’s – opinion can matter if the nation happens to be powerful. Take the example of the USA, a nation with the highest greenhouse gas emission per person. Its commitment to reduce GHG emission has been chequered, and its omissions are singularly responsible for the present high levels of global emissions. Though the USA did sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, it never ratified the protocol unlike other nations. At the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009, it committed progressive reduction in carbon dioxide reduction and submitted a timeline but has failed to meet its targets. It signed the Paris Agreement in 2016 but later withdrew from it, to join again in 2021. A big number of politicians and businessmen in that country, especially in States whose economy depends on exploration of fossil fuels,  are reported to be against taking strong measures for reducing GHG emissions. 

Take the example of China. Its targets for carbon emission are much lower than needed, and it is a matter of serious concern because China emits the largest amount of carbon dioxide. 

The map below shows how poorly the highest GHG emitting countries fare when it comes to their seriousness towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It is clear now that the Paris Agreement, reached in 2015, was not ambitious enough to check GHG emissions, but even after six years, over 60% of countries have yet to submit new NDCs (nationally determined contributions), and the 74 countries that have submitted NDCs account for just 13% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Will COP26 be a good cop?

The next major international convention on climate change, COP26 (26th Conference of Parties) will take place two months from now, in which member nations will examine the progress and possibly commit themselves to a better timeline on GHG emission mitigation. 

But the last COP was a non-event. On one side were countries led by China and India wanting the developed countries to meet their earlier obligations, and on the other side the rich nations wanting developing countries also to make sacrifices. Countries took sides based on their own compulsions. In fact, except for a couple, all previous COPs have been a disappointment. 

No wonder, climate activists are not expecting much from the next event too. They feel, nations are too focussed on their economies. To quote a climate rebel, “I am not hoping for much from COP26 itself, as most negotiations are done with the basic interest of protecting existing economies’ structures. Anything we do with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as an anchor, will not result in the climate justice that we deserve.” Activists also draw attention to escape routes that the rich countries have been inventing so as to avoid their accountability, for example by introducing carbon markets and offering other swaps.  

There also are a few pointers that make one hopeful that COP26 might get better results. One, the IPCC report AR6, detailed and still fresh, might sensitize policymakers towards climate change mitigation. Two, there will be greater participation of non-governmental actors in COP26 discussions. Three, recent extreme weather events in, and warnings in the IPCC report about, countries such as the US and China might make them see reason in committing themselves to faster reduction in GHG emissions.   

Before I leave you to form your opinion on the subject, or change it, let me bring to your attention the possibility that technology may provide a solution to this colossal issue.

One potential technology that can directly reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is that of capturing this gas from industrial plants and sequester it deep underground. This has been tried, but has not yet become viable. Scientists also propose that local repair of environment with technology will be possible in future, for example by diverting or causing rains, reducing the melting of polar ice by chemical processes, and so on. Technology will also help reduce GHG emission indirectly by way of higher energy efficiency, better harnessing of renewable energy sources, finding new energy sources such as Hydrogen, etc., without compromising on economic activities. Better weather forecasting will help in reducing the impact of floods, droughts, cyclones, etc. A greater shift to cloud computing is also likely to save energy. A hitherto unknown technology may suddenly arise, which might give a quick solution; but in the same vein, some futuristic technologies might accelerate global warming. As of now, possible technological solutions cannot be an excuse for not doing enough.

Chalte chalte…Epilogue

If you think, your opinion hardly matters, think of the nearly four billion (400 crore) people who cannot afford to read articles on the web like you. Also think of life forms – other than humans. Your opinion matters much more than all their opinions put together, no? So, why not make an opinion; it matters.

*****

*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Amazing Read.
    All nations need to declare their carbon footprint as well as nations need to transfer technology and knowhow to the nations that need it.

    i wish to thank the author for bringing out the the issues in a logical and easy to understand manner.

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