Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Your Planet Needs You! Unite to Combat Climate Change

Hemantha Withanage,
Executive Director/ Environmental Scientist
Centre for Environmental Justice

It is not yet another day. This year on World Environment Day, people around the world will join together to show their unity to combat climate change. World Environment Day (WED) was established by the UN General Assembly in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.

Every monsoon season, in the past decade, we have seen more and more natural disasters. During other times we face severe droughts, mosquito menace, coastal erosion, heat waves which are somehow linked to climate change. IPCC findings, published in 2004, clearly shows that increase of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) in the atmosphere as the reason for climate change. This includes, CO2, Methane, NO2, CFC and even water vapour. The main cause for climate change is burning fossil fuel, mainly by the developed nations, since the industrial era began. The world is debating since the RIO conference held in 1992, but with no emission reductions yet. Once again they will meet in Copenhagen in December 2009 for making some crucial decisions.

It is estimated that the temperature rise will be 2 – 5 degrees Centigrade at the end of the century. Some believe of a more severe temperature increase and 40 cm sea level rise by 2080. Some assessments state that the rise of average temperature by 4-5 degrees Centigrade will raise the sea level by 3-5 meters which leads to break up of ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica. Greenpeace says the breakdown of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) alone contains enough ice to increase the sea level by 5 meters and if all ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt entirely, the sea level will rise by 70 metres. Although the countries except the United States signed the Kyoto protocol, which agreed to reduce 5.2% of CO2 emissions of the 1990 levels, none of the countries have fulfilled this obligation yet.

The world cannot be saved by the bodies appointed for saving it unless we all unite. This year's theme ‘Your Planet needs You! Unite to combat climate change' – is a topic that shows the value of every individual’s responsibility to protect the planet.

Sri Lanka has made less contributions to climate change. Although, our GDP is high enough to become a middle income country, we are still an agrarian society. However, we need to understand that the current development paradigm is not climate friendly. Most developed countries followed the thinking ‘develop today and conserve later.’ However the environmental disasters, including climate change, have shown that this is a failed approach.

Today we are facing three major crises, i.e. food crisis, climate crisis and financial crisis. At the end humanity is in a serious crisis. Some economists believe that the world will recover from the financial crisis. However, there is no easy solution for the food crisis and the climate crisis.

As Mahatma Gandhi once mentioned, “there are enough resources for the people’s needs but not for people’s greed.” The countries in the north have already exceeded their fair share in their resources utilization. They also have exceeded the use of the environmental space. The developed countries, representing less than one fifth of the world’s population, have emitted almost three quarters of all historical emissions. On a per person basis, they are responsible for more than ten times the historical emissions of developing countries. They owe the people in the south a huge ecological debt and emission debt. This is true for the wealthy minority in our own societies. They are not yet ready to pay this debt.

Unfortunately, the poor majority in the world suffers most from both the food crisis and the climate crisis. According to Greenpeace more than 120 million people will become climate refugees by the end of the century in India and Bangladesh alone. According to Oxfam, a charity organization, the world will require 50- 140 billion USD a year for the poorer countries to adapt to climate change.

So, it is clear that if we are to save the world, those who consume more and those who owe us need to pay their debts. Honouring these obligations is not only necessary but it is also the basis of a fair and effective solution to climate change. Those who benefited most in the course of causing climate change must compensate those who contributed least to it but bear its adverse effects.

Public perceptions show that people in Sri Lanka, who engage in nature based livelihoods, are already suffering from climate change. I wonder whether there are any statistics in Sri Lanka produced by the authorities since climate change is a very new subject for many of them. However, we cannot ignore climate change anymore as it is already causing impacts.

If we are to promote a carbon neutral economy we still have the opportunity and time for it. It is not advisable to wait for the government agencies to show the red flag on climate change. Every individual has the responsibility to act on climate change. To give few advises: - Use less energy consuming items, Use public transport or bicycles to save fuel where possible, Reduce the use of plastics. It is true that although 80% plastic can be recyclable, only 20% is recycled today. Plant a tree. Stop burning waste. Help recycling. Talk to your friends on climate change.

The authorities need a more dynamic approach on climate change. Sri Lanka’s coal lobby is not climate friendly. Although wind energy, solar energy are climate friendly, Sri Lanka’s authorities have a phobia in promoting them. Authorities still have a learning exercise on climate change. But, we should not underestimate the climate impacts to Sri Lanka as we are an island in the Bay of Bengal.

Cyclone ‘Nargiz’ attacked Burma killing more than 23,000 people and left around 40,000 homeless in 2007. Cyclone ‘Sidr’ killed over 4,000 people in Bangladesh in the same year. Therefore it is advisable for everyone to learn how to face severe weather conditions, floods and droughts, cyclones, sea level rise, or facing increased mosquito menace. Farmers need to learn how to adapt to droughts or delayed rainfall. Fishermen need to adapt to less catches, rough seas or less fish due to degradation of corals. It is not too late to include climate adaptation to the school curricula. We do not have to wait for such disasters to happen like hurricane ‘Katrina’, ‘Rita’ in the United States or cyclone ‘Nargiz’ in Burma. Only you can make this change.