Monday, September 10, 2007

Global Warming: Nero Fiddling

Nagraj Adve

Never has there been a clearer case of Nero fiddling while Rome burnt. Only in the case of global warming, it’s the Earth that’s burning and we are not merely fiddling, we are stoking the flames.

The recently released Summary by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007, The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers, makes it clear how bad the situation is and that it will worsen. It says there has been a sharp increase in carbon emissions just in recent times, from 6.4 billion tons per annum in the 1990s to about 7.2 billion tons per annum in the years 2000-2005. This is an increase of 12.5 per cent in just a few years and that too at a time when the Kyoto Protocol was in effect. This has resulted in carbon emissions increasing to 26.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Consequently, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) around the time of the Industrial Revolution to 379 ppm currently. To this if one were to add other greenhouse gases, primarily methane, we reach carbon-equivalent levels of roughly 440 ppm at present. As a result of these greenhouse gases hampering the Earth’s heat from escaping, the average temperature over the Earth has increased by 0.76 degrees celsius.from what it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

The Summary also concludes beyond normal doubt that human activity is responsible. This has, incredibly enough, been a bone of contention, with some arguing that changes in solar radiation is primarily responsible, hence any effort to mitigate global warming is not just a waste of time, it is actually detrimental since it would hamper economic growth. But the latest Summary states that the influence of “changes in solar irradiation since 1750 .. are less than half the estimate in the TAR” (the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC published in 2001.)

Based on late 20th century experience and trends, the report says it is ‘virtually certain’ (99 per cent certainty) there will be warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas. It is ‘very likely’ (90 per cent certainty) there will be heat waves more frequently, and heavier rain as a part of total rainfall in a season. It is ‘likely’ (66 per cent) that intense cyclonic activity will increase as will areas affected by droughts and extreme high sea levels, but excluding tsunamis (p. 7).

Not merely are these changes based on late 20th century trends, many of these observations and freak weather events have become part of people’s regular conversations. What is not part of common sense is that the time to act is very short, a matter of barely a few years, because beyond a certain point, climate change becomes irreversible. One of the reasons for that indifference is not just because most people already have their hands full with immediate problems of sustenance but perhaps because the scientists’ dire predictions seem very far away.

For instance, much of the press reportage, though dire, mentions predictions of 2090-2099, little under a hundred years away. The best case scenario, one that hypothetically includes a population decline after 2050, the wide adoption of clean technologies, and equity in social and economic relations, models an increase of 1.8 degrees over the year 2000 and hence of 2.4 degrees since the Industrial Revolution. A more plausible scenario, and one that has been widely quoted, is what the Summary calls a “best estimate”, an increase of 3 degrees celsius, and “likely to be in the range of 2-4.5 degrees C (p. 9).

Why Acting Now is so Urgent
What’s missing in the press reportage is the damage that will be caused by much lesser levels of warming. The Summary says that effectively a rise of 0.2 degrees per decade is unavoidable. George Monbiot, in his remarkable book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning (Allen Lane, 2006) makes clear what will happen at a rise of 1 degree C: “At less than 1 degree above pre-industrial levels, crop yields begin to decline, droughts spread in the Sahel region of Africa, water quality falls and coral reefs start to die (Heat, p. 15). Since we are already at 0.76 above pre-industrial levels, we should get there in little over a decade. In fact, the IPCC report already states that that “drying has been observed in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia”. With 1.4 degrees of warming, the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean may become extinct. Quoting various official reports and peer-reviewed science journals Monbiot writes, “At 1.5 degrees or less, an extra 400 million people are exposed to water stress, 5 million to hunger, 18 per cent of the world’s species will be lost and the onset of complete melting of Greenland ice is triggered.” (Heat, pp. 9,15).

The urgency to act also comes from something else, what the IPCC Summary calls “positive feedbacks”. These work in two simultaneous ways: currently the land and sea absorb at least half the carbon dioxide emissions. As the Earth gets warmer, the capacity of the land and sea to absorb carbon dioxide will reduce, hence more remains in the atmosphere, warming the Earth even further.

The second element of positive feedbacks is actually the Earth itself contributing to warming. In 2005, researchers discovered that a vast expanse of ice in Western Siberia was thawing, which could release over time the 70 billion tons of methane in the soil underneath, and methane, mind you, is 23 times more potent as a warming gas than carbon dioxide. In general, as trees burn or plants die, microbes in the soil will process them faster, emitting carbon dioxide rather than soaking it up, One paper has argued that in little over three decades, living systems will actually emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb. At some critical point, warming will trigger off feedback on a huge scale, effectively making global warming irreversible. That point is widely accepted as a 2 degree rise , or just 1.25 degrees from the present. According the recent UK government report authored by Nicholas Stern, that level or even exceeding that could well be reached by 2035. Some put that date as near as 2030

Its Class Effects
The second element missing in much of the coverage is class, of how the effects of climate change will be felt differentially and will exacerbate existing inequalities, and food and water scarcity, particularly in India. Agriculture in India will be hit for a multiplicity of reasons. Rising sea levels due to warming will mean flooding in coastal areas – which are often the most fertile – and over time salty sea water entering groundwater sources, upon which agriculture partially depends. Monsoons will become more intense and heavy rains former a greater proportion of rainfall in a given season, hence affecting agriculture patterns. Dryland farmers will be badly hit. A rise of 2 degrees will result in falling rice yields, says a study by scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. Also, according to the glaciologist Anil Kulkarni, a study of 466 Himalayan glaciers revealed that their surface area had receded from 2,077 sq km in 1962 to 1,628 sq km at present, a 21 per cent decline. If the recent news report on submissions made by Indian scientists to the IPCC is to be believed, Himalayan glaciers will shrink further to one-fifth their present area, from five lakh sq km to 1,00,000 sq km. This will mean increased water (or even floods) for a while followed by even greater water scarcity than at present. This report suggests that agriculture yields could decline by over a quarter. These levels are projections but the fact of significant decline in yield is not in doubt.

This in a country where thanks to other man-made policies, agriculture is already in deep crisis. Due to the agrarian crisis, operational holdings have declined by 4 million between 1993 and 2003. The number of operational holdings below one acre has lessened by nearly 5 million because for these poor households, it is simply not worth their while. In a country that already has the highest number of malnourished children in the world, in which per capita consumption of food grains has declined in recent years, the impact on the rural poor of agriculture and water supply being hit by climate change can barely be imagined.

Flawed Responses
Yet, the Indian government’s response has been akin to Nero’s. It has merely been saying that the developed world is primarily responsible for global warming and that India will not forsake growth for the environment. As a recent article argued, “Besides activity in the market for ‘clean development mechanism’ projects, which will have little impact on emission trends, India is practically silent on the international stage.” There is no doubt that the First World and capitalism are primarily responsible for the plight we are in – America alone emits almost a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions – but given the little time to act and given that all scientific studies indicate that South Asian and Indian water sources, forests, biodiversity, shorelines, and agriculture, are already getting and going to be get worse hit, the Indian government needs to move fast. Unfortunately – and this is ironically tragic – since issues of survival, employment, food security are so much at stake and on people’s minds, one major cause that will make these more precarious seems a faraway fancy of the environmental fringe, and far removed from immediate concerns. Among many Left friends, mention global warming and one gets a blank look. It’s hardly surprising the government is doing little; there is hardly any popular pressure on it to do so.

There needs to be far more research funding and subsidies for cleaner technologies like wind and solar power. The Indian government has been exploring two avenues, nuclear power and biofuels – more due to concern about the growing demand for power, and the rising prices of conventional fuels rather than to tackle global warming. Both these avenues are being explored outside India even more and both have their associated hazards.

From the current production of merely 2,720 MW, the Indian government is planning 24,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020, and President Kalam has been urging a target of 50,000 MW by 2030. Elsewhere too, governments have begun to look at nuclear power much more fondly. The US, which has not built a nuclear plant for over two decades, is having a rethink. To nudge the construction of new plants, the US Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides tax credits to new potential nuclear plants for the first eight years of their operation. More than 20,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity have become operative globally since 2000, much of it in East Asia.

Whereas nuclear power certainly deals with the problem of carbon emissions, it is deeply flawed for three obvious reasons. One, the lack of safety associated with generating nuclear power (the effects of Chernobyl are still being felt as far afield as Western Europe). Two, the problem of storing spent fuel and as Deutch and Moniz have argued, “no country in the world has yet implemented a system for permanently disposing of the spent fuel and other radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants”. Given that nuclear waste remains hazardous for several millennia, current practices seem not very convincing. Additionally, plutonium leaks both accidental and intentional, have been unearthed in England and in Scotland; whether companies will be any more careful in the Third World where regulation tends to be less carefully ensured is anybody’s guess. As it is, these are considered security matters in India and out of the domain of public knowledge. Three, the question of linkages between nuclear power and nuclear arms and the possible dual uses of enriched uranium. The greater spread of nuclear fuel simply means the greater possibility of nuclear arms proliferation.

Regarding biofuels, the planting of jatropha has begun in many Indian states. Ethanol, made from corn, has been blended with petrol and the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation recently announced a new plan to blend ethanol with diesel. Biodiesel-run buses ply in Haryana and Pune as well. In the US, companies sold 16 billion litres of ethanol in 2005, But this again can do more harm than good. One, because of the environmental impact of fertilizer used, its gains regarding global warming are suspect. Daniel Kammen, Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that ethanol may reduce US dependence on foreign oil, but “it will probably not do much to slow global warming unless the production of the biofuel becomes cleaner”. Second, biofuels have actually contributed to global warming by forests being felled to grow palm oil instead in Malaysia and Indonesia, and ethanol in Brazil. Palm oil plantations were responsible for 87 per cent of the deforestation in Malaysia between 1985 and 2000. The cutting of rainforest to grow palm has led to forest fires in Indonesia that released enormous carbon emissions.

Third, above all else, though state governments in India claim that biofuels will be grown on ‘wasteland’, it will impact livelihoods adversely. There have been bitter protests recently in Rajasthan against transferring land to companies for planting jatropha. These ‘wastelands’, people say, are used by communities for fuel and fodder, and as catchment areas for water bodies. Additionally, some amount of irrigation is needed for biofuels when grown on a large scale, and there is the danger of using forestland or land that could potentially be used for foodcrops. Already, according to the FAO website, the growth of biofuels has led to a rise in the prices of essential food items. Rather than having fewer cars, we are now actually taking over vast tracts of land to grow cleaner fuels for them! This in a country where already, according to Utsa Patnaik, per capita calorie intake is declining among rural households in most states and where an average family of five consumed 114 kgs less of foodgrains in 2001 than it did in the early 1990s, This is bizarre, but as long as cars proliferate at the rate they are and markets are allowed to dictate what is grown, this will only unfold and intensify.

There needs to be the understanding that the problem lies with unchecked capitalism. It’s not for nothing that in IPCC’s reports and other literature carbon emission values are presented relative to what they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. In passing, much of the recent alarm over China contributing to global warming omits to consider that it is capitalism’s drive for cheap production that has contributed to so much manufacturing shifting to China.

Whether sustainable solutions can be found under capitalism is moot, and some have persuasively argued that “a plethora of blueprints for an ecologically sustainable world fail … because they do not accept that capitalism is incapable of bringing them into being.” There’s a problem though. Even if we disregard Left experience of the 20th century – which was scarcely inspiring in this respect – the fact of the matter is that socialism on a meaningful scale to be able to tackle climate change is nowhere on the horizon and even small levels of warming from the present will have huge impacts. Since greenhouses gases stay in the atmosphere for decades, what we do now will be felt decades into the future, and differences of degree, say through the wide promotion of clean technologies, would buy us time. But the window of opportunity before climate change becomes a runaway process is closing fast. That urgency of climate change needs to be underlined, governments pressured to act to mitigate some of its impacts, even as we incorporate the inevitable environmental destruction that capitalism causes in our understanding and our quest for a sane society.

This article was first published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 24-30 March 2007. The author can be contacted at

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Since I wrote this piece for the EPW 7-8 months ago, it is even more clear that IPCC has been too conservative in some areas, such as sea-level rise. James Hansen of NASA argues that the last time the Earth's temperature was 2-3 degrees warmer, the sea level was 25 metres, or 80 feet higher, give or take 10 metres!
If I have read him right, much of that rise will happen by the end of this century.
More later,