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Futile Debate

The Earth has warmed and cooled in succession for millions of years. This was largely the outcome of natural cycles created by geological changes, some of which scientists have understood but several that remain largely unrecognised. There is therefore the line of thought which suggests that the debate on climate change is perhaps marginal in the context of the several geological factors that contribute to the formation of long term weather patterns.

The prominent natural causes include continental drifts. The surface of the planet looked vastly different 275 million years ago and comprised of one large land mass. As plates shift, continents are formed. With such movements of the earth’s surface, oceans and seas are created and destroyed which in turn affects the earth’s climate. The Himalayas yet continue to rise slowly as the Sub-continent inches forward each year. Volcanic eruptions too affect weather patterns. Ash and sulphur are thrown up into the atmosphere together with large amounts of carbon dioxide. This retains the sun’s heat and causes temperatures to rise. Ocean currents also determine weather patterns, as oceans absorb the largest share of the sun’s heat and their currents move this across the globe. The El-Nino event in the Pacific Ocean can alter climatic conditions across the world. These natural cycles clearly cannot be controlled. However, what is adding to global warming and the one that worries environmentalists is human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels that emit carbon-dioxide, perhaps the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The issue is how and whether this can really be controlled.

Politicians continue to haggle on what needs to be done. Western countries contend that emerging markets, specifically India and China, are increasingly becoming large polluters and need to fix emission norms before things get out of hand. They believe total emission is the critical factor. Developing nations on the other hand assert that they cannot compromise on their development and the factor for measurement ought to be per-capita emissions. Logically their stance seems justified, but the fact remains that several decades ago when Europe and America evolved we simply did not know very much as to the seriousness of the consequences of greenhouse gases. Now that we know better, we should really do the right thing – is what some scientist would argue.

The impact of climate change will clearly vary on different countries. Smaller island states run the risk of being submerged as the oceans rise and therefore are the worst off. The melting of polar ice caps and rising water temperatures affect the habitat and animal life. Polar bears for instance run the risk of extinction as do several forms of fish and water mammals. But closer home in India, things are in danger of going terribly wrong in ways that are clearly hard to fathom. The melting of Himalayan glaciers will affect the main rivers of the subcontinent that are essential to agriculture and life itself. Changing rain patterns destroy hundreds and thousands of square miles of flood plains in Bangladesh leaving millions of people stranded. They have no choice but to migrate across the border in search of a livelihood following a destruction of their ways of life. This is already happening in a significant manner. Insufficient rain in parts of the country forces people to dig deep for ground water which will turn saline and no longer potable in a matter of a few years.

Climate change will eventually affect all forms of life on earth. The critical issue is how long this will take and whether anything can really be done to counter it. Scientists have reached a consensus that by 2050 a lot of the damage will actually be done. What remains open to debate is whether mankind can actually stop it. Even if global agreements were to be reached on emission norms, the fact is natural cycles of the planet cannot be altered. The earth has warmed and cooled for million of years – all a part of its evolutionary process – destroying and then regenerating life. The last ice-age, scientists believe, occurred 14,000 years ago.

Moreover, it is hard to distinguish with certainty the specific contribution of greenhouse gases created by human activity particularly the burning of fossil fuels in the context of changing weather dynamics. Glaciers have been melting for several decades. The Gangotri glacier, for instance, retreated 15 kms from the town of Gangotri (where a temple dedicated to the river Goddess stands testimony to the origins of the river itself) to Gaumukh over many years. Scientists however believe that the pace of retreat, of this glacier and dozens of others in other parts of the world, has hastened considerably over the past two decades. They link this to increases in pollution and greenhouse gases because of human activity.

If the earth’s history were documented on an hour clock, animal life actually began in the last few seconds and human life in the final one second. Over its existence, the earth has changed and continues to do so. On that logic, human activity can at best dampen or hasten the inevitable by a few hundred years. Natural cycles of global warming followed by ice-ages will continue regardless. Whilst a few hundred years make all the difference to us as people, to humankind and the planet it is no more than a few nano-seconds. By this argument it would seem climate summits are unlikely to ever serve their broader purpose of preserving our world and our way of life. However, that cannot excuse mankind from doing what is morally and environmentally right. Despite the fact that such things are usually hard to explain, the laws of nature inevitably support or punish our actions. On this issue there is no debate.


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