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A context for climate change

The Hindu, 1st January, 2015


Understanding the climate change landscape – the causes, actors and solutions
Hollywood loves climate change. Blockbusters like Avatar or Elysium portray humanity deserting Earth and looking to the stars for hope. Perhaps a dying Earth makes for a cool plot and great special effects, but the fact that our climate is changing is all too real.

We can see the changes around us: Rains either come all at once or not at all. It is getting hotter – the last decade was one of the hottest since records began. Indeed, four of the leading climate centres around the world agree that 9 of the 10 hottest years on record occurred in the past decade. The 10th one was 1998.

Closer to home, many of us buy water in Madurai. This past summer, most of us bought water – to drink, to wash our homes and ourselves. Our borewells have gotten deeper and deeper, and to paraphrase a friend – we mine our water now. And even those mines are running dry. This winter, with its plentiful rain, has still not charged the bore in our house. Apartments are coming up all around, and there’s not enough water to go around.

Is this a big deal? Should you care?

Whatever we may say, humanity’s biggest reaction to climate change so far has been apathy. We’ve known for 100 years about the greenhouse effect – where the carbon dioxide in the air makes the planet warmer than it would be otherwise. We’ve known with increasing levels of certainty that human activity (primarily by burning fossil fuels) has been the cause of this warming for 30 years. We pledged to do something about it 20 years ago.

But what have we actually done? As a world, we’ve increased the amount of CO2 put into the air from human activity (burning fossil fuels, cement production etc.) from about 25 billion tons in 2000 to about 34 billion tons in 2010 – a 35% increase. To help visualise this, consider: An elephant weighs about 3 tons, so we are putting about 11 billion elephants worth of CO2 into the air from our activities each year. About half of the CO2 we put up gets absorbed by our biosphere and our oceans, but the rest keeps increasing the concentration of CO2 in the air – that is, the relative proportion of CO2 in the air compared to other gases. The concentration of CO2, measured by a unit called parts per million (ppm), has increased from 280 ppm 200 years ago to about 400 ppm today. And that has caused the world to heat up.

What causes our apathy?

Economists ascribe this inaction to the tragedy of the commons, a theory that says that individuals acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, behave against the whole group's best interests by depleting some common asset. Psychologists say this is the way our brains are wired – to ignore slow moving, complex threats. And then of course there is the literature. A Google search “Climate Change India” returned over 60,000 articles focussing on the China-US announcement recently and fall in rice yields, or the J&K Floods. This is like reading, “Botox and Bollywood” without the context. Without the context, this subject seems elitist and more remote that it is.

What I hope to do over this series is to provide that context. I would like to provide the readers with an overview of the drivers of climate change, the landscape of actors that shape the debate on this subject and most importantly actions on what we can do. And, there’s plenty we can do – from small individual actions each of us can take to larger actions for our governments to adopt – but it all starts with acknowledging there is a problem, understanding it and recognising we can do something about it.

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