To alarmists, every year seems worse than the last and
social media has a way of magnifying everything into an earth-shattering event.
The focus is on ourselves and the many ways in which we precipitate crises, in
government, in the market, in a political party or group. The really serious
news, like the genocide in Yemen, or the electronic enslavement of Uighur
dissidents in China, is pushed to the back pages. And the only time climate,
the one literally earth-shattering crisis, makes it to the top of the news is
when it crosses records. By now the entire literate world is aware that global
warming is the one thing that could alter our lives for the foreseeable future,
say, the next million years, but other priorities always intrude. There are
also those who deny it is happening at all, but even they have heard of
One of the signs, climate scientists have warned in the last decade, is extreme weather events. As global warming proceeds weather patterns will undergo a disequilibrium that leads to more and worse heat waves in unexpected places, rain storms, cyclones, and so on. Not only will extremes be more extreme, they may occur in places that never saw them.
If the year gone by is any criterion we could say they are right on the button. The August deluge in Kerala was just one example. This is where the monsoon in India begins and it is one of the country’s most waterlogged states but most locals could not remember anything like it before. The record keepers had to go back 100 years to find a parallel. Nearly 500 people died as the state got 75 per cent more than the normal seasonal rainfall. The east coast was ravaged by three cyclones, Gaja in southern Tamil Nadu, Phethai in Andhra Pradesh and Titli in Odisha, the strongest of them all. More than 100 people were killed and tens of thousands saw homes and livelihoods destroyed. At the other end, nearly half the districts in the country reported drought-like conditions.
All this comes, of course, under the head of anecdotal evidence. We cannot say they are a result of global warming. But that is not the point. It is, rather, that extreme weather events seem to be increasing year on year and that 2018 was among the worst, with heat waves stretching from the Arctic to Australia, massive flooding in Japan and north Australia to unprecedented cold snaps in the US in the first two months of this year.
To this we may add the latest and grimmest forecast of glacial demise in the Himalayas. It came early last month as the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. “Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush Himalayas across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century,” said Philippus Wester of the centre. In the best case scenario, the report says, one-third of the glaciers will melt by 2100 if the efforts now underway to contain global warming succeed. If they fail, the outcome may be far worse.
This is based on a five-year study of a region inhabited by 1.9 billion people, the birthplace of the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Irrawaddy and Mekong rivers plus dozens of smaller ones. The potential for disaster is mind-boggling for the world’s most fertile, intensively cultivated region. It is an existential threat that outstrips everything else, including nuclear annihilation. Yet none of the countries at risk, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China seems particularly worried. They have not even discussed a regional approach to the crisis.
It is ironic that the cow, one of the parties to global warming with its methane-laced farts, has a million lobbyists, while the ecosystem that sustains it is at risk of collapse because it has no spokesman. Is the ministry for environment and forests evaluating the threat? Glacial demise will reduce our rivers to seasonal streams, devastating agriculture and destroying food security.
We can’t be certain of all the ways in which global warming will affect the planet but we have a good idea of the ripple effects of small disruptions from studies of environmental pollution. The Doomsday Clock is showing two minutes to midnight but the policymakers seem more interested in whether the numbers should be in bold or Roman, in a curious echo of T.S. Eliot’s “In the room the women come and go, Talking of Michelangelo.”