We Were Running Out of Time!

Rituraj Phukan

Amidst the turmoil over the Covid-19 outbreak, a scathing analysis from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) about climate change only adds to the planetary gloom. The new WMO report published earlier this month pointed out the inadequacy of currents efforts to address the global climate crisis. Fast forward two weeks since, and it seems that the unprecedented global lockdown may be driving emissions down a trajectory that seemed impossible at the time of release of the WMO report.

The ‘WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019,’ based on the evaluation of global climate indicators through the past year, is another warning for decisive action before it is too late. The promise of the breakthrough Paris Agreement notwithstanding, and the best efforts made by non-governmental entities including proactive coalitions of cities, businesses and civil society, our world has made very little progress in avoiding disastrous climatic changes.

“We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5 °C or 2 °C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. And for that, we need political will and urgent action to set a different path,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement included in the WMO report.

The climate crisis has manifested itself in extraordinary extreme weather events, ranging from intense cyclonic superstorms to record droughts. Catastrophic wildfires ravaged the Americas, Amazon, Australia, Africa and the Arctic, all during 2019. A majority of world leaders recognize the urgency of reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases, but their efforts have been undermined by a powerful few in vehement denial of anthropogenic impacts, thereby stalling collective and effective global action.

Back in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° C’ had stated that limiting global warming to 1.5° C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. The data in the latest WMO report show that 2019 was already 1.1 °C warmer than the pre-industrial era. The IPCC gave us 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe; nearly 2 years later, the WMO report is a grim reminder.

The second warmest year ever in recorded history, record levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, record high ocean heat content and ocean acidification levels in 2019 are among the revelations in the latest WMO report. The highest recorded value of global mean sea level, attributed partly to increased melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, is an indicator of future troubles.

Millions of poor people in developing countries are facing uncertainties over water access, food security, basic health and sanitation issues attributed to climate change, yet, most of the developed world is unwilling to cut down on resource-guzzling, carbon-intensive lifestyles. The western way of life is not only responsible for accumulation of greenhouse gases and global warming, but also the widespread devastation of wildlife, rapid loss of biodiversity as well as cruel and inhumane exploitation of animals. Factory farming of animals has caused several outbreaks of zoonotic diseases in the past century, taking a toll of human lives and resources.

With the control of the Covid-19 pandemic emerging as the priority for governments across the globe, climate change and the WMO report have taken a backseat. The loss of lives are unfortunate, but the virus outbreak is perhaps a blessing in disguise for the future of human civilization, for animals and for the environment. It is hard to imagine any human intervention on this scale, encompassing the entire world, having a similar positive impact on the natural world. The ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2’ or ‘SARS-CoV-2’ has broken many barriers and typecasts; members of the global elite have been infected, a stark reminder that everyone is equal before the laws of nature. The pandemic has also demonstrated that the developed countries are not immune to global challenges of health and security.

“Time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies from the inevitable impacts to come,” Guterres stated in the WMO report. This ‘Covid-19’ experience has called a halt to mankind’s mad rush towards a calamitous precipice.  In the process, it has also given us more time to rethink the future of our civilization, our relationships with each other and with the environment around us. It might be too early to say it, but future generations could well be reflecting back on 2020 as the year when we ‘were’ running out of time but managed to turn it around!

–          Rituraj Phukan is an environmental writer with personal experience of climate change impacts at the polar regions. He believes in making a personal commitment to solving the biggest environmental crisis to humanity and has been vegan for years.

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