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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | The climate emergency declared by scientists

When over 11,000 experts who understand exactly what is happening to our planet speak in unison, it’s time to listen. We humans must act now, they say, to avert ‘untold suffering’

When Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen activist, raged against world leaders at the United Nations for luxuriating in their “fairytales of eternal economic growth" and doing precious little to combat climate change, many dismissed her speech as alarmist. But the latest warning issued jointly by more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries, including 69 Indian scientists, is simply impossible to gloss over. Their forecast is stark. We human beings, they say, are in for “untold suffering" on account of the planet’s climate crisis, unless we transform the way we live and conduct ourselves in greater harmony with nature. This ought to concentrate minds like never before. “We declare clearly and un-equivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency," goes their statement. “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live." It’s their moral obligation to forewarn humanity of the cataclysm we face, they believe, and “tell it like it is".

The statement was published on Tuesday in BioScience, a peer-reviewed journal, to mark the 40th anniversary of the first World Climate Conference held in Geneva. These scientists have used verified datasets since 1979 on energy use, population growth, deforestation, gross domestic product growth, polar ice mass, carbon emissions and other such measures to conclude that climate change is not just indisputably evident, but is accelerating at a faster-than-expected rate. William Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University and the lead author of the statement, said extreme weather events led him to initiate this collaboration among scientists across the globe. That havoc is being wreaked upon our atmospheric system rings especially true in India. Heat conditions, wind flows, and rainfall levels appear to have broken seasonal patterns recorded over the decades and held firm by tradition for centuries. Farms in states such as Haryana and Punjab have had to adapt to a late monsoon that delays the sowing of summer crops. By harvest time, rabi season arrives, so farmers clear their fields in a frenzy by setting the leftover stubble of the kharif crop on fire, choking cities with an ill wind blowing south. While some parts of India get deficient rains, others tend to get deluged by concentrated downpours, which get ever more frequent.

The scientists have highlighted several indicators of how unsustainable our lifestyles are. As many as 4 billion passengers travelled by air in 2017, for example, while annual per-capita meat production reached 45kg. These contribute to significant carbon emissions that result in global warming. The urgent measures they have advocated include slowing population growth, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, reducing meat consumption, and halting deforestation. The climate crisis, they have emphasized, is closely linked with excessive consumption associated with a “wealthy lifestyle". Given their dire prognosis, it would seem imperative to do what they have suggested, and do so without losing time. However, that is a challenge extremely difficult to meet. This crisis could end up as the ultimate “tragedy of the commons", where self-interest defeats our common interest. It is very hard to tell people in countries emerging from poverty that the lifestyles of the rich are no longer available to all. Alternatives to carbon-spewing exist, but are costly and inadequate. Scientific breakthroughs on various fronts will have to see us through.

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