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Monday, 14 May 2012

Climate Change: Tragedy beyond political borders



Climate Change


Tragedy beyond political borders


Chandima Gomes




For the pocket-sized island Sri Lanka, the 94 km stretch of 2-lane highway was a big achievement, thus a battalion of workers; from executives to labourers; were busy in appeasing HE the president on the grand opening ceremony to be held on the 27th November 2011.

Two days before the event a severe gale accompanied with torrential rain swept through the Southern Province killing over 20 people and wrecking the vessels of over 30 fishermen; few of them are still missing. The sudden change in weather caught not only HE but even the Director General of the Meteorology Department by surprise. The celebrations went ahead while many people could not join the activities whole heartedly due to those tragic losses that they have encountered. It proved that climate change knows no politics.


At international level, the leaders of state and political top notches have been wandering from Copenhagen in 2009 to Durban in 2011 via Cancun in 2010, uttering a lot about climate change. Apart from gala receptions, image building of individuals and slinging mud on one another, there were not much left behind these events. For people it was only disappointments and loss of hope. 


We, at scientific level, were doing no difference; attending conferences, one after the other, from Beijing to Buenos Aires, talking a lot about what to be happened; mostly speculations; but without proposing any viable steps for prevention of human mishaps. 

Again the public ends up with disappointment. 



Human activities promote global warming. This is a fact beyond doubt, so we need not attempt making any justifications in this regard repeatedly. How does that occur? Another proven fact. Many human-involved activities, from cooking the dinner to burning of coal in a thermal power plant, emit carbon and so called “Greenhouse gases” that trap sunlight excessively. Trapping of sunlight in the atmosphere plays a major role in sustaining the life on earth. However, accumulation of too much solar energy causes too many problems that threaten the very existence of life.


When I was schooling, our science teachers taught us that falling of trees causes lack of rain. Articles in newspapers by many learned people at that time used to write in bold letters that shading trees will prevent raining. 


However it rained; and rained like the heaven has thousand holes. Timber racketeers took the science book into task. Making a mockery out of what we were taught, a timber merchant in Moratuwa, one day, told me that they (the tree cutters) do a huge social service as if they do not cut trees the whole country would have been in year-long floods. 

Wrong activity, wrong explanation and wrong message: public in confusion.


Shading of forests has many bad outcomes, among which non-reduction of atmospheric carbon is a major concern. Trees remove carbon, thus less trees leads to more carbon in the atmosphere that contributes to global warming. 


Several years ago at a school program that I have organized through NASTEC, a resource person from Sri Lanka Cleaner Production Centre, gave an impulsive presentation with the title “Weight of your wedding ring”. 


The real weight of the 12 gram wedding ring that you wear is over one tonne as far as the burden that it adds on mother earth is concerned. From the time that  gold ore is dug out, until your spouse insert it in your finger, hundreds of kilograms of carbon is added into the atmosphere and huge amount of energy is spent in converting the raw gold ore into an apparently beautiful jewelry. 


Isn’t it ugly?


Every time you start the car, watch TV or have your AC on, you contribute to carbon budget. It may be at the place that you act, such as at the car that you drive or at a distant place such as a thermal power plant that provides electricity for you to watch TV, the green house gases are added into the atmosphere; to make you live in luxury. 




The global warming changes the climate. In what ways? We scientists try our heart out to figure out. What we know for sure is that during the last few years there were many unforeseen events taking place all over the world. The rise in temperature melts glaciers, mountain snow-caps and icebergs in Arctic/Antarctic circles changing the sea surface temperature especially towards poles. Meanwhile, the sea surface temperature elsewhere increases significantly creating unbalanced sea surface thermal gradient. 


These changes are not meaningful or sensible to the common masses. However, what everyone can “feel” is the now-so-common news items on cyclones, tornadoes, flash floods, lightning and thunderstorms, heat waves, extreme-cold days, extreme-hot days, prolonged droughts etc. etc. 


Statistics show that extreme events are in an alarmingly increasing trend, everywhere. Now, we frequently hear incidents that we have not heard before. The extreme weather that took couple of dozen lives in down south is one such. And we wait until “heard at a distance” becomes “heard at door step”, to do something; as usual, we Sri Lankans.



Is there anything that we tiny islanders could do?


If we are to prevent global warming, we have to cut down carbon emission and then take necessary steps to reduce the already increased percentage of such in the atmosphere. As per 2008 data, the world’s biggest carbon emitters are China and USA. Together, they contribute to almost 42% of the carbon emission. Then comes the European Union with 14% emission. 



We Sri Lankans are much better sinners placed at the 94th position (out of 140 countries) contributing only 0.04%. 



In 1997/98 with the intervention of UNO, an environmental treaty named Kyoto Protocol came into action, which has the goals of "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". 






Following the fate of many such agreements signed with the intervention of UNO, Kyoto Protocol also became a somewhat ridiculous piece of paper, at the first place, as one of the biggest environmental polluters, USA declined to enter into the treaty. And as per the latest news, Canada, which is at number seven in the pollution list, is planning to pull out so that they can save $ 6.7 billion; at the expense of adding thousands of tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. Thus, Kyoto Protocol is simply a house with a leaky roof; barely suitable for residence. 


It is fair and understandable that developed countries should have a bigger carbon cut than the developing countries. China is still classed as a developing country and United States argues that China should oblige to same cuts as that are proposed to developed world. In response, China feels that United States and other developed countries are the main culprits of global warming, thus, they must oblige to larger cuts in emissions.

After moving with arguments, counter-arguments, allegations, counter-allegations, threats, probing commissions etc. etc., today we are back to square one. Everybody thought that others do and finally nobody does. The climate has changed; changed in the wrong direction. Climate knows no political boarders. It hurts USA; the havoc in New Orleans in 2005; it hurts China; floods in 2011. 



However, it doesn’t stop there. Among thousands of recent flood victims in Pakistan, you may not find a single person that is responsible to one tenth of atmospheric carbon for which an American citizen is guilty of. The brown clouds that develop over South Asia from January to March every year are not solely due to the particles emitted by people in South Asia. And the poor Maldivians will lose their country in a decade due to none of their misdeed. And similarly, the loss of 20 plus valuable lives in the down south is a cruel punishment for someone’s sins. 

What I have understood during the last few years as a scientist is that nothing much meaningful is happening at either political or scientific levels at international scale to prevent global warning. Thus our only hope is to take steps in preparing ourselves for natural disasters. 

Disaster preparedness is not merely the distribution of dry rations after the nature wrecks the public life. The basic theme of disaster preparedness is to avoid human debacle despite the nature’s fury blowing in people's way. 


No one expected the posh and beautiful Bangkok residences getting into 3 feet of dirty water, for nearly two weeks. While my prayers are for not happening such ever, as per the present trends of climate change, it is not that surprising if we hear in the near future that 1000s of cars in Colombo have been washed into the sea due to flash floods; a real human catastrophe. A solid national plan is needed to counter such tragedies; definitely beyond the distribution of dhal and rice for the survivors. 

Let me give you one example that may open your eyes. Kuala Lumpur, the heart of Malaysia is not spared by flash floods that cause immense hardships for the 1.5 million population and nearly the same number that visits the city every day. The downtown KL is one of the most congested city areas in the world. Malaysian government decided to give a solution, at least partially, to this problem at the advent of the 21st century. A 9.7 km tunnel was constructed and opened in 2007, which is meant for dual purpose applications. As a motorway tunnel, stretches over a heavily congested area, it has significantly reduced the city traffic jam. 

On the other hand the tunnel is also used as a storm water by-pass drainage system into which water is diverted during flash floods; a solution to a problem bigger than the traffic congestion. Two birds in one stone.

I do not suggest the Malaysian model to be planted in Sri Lanka as it is. We need our own solutions that suit Sri Lankan scenario. My suggestion for the government is to anticipate the possible effects of climate change and then incorporate feasible solutions into government projects in cost effective ways.

Housing schemes and other buildings planned in areas of high thunderstorm activities may be designed with in-built lightning protection systems

The lowest-level basement car park of large building complexes may be constructed in such a way that they can be used as storm water diversion reservoirs in need. 

Cities developed in floodplains (by tradition, mistake or ignorance) can have special arrangements in the buildings and highways for the anticipated flash floods. 

The above proposals will be successful only if the Meteorology Department is capable of giving timely forecast. There is no doubt that Meteorology Department of a country cannot prevent the blowing of winds or out breaking monsoon, but they are there to make forecasts at reasonable time in advance. In the tropics there are so many variables that determine the local weather thus; accurate forecasting is not an easy task. 


However, in countries such as India, Thailand and even Bangladesh detailed weather predictions are issued on hourly basis instead of giving too general and vague forecasting that even a layman can predict by checking the sky and weather pattern of the previous days. On the other hand, after the 25th November event and consequences aftermath, one could notice that the Meteorology Department is going for somewhat over-excited predictions scaring the masses more than what they should. Either ways it is problematic. 

Online access to satellite imaging, complex equipment and sophisticated software for modelling etc., will definitely improve the standard of prediction of a Meteorology Department; only if the relevant officers are clever and vigilant. Otherwise, even after another couple of decades, we will still hear... 


“probable thunder showers in Western and Sabaragamuwa provinces in the evening”. 


Networking with regional meteorological centres also plays a big role in weather forecasting in the present context. Local variations in the atmosphere provide important clues for determining future developments in the region. Thus, Meteorology Department should keep an ear on what other people say and imperatively take necessary actions when a warning is received; ignorance may simply cause lives of dozens overnight.

December is the month of choking haze in Malaysia. The forest fires in Indonesia cause breathing problems even in Kuala Lumpur. 

Climate change knows no political borders !!!!!!!!




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