The current summer season is about to end, but it would be long remembered in many parts of the world as a record-breaking period climate-wise -a summer of drought, deluge and destruction. It has brought under sharp focus the havoc caused by human activities, often driven by corporate greed and short-sighted leaderships, leading to a portentous global warming, unprecedented in human history.
It has been a summer of extremes. Drought and heat have parched vast swaths of agricultural lands in many parts of the world. Rains on the other hand have swamped cities and villages in Asia and Europe. For the first time in a century, many parts of Europe were inundated by flash floods breaking the banks of rivers. The vast Dongling lake in Hunan province in China is close to bursting its banks threatening over 10 million people. Several states in eastern India and bulk of Bangladesh are facing floods. Heat and dehydration, on the other hand, have taken thousands of lives in Asia and Africa. In Andhra state of South India, 1,200 people died of hot weather. Thousands have died in the deserts of Pakistan for want of drinking water.
Ecologists warn that such chaotic weather, such extremes, would become more common as our globe gets warmer. The main cause of this warming is the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, natural gas and coal, which release into the atmosphere carbon dioxide and other substances known as greenhouse gases. As the atmosphere becomes richer in these gasses, it retains the heat provided to the planet by the sun.
The temperature rise has been melting polar ice caps and glaciers as well as warming the oceans raising sea level by an estimated 14 to 40 inches. Some regions in warmer climates receive more rainfall than before, but soils dry out faster between storms. Human beings and other species will migrate to cooler climates for sheer survival giving rise to tensions including wars.
A stage has already reached where the problem of environmental degradation can no longer be ducked. And, the problem is of no recent origin. The UN and non-governmental organizations of environmentalists have been agitating for more than a decade seeking remedial measures.
The people most affected by the climate change are the poor. The inequality between powerful and weak nations places a greater responsibility on the rich to protect the environment. The US, the world’s biggest polluter is responsible for roughly 25 % of all greenhouse gas emissions. Its industrial plants, power-generating stations, millions of cars and other vehicles and planes, produce carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other gases which have caused a vast hole in the ozone layer in earth’s atmosphere enabling sun rays to reach the earth without being filtered by ozone’s protective shield. The temperature of the earth’s surface has gone up by almost 2F -a terrible increase for countries in Africa and Asia.
Friends and relations who visited India or Pakistan this summer have, without exception, described the torturous heat, suffocating pollution and the over-packed cities where the country folks have moved owing to agricultural lands falling fallow because of drought.
A UN agency has been for over a decade pointing out the evil effects of the climatic shift. Under its auspices, world leaders, including President Clinton, met in Kyoto, Japan and concluded the Koyoto Protocol in 1997. This was heralded as a landmark treaty in environmental protection policy. Attempts to implement it have, however, miserably failed. Some of the world’s rich states, particularly the US, have not ratified the protocol as it would have placed restrictions on its free-wheeling industrial policies and exploitation of crucial world resources, wherever located, irrespective of the damage done to global ecology.
In July last year, the UN convened in Bonn, Germany, a world summit on climate change; the chief objective was to salvage the Koyoto Protocol. It was attended by politicians from 180 countries but could not make much progress owing to the opposition to the restrictions by the industrial West led by the US. President Bush has withdrawn from the protocol. He is averse to any barriers on free trade, free movement of investment capital and the operation of global economy under the umbrella of World Trade Organization – the ultimate form of Adam Smith’s laissez faire. He minced no words about his opposition to the Kyoto protocol. “People shouldn’t doubt where the US stands”, he remarked. He is a staunch believer in the freedom of operations of corporate America. But, corporations are soul-less legal bodies whose sole objective is to expand their margins of profit whatever be the repercussions. Corporations may be immune to human suffering. World leaders are not.
No wonder they welcomed warmly the call for a 10-day world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg, South Africa. The summit which began on August 26 is still deliberating while this column is being written. It is being attended by over 100 heads of state and prime ministers. Total number of delegates exceeds 60,000. The main objective of the summit is to lay down a plan of action to ensure industrialization, in developing countries in particular, without aggravating climatic hazards. It seeks a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
The discussions till the time of writing indicate that the summit may end up with a weak agreement owing chiefly to the continuing intransigence of the US. It does not want any change in the status quo; for that already affords it all that it wants.
Be that as it may, the summit may not be a success in the political and financial fields, but it may produce a worthwhile understanding on environment.
Interestingly, a group of 100 senior judges, including some from the US, who have congregated in Johannesburg have agreed to work to strengthen the application of environmental laws wherever they exist. That is an achievement indeed and may prove to be the precursor of support from other influential sectors of world community. Let us hope that the summer next year will be a better one.