July 11, 2023
DHAKA – Of the four terrestrial planets in the solar system, Mercury, Venus and Mars are dead balls of rock. That is, they are either too hot or too cold to support life in any form. Earth is the only planet in the Goldilocks zone, or habitable zone, with liquid water and a temperature range conducive to human life, along with a cornucopia of boisterous wildlife slithering, scampering, soaring, swimming, and galloping.
Unfortunately, the planet is slowly but surely moving into an unfamiliar, nightmarish territory because of human activities. In the last few years, extreme heat has besieged both hemispheres of our planet even before the official start of summer. And this year, in early July, some regions in the northern hemisphere felt like a blast furnace. Courtesy of climate change, global average temperatures climbed to a record high of 17.23 degrees Celsius on July 4, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, surpassing the previous daily record by 0.31 degrees set on August 14, 2016. The 2016 high coincided with El Nino conditions, a cyclical weather pattern caused by the warming of the waters in the Pacific Ocean, oscillating back and forth every two to seven years.
While an average temperature in the high teens may sound low, it should be noted that the estimate of daily global temperature encompasses the entire planet, including Antarctica where the average temperature in July (winter) varies between negative 56 degrees (daytime) and negative 63 degrees (nighttime).
Although 17.23 degrees is an average, parts of the globe, particularly Northern Mexico, a large swath of Europe and the United States, and many more places felt the extra heat more severely, with heat index pushing temperatures well into the mid-40s zone. For example, residents of the city of Hermosillo in northwestern Mexico endured a scorching temperature of 49.5 degrees. Searing temperatures swept through the rest of the country, too. Northern Africa saw temperatures near 50 degrees, while China is trying to cope with temperatures over 40 degrees.
In the US, a long-lasting intense heatwave spawned by a heat dome is baking Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California, with highs between 41 and 46 degrees. Meanwhile, residents of South Florida are bracing for an oppressive heatwave that is expected to trigger life-threatening conditions.
The spike in temperatures is occurring after only 1.1 degrees of global warming since the Industrial Revolution. Forecasters are warning that, sooner than later, the Earth could be entering a multiyear period of extreme heatwaves, driven primarily by two factors: 1) continued emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHG), mainly due to humans burning fossil fuels; and 2) return of the El Nino after a seven-year hiatus. As the global average temperature rises, heatwaves will become more severe, more frequent, and longer-lasting, propelling the Earth’s climate into an uncharted domain.
Under the worst-case-scenario models, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by the year 2100, Earth’s climate may look like the climate of the early Eocene Epoch 56-34 million years ago. It was one of the warmest intervals of the last 56 million years, with mean global surface temperatures being over 14 degrees warmer than present. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were greater than 1,000 parts per million (ppm). By comparison, the current level is roughly 424 ppm.
What is our way out of the climate change conundrum? How do we stop climate change from rolling ahead in overdrive? We do not have many options on the table, because we cannot solve the problems arising from climate change using the same mindset we had when we created them. Consequently, we should stop adopting unenforceable resolutions at conferences, and instead act without any further delay to achieve net-zero emission of GHGs. This means going cold turkey, drastically reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and implementing geoengineering – human’s planned measures – to reverse or forestall some of the adverse effects of climate change by manipulating Earth’s climate system.
Earth is slowly but surely moving into an unfamiliar, nightmarish territory because of human activities. In the last few years, extreme heat has besieged both hemispheres of our planet even before the official start of summer. And this year, in early July, some regions in the northern hemisphere felt like a blast furnace. Courtesy of climate change, global average temperatures climbed to a record high of 17.23 degrees Celsius on July 4.
In fact, the US and the EU are taking cautious steps towards geoengineering. On June 30 this year, the Biden administration released a report mandated by Congress in a 2022 appropriations bill, outlining a potential research programme primarily focused on solar radiation management (SRM). The report presents an overview of the possibility of an SRM research programme in the US. It indicates that even if the government does not choose to pursue the programme, the blueprint would prove instructive in case another country is interested in pursuing it.
However, the report does not compare the risks of SRM with the benefits. Rather, it recognises that SRM has its downsides that outweigh the continued, worsening effects of climate change. An article, written by me, discussing the pros and cons of SRM was published in this newspaper on September 16, 2019.
Although the prospect of cooling the Earth using SRM seems real and feasible, unease surrounds the questions pertaining to ethics, costs and benefits, limitations, and risks. More importantly, since there is currently no international governing structure to oversee such work, critics believe that within a political context, SRM has the risk of “reckless pursuit of self-interest” by rogue leaders on the world stage.
Nevertheless, the report addresses many of the governance issues, without prejudging any future decisions on whether or not SRM should be deployed. The European Commission is thus calling for high-level talks on how to govern research and the potential use of SRM.
Finally, whether we adopt SRM or not, there is precedent for success in tackling some of the pressing issues facing us. In the 1980s and 1990s, when we learnt that human-produced chemicals known as CFCs were causing great damage to the ozone layer that protects us from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, nations around the world agreed on a series of treaties that ultimately phased those chemicals out of production. As a result, the ozone layer began to recover from earlier damage. This shows that we can indeed be moved to act in the face of threats to our survival, as well as threats to the planet that we call our home.