Climate Karma – chickens come home to roost?

Dev Nadkarni

According to popular climate change lore, the continuous spewing of carbon and harmful greenhouse gases over nearly 200 years, primarily by western nations, is what has caused the earth to warm up irrevocably these past few decades. This warming has caused polar ice caps and continental glaciers to melt like ice cream on a hot tin roof. Different climate scientists have come out with different estimates at different times about how much this melting will cause sea levels to rise over the next century or so.

Estimates vary from a couple of metres to several tens of metres. Scary scenarios have been painted about what the world map and the world’s demographics will look like in 100 years. Famines, water shortages, mass migration, wars, natural catastrophes, even apocalypse have all been predicted with all manner of scientific modeling. The direst of these contend that only 20 per cent of humanity will live to see the year 2100.

At climate change meets down the years, small island states and countries that perceive themselves as being vulnerable to rising sea levels have repeatedly complained that they are being made to pay for the centuries long abuse of the environment by the industrialised world. Countries like Tuvalu have leveraged the emotive appeal of this argument to drum up support from governments and world development organisations.

A few years ago, even Queen Elizabeth said in a speech that the world’s poor were suffering the effects of climate change for no fault of theirs and because of the industrial pollution caused by the relentless growth ambitions of the industrial western world. Rising sea levels has all along been seen as the single most devastating effect of climate change – and low lying coastal areas and small island states have been seen as those being the first to be affected.

The poor, impoverished, far flung, low lying nations of the world being made to suffer because of the careless, callous profligacy of the rich nations! What a travesty of the Karmic principle, if ever there was one. ‘Make them pay’ – that was the refrain of the small nations at the receiving end of the effects of climate change.

Under growing pressure and perhaps out of some desire to clean up the world after them and probably their conscience, large mitigation and adaptation funds were announced and pledged to help the soon to be inundated little people. The actual funds, however, have been long in coming for a variety of reasons – political, economic and scientific, besides others.

But Karma might still be at work, as might be the wont of the fatalistically inclined to say. Over the past few years, freak wild weather largely attributed to climate change has affected the developed western world much more and immediately than the anticipated effects of sea level rise. Typhoons, king tides, polar blasts, heat waves, droughts unprecedented flooding and other unusually inclement weather have badgered much of the developed world.

Many of these weather incidents have been described as once in 500 years events. The high temperatures caused by heat waves in California and Australia in recent times was predicted for the 2030s, according to climate change models. The flooding in the United Kingdom, particularly around London and the southeast, are the worst in recent history and authorities fear there might be even worse inundation coming.

It seems as though climate change modeling, at least as reported in the world media, was hitherto too focused on sea level rise and the potential inundation of coastal and small islands’ population. Not much attention was paid to the rapidity of changing weather patterns and whether that is directly linked to climate change.

With this rash of disasters in the past six to eight months almost on every continent, the threat of the effects of climate change seem much more urgent and all pervading rather than confined to attention paid to measuring a few millimetres’ rise of sea levels around far flung islands. If the link of these recent disasters with climate change is established beyond doubt for politicians and those inclined to deny climate change – whether natural or manmade – the approach to tackling climate change and the attitude of the industrial nations will undoubtedly change.

For the first time since the climate dialogues began, the industrial world has been rattled by such a first hand experience of climate change. It is no longer some distant bogey, which is going to affect tiny, idyllic islands in the middle of some ocean somewhere at some unspecified time in the future. These events are ferocious, threatening, and more importantly, happening in their very countries – that, too, repeatedly.

The two polar blasts that have snowed out Canada, the United States and Japan in the northern winter  – incessant snowfalls in -40 degree cold is an extremely rare event. But it has happened. Not once but twice. Weather scientists are now saying there will be more unpredictable instances of wild weather. Weather patterns have changed so dramatically and suddenly that even the staunchest of climate change deniers will find it hard to delink such events with the effects of climate change.

The question is no longer whether climate change is natural or anthropogenic or a bit of both. The fact is that it is happening here and now – whatever may be the reason, it is reality and it is devastating. Perhaps there is little that can be done to stop it from happening so repeatedly. Perhaps it is too late and whatever we might attempt to do now is too little. But what can undoubtedly be done is step up preparedness to meet the challenges that disasters will bring in their wake.

“Money is no object,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, when his Government was accused of doing too little too late to prevent the never before seen flooding around London. The British Royals provided Social Media with viral fodder as they chipped in to sandbag towns threatened by the flooding. The wild weather both in the US and the UK have shown how poorly prepared even the industrialised west is to face up to sudden, calamitous events.

These events as well as the ones that will inevitably follow, according to weather experts and climate scientists, bring a sense of immediacy like never before to the political and economic business of dealing with the effects of climate change. Natural disasters don’t follow the boundaries of political geography. Any preventative strategy has to be global and must encompass all regions and peoples.

These extreme weather events of the past few months might yet prove to be instrumental in changing the way the rich nations look at climate change financing and mitigation and adaptation strategies for the world at large during future climate change meets. This may well be the time when the rich nations put the money where their mouth is, to walk the talk – time is clearly running out, if it hasn’t run out already.

First appeared in the March 2014 edition of Islands Business magazine