Climate change is already here; it is evident throughout the world through the various weather extremes. This year alone the world has witnessed devastating floods through China, Germany, India, Venice, blistering heat waves through the US and Canada, and out of control wildfires raging through Siberia, Turkey and Greece. As per the climate scientists, human activities have already heated the earth roughly by 1.1°C since the 19th century through carbon emissions mainly by burning fossil fuels. As if this was not enough, the UN has sounded a 'code red' warning for humanity with the announcement that the global temperature rise is likely to reach 1.5°C in the next 20 years.
What it means for the world...
It means that the world and a significant amount of life will be adversely affected in numerous ways with variations of the impact depending on the region, the ecosystem, and the species. Even though climate predictions can never be definitive, there are numerous evidence, past data, scientific proofs to support the following climate change projections:
Increased frequency of severe weather events
Severe or extreme weather events are those that cause severe rain or snow, droughts, depressions or cyclones or hurricanes, winds or other effects. They are considered severe if they are unlike 90 to 95% of the local similar weather that happened before and are more devastating.
Global warming or increase of overall temperature globally will increase the frequency of these severe weather events i.e., if a severe storm or a heatwave that had a chance of happening once in 100 years, may now occur once in 50 or 30 years (more accurately, a 100-year storm may now occur as 30-year flood). It will create more life-threatening heat waves thus creating more hotter days and nights as many areas are already experiencing. As the atmosphere warms up, there will be more evaporation, which means there will be more moisture in the atmosphere that will lead to more precipitation and/or snowstorms which may be more intense. Again increase in evaporation from water bodies will also lead to water scarcity and droughts. Droughts and dry soils will lead to dry and warmer forests which are more prone to create forest fires. The longer the droughts, the longer and more frequent will be the wildfires which will further lead to warming up of the weather in the locality.
As the air above the sea becomes warmer and moisture-laden, the hurricanes or depressions will be stronger and intense and will cause more rainfall and destruction.
Sea level rise
With the warming of temperatures, as the seas continue to get warmer, they'll expand leading to a rise in the sea level. Further, the polar ice sheets and other glaciers which have already started melting with the warmer temperatures will further contribute to sea-level rise. As the sea levels rise, there will be more coastal erosion, increased coastal flooding, saltwater intrusion into freshwater bodies, submergence of low lying coastal areas, complete submergence of smaller islands, and other ecological and human impacts.
With a 1.5°C rise in temperature, scientists have predicted that the arctic ocean will be ice-free once in a century which will have a profound effect on the marine life and other ecosystems which inhabit there.
Reduction and extinction of animal and plant species
As per the IPCC report, at 1.5°C warming, 6 per cent of the insects, 8 per cent of the plants and 4 per cent of the vertebrates will see their climatically determined geographic range reduced by more than half. Being movable and intelligent beings, we can move to cooler climates, or switch or our ACs or heaters to beat extreme temperatures, or adjust ourselves to the change of climates. However, the plants can't do that nor can the insects or animals make such significant adjustments. With the changes in climate and changes in weather events, there will be significant changes in the plant and animal ecosystem as they will all fight for survival, and as such many species will be lost and many will reduce in number. Many forests like the Tundra and boreal forests in the higher latitudes, rainforests are at a higher risk of loss and degradation.
Increase in ocean acidity and reduction in oxygen
As we all are aware that the increase in greenhouse gases emitted from various anthropogenic activities are responsible for global warming and the rise of temperatures, increase in carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) would also increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in ocean water causing it to be more acidic. With the increase in ocean temperature and increase in acidity levels, there will be a significant reduction in the oxygen concentration in seawater. All these will pose significant risks to marine biodiversity, fishes and marine ecosystem. There will be an increase in 'dead zones' in the ocean with the reduction of oxygen levels which will put a lot of strain on marine life.
Damage to marine and coastal ecosystems
With the rise of ocean temperature and increase in ocean acidity, the marine species will tend to shift to more habitable zones with the appearance of new ecosystems thus changing the previous ecosystems. This will have a negative impact on humans who benefitted from the existing ecosystem. However, the locals, where the new ecosystems develop, may benefit from it. Unmovable ecosystems, like corals, will face the brunt of ocean changes and will be threatened.
With the increase in temperature and changes in the coastal ecosystems, mangroves will decrease, thus reducing their ability to act as a natural barrier that protects from
storms and tidal waves.
A warming feedback loop
Warming of climate can trigger a positive warming feedback loop (A positive feedback loop increases the effect of climate change and produces instability) that'll lead to the release of more global warming greenhouse gases.
The ice over the arctic ocean is integral in regulating the global sea as well as the land temperatures. The ice cover helps in reflecting about 50-70% of the incoming sun's radiation into space and thus keeping the temperature cooler. But with the arctic ice melting, the ocean water reflects only 6% of the incoming solar radiation thus absorbing major heat and further warming up the water and the surrounding environment.
Moreover, methane (a greenhouse gas) is stored in arctic ice as methyl clathrates under high pressure and low temperatures. With rising temperatures, the ice may break apart to release this methane.
The arctic permafrost has a huge amount of organic matter frozen under it. Once the permafrost thaws, the organic matter will start decaying releasing a lot of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere depending on the type of degradation it undergoes.
Forests are great carbon sinks. Carbon is absorbed through photosynthesis from the atmosphere and stored in forest biomass, soils, and dead organic matter. Dieback of global forests will create these carbon sinks to disappear and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
So all these activities created due to warming will further add to the release of more climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere thus triggering a feedback loop before the environment finally cools down.
Increase in illness and mortality
With the rise in temperatures, the adaptability of human's will reduce. There will be more heat in the urban or built-in areas compared to rural areas due to the heat island effect, which will make living in cities more uncomfortable. Heat-related illnesses will increase along with the mortality rate, and also will there be an increase in vector-borne diseases like dengue, malaria, etc.
Impact on food production
With the climate changes and temperature rise, food production will be impacted and as will the nutrient content of the food.
With the increase in the frequency of severe weather events, there will be huge losses incurred by way of infrastructural damages, through loss of livelihoods, loss of food. With these huge losses to cater to, the locality or country/countries facing the losses will likely see a drop in GDP.
Land degradation, expansion of desert land threaten to impact food security, increase poverty thus inducing migration.
Can we still harbour hope?
Though the world is running out of time to take steps in slowing down climate change, all is not lost yet. Realizing the gravity of the situation, some governments and organizations are taking the necessary steps to deal with it.
Rapid emission reductions need to be initiated along with the adoption of massive restoration of land, planting of trees, and sustainable living practices.
Farmers need to be educated to adopt agricultural practices that are more carbon sensitive.
Cattles reared on open pastures made by clearing forests are emission-intensive. Large scale deforestation of the Amazonian forests in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and others have already added to the huge release of greenhouse gases. Even the cattle reared in these regions release a huge amount of methane as they digest their food. So more efforts and a significant shift towards a plant-based diet and sustainably sourced animal food can not only help in the reduction of carbon emissions but also improve human health.
While the world leaders are hatching out plans to cut down the usage of fossil fuels, achieve zero emissions and find out solutions on a global scale, we as individuals have an equal responsibility to cut down our carbon emissions or carbon footprint as the brunt of climate change is for all of us to bear.
Some of the ways by which we can reduce our environmental impacts are as follows:
Driving less and more usage of public transportation systems (bus, taxi, trains, cycling (if covering lesser distances))
Regular servicing of cars will keep them more efficient and generate lesser emissions
Carpooling is a better option if colleagues or friends are headed towards the same destination
While buying new cars, one can look for cleaner cars, hybrid cars.
If you are a frequent traveller and have time in your hands, travel by train as aeroplanes are emission-intensive.
If flying can't be avoided, then one may opt for non-stop flights to reduce their own carbon footprint.
Carrying one's own water bottle, spoon, straw, fork while travelling can help in generating lesser plastic wastes.
Eating lesser meat, dairy and shifting towards a more plant-based diet is a climate-friendly choice
Eating local produce, organic produce can also help in making a climate-friendly choice as it reduces the greenhouse gases emitted due to the transportation of food and food products.
Those who have enough space and time can grow their own home garden, cultivate their own food.
Preventing wastage of food can considerably reduce wastage load on landfills thus reducing carbon emissions.
Taking remaining restaurant servings to be eaten later, or to be given to the needy.
Avoiding the use of disposable cutlery and carrying your own spoon, fork, straw if needed, thus reducing landfill load.
Adopting composting of kitchen wastes and waste foods at home, if there's enough space, can reduce landfill load and reduce methane generation considerably from landfills. (Methane is a more powerful greenhouses gas with a global warming potential 28-34 times that of CO2.)
Switching off power sources when not in use, replacing old lights with LED, buying a laptop instead of a desktop, defrosting the refrigerator frequently, not setting the freezer temperature lower than necessary are some small changes that can be incorporated to reduce energy usage and thus reducing carbon emissions.
Avoiding or reducing packaged foods, avoiding single-use plastics and carrying one's own bag for shopping, generating fewer wastes, and recycling, reusing plastic, steel, tin containers, cardboard boxes will reduce landfill loads.
Donating useable electronics, wearable clothes instead of throwing them 'away' is another step towards environment friendliness.
The lure of e-commerce platforms and getting a variety of things at affordable prices on a single platform often makes us buy more than we actually need. Buying less is a first step to reduce environmental impact.
Investing in quality products that last longer, buying local or vintage or pre-loved clothing or furniture will make the environment happier.
Different fabrics have different environmental impacts. Making conscious fabric choices can help in making environmental-friendly choices.
Clothes too old to be viable for donation can be used as rags or other sewing projects.
Sharing awareness related to climate change and carbon emissions with others will further increase the consciousness of people and contribute to an effective reduction in carbon footprints and improve environmental friendliness.
We do not need to live hard or deprived lives for living in an environment-friendly manner and to reduce our carbon footprints. We just need to make certain thoughtful choices to accomplish the same, so that the younger and the coming generations do not suffer for our lack of concern and empathy.