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World Environment Day - 5 June 2008
   
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Climate Change Articles

 

Creeping Disasters
Kartikeya V. Sarabhai

At 8.46 am on the 26th of January 2001, an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale hit Gujarat.  Over 20,000 lives were lost, most of them within minutes of the earthquake. While the epicenter was in Kachchh, almost 340,000 buildings were destroyed and property worth over Rs. 10,000 crore was lost across the state.  The response to the disaster was overwhelming. Gujarat has had a long history of mobilizing itself in times of crises. A disaster had struck and we needed to rebuild and rebuild in such a way that if this were to happen again we would not lose so many lives and property.

On the whole we are very good at responding when sudden disaster strikes.  We get together, we mobilize all resources and we get the best technical advice.  We show true community spirit, and we overcome.

But all disasters do not happen in the sudden way of an earthquake or a tsunami.  Many changes, that have a far greater impact, happen slowly.  We see the changes only gradually and incrementally, never realizing their full potential for impact.  It is a little like gaining weight.  Each milligram gained is too small to notice, and yet, before you know it you have put on several kilograms. In most such cases, the problem is not that we do not get warnings, but that we do not think of them seriously, and as a result do not act.  The sense of urgency is missing.  The people who warn are seen as doomsday soothsayers, not to be taken too seriously. 

According to the American Cancer Society over 400,000 people die each year in the US from diseases related to smoking.  In 1950 an article in the British Medical Journal clearly showed evidence of the link between smoking and lung cancer. For the next 15 years the matter remained contentious as industry lobbies in the US put up alternative arguments.  Finally the reports connecting lung cancer to smoking - direct and passive - were so overwhelming that the US Government made it mandatory that all manufacturers put a warning on cigarette packs.  In 1970 cigarette advertising was banned, in 1987 smoking on planes was banned, and in 2003 you could no longer smoke in public places in New York.. It took around 50 years for the study to form effective public policy.

Changing patterns in climate started being noticed since the mid-20th century. Many dismissed these as cyclical changes but evidences pointed to what seemed like a trend, a trend that could not be explained away as normal cyclical climatic changes. The science of climate change evolved over the next decade.  The issue continued to be debated leading to the United Nations and the World Meteorology Organisation setting up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the year 1988. This body of over 3000 scientists is to look at all the evidence available and come out with a definitive statement on the issue. In early 2007 the IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report stated “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”.

The evidence is overwhelming, it is time to act. Climate change is evolving as one of the major defining factors for human development in years to come. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2007/2008 Human Development Report is titled ‘Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world’. The report reiterates the consequences that climate change will bring on our future and the fact that in long run it is a massive threat to human development. During his Budget speech for the year 2006-07 Gujarat C.M. Shri. Naredrabhai Modi emphasized improving Gujarat’s performance on the human development index along with economic indicators. As the UNDP report shows this can only be done by simultaneously looking at climate change issues. Gujarat is particularly vulnerable to climate change and over the next few articles we will talk about how climate change has occurred, what we need to do so as to mitigate it and how we may need to adapt to the changes that are now inevitable.