Vol. 3    Issue 16   01-15 January 2009
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Coping with the looming crisis of climate change

UNDP: Human Development Report 2007/2008 (Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 2008)

The issue of climate change has emerged as one of the major global concerns of the present era. The Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) has convincingly demonstrated that the warming of the global climate system-which lies at the root of the environmental crisis-is beyond doubt and that it is directly linked to human activity.

The effects of climate change are manifested in sea level rises, increased droughts and flooding, increased coastal erosion, extreme weather events (such as snowfall in desert areas and heatwaves in parts of Europe), tropical storms, depletion of water resources and desertification.

World temperatures have increased by around 0.7 C since the Industrial Revolution. There is overwhelming scientific evidence linking the rise in global temperatures to increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases-mainly carbon dioxide--in the earth's atmosphere. Stocks of greenhouse gases which trap heat in the earth's atmosphere are accumulating at an unprecedented rate. It is estimated that in the course of the 21st century average global temperatures could increase by more than 5? C. Global warming is evidence that we are overloading the carrying capacity of the earth's atmosphere.

Global warming around the world is caused by a combination of factors, including the burning of wood and fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil), emissions from power stations, automobile emissions and waste dumping. Automobile emissions account for about 30 per cent of greenhouse gases. Every year an amount of fossil fuel is burned that took 10,000 years to create. Forests, which take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, are being recklessly destroyed around the world. One-third of the world's forest areas has disappeared since 1950, and the destruction is continuing uninterrupted.

Large areas around the world are being turned to desert as a result of large-scale deforestation, overgrazing and extensive irrigation. It is estimated that, in the last century, the earth has lost a fourth of its top soil and a third of its forest cover. Every month about 2,000 species, which are an invaluable part of biodiversity and play a highly important role in maintaining the ecosystem, disappear from the planet.

When Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, nearly 60% of the country was covered with rainforest. Extensive deforestation has reduced the rainforests to barely 6% and given rise to diseases like malaria.

CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons), used in fridges, airconditioners and aerosols, are another greenhouse gas. They damage the outer ozone layer of the atmosphere by breaking apart ozone molecules. The ozone layer acts like a screen protecting us from the sun's harmful UV rays. CFCs are causing holes to appear in the layer, allowing more UV rays to pass through and increasing the risk of skin cancer.

The challenge of climate change

Human Development Report 2007/2008 focuses on the consequences and repercussions of climate change for human settlements, agriculture, water resources, health and well-being and on the pressing need for coping with the challenges of climate change. The Report is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 spells out the grave challenge of climate change in its multi-faceted dimensions while Chapter 2 deals with risk and vulnerability caused by climate change. Chapter 3 focuses on strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change and Chapter 4 discusses ameliorative action and cooperation related to climate change at national and international levels.

The Report points out that climate change could stall human development through five key transmission mechanisms.

 Agricultural production and food security

Climate change will affect rainfall, temperature and water availability for agriculture in vulnerable areas. For example, drought affected areas in sub-Saharan Africa could expand by 60-90 million hectares, with dry land zones suffering losses of US$26 billion by 2060 (2003 prices), a figure in excess of bilateral aid to the region. Other developing regions-including Latin America and South Asia-will also experience losses in agricultural production, undermining efforts to cut rural poverty. The additional number affected by malnutrition could rise to 600 million by 2080.

 Water stress and water insecurity

Changed run-off patterns and glacial melt will add to ecological stress, compromising flows of water for irrigation and human settlements in the process. An additional 1.8 billion people could be living in a water scarce environment by 2080. Central Asia, Northern China and the northern part of South Asia face immense vulnerabilities associated with the retreat of glaciers-at a rate of 10-15 meters a year in the Himalayas. Seven of Asia's great river systems will experience an increase in flows over the short-term, followed by a decline as glaciers melt. Several countries in already highly water-stressed regions such as the Middle East could experience deep losses in water availability.

 Rising sea levels and exposure to climate disasters

Sea levels could rise rapidly with accelerated ice sheet disintegration. Global temperature increases of 3-4C could result in 330 million people being permanently or temporarily displaced through flooding. Over 70 million people in Bangladesh, 6 million in Lower Egypt and 22 million in Viet Nam could be affected. Small island states in the Caribbean and Pacific could suffer catastrophic damage. Warming seas will also fuel more intense tropical storms. With over 344 million people currently exposed to tropical cyclones, more intensive storms could have devastating consequences for a large group of countries. The 1 billion people currently living in urban slums on fragile hillsides or flood prone river banks face acute vulnerabilities.

 Ecosystems and biodiversity

Climate change is already transforming ecological systems. Around one-half of the world's coral reef systems have suffered 'bleaching' as a result of warming seas. Increasing acidity in the oceans is another long-term threat to marine ecosystems. Ice-based ecologies have also suffered devastating climate change impacts, especially in the Arctic region. While some animal and plant species will adapt, for many species the pace of climate change is too rapid: climate systems are moving more rapidly than they can follow. With 3 C of warming, 20-30 percent of land species could face extinction.

 Human health

Rich countries are already preparing public health systems to deal with future climate shocks, such as the 2003 European heatwave and more extreme summer and winter conditions. However, the greatest health impacts will be felt in developing countries because of high levels of poverty and the limited capacity of public health systems to respond. Major killer diseases could expand their coverage. For example, an additional 220-400 million people could be exposed to malaria-a disease that already claims around 1 million lives annually. Dengue fever is already in evidence at higher levels of elevation than has previously been the case, especially in Latin America and parts of East Asia. Climate change could further expand the reach of the disease.

Climate change refugees in the 21st century

For more than 2,000 years the Yu'ik Eskimos, the largest group among the inhabitants of Alaska in the United States, have carved out a subsistence living on the frozen wastes of southwest Alaska. But now the ice is melting and many villages are faced with the worrying prospect of being shifted to a new site. They form the world's first climate change refugees.

Temperatures in Alaska have risen more than any other place on the planet in the past 50 years-by some 2o C on average, and up to 5.5o in winter. The Arctic in general has experienced a rate of warming that is double the earth's average. Portions of the land are being swallowed up at an astonishing pace. A population of about 90,000 people in Alaska, mainly Eskimos and Inuit, are severely affected by climate change. Of the state's 213 native villages, 184 are hit by erosion and flooding. The sea is marching in the direction of some villages, such as Newtok, at a rate of up to 90 feet a year. Within a couple of years, the first houses on the outskirts of Newtok will be gone. Efforts are on to relocate the village's 320 residents to another site-Nelson Island-about nine miles to the south. It is here that America's first global-warming refugee camp is being built.

Most of the greenhouse gases responsible for the melting of the permafrost into the sea emanate not from Alaska itself but from the industrialised regions of continental America
( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/28/alaska.climatechange).

Maldives: Climate change and survival

The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that, with the erosion of ice sheets and the expansion of warming seawater, sea levels are likely to rise worldwide by up to two feet by 2100. Maldives is the lowest high point on earth: the natural ground level anywhere in the islands does not exceed 2.3 metres. Sea levels around the Maldives have risen by about 20cm in the past century, and the UN estimates that they will rise by a further 58 cm by 2100. The islands were inundated by unusually high tides in 1987 that caused extensive damage. The Asian tsunami of December 2004 left a trail of devastation in the islands. It resulted in the death of 82 people, the displacement of 12,000 more and inflicted $375 million damage. Any sea level rise could have a devastating effect on the people of Maldives and may in fact endanger the very survival of the country.

Mohammad Nasheed, the new president, is seized of the likely calamity. He recently told the BBC that he planned to establish an investment fund with some of the earnings from tourism, which could be used to purchase land-either in Sri Lanka or India-to relocate the entire population of Maldives in the event of a dangerous rise in sea levels. This seems to be an extremely complex and problematic proposition, which involves issues of sovereignty, national borders and international law.

The government is also mulling over another, comparative more feasible, alternative. It plans to construct a new island, Hulu Male, where the population of some of its lowest-lying atolls, as well as the capital Male, could be relocated.

Climate change and rich nations

Rich nations account for the overwhelming bulk of the greenhouse gases locked in the earth's atmosphere. With 15 per cent of world population, rich countries are responsible for almost half of all emissions of carbon dioxide. The carbon footprint of the US is five times that of China and over 15 times that of India. In Ethiopia, the per capita carbon footprint is 0.1 tonnes of CO2, compared with 20 tonnes in Canada. Ironically, poor countries have to pay the highest price for the sins of rich countries.

Mahatma Gandhi once reflected on how many planets might be needed if India were to follow Britain's pattern of industrialisation. The Human Development Report 2007/2008 estimates that if all the world's people generated greenhouse gases at the same rate as some developed countries, we would need nine planets.

Climate change and the world's poor

Since people around the world have unequal incomes and resources, climate change will affect regions and peoples differently. Climate change is already starting to affect some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world. Across developing countries, millions of the world's poorest people are already being forced to cope with the impact of climate change. Failure to cope with climate change will consign the poorest 40% of the world's population-some 2.6 billion people-to a future of diminished opportunity. It will exacerbate deep inequalities within countries, reinforcing the vast disparities between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.

Climate disasters are heavily concentrated in poor countries. Some 262 million people were affected by climate disasters annually from 2000 to 2004, over 98% of them in the developing world. In rich countries, one in 1,500 people is affected by climate disasters. The comparative figure for developing countries is one in 19.

In Ethiopia and Kenya, two of the world's most drought-prone countries, children aged five or less are respectively 36 and 50 per cent more likely to be malnourished if they were born during a drought. For Ethiopia, that translates into some two million additional malnourished children in 2005. In Niger, children aged two or less born in a drought year were 72 per cent more likely to be stunted. Indian women born during a flood in the 1970s were 19 per cent less likely to have attended primary school.

Cities like London and Los Angeles may face flooding risks as sea levels rise, but their inhabitants are protected by elaborate flood defence systems. By contrast, when global warming changes weather patterns in parts of Africa and Asia, it results in crop failure, hunger and starvation for hundreds of thousands of people and forces women to spend more hours in collecting water.

Strategies for mitigation

Human Development Report 2007/2008 points out that the earth's atmosphere does not differentiate greenhouse gases by country of origin. One country's emissions are another country's climate change problem. It follows that no one country can win the battle against climate change acting alone. Collective action, therefore, is not an option but an imperative. This is a preventable crisis that threatens all peoples and all countries.

Fortunately, the world lacks neither the financial resources nor the technological capabilities to deal with the challenge of climate change. The Report emphasises that developed countries have to take the lead in mitigating the effects of climate change. They carry the burden of historic responsibility for the climate change problem. And they have the financial resources and technological capabilities to initiate deep and early cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases. The Report estimates that avoiding dangerous climate change will require rich nations to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent.

Climate change mitigation is basically about the way mankind produces and uses energy and about living within the bounds of ecological sustainability. Tackling climate change requires action on two fronts. First, the world urgently needs to step up action to mitigate greenhouse emissions. The Report stresses that stabilizing greenhouse emissions to limit climate change is a worthwhile insurance strategy for the world as a whole. The former US vice-president Al Gore has called for a new global goal of limiting CO2 levels to 350 parts per million (ppm)-current levels are already over 380ppm, up from 280ppm before the Industrial Revolution. Many governments are setting bold targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, political action continues to fall far short of the targets for reducing emissions set under the Kyoto Protocol. Two major OECD countries-the US and Australia-are not bound by Kyoto targets. The US does not have a federal target foe reducing emissions.

To achieve the stabilization target between now and 2030, the average annual cost would amount to 1.6 per cent of global GDP, which represents less than two-thirds of global military spending. The costs of inaction could reach 5-20 per cent of world GDP.

Adaptation is the second global necessity. There also needs to be a major push to generate new technologies for combating climate change, to make existing renewable technologies economically viable, and to promote a rapid diffusion of such technologies.

Many countries need assistance in improving their capacities to adapt. Existing infrastructure could be improved to enable people in the developing countries to cope with increased flooding and more frequent and severe weather events. Similarly, more weather resistant crops could be developed.

Human Development Report 2007/2008 suggests certain specific measures to combat climate change. These include putting a price on carbon emissions, development and marketing of alternative fuels, development of low-carbon technologies and climate defence infrastructures. Putting a price on carbon emissions will facilitate a transition to low-carbon growth. The Report suggests two ways of putting a price on carbon emissions. The first is to directly tax carbon emissions. The second route to carbon pricing is to introduce a cap-and trade system, under which the government sets an overall emissions cap and issues tradable allowances that grant business the right to emit a set amount.

The Report emphasises that the rapid development and deployment of low-carbon technologies is vital to climate change mitigation. International trade could play a much larger role in expanding markets for alternative fuels. Sugar-based ethanol is more efficient at carbon emissions. Brazil is more successful than the EU and the US at cutting carbon emissions.

Rich countries are investing heavily in the development of climate defence infrastructures. The UK is spending $ 1.2 billion annually on flood defences. In the Netherlands, people are investing in homes that can float on water. Developing countries, on the other hand, face far more severe adaptation challenges due to the paucity of financial resources and technological capabilities. In the Ganges Delta in India, people are erecting bamboo flood shelters on stilts. In the Mekong Delta people are planting mangoves to protect themselves against storm surges, and women and children are being taught to swim.

The Report concludes with a set of four major recommendations:

  • Develop a multilateral framework for avoiding dangerous climate change under the post-Kyoto Protocol
  • Put in place policies for sustainable carbon budgeting aimed at mitigation
  • Strengthen the framework for international cooperation
  • Put climate change adaptation at the centre of the post-2012 Kyoto framework and international partnership for poverty reduction

Climate change and fundamental issues

Climate change provides a potent reminder of the fact-in an increasingly fragmented and atomised world-that planet earth is a shared inheritance and responsibility of mankind and that all nations and all people share the same atmosphere. It makes us realise that mankind is ecologically interdependent.

In 1988, Chico Mendes, the Brazilian environmentalist who died defending the Amazon rainforest against destruction, spoke of the ties that bound his local struggle to a global movement for social justice: "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity".

Climate change raises profoundly important questions about social justice, equity, and human rights and entitlements across countries and generations, including future generations. It requires a fundamental change in our mindset.

Winning the battle against climate change will require changes at many levels: in consumption, in how we produce and price energy, and in international cooperation.

The looming crisis of climate change should make us realise that economic wealth creation is not the same thing as human progress. The Report emphasises that one of the hardest lessons taught by climate change is that the economic model which drives growth, and the profligate consumption in rich nations that goes with it, is ecologically unsustainable. Rising economic prosperity seems to go hand-in-hand with mounting threats to human development and the well-being of future generations.

Lessons from the past

Trees and plants soak up carbon dioxide as they grow, but release it again as they are burned or left to rot. But burning them largely in the absence of oxygen, through pyrolysis, reduces the amount of the gas emitted by 90 per cent, and stores the carbon in the charcoal instead. It also gives off energy that can be used as an efficient biofuel.

If the resulting "biochar"-a fine-grained form of charcoal-is buried in the ground, it will stay there for some 5,000 years, keeping the carbon out of the atmosphere, and nourishing the soil while it is there. It cuts down on the use of fertilisers, reduces the emission of methane and nitrous oxides (which are also greenhouse gases) from the ground, and filters out pollutants and retains water, thereby combating flooding.

This method was followed by the pre-Columbian Amazon Indians to make the poor soil of the rainforest productive and fertile.

A group of scientists in Britain believe the technique used by the pre-Columbian Indians could provide a possible solution to global warming. Scientific trials are to begin in Sussex and Belize early next year, backed with venture capital from Silicon Valley. The plan is to make the project into a worldwide enterprise to reverse the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and eventually bring it back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

The ambitious enterprise is the brainchild of two of Britain's most successful environmental entrepreneurs: Craig Sams, one of the founders of the best-selling Green and Black's organic chocolate, and Dan Morrell, who co-founded Future Forests, the first carbon offsetting company. They aim to grow trees and plants to absorb carbon dioxide and then trap the carbon by turning the resulting biomass into "biochar" that can be buried in the soil, keeping it safely locked up for thousands of years.

Dr Sams reckons that if just two and a half per cent of the world's productive land were used to produce biochar, carbon dioxide could be returned to pre-Industrial Revolution levels by 2050.

Climate change in Islamic perspective

Man has been described as God's vicegerent on earth (Quran 6:165; 35:39), which endows a unique privilege on him and, at the same time, entails a heavy burden of responsibility. The Quran says that the world's bounties have been created for humanity. Islam emphasises moderation and judiciousness in the use of God-given resources. It urges man not to squander the resources at his disposal or to over-indulge himself. "..eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for surely Allah does not like people who waste", says the Quran (7:31). Imam Abu Hanifah, one of the greatest jurists and sages in Islamic history, once remarked that even if one were making an ablution for prayer on the bank of the Tigris river, it is not permissible to waste water. Islam emphasises the fundamental unity and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of race, class and caste. The universe, the environment, the earth's flora and fauna and humanity constitute a great chain of unity in the sense that they all are manifestations of God's omnipotence and kindness. As God's vicegerent, man is held responsibility for the protection of the environment, biodiversity and flora and fauna. The Quran says that trees and plants and all that is in the universe sing praises of God, though we are unable to comprehend it. The Prophet (S) described the planting of trees as an act of virtue.

Any act that undermines or damages this great chain of unity violates divine purpose. There is ample scientific evidence to show that the present environmental crisis is essentially the outcome of man's reckless plundering of nature's resources and his insatiable lust for self-indulgence. He is now paying the price for his "environmental sin".

It is unfortunate that poor countries happen to be a victim of climate change which is not of their own making, but is largely the outcome of a combination of short-sighted policies and lifestyle in the industrialised countries. The consequences of acts of omission and commission often affect not only the perpetrators but also those who may not be involved in them. "And fear trial and tribulation, which affect not just those of you who indulge in wrong-doing, and know that Allah is exacting in punishment," says the Quran (8:25).

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