This February’s weather was brutal with many parts of the country registering record high temperatures. Predictably no one appeared to be bothered by this odd occurrence. Observations remained limited to high sales of air conditioners and increase in energy consumption. No question was raised why this occurred and whether it is a matter that deserves some attention.
Well I certainly am concerned. It requires no clairvoyant to prophesy that this abnormal event will soon become the ordinary and change we will experience from now on will likely trend to the more bizarre. I fear our next generation is looking at a bleak future and the generation after that perhaps none at all.
Reading books like Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded petrifies me as to what the future holds. I would suggest that each and every one who can read English invest in this book and read it from cover to cover. As for our leaders they better study it as if their life depended on it for it probably does.
Global Warming 101
For the benefit of those who have not heard of global warming or having heard of it have no real concept of what it is all about I have summarised below what Friedman says.
For 10,000 years there was roughly 280 parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere. Since the industrial revolution in the mid 19th Century it has steadily increased particularly in the last 50 years. In 2007 it was 384 parts per million, a figure the earth has not experienced in the last 20 million years. It is still climbing at the rate of 2 parts per million a year.
Large scale manufacturing activities are driven by fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide. Since the 20th century transportation powered by the internal combustion engine has been adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at an astronomical scale. These activities in addition, have been the cause of increased exploitation and consumption of raw materials, urbanisation, suburbanisation and a massive highway system all contributing to carbon dioxide emission in one way or another.
The pollutants called greenhouse gases generated by the industrial and transportation activities are accumulating in the atmosphere. The green house gasses trap sun’s heat near the earth’s atmosphere before that heat radiates back to space, making the globe warmer.
Added to these activities is deforestation that is releasing carbon stored in the trees, plants and soil, the generation of methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat trapping agent, from rice farming, petroleum drilling, coal mining, animal defecation, solid waste landfills and even cattle belching.
The earth has already warmed on average by 0.8 degrees Celsius above the level in 1750 and the ten hottest years since the advent of thermometers in 1860 all occurred between 1995 and 2005.
2012 Too Late for Action
Freidman warns that “we are entering an era in which our effects on the climate are becoming potentially unmanageable and irreversible. Without a dramatic reduction in human induced Co2 emissions climate change may bring abrupt or irreversible effects on air, oceans, glaciers, land, coastlines and species. If there is no action before 2012 it will be too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment. Since we can’t stop Co2 emissions cold, if they continue to grow at just mid-range projection ‘the cumulative’ warming by 2100 will be between 3 and 5 degrees and these are just mid-range projections”.
In the next 50 years 100 PPM or more CO2 will be added to the atmosphere. If CO2 reaches 550PPM in the next 50 years there will be a 3% increase in temperature, an intolerable level. More significantly increase of 2 to 2.5 degrees would take us to the tipping point, a point of no return.
We must however bear in mind that the figures are averages, estimates and lowest consensus and feared events have lately been happening 100 years ahead of schedule.
Added to this is the fact that problems arising from changes in climate compound when factors interact with and amplify one another. For example the Arctic tundra has 500 billion tons of carbon trapped in the peat bogs and if the permafrost thaws, gigatons of carbon would be released which in turn would lead to higher temperatures with more ice melt and more catastrophic and unpredictable consequences. What is certain is that global warming is about to trigger all sorts of unusual weather events – from hotter heat spells and droughts in some places, heavier snowfall in others, violent storms, more intense flooding, forest fires and species loss in still others.
Further complications will arise as even a small increase in global average temperatures will have a huge impact on the weather because differences in temperature is what drives the winds and their circulation patterns on the surface of the earth affecting besides temperature precipitation, humidity, soil moisture, atmosphere circulation patterns, storms, snow and ice cover, ocean currents and upwelling.
Not only is the climate changing because of human activities but it is changing faster than even the most anxious climatologists were predicting just four years ago.
Malaysian Opportunities to Help
What is the solution to this impending doom? Friedman has suggested various steps that could be employed to, as he puts it manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable’. Whilst many of the recommendations are beyond our Nation’s means and ability there are some gems that our nation could adopt which can possibly lead to critical positive impact.
Nature has endowed us with some unique strengths that could serve as a foundation for a serious endeavour to address this problem. We could be a leader in this task. For decades we have been attempting to gain the respect of the world by engaging in some peculiar activities which has produced mixed results. Here is an opportunity to attain legitimate respect of the world community and perhaps even their following whilst benefiting our society.
To be perfectly frank, fashionable statements and symbolic gestures will be quite useless. What will make a difference are hard decisions rigorously enforced. They may be unpopular and cause much pain but they will be meaningful.
What Malaysia Can Do:
1. Stop deforestation
2. Clean our rivers
3. Impose very high fuel taxes for private vehicles
4. Improve, expand and subsidise public transport
5. Introduce carbon tax
6. Reform urbanisation
7. Encourage energy efficiency by rewards and penalty system
8. Require all equipment to disclose energy consumption information
9. Allow private sector to produce and sell clean energy
10. Empower private sector to enforce public interest legislation