The fingerprints of climate change are all over the globe. In Houston, Texas—the United States of America’s fourth largest city—Hurricane Harvey dumped rains that caused catastrophic and record-setting flooding last week. Latest reports say that 35 have died while financial analysts say that the damage wrought to property and business by Harvey can be estimated between $75 billion and $160 billion, making it one of, if not, the costliest storms ever to hit the US. Images of the devastation like elderly people helplessly immobilized in waist deep flood waters as well as people dying while trying to save others, can move any one.
Yet, it was not just Houston. In Mumbai and Bangladesh last week about 1,200 people died due to intense rain and flooding. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, some 41-million people have been affected by flooding since June of this year. Also last month, Sierra Leone suffered a massive mudslide caused by heavy rain, killing 500 people while hundreds more went missing. In Nigeria, more than 100,000 were reportedly displaced due to flooding in the state of Benue this August.
What’s ironic is that even as the US President Donald Trump toured the flooded areas of Houston, a senior counselor suggested to him that now was not the time to talk about the highly politicized and divisive issue of climate change and global warming, only because a natural disaster happened. But is not the US the second-highest emitter of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide in the world, next to China?
We all live in one planet enveloped by a common atmosphere. The warming of the planet and the seas because of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by industrialized countries like China, the US and European nations cause devastation to all humans, regardless of which country emitted gases into the atmosphere most. The Philippines, for example, has lost more lives than any other country in just one storm when ‘‘Yolanda’’ (‘‘Haiyan’’) hit Eastern Visayas, leaving a death toll of more than 10,000. Yet, the Philippines is not an industrialized nation and is utterly far from reaching the levels of gas emission produced by highly industrialized nations.
Unfortunately, the US, despite being the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere withdrew from the 2016 Paris Treaty on climate change. This treaty brought together 160 nations into the common cause of undertaking ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects with enhanced support to developing nations to do so. Writer Mark Lynas said that the withdrawal of the US was an act of wanton international vandalism. Trump was helping condemn millions more people to the threat of more intensified and extreme rainfall events in future decades, he said. The US, he stressed, has a moral duty not to accept the conspiracy of silence imposed by powerful political and business interests opposed to any reduction in the use of fossil fuels. Lynas added, now is the time to talk of climate change and we owe this to the people of Texas as much as to the people of India, Bangladesh and Nigeria.
The first step toward mitigating the impact of climate change is recognizing that it exists and that it is caused by humans. Sadly, this is something the US, under its new president, denies. Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said that denying that humans cause climate change is a problem because it prevents us from changing the energy base of our economy which, though a long and difficult process, is not particularly complicated. He said the chemicals we have fabricated make our buildings more durable, our automobiles more efficient, and bring enormous benefit. The flip side of their durability, however, is that they are not biodegradable. They persist in the environment and must be managed to prevent harm. Some are toxic, others are simply persistent and end up where they don’t belong. America knows how to do this, Cohen said. In fact, he added, America’s economy has successfully grown while reducing environmental impact as demonstrated by its cleaner air, water and land today than it was in 1980. Yet, Cohen said, the US needs to continue building its ability to protect the planet. It needs to make the transition to a renewable resource-based economy in a way that facilitates rather than impedes economic growth. Unfortunately climate change has become an ideological issue in the US at the very moment even if the data is clear that the planet is getting warmer, he said.
What can the rest of the world do then if the threat of being victims of climate change created by industrialized nations persist, as it naturally will? Can they join hands in petitioning the United Nations to impose sanctions against nations which do nothing to mitigate, or even worsen, climate change? It is worth trying.