Paris has been the focus of global attention in the last few days due to terrorist atrocities and is now the focus of attention due to the global climate summit which is taking place there. Global warming caused by global climate change is the single-most important challenge humanity is facing today. It is a far bigger threat to humanity's survival than terrorism. Terrorists can kill only in hundreds or in thousands. Global warming will kill in millions. Political and military establishments have a vested interest in overstating the problem of global terrorism because there is a ring of urgency about it. From the viewpoint of humanity as a whole, what is more important is the threat of global warming. The urgent should not overtake the important.

Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of the earth’s near-surface air and oceans.  This can be due to natural reasons as well as human social activity. According to the UNO’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main cause of global warming since the middle of the 20th century is human activity related to fossil fuel burning and deforestation. These human activities lead to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations, which result in trapping the sun's radiation in the earth's atmosphere, leading to warming of the earth.  The main greenhouse gases are: Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), of which carbon dioxide is the most important. 

The high increase in the generation of the greenhouse gases is a product of the manner in which our modern socio-economic system runs and our way of life shaped by this socio-economic system. Our global socio-economic system is governed by the logic of profit-making, reinvestment and continuous increase in economic growth. This logic demands intensified use of resources, especially energy, to carry on expanding production of commodities and services.  In order to create expanding demand for this expanding supply, it needs consumers to spend more and more on goods and services.  Burgeoning supermarket malls backed by massive advertisement campaigns to increase sales is one of the most visible signs of the logic of the vicious circle of high demand and high supply aimed at profit maximisation.  It is by understanding this logic of the capitalist economic system that one can make sense of the apparently absurd appeal made by George Bush to American citizens after the September 2001 terrorist attack. He had said, “Go shopping”.   Shopping is viewed as a tool to both increase demand as well as to instil a lifestyle of consumerist “therapy”.  

 The rate at which global warming is taking place is frightening.  The year 2015 is likely to be the hottest year since the earth temperature started being recorded in 1850. This is on top of the year 2014 having been the hottest year so far.  According to scientific consensus, an average rise of more than 2 degree centigrade will be a tipping point for causing catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes. An increase of 1 degree has already taken place. The consequences of such global warming will be the melting of ice-caps, rise in sea levels and flooding.  Flooding destroys crops and lands, and contributes to food shortages.   

Global warming can also lead to water shortages in some areas and even to desertification. This will further contribute to food shortages and deterioration of the sanitation systems.  Conflicts over water use and food availability make the world more vulnerable to use of violence in dealing with these conflicts.  

Some of the other consequences of global warming are deaths due to rising malaria epidemic, heat strokes and salmonella (food poising).   According to the projections made by the Global Humanitarian Forum, a think tank set up by the former UN secretary general Kofi Anan, the increasing severe heat waves, floods, storms and forest fires will be responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths a year by 2030. The poverty and displacement caused by these changes will lead to an unprecedented surge in a new category of refugees, the environmental refugees.  

There are two key aspects of dealing with the challenge of global climate change: Mitigation and adaptation.  Mitigation means reduction in greenhouse gases emissions, and adaptation means preparing for some of the inevitable consequences of global warming.  From a mitigation point of view, research by the Potsdam Institute suggests that average emissions will need to be reduced by at least 60 percent of the 1990 baseline by 2030. This, in fact, means that the developed capitalist economies will have to reduce their emissions by 90 percent by 2030. Meeting this target will require a global agreement between the developed and the developing economies at the Paris summit. This will have implications for governments, institutions and individuals. Governments will have to develop a framework of greater reliance upon renewable sources of energy and a system of incentivising environmentally friendly economic activities and disincentivising environmentally damaging activities. The great environmental ethic of three Rs —reduce, reuse and recycle —should shape our lifestyles rather than the current consumerist lifestyle.

Adaptation systems need to be set up  in anticipation of the harmful consequences of global warming that has already taken place.  The health systems will need to be upgraded to deal with large-scale deaths of human beings.  Rise in animal deaths will pollute water and air and increase the risk of diseases.  Flood-control systems need to be developed in advance and resettlement policies need to be in place to accommodate environmental refugees. The developments at the Paris summit will be closely watched to see whether the global leadership rises up to this challenge by hammering out a treaty with legally binding emission- reduction targets or ends up in a disappointing patch-up of escape clauses. 

The writer is a Professor of Economics at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.

Source: The Tribune, Chandigarh