In 1896, physical chemist Svante Arrhenius quantified the greenhouse effect by estimating the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which could increase the global surface temperature. He concluded that greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions from fossil fuel combustion could significantly contribute to climate change. Climate change is a natural event, which occurred in the past for as far as billion years ago, which can either have a warming or a cooling trend.
The factors inducing climate change were either internal variability in the climate system for example variations in the oceans or atmosphere or natural external causes such as alterations in volcanic activities or solar radiation. In 1958, Charles David Keeling started collecting in-situ data and his findings over the years confirmed Arrhenius’ calculations.
The current climate change is driven by the GHGs emissions in the atmosphere through the extraction and combustion of fossil fuel, the destruction of natural ecosystems, intensive agriculture and other activities following the industrial revolution. At the same time, more studies began predicting global warming and the first World Climate Conference was held in 1979 in Geneva where scientists from over 50 nations raised the alarm. Since then, meetings and conferences regarding climate change are taking place regularly and studies are describing the consequences of this human-driven phenomenon on natural ecosystems, biodiversity and the future generations.
Specific guidelines and objectives
The Paris Agreement, resulting from the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP21) of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has specific guidelines and objectives to mitigate GHGs emissions so as to limit the increase in mean global temperature to 1.5°C by the end of the century and to help vulnerable countries such as Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) adapt. However, the report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, which combines an analysis of countless studies around the globe by 1300 scientists, suggests that the mean global temperature will reach at least 1.5°C by 2030 if the emissions of GHGs continue and that the impacts will be far worse than originally suspected.
A small group of people on the planet are driving this colossal change while the remaining are paying the price. The Carbon Majors Report (2017) revealed the 100 companies that have been contributing to 70% of world’s GHGs emissions since 1988. Additionally, intensive farming, an industry which emits large amounts of nitrogen oxides and methane, is compromising the objective of keeping the rise in temperature at bay. Moreover, according to a report compiled by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the wealthiest 1% of the global population emitted more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half from 1990 to 2015 and the richest 10% (comprising of 630 million people) contributed to 52% of the global emissions over a period of 25 years.
The Earth’s mean surface temperature (land and oceans combined) has increased by 0.85°C over the period of 1880 to 2012 with each of the last three decades being consecutively warmer than any previous decade since 1850. Our planet has lost a total of 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994 suggesting that the sea level will most likely rise up to a meter by the end of this century. Each centimeter can potentially displace one million people from their homes along the coastal regions and in low-lying areas. Furthermore, the loss of ice sheets and glaciers will speed up the heating process. Ocean warming is a process which predominantly influences the increase in energy stored in the climate system. Even if the surface of the oceans warmed by 0.11°C from 1971 to 2010, data suggest that the temperature in deeper waters (as from 700m) also increased.
Consequently, there is an increase in the stratification of the oceans which disrupts ocean currents and therefore the dynamics of nutrients. Ocean warming affects the weather such as the creation of storms and determines its intensity since warm water fuels large storms. A warmer ocean cannot absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere efficiently. Global warming will impact tropical plants’ capacity to germinate. By 2070, the seeds for one in five plants will not be able to germinate because of high temperatures. A recent study published in Nature Communications observed that trees grow faster in warmer climatic conditions reaching their maximum size sooner, but also die sooner. Once dead, the carbon stored in the trees is released gradually in the form of methane.
There are tipping points in the climate system that when exceeded, can cause abrupt and irreversible changes. The Greenland ice sheet and the Amazons forest are examples of tipping points. Once the Greenland ice sheet melts completely, the global sea level will rise by 7 meters. Although those tipping points were initially thought to be triggered only when the global mean temperature would increase above 5°C, scientists found out that these can happen between temperatures of 1°C to 2°C. On top of that, studies have shown that polar bears could experience reproductive failure by 2040 leading to local extinctions and they could disappear completely by the end of the century. Polar bears are known as keystone species and their role in an ecosystem is to maintain the structure of an ecological community.
According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 7348 major disaster events were recorded from 2000 to 2019 while 4212 major disaster events occurred from 1980 to 1999. This spike was associated with climate-related disasters such as extreme heat, cyclones, floods and droughts. In 2019 itself, at least 15 disaster events were linked to climate change with floods in South America, Australia, Iran, Asia, Spain, storms/cyclones/hurricanes/typhoons in Europe, Southern Africa, Asia, North America and fires in California. Countries with a vulnerable system (political, financial, medical, sanitation, literacy, social, environmental) and limited resources have a hard time recover.
By so many measures, the year 2020 has been catastrophic. Although the word “coronavirus” undoubtedly comes to mind, the outbreak of the COVID-19 has not been the only disaster. From the deadly floods, droughts and locusts in Africa to the violent cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh, the climate-related disasters are worsening. The temperatures are escalating – causing the permafrost in Siberian Arctic to melt and the mercury to hit 51.7°C in Baghdad. Heat waves struck the Northern Hemisphere dangerously from the United States to Hong Kong. The year 2020 could easily become the second hottest year on record. To this day, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has reached 411.8 parts-per-million (ppm) and the atmospheric methane level has reached 1872.2 parts-per-billion (ppb).
In the local context, the Mauritius Meteorological Services (MMS) estimated the mean temperature to be slightly above to above normal for most of the regions in Mauritius and drier conditions for the next three months. Urban heat islands will amplify the impacts of heatwaves in cities. The mean temperature recorded throughout the island is increasing and negatively affecting our food crops and fisheries and natural ecosystems such as coral reefs. Climate change also favors the proliferation of invasive species and lowers the native species’ ability to adapt. Sea level rise is taking away our beaches and heavy rainfalls are flooding the coastal regions. Countries in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere subtropics are expected to experience the largest impacts on economic growth due to climate change should global warming increase from 1.5°C to 2°C. Clearly, we are not prepared for climate change.
This existential threat has already killed people on a mass scale all around the globe and yet, it is treated as a fancy subject. We need to treat it as it is – a crisis. We need to put life (including humans) at the center of our system, instead of profit. The way governments and lobbies are dealing with the climate crisis is simply ridiculous. While scientists clearly established the link between the climate crisis and the overexploitation and overconsumption of resources, those responsible and who are in a position of power are not lifting a finger. In order to combat the climate crisis, a rapid and radical change is required. We need to stop GHGs emissions mostly by preserving the remaining natural carbon sinks such as wetlands, salt marshes, forests and the oceans and by changing and reducing our consumption. So that we are clear, green “solutions” are merely band-aids if we do not stop emitting.
Earlier this year in May, the COP Bureau announced the postponement of the COP26 for November 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we agree that the coronavirus is an imminent danger, the climate crisis is on the horizon and should be tackled as such. Fridays For Future Mauritius is a youth protest movement demanding all – the government, the private sector and the society to act now. Therefore, since the COP26 will not be happening this year, we shall organize a national climate strike on November 13 and collectively write a letter addressed to the United Nations alongside other climate activists in the Indian Ocean so that our voices are heard.
•Agence France Presse (2020) Climate Change Spurs Doubling Of Disasters Since 2000: UN. [online] Link: https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/un-climate-change-spurs-doubling-of-disasters-since-2000-2308966
•Carbon Majors Report (2017) [online] Link: https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/002/327/original/Carbon-Majors-Report-2017.pdf?1499691240
•Climate report for the month of September 2020. Mauritius Meteorological Services. [online] Link: http://metservice.intnet.mu/mmsimages/2020-10-19_09:20:28_Climate%20Bulletin-September2020.pdf
•Dickie, G. (2020) Most polar bears to disappear by 2100, study predicts. The Guardian. [online] Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/20/most-polar-bears-to-disappear-by-2100-study-predicts-aoe
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•Harvey, F. (2020) Shorter lifespan of faster-growing trees will add to climate crisis, study finds. The Guardian. [online] Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/08/shorter-lifespan-of-faster-growing-trees-will-add-to-climate-crisis-study-finds
•Harvey, F. (2020) World’s richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%, says Oxfam. The Guardian [online] Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/21/worlds-richest-1-cause-double-co2-emissions-of-poorest-50-says-oxfam?CMP=fb_gu&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR3NejZGXMamOC2z5ps56LBbdWpcwIN43y71W8IFQypit4LmZrwNNIth_RM#Echobox=1600679417
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•Marshall, M. (2020) The tipping points at the heart of the climate crisis. The Guardian. [online] Link: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/sep/19/the-tipping-points-at-the-heart-of-the-climate-crisis
•McKie, R. (2020) Earth has lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice in less than 30 years. The Washington Post. [online] Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/23/earth-lost-28-trillion-tonnes-ice-30-years-global-warming
•New, M. (2019) How much of climate change is natural? How much is man-made? The Conversation. [online] Link: https://phys.org/news/2019-09-climate-natural-man-made.html
•Readfearn, G. (2020) Global heating will make it much harder for tropical plants to germinate, study finds. The Guardian. [online] Link: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jul/02/global-heating-will-make-it-much-harder-for-tropical-plants-to-germinate-study-finds
•Riley, T. (2017) Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says. The Guardian. [online] Link: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change
•Summary for policymakers, IPCC Report (2018) Available online from: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf
•UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP26). [online] Link: https://sdg.iisd.org/events/2020-un-climate-change-conference-unfccc-cop-26/