Thursday, December 04, 2008

Climate Change, Energy Crisis and Development

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that climate change is real, that human beings are causing it and that we seem to be heading for a real bad time. Global mean temperature and temperature at specific locations could go up by a few degrees by the end of this century and the mean sea level could rise by several centimetres as a result of polar ice melting and water expanding with increase in temperature. The global warming could lead to reduction in total rainfall, while, at the same time, increse in severity of rainfall events and drought. All this could result in reduction in food productivity especially in the tropics (while productivity could increase in the temperate regions for temperature increases up to 3 degrees but would reduce for higher temperatures), increased sea erosion and loss of land to the ocean, and various other problems. The main cause for all this is the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This, in turn, is a result of the large-scale consumption of fossil fuels on the one hand and deforestation on the other.

There is a group of people who still believe that all this is humbug, that the changes we see in the atmosphere are simply normal changes. They, therefore, argue that there is no reason for us to change our life styles. Unfortunately, the United States has accepted this argument and refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol that aims at reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, mainly by developed countries. A major mistake such people are making is that, if they, by some chance, happen to be wrong and IPCC happens to be correct, entire humanity could be severly affected, if not wiped out. That is, of course, assuming that they are sincere to themselves. If global warming continues, it could possibly even lead to a major catastrophe that could even wipe out life on this planet. We could hardly do anything beyond a point. As of now, it is the poor nations and islands who suffer most, and, of course, the poor in the developed countries.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this is happening at the same point in time when petroleum is runnign out. In a way, this is good, because that would certainly put a halt to our consumption of petroleum and tend to reduce the production of carbon dioxide. But in a way it is bad because we will have to face two crises at the same time. While, on the one hand, we could be faced with changes in the distribution of diseases and the availability of food grains in some regions, we will also have to tackle the problem of fuel for transportation. This is complicated by the problem that real figures on petroleum availability are not available because observers believe that the figures given out by the oil producing countries are not reliable.

Let me also point to a third potential crisis that may be approaching. And this is the loss of traditional knowledge. A lot of knowledge that could probably have helped us face some of the problems that could arise in the near future, as discussed above, is being lost because they are not properly documented and because they have been replaced by new knowledge from the West that is considered "superior".

There is no need to emphasise the role of the West in creating the atmosphere for causing these problems and the role they have to play in solving them too. We should ralise that the problem of global warming and climate change has its roots in the Industrial Revolution, when human power was replaced by machine power, which, in turn, required power from coal and then petroleum and electricity. All this did, certainly, lead to an improvement in human living conditions. But we should not forget to also see the misery that it created. Admittedly, much of that misery has disappeared from the developed world, and, maybe, given enough time, it would disappear from the developing world too. But we are running out of time. More importantly, we have lost many of the skills that we had before. We have come to a high energy economy and it would be really tough to go back to a low energy economy. Humanity is simply consuming much more than its fair share of resources. And, in the process, we have destroyed much of the flora and fauna that we had.

India and China have a big role to play in both mitigating the crises and in protecting the traditional knowledge. These are two countries that have the largest populations in the world and also are wealthy in terms of traditional knowledge. And this traditional knowledge is disappearing fast. And, while it may be possible to regenerate the lost flora and fauna, though extremely improbable, it may take eons to recreate lost knowledge. We have to admit that we have behaved badly with our Mother Earth.

The way I see it, the greatest tragedy is that we have not learned a lesson. We are still trying to find technological solutions to the problems we have created in nature. We are still trying to find alternate sources of energy. We fail to see that no one expected any problem when humanity started using petroleum as a source of energy. It became a problem when the use of petroleum became widespread. When millions of automobiles started running on petroleum. Are we sure that the alternate sources of energy that we are looking for also will not create such problems when they become ubiquitous? Do we know what problems await us when millions of square metres of solar cells are manufactured and deployed? Or when millions of windmills are deployed all over the world? Or when thousands of nuclear reactors are built and they start producing spent fuel?

I feel that humanity has got into a trap -- the trap of over-ambition and over-confidence. The consequences of the actions of my generation, and of the previous couple of generations, are going to be borne by my children and theirs. And this is certainly not a comforting thought.

2 comments:

ashoknest said...

I quote Dr Sasikumar " We have to admit that we have behaved badly with our Mother Earth.

The way I see it, the greatest tragedy is that we have not learned a lesson. We are still trying to find technological solutions to the problems we have created in nature"
I quote this because now there is debate supporting GM foods in India .
the people who support introduction of GM Crops say of the 10 GM crops undergoing trails in India seven(potato,tomato,cauliflower ,cabbage ,bhindi,brinjal and onion are vegetables and two (maize and rice) are cereals and last one is a legume (groundnut ).execpt for brinjal and rice all other crops orginated in south america and or mediterranean region.yet they have become an integral part of indian cusine .....Gm corps do we need it

ashoknest said...

Looking at the economics of climate change lets emphasize that without mitigation and
adaptive measures, the damage caused by climate change would be far more severe than simple economic
costs.