The reality about climate change science

The threat of global warming has the potential of destroying our civilisation. The catastrophic effects of climate change are already apparent with increased incidence of floods, storms, droughts, water shortage and rising sea levels; phenomena that is expected to grow in severity over the course of the century which is likely to hit the world’s poorest the hardest.

Most scientists now agree that world average temperatures may rise by between 2-5 degree Celsius this century due to emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels for power and transport and is mostly influenced by human activities. The collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and the disruption of the Gulf Stream ocean current are two very real threats that could cause mayhem long before 2100. The Artic may become entirely free of sea ice within 3-4 decades. The melting Siberian permafrost is now pumping millions of extra tonnes of methane and carbon dioxide leaking into the atmosphere.

Former US vice president, Al Gore’s film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and former World Bank chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern report, the Stern Review on the economics of climate change, have made the world aware of the urgency of the situation. It has brought us to the realisation that just through man-made emissions alone, we have the preconditions for bringing human life and all other life to an end.

Global warming – problems and solutions

Al Gore, recently in a speech in 2006, said: 1

‘Many scientists are now warning that we are moving closer to several “tipping points” that could - within as little as 10 years - make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable damage to the planet’s habitability for human civilization. In this regard, just a few weeks ago, another group of scientists reported on the unexpectedly rapid increases in the release of carbon and methane emissions from frozen tundra in Siberia, now beginning to thaw because of human caused increases in global temperature. The scientists tell us that the tundra in danger of thawing contains an amount of additional global warming pollution that is equal to the total amount that is already in the earth’s atmosphere. Similarly, earlier this year, yet another team of scientists reported that the previous twelve months saw 32 glacial earthquakes on Greenland between 4.6 and 5.1 on the Richter scale - a disturbing sign that a massive destabilization may now be underway deep within the second largest accumulation of ice on the planet, enough ice to raise sea level 20 feet worldwide if it broke up and slipped into the sea. Each passing day brings yet more evidence that we are now facing a planetary emergency - a climate crisis that demands immediate action to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in order to turn down the earth’s thermostat and avert catastrophe…The debate on global warming is over… The serious debate over the climate crisis has now moved on to the question of how we can craft emergency solutions in order to avoid this catastrophic damage.’

The first step requires winning the key battle against inertia, fear of change and adopting a responsible approach. Secondly, sharp reductions of Co2 emissions should radically be implemented. Thirdly, to involve joining the rest of the global economy in playing by the rules of the world treaty (Kyoto) that reduces global warming pollution by authorising the trading of emissions within a global cap. Fourthly, improvements in the efficiency with which we generate, transport and use energy. Fifthly, the switch from the reliance from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy resources will almost certainly prove to be the single biggest source of sharp reductions in global warming pollution. Sixthly, would require the right policy incentives for eliminating pollution and becoming more efficient.

‘Similarly, we should take bold steps to stop deforestation and extend the harvest cycle on timber to optimize the carbon sequestration that is most powerful and most efficient with older trees. On a worldwide basis, 2 and 1/2 trillion tons of the 10 trillion tons of CO2 emitted each year come from burning forests. So, better management of forests is one of the single most important strategies for solving the climate crisis. This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue. It affects the survival of human civilization. It is not a question of left vs. right; it is a question of right vs. wrong. Put simply, it is wrong to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every generation that follows ours. It is an opportunity presented by the climate crisis is not only the opportunity for new and better jobs, new technologies, new opportunities for profit, and a higher quality of life.’

Economics of climate change
Stern Report

The Stern Report highlights the economics of climate change. It analyses the impacts and risks arising from uncontrolled climate change, on the costs and opportunities associated if the action is taken now. It states that

‘All countries will be affected by climate change, but it is the poorest countries that will suffer earliest and most. Unabated climate change risks raising average temperatures by over 5°C from pre-industrial levels. Such changes would transform the physical geography of our planet, as well as the human geography – how and where we live our lives.

‘Climate change will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food production, health, and the environment. Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms.’

Adding up the costs of a narrow range of the effects, based on the assessment of the science carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001, the Review calculates that the dangers of unabated climate change would be equivalent to at least 5% of GDP each year.

The Report goes on to consider more recent scientific evidence (for example, of the risks that greenhouse gases will be released naturally as the permafrost melts), the economic effects on human life and the environment, and approaches to modelling that ensure the impacts that affect poor people are weighted appropriately. Taking these together, the Review estimates that the dangers could be equivalent to 20% of GDP or more.

In contrast, the costs of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year. People would pay a little more for carbon-intensive goods, but our economies could continue to grow strongly.

If we take no action to control emissions, each tonne of CO2 that we emit now is causing damage worth at least $85 – but these costs are not included when investors and consumers make decisions about how to spend their money. Emerging schemes that allow people to trade reductions in CO2 have demonstrated that there are many opportunities to cut emissions for less than $25 a tonne. In other words, reducing emissions will make us better off. According to one measure, the benefits over time of actions to shift the world onto a low-carbon path could be in the order of $2.5 trillion each year.

New areas of growth in low carbon technology

The shift to a low-carbon economy will also bring huge opportunities. Markets for low-carbon technologies will be worth at least $500bn, and perhaps much more, by 2050 if the world acts on the scale required. Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy; ignoring it will ultimately undermine economic growth.’

The Report examines the national and international policy challenges of moving to a low-carbon global economy. Climate change is the greatest market failure the world has seen. Three elements of policy are required for an effective response.

The first is carbon pricing, through taxation, emissions trading or regulation, so that people are faced with the full social costs of their actions. The aim should be to build a common global carbon price across countries and sectors. The second is technology policy, to drive the development and deployment at scale of a range of low-carbon and high-efficiency products. And the third is action to remove barriers to energy efficiency, and to inform, educate and persuade individuals about what they can do to respond to climate change. Fostering a shared understanding of the nature of climate change, and its consequences, is critical in shaping behaviour, as well as in underpinning both national and international action.

Effective action requires a global policy response, guided by a common international understanding of the long-term goals for climate policy and strong frameworks for co-operation. Key elements of future international frameworks should include:

Emissions trading:

Expanding and linking the growing number of emissions trading schemes around the world is a powerful way to promote cost-effective reductions in emissions and to bring forward action in developing countries.

Strong targets in rich countries could drive flows amounting to tens of billions of dollars each year to support the transition to low-carbon development paths.

Technology co-operation:

Informal co-ordination as well as formal agreements can boost the effectiveness of investments in innovation around the world.

Globally, support for energy research and development should at least double, and support for the deployment of low-carbon technologies should increase up to five-fold.

International co-operation on product standards is a powerful way to boost energy efficiency.

Action to reduce deforestation:

The loss of natural forests around the world contributes more to global emissions each year than the transport sector. Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way to reduce emissions; large-scale international pilot programmes to explore the best ways to do this should get underway very quickly.


The poorest countries are most vulnerable to climate change. It is essential that climate change be fully integrated into development policy, and that rich countries honour their pledges to increase support through overseas development assistance. 

International funding should also support improved regional information on climate change impacts, and research into new crop varieties that will be more resilient to drought and flood.’

Global warming - the case for climate justice for poor countries

The principal reason for the mounting rising temperature is a century and a half of industrialisation, the burning of ever greater quantities of oil, gasoline, and coal, the cutting of forests, the practice of certain farming methods, and impact of the military on the environment. These activities have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The use of fossil fuels and dangerous interference of human activity have intensified global warming. As a result, our biodiversity, habitat, clean water supplies, forest, desert loss, and threats to coastal and marine environment. There are further threats to security and sustainable development, along with rising migration and refugees.

A rise of between two and three degrees means disappearing glaciers will significantly reduce water supply to over a billion people; rising sea levels could lead to 200 million people being displaced; declining crops yields will lead to famine and death particularly in Africa; diseases like Malaria will spread; and as many as 40% of species could face extinction. And whilst poor countries will be hurt most, we will ALL suffer,.

Today’s rich nations are the ones responsible for global warming as greenhouse gases tend to remain in the atmosphere for many decades, and rich countries have been industrialising and emitting climate changing pollution for many more centuries than the poor countries. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), formulated, signed and ratified in 1992, recognized the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities which have not been followed.

Three institutes have in their reports highlighted the effects of the huge pollutions of industrialized countries and their effect on the development of poor countries. Their comments are as follows:

In terms of historical emissions, industrialized countries account for roughly 80% of the carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere to date. Since 1950, the U.S. has emitted a cumulative total of roughly 50.7 billion tons of carbon, while China (4.6 times more populous) and India (3.5 times more populous) have emitted only 15.7 and 4.2 billion tons respectively.

Annually, more than 60 percent of global industrial carbon dioxide emissions originate in industrialized countries, where only about 20 percent of the world’s population resides.

The environmental consequences of the policies of industrialized nations have had a large, detrimental and costly effect on developing countries — especially the poor in those countries, that are already burdened with debt and poverty. 3

‘Industrialised countries set out on the path of development much earlier than developing countries, and have been emitting GHGs [Greenhouse gases] in the atmosphere for years without any restrictions. Since GHG emissions accumulate in the atmosphere for decades and centuries, the industrialised countries’ emissions are still present in the earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, the North is responsible for the problem of global warming given their huge historical emissions. It owes its current prosperity to decades of overuse of the common atmospheric space and its

Fossil Fuels and the rising pollutant - Coal

One of the great environmental challenges lies in coal in the energy sector. India sits on vast coal deposits, as does China. ‘China, the world's fourth-largest economy and second biggest energy user, has set a goal to cut energy consumption per unit of national income by 20 percent by 2010. But with coal-fired stations providing over 80 percent of China's electricity supply, China is on course to overtake the United States by 2009 as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases that warm the planet. China has resisted calls for a cap even on emissions growth, arguing that most carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere was produced by developed nations as they industrialised, and they have no right to deny the same economic growth to others.’7

India’s rapid development is led by the use of coal under current technology. It would drastically exacerbate the ongoing spiral of man-made climate change. India and China, as fast growing economies, will have to cooperate with the United States and Europe to find fair and prudent ways that give their economies the chance to grow dynamically, which, at the same time, that we have global system consistent with our long term well being. With just 5% of the world’s population, the United States is disproportionately contributing about 24% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions today, and it has not taken up responsibility in line with these huge amounts of pollution.

Yet, India will soon be sharing the stage with the United States in assuming an equal amount of devastation. In addition, India and China will, over time, have economies just as large as the United States, which is likely to happen by mid century. With India, China and the rest of Asia, set to rival the size of the economies of the West in this century, the global leadership in solving these problems becomes critical.

Coal has 2 important features – it is found in abundance in the United States, China, India and many other places. It is the cheapest source of energy as currently it is excluded from the market calculations of what it costs. The other is that it is one of the dirtiest sources of energy which produces far more CO2s for each unit of output than oil or gas. However, there is a way to capture the CO2 produced by coal known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). It is expensive and a mechanism has to be found for investments to be made in the clean coal technology for mitigating the effects of its pollution.

Obstacles and opportunities of climate change

The world has woken up to the seriousness of the problem as there are no more arguments for inaction in the face of climate change. From 1990’s onward the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report set the agenda for the Earth Summit in Rio (1992) and Earth + 10 Summit in Johannesburg (2002) conferences for the programme of mitigating effects on climate change. In between, in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed which contains legally binding emission targets. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005. It lays down the international response to climate change, reduction of greenhouse gases, and an implementation plan of clean development mechanism (CDM), promotion of technology transfer, research, public awareness, education and training.

The obstacles and hazards for launching a green revolution, can be termed as lack of universal agreement and political process, coordination, individual, corporations and countries with vested interests and financial constraints. Not enough progress has been made in curbing C02 emissions as the USA and Australia are not signatories to the treaty, and the rapid industrialisation of countries like India, China and other developing countries continues. If they are not part of the solution of the framework agreement, any benefit of reducing GHG’s will be wiped out by their expansion.

Another obstacle is the fact that developed countries are not implementing their commitments of cutting their carbon emissions under the United Nations Convention Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC) and also to supply enough funding and technology to developing countries as they think this has lower priority than economic and social development and dealing with poverty.

Climate change is a global problem and needs a global solution. We have to act together in an interdependent world and will require common framework and agreements with concerted action to face the challenges of climate change. It will require non-governmental organisations, businesses and governments to use their networks across the world to build consensus for working together.

The framework should include solutions for developing cleaner energy and climate security by exploring innovations, renewables, and low carbon initiatives. Among the solutions outlined are biofuels, wind turbines, solar panels, recycling waste, green tax, carbon trading, policy incentives for businesses to offset their carbon emissions.

It will also need a huge public awareness programme for creative solutions of stopping ozone depletion, protecting soil erosion, deforestation and lifestyle changes for reducing C02 emissions.

The economic and sustainable development opportunities for growth and promotion of a greener, cleaner, safer future are tremendous. A new political momentum for streamlining operations, creating a global treaty and global fund to find solutions for environmental challenges for saving our planet should be considered an urgent necessity. The common framework agreement should include:

This framework agreement should include:

A goal to stabilise concentrations of emissions in the atmosphere.

A range of policy tools, including a global cap and trade scheme, regulation and tax which can be used by countries to help create a carbon price and encourage investment in the low-carbon technologies.

Accelerating technological and scientific innovation.

Stronger measures to help poor countries adapt to climate change

To use market mechanisms to incentivise change in the global economy;

To promote greater personal and social responsibility in our every day lives;

To encourage sustained public and private investment in environmental change.


The climate change phenomena is real and time is running out for halting global warming. Radical steps are desperately needed to halt the process now. It would be considered a failure of responsibility if the world stood still and let our planet be destroyed. It is morally and ethically wrong to use any more energy without either replacing it or curbing the greenhouse gases (GHG) as all emissions used will only be adding to the already serious problem. What we need is collective leadership, a vision and a concerted universal action plan which can save us from the catastrophic consequences of climate change. We should engage in meeting the needs of the present generation without harming the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Otherwise we will face the wrath of future generations for failing to own up to our responsibility.

This article has been taken from the introduction of the forthcoming book on climate change by the author Vijay Mehta.

For a summary of conclusions on the Stern Report,
Stearn Review
World Resources Institute (6 May 2003)
Centre for Science and Environment (25 October, 2002)
Global Issues
The 8 Millennium Development Goals are:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by half, 2. Achieve universal primary education, 3. Promote gender equality and empower women, 4. Reduce child mortality, 5. Improve maternal health, 6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, 7. Ensure environmental sustainability, and 8. Develop a global partnership for development.
Reuters, ‘China fears disasters, grain cut from global warming’, (27 Dec 2006)