Earth Day’s focus has always been on the local environmental issues, the global problems are blatantly ignored. It is high time that we understand the damage inflicted to all the forms of life.
The 22nd of April each year is observed as Earth Day, an initiative which was introduced by a visionary politician, Senator Gaylord Nelson of the US, way back in 1970. The first Earth Day celebration involved about 20 million people across the US who gathered in towns, cities and rural areas to discuss environmental problems affecting them and the human society at large, and to come up with solutions which they resolved to implement. Over time, Earth Day has spread across the globe and events are held by communities and even Governments in most countries to highlight the importance of protecting our planet in the face of diverse threats faced by the earth’s ecosystems. However, as many have stated, Earth Day and its purpose should really be observed every day of the year.
The largest Earth Day celebrations anywhere in the world are held in Dallas, Texas, where in 2017, an estimated 130,000 people participated in a stimulating set of activities. The total number of those who attended Earth Day 2018 in Dallas may turn out to be higher, once estimates are available. This remarkable development is the result of the efforts of just one individual, Trammell S Crow, a unique philanthropist who spends a great deal of time and resources to focus on the protection of this planet. His commitment is noteworthy in a period when the US Government seems to oppose anything that is considered green. Trammell, himself a Republican says, “It’s not easy to be a green Republican.” He provides an example which persons with wealth all over the world should emulate.
One major feature of Earth Day 2018 was a set of events related to the oceans. For this writer, it was a unique experience to join hands with an icon like Sylvia Earle and participate in various events. Sylvia Earle is one of three people in the world who has been to the deepest point under the sea. She has devoted her life not only to a study of the ocean, its various ecosystems and wildlife, but has been a crusader against human beings dumping plastic and other forms of waste across the globe. She has campaigned vigorously against overfishing, which threatens the survival of many species. More than any other individual, she has dedicated her life to informing human society and stirring our collective conscience on the damage we are wreaking on the ocean and its vast resources.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly highlighted in its reports the danger of abrupt and irreversible changes, with potentially catastrophic results. For instance, if any part of the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets were to break away and collapse, we could face sea-level rise of several metres, which would completely submerge several small island states and low-lying areas such as large parts of Bangladesh. Even with the low probability of such an occurrence, there is high confidence that sustained global mean warming greater than a threshold would lead to the near complete loss of the Greenland ice sheet. The threshold which could trigger such an outcome is greater than about 1°C but less than about 4°C of average temperature increase with respect to pre-industrial temperatures. If we do nothing to mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the world would be heading to a temperature increase of over 4°C. At the same time, the Arctic Ocean would continue to lose ice cover, and under a business as usual scenario by September 2050 it may be left with no ice cover.
Since the beginning of industrialisation and with rapid population growth, we have consistently neglected the state of our oceans and treated them as a dumping ground for the large volume of waste generated by the global economy, and with over-exploitation of marine resources. Yet, the role of the oceans is crucial for the survival of species not only under water but also many of those on land. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN General Assembly and most national governments include SDG 14 which relates to life under water, but with major implications for life outside water.
Oceans create half the oxygen we use to breathe and for other human activities. Oceans also provide about 17 percent of the animal protein consumed by human beings, or almost 20 per cent of that protein consumed by three billion people. Further, oceans are home to species and ecosystems which are valuable for tourism and recreation. The Great Barrier Reef is a treasure which attracts millions of tourists, and the Australian Government has, therefore, allocated large scale funding for its protection not only to safeguard this precious ecosystem but as an economic imperative involving billions of tourist dollars. The ocean’s rich biodiversity also offers resources for innovative drugs. The impacts of climate change, particularly with an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme events, damage coastal and marine resources and have adverse effects on shipping activity, which covers 90 per cent of the goods used by the world.
Human-induced climate change has other direct impacts on the oceans. Almost 93 per cent of heat accumulating in the atmosphere as a result of warming is absorbed by the oceans, leading to warmer temperatures, which have already penetrated to a depth of 700m, with serious implications for marine ecosystems and marine life. Climate change is also leading to acidification of the oceans. Around 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted since industrialisation began has been absorbed by the oceans leading to acidification, which too has harmful consequences for marine ecosystems and marine life.
Earth Day in the past has generally focussed on local environmental problems but human beings have ignored damage to the global commons and particularly the vast oceans which cover the bulk of this planet’s surface and constitute a vital part of the earth’s water cycle. Earth Day — and every day of the year — should perhaps focus on efforts at least in proportion to the surface area and the wealth of life under the oceans and the magnitude of water they contain.
The time has come when human society fully understands the enormous damage that we are inflicting to all forms of life on this planet and its precious ecosystems. A recent projection has pointed out that by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean than the total quantity of fish. This is a frightening prospect. It is urgent and essential to mobilise the youth of this world to assume leadership for change in a direction by which sustainability becomes reality and not merely a subject for lofty speeches.
(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)
Writer: R K Pachauri
Courtesy: The Pioneer