One world one family | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 17, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 17, 2019

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One world one family

There was once a world, with the sky and oceans as blue as sapphire, and the air, as pleasant and breezy as you could imagine. This was what scientists think our nearest neighbour planet Venus was like, early in the history of the solar system. Earth and Venus are of similar size, and despite being a bit closer to the sun, Venus had a perfectly normal (for us!) surface temperature. Somewhere down the line though, it all went horribly wrong for Venus. It will surprise you to know that the common element in both the planets’ tale is Carbon.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start; carbon dioxide is good for the planet— in moderation. In the same way that eating some Puran Dhaka’r kacchi is good sometimes, but if eaten every day, your days are numbered. You see, carbon dioxide is a planet’s thermostat control; it maintains a set temperature for the entire planet. Lack of it would make our planet a giant ice ball, and too much would make the planet resemble all the descriptions of Hell that you have ever read, pretty much like Venus.  

So why all this talk of Venus you wonder? Simple, if we don’t bring immediate changes to our lives, and our civilisation at large, a Venus version 2 could very well be our ultimate destiny. Most people are vaguely aware of the term ‘global warming,’ but many don’t know the full extent of it, and worse, some actually believe that global warming is a hoax or conspiracy theory cooked up by eco-fanatics. So, let us take a moment to really understand what global warming is, and perhaps, get a clearer picture of what really is happening around us.

Global warming, as its name suggests, is the world slowly heating up, and its heating up because we burn fossil fuels. This is the most basic description you will come across, but this really doesn’t paint a picture of the scale of the problem. That is because global warming is a domino effect of one bad thing leading to one even worse. And now, let’s go over the suspects, kicking off with the fuel that powered the start of modern civilisation.

Most will agree that our abusing of the environment started with the industrial revolution way back in the 18th century, and that is still correct for the bulk of the damage that has been caused. Before this, we assumed the world was clean and practically untainted by rampages of human activity. But it would shock you to know that we have been damaging the environment much earlier than that. Recent studies of ice cores from Greenland suggest we have been playing the planetary homicide game since the time of Ancient Rome, or about 100 B.C. The contamination was mostly methane, and lead, due to the agriculture, livestock and mining activities that was prevalent at the time.

But like I said previously, the true culprit for our planet’s near demise has been the unchecked “progress” that was kicked off with the start of the industrial civilisation. Don’t get me wrong, The Industrial Revolution has yielded a new way of living, like food, energy, sanitation — everything we take for granted in this day and age. And the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution was coal, possibly the single worst possible method of power generation.

Back then, we were completely in the dark about the hazards of burning coal, and other fossil fuels that soon joined to power the industries — we were too busy thinking of extending our progress as much, as quick, and as far as possible. It’s only in recent years that we’ve started assessing the kind of impact that we’ve had on the environment as a direct result of this exponential growth. Humans came close to viably creating alternative power sources, namely solar power concentrators, on two occasions nonetheless. Unfortunately, these were phased out on both occasions due to falling prices of coal and oil. Fast forward to modern times, and it is estimated, in a 2018 study, that we are now dumping close to 37.1 GIGATONNES of CO2 annually. Do the math, add the zeroes, (37,000,000,000 tonnes) and let that number sink in for a minute. Unlucky for us, the chief by-product of our civilisation happens to be the chief temperature regulating gas of the planet.

Our next suspect is unchecked deforestation, something very apt for the current situation, what with all the news (or lack thereof) of the fires raging in The Amazons and other rainforests around the globe. Now, if it were just naturally occurring fires, then we could have just chalked it up as the work of mother nature, and mother nature is all about balance, so the forests would be replenished. However, that is not the case. As civilisation progressed, our logging activities have only increased. While we are aware of the extents and consequences of deforestation, the true scale of horror that deforestation poses are still misunderstood.

The basic understanding is that if we cut trees, then we lose our oxygen factories. However, loss of tree cover is a major contributor to global carbon emissions because trees capture atmospheric carbon as they grow. Unfortunately, when these trees are destroyed by forest fires, or burned, cut and cleared for agriculture or land extensions, carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere and stored for decades is released back out instantly. Additional emissions are released as these trees rot, or are burned. All told, deforestation by itself causes about 10 percent of worldwide emissions. And the sad thing is that the contributions of deforestation and forest degradation to climate change have received much less attention than fossil fuel emissions.

According to Global Forest Watch, forest related emissions have actually gone up since the Paris Agreement, and tropical forest loss currently accounts for 8 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, if tropical deforestation were to be regarded as a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter globally.

Aside from the climate damage that deforestation tolls, the other is the endangering of the biodiversity on this planet. Deforestation diminishes the natural habitat of many plants and animals, some rare enough to go extinct. This loss of species is estimated by scientists to be around 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than what would be if the extinction rate was anything natural. And do remember that Earth’s biodiversity is so complex that there are hundreds if not thousands of species of living things still waiting to be discovered. And experts calculate that between 0.01 and 0.1 percent of all these species will become extinct each year. That translates to about 200 to 2,000 extinctions annually, if we assume that there are 2 million species on our planet, which is quite a conservative number. In essence, we could be losing any number of undiscovered species before they are ever found. And if you assume that what you don’t know won’t hurt you, you’d be wrong as many of the world’s wonder drugs are derived from previously undiscovered plants or animals. 

The rates of deforestations are an equally depressing statistic. Even though Brazil is currently getting a lot of deserved flak for the Amazonian deforestation, considering the total area of land cleared, it isn’t even in the list of top twenty offenders. The unfortunate title for worst cases of deforestation belongs to Honduras, with Nigeria and The Philippines running second and third place respectively. These places have lost over 30 percent of their total respective forest cover. As for the Amazon forest fires, while by no means record breaking, the rates at which the fires are starting definitely is. And adding further fuel to this fire is the country’s political state, which seems to favour political achievements over the potential future of the human race, it seems. Things on our side of the world aren’t faring well either. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 11.1 percent, or about 1,442,000 ha of Bangladesh is forested. Of this, 30.2 percent, or about 436,000 ha, is classified as primary forest, which are the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forests. Bangladesh had 237,000 ha of planted forest.

Between 1990 and 2010, Bangladesh lost an average of 2,600 ha, or 0.17 percent forest cover per year. So, in the span of a decade, Bangladesh ended up losing 3.5 percent of its forest cover, or around 52,000 ha. Take a moment, and think about all the flora and fauna that are disappearing at this very moment —there might come a day that the very Royal Bengal Tiger, which is currently sitting at a ridiculously low number of around 440, we cheer with as a mascot may just be found at our neighbour competitor’s shores.

Remember when I said that Global Warming has a domino effect that keeps making things worse? Global warming doesn’t just stop at warming the planet up to uncomfortable levels. It also starts melting polar ice caps, raises the temperature of the ocean, and melts permafrost, and increases the rate and intensity of storms.

Too much info and too quick? Let’s go over them one at a time, starting with the heating of the oceans. Scientists estimate that even a 1.5 to 2-degree increase in ocean temperature could spell bona fide trouble for life. For one thing, warmer oceans trigger more powerful storms, damage marine life, and raise the sea level, not to mention destroy marine life, including the very organisms responsible for our oxygen production.

Next comes the melting of ice caps and glaciers, which is perhaps the most dangerous, as this leads to more dominoes falling. First off, snow is an excellent reflector for sunlight, and in turn, the heat. That means, the more ice melts, the less area we have to reflect sunlight, and the more water body increases, the more heat is absorbed, which in turn, creates problems already discussed above. Secondly, most of the frozen ice is actually freshwater, while the oceans are comprised of saltwater. If this newly melted freshwater mixes with, and upsets the water salinity balance, it could severely impact the underwater ocean currents responsible for proper distribution of heat around the globe. If not for these currents, the Earth could never sustain the once lush atmosphere, and more importantly, life itself.

And finally, the ice is also exposing permafrost to the outside elements. Permafrost is essentially ground rich in organic matter like dead leaves and plants from thousands of years ago. Until recently, these were safely encased in ice, but now that they are exposed, these organic compounds are rotting, releasing vast amounts of CO2 and Methane, a more potent greenhouse gas.

Feeling depressed? Well, you should. We all should. The Earth is not just some rock spinning around a hot ball of gas. The nature of things is so complex, that even with our collective intelligence, we would probably never truly understand the intricate balance that is the Earth and the Solar System. Despite being residents on the planet for about 200,000 years, an insignificant amount when compared to the age of the Earth, we may have done more damage than the Earth has witnessed, maybe even irreversible. The real astonishing factor is that we as a species knew of our actions and its consequences, but valued fickle achievements and monetary greed over the sustainability of this planet, our one and only home in the vast and seemingly lonely cosmos, and the only one we know of that can host life. If you want to know how bleak our situation is, you only need to look up the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for 2019 to know where we stand. The following is a summary of the IPCC report for 2019—

“The human rights community, with a few notable exceptions, has been every bit as complacent as most governments in the face of the ultimate challenge to mankind represented by climate change. The steps taken by most United Nations human rights bodies have been patently inadequate and premised on forms of incremental managerialism and proceduralism which are entirely disproportionate to the urgency and magnitude of the threat. Ticking boxes will not save humanity or the planet from impending disaster. This report has identified a range of steps that should be taken in order to begin to rectify this failure to face up to the fact that human rights might not survive the coming upheaval. It has also sought to highlight the fact that the group that will be most negatively affected across the globe are those living in poverty. Climate change is, among other things, an unconscionable assault on the poor.”

While we can comfortably kiss the idea of reverting the planet to its original state goodbye for now, what we can do instead is start cutting down our environmental abuse right now, and try our best to power through the hardships that will befall us because of our own greed. The new hope is that one day, far into the future, we would learn to treat the Earth as the precious gift it is, and live and grow, without having to destroy anything to get it.

 

Photo: LS Archive/Sazzad Ibne Sayed

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