In recent years, we have faced extreme weather events, and in particular floods. There were floods in Pakistan that killed 1,700 people and submerged a third of the country. The devastation was estimated to cost over USD 14.9 billion. Bangladesh suffered what the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) called “one of the worst floodings ever seen”. An estimated 7.2 million people were in need of emergency relief as 94 per cent of Sunamganj town and 84 per cent of Sylhet district were underwater. India was also affected by this and other floods in these years. Floods in the Indian state of Assam killed 197 people there. Malaysia endured the worst flooding in its history.
It’s not just Asia: Heavy rains killed 600 people in Nigeria. Australia faced its wettest year in 164 years. Storm Christoph destroyed homes, submerged cars and led to hundreds of people being evacuated in north-west England and Wales. Torrential rain resulted in flooding devastation in Germany leaving around 200 dead, 700 injured and many missing. One survivor said it left damage looking like a bomb went off. This list is far from exhaustive. Significant flooding events occurred in other countries in recent years too.
Of course, urbanisation, infrastructure and other factors help determine the extent of damage caused by flooding in any given place. But the UNEP says climate change plays a major role. They explain, “Floods are made more likely by the more extreme weather patterns caused by long-term global climate change. Change in land cover – such as removal of vegetation – and climate change increase flood risk.” Meanwhile, a study published recently states, “Flooding affects more people than any other environmental hazard…” and that up to nearly a quarter more people worldwide are at risk of flooding since 2000. The percentage of those affected is expected to considerably rise by 2030. It hasn’t only been floods plaguing the planet in recent years.
In 2022, a bomb cyclone winter storm hit the US and Canada killing at least 59 people and plunging 1.8 million homes into darkness and bitter cold without electricity. The year before, a winter storm in the US state of Texas killed an estimated 700 people during the worst affected week, over four times more than the official state count, according to an assessment by Buzzfeed News. India and Pakistan faced extreme heat, with Ahmedabad city reaching land surface temperatures of about 65°C. Meanwhile, hundreds of forest fires ravaged India’s Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. China experienced its worst heat wave in 60 years. Numerous parts of Europe and Africa faced extreme drought. The US suffered a severe hurricane that killed at least 114 in just one state and Japan faced a typhoon resulting in four million people being evacuated from their homes. The list goes on.
In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which functions under the UN, released a report produced by hundreds of the world’s most reputed scientists stating “it is unequivocal” that the climate crisis is caused by human actions and that it is affecting the whole globe. It said some climate effects were already irreversible; that heatwaves, torrential rain and flooding have become more routine and severe in recent decades; that hurricanes and typhoons appear more regularly; and that drought is increasing in most places.
The report warned that things are on track to deteriorate to disaster if we don’t ward off average global heating above 1.5°C – the maximum global temperature rise determined by scientists to give us a fighting chance against even worse, and more irreversible, effects of climate change. Previously, the IPCC had created a special report on what can be expected if we cross the threshold of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to just 2°C. Apart from even more frequent and intense weather extremes, sea levels are expected to more substantially rise by 2100. This means flooding, destruction of housing and other infrastructure, job loss and other problems for those in coastal areas. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are also expected to increase, as will the regions they affect, farmers will suffer more reductions in crops and food availability and water resources will decrease.
Innumerable people will suffer climate-related risks and poverty at 2°C versus 1.5°C, forests will face degradation and more plant and animal species will go extinct. Oceans will become more acidic and experience decreases in oxygen levels – immensely affecting marine life. And as problems get worse, the report warns we can expect a domino effect – such as with sea levels continuing to rise and ocean acidification from greater carbon dioxide levels worsening the harmful effects of warming.
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the 2021 IPCC report was “a code red for humanity” explaining that already the 1.5°C threshold is “perilously close”. IPCC experts say we still have time to protect ourselves against the worsening effects of climate change, but not much time. The UN states promisingly, “Strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases could quickly make air quality better, and in 20 to 30 years global temperatures could stabilise.” Guterres echoes, “Inclusive and green economies, prosperity, cleaner air and better health are possible for all, if we respond to this crisis with solidarity and courage.” But at the rate things are going, IPCC scientists predict 2°C will be crossed during this century while we, our children, or certainly our grandchildren are still alive.
According to the report, the warming we are now seeing is happening at a rate unmatched in thousands of years with global surface temperatures increasing particularly rapidly since 1970. The global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900 than in any century in thousands of years.
Meanwhile, methane and nitrous oxide greenhouse gas concentrations in the last few years surpassed those over the last 800,000 years, while carbon dioxide levels are higher than at any time in millions of years. Now, scientists are warning we are likely to surpass the 1.5°C limit, at least temporarily, by 2027 thrusting us into “uncharted territory”. All of this means we are living in a potential geological epoch of our own creation – the Anthropocene, or rather the age of time when human activity began to significantly impact the planet.
There is a debate on when the Anthropocene started. Some argue it should be considered to have begun around 50,000 years ago, when woolly mammoths, giant kangaroos and other large animals began to go extinct, with the key culprit believed to be hunting and other human activity. Others point to more recent things in human history such as plastic pollution, coal burning, nuclear bomb tests, modern wars, the clearing of forests for agriculture and the domination of land use for systems linked to the use of animals for meat, eggs and dairy.
Excerpted with permission from Survival at Stake: How Our Treatment of Animals Is Key to Human Existence, Poorva Joshipura, HarperCollins India.