From Madagascar to Kiribati: Climate change gnaws through Earth’s lifelines | Lifestyle News

Madagascar is an island nation located in the Indian Ocean, to the east of the African continent. It is known for its vast biodiversity and is host to a unique array of wildlife. Approximately 80% of its species is endemic and found nowhere else in the world. This extraordinary richness has led the scientific community to refer to Madagascar as the ‘eighth continent.’

Madagascar, with a population of 25 million, has become one of the countries severely impacted by the consequences of climate change. In 2021, it faced the most severe drought ever recorded, leading to acute water scarcity and famine. These hardships predominantly afflicted the southern part of the island and severely impacted lives.

Since the 1980s, the impact of climate change has increasingly made life difficult for the people of Madagascar. The nation has faced extreme weather conditions: intense droughts in periods of dryness and overwhelming rainfall when it is wet. Over the years, multiple cyclones have hit the island nation and brought heavy rainfall and floods. The cyclone of 2022 alone impacted 92,000 individuals, destroyed over 8,000 houses, and caused numerous fatalities.

Madagascar, known for its breathtaking natural beauty, is one of the world’s prime tourist destinations. This unique feature is now under threat due to climate change. Madagascar is facing an escalating cycle of droughts, cyclones, and floods. This raises critical concerns over the sustainability of its unique ecosystems. The question is: how long can these vibrant life systems withstand such relentless environmental pressures? Madagascar exemplifies the pressing challenge of preserving a nation’s natural heritage in the face of global warming and climate change, serving as a poignant reminder of the urgency in addressing these global issues.

A nation of climate migrants

The Republic of Kiribati, situated in the Pacific Ocean, is becoming a nation of climate refugees due to the adverse effects of climate change. Comprising 33 islands, Kiribati spans 811 sq km and has a population of around 1,25,000. Agriculture and fishing are the main occupation of its inhabitants. In recent years, Kiribati has been bearing the brunt of global warming and climate change, significantly threatening its people’s way of life and the nation’s very existence.

Due to rising sea levels, two islands in Kiribati submerged under the ocean a few years ago. Studies suggest that by 2050, the remaining islands might also be engulfed by the sea as significant portions are already being claimed by the ocean. The intrusion of saltwater is exacerbating freshwater scarcity. In 2014, the Kiribati government acquired 20 square km of land in Fiji as a contingency plan. If the islands get completely submerged, relocating to Fiji is envisioned as a solution for the people of Kiribati, who would become climate refugees.

Families in Kiribati are sending their children to more developed countries for education. This is in the hope that they might secure a residency abroad. The Kiribati community, which has thrived on its unique culture for centuries, now faces the grim reality of dispersal due to climate change. This dispersal not only represents a search for better opportunities but also a forced migration, marking a poignant chapter in their struggle against the impacts of global warming.

Combo image of a boy drinking muddy water in Madagascar (Photo: X/@mulindwa_guy) and an atoll of Kiribati. Photo: X/@ajplus

Researchers have provided clear evidence that human activities are the primary drivers behind global warming and climate change. The term ‘global warming’ was first used by scientist Wallace Smith Broecker, who vividly described the situation by saying that humanity is poking the ‘climate beast’ with sticks. Broecker’s insights, supported by evidence, highlighted the role humans play in this phenomenon, making it evident that anthropogenic global warming could lead to catastrophic consequences for the planet.

Global warming is the increase in Earth’s surface and atmospheric temperatures due to the excessive release of greenhouse gases. This warming leads to climate change, disrupting the planet’s ecological balance and potentially causing irreparable harm to its habitats. The primary greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and ozone (O3). These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, preventing it from escaping into space, thereby warming the planet and altering its climate systems. The continued increase in these gases can accelerate climate change, posing significant risks to all forms of life on Earth.

Sunlight that reaches the Earth is partly reflected back into space by clouds and other reflective surfaces. The remaining sunlight is absorbed by the Earth’s surface, its inhabitants, and oceans, which then emit this energy as infrared radiation. This process helps to maintain the Earth’s energy balance. However, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as water vapour, carbon dioxide, and methane, trap some of this infrared radiation, preventing it from escaping back into space.This trapping of heat leads to an increase in Earth’s surface temperature, a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. As a result, the majority of the heat stays close to the Earth’s surface, intensifying global warming and impacting the planet’s climate systems. This mechanism illustrates how human-induced increases in greenhouse gases amplify the natural greenhouse effect, causing the Earth’s temperature to rise more than it would in natural course.

This natural phenomenon has allowed life and various ecosystems to flourish on Earth. However, the current accelerated pace of global warming is not due to these natural processes alone. It is primarily driven by human activities that exceed the natural rate of resource consumption and waste generation, particularly the massive emission of greenhouse gases. This excessive man-induced contribution disrupts the natural balance, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect. This, in turn, escalates global warming and triggers climate change. Thus, while the Earth’s climate has experienced natural fluctuations over millennia, the current rapid changes are largely attributed to human influences, posing a threat to the sustainability of Earth’s ecosystems.

Before the Industrial Revolution, spanning roughly from 1750 to 1850, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide was about 280 parts per million (ppm). However, post-Industrial Revolution, due to human activities and industrial processes, gas emissions began to exceed nature’s capacity to absorb excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

This human-induced escalation shifted the balance, leading to a continuous rise in global temperatures — a stark contrast from the natural, slower-paced changes. For instance, by the 1950s, the atmospheric CO2 concentration rose to 315 ppm, signalling an unnatural acceleration in greenhouse gas accumulation. This increase became more pronounced over the decades; by the 1990s, it reached 360 ppm and 379 ppm in in 2000. By 2016, this concentration had climbed to 403 ppm and by 2022, it further escalated to 417.1 ppm.

During the Industrial Revolution, the significant rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide contributed approximately 50% to the increase in Earth’s temperature. [This does not mean that the Earth’s temperature increased by 50%]. When one ton of carbon is burned, it produces about 3.3 tons of carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide (N2O), another potent greenhouse gas, has 200 times the warming potential of CO2 and accounts for about 6% of the warming impact [in the context of global warming]. Forests and grasslands are major natural sources of nitrous oxide, but its levels are significantly increased by human activities, notably from motor vehicle emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers.Pre-industrial levels of nitrous oxide were around 280 parts per billion (ppb). By 2022, this concentration had risen to 335.7 ppb.

The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is also increasing, contributing to the intensification of global warming. The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture, emissions from gas production facilities, oil refineries, and coal mines significantly increase the atmospheric concentration of methane, thereby exacerbating global warming.

In 2022, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere reached 1911.9 parts per billion (ppb). Methane is about 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. Another contributor to global warming is the depletion of the ozone layer. An ozone molecule consists of three oxygen atoms and is located approximately 20 to 50 km above the Earth. It acts as a shield that prevents most of the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the surface. Approximately 93-99% of the Sun’s ultraviolet rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, playing a crucial role in protecting life on Earth.

Nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are the primary causes of ozone depletion. CFCs, when released into the atmosphere, reach the ozone layer and interact with solar radiation, breaking down to release chlorine atoms. These chlorine atoms then catalyse the breakdown of ozone molecules, leading to ozone layer depletion. The recognition of significant ozone depletion above Antarctica highlighted the global impact of this issue.

Subsequent to this, restrictions were imposed on human-made chlorofluorocarbons. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) began to be used for industrial needs. However, some scientists argue that HFCs also contribute to global warming. Several countries got together in Montreal, Canada, on September 16, 1987 to sign an agreement to regulate the production of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). The agreement is known as the Montreal Protocol.

Following the Montreal accord, the United Nations has been observing September 16 as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer every year since 1994. In 2016, another significant conference was held in Kigali, Rwanda, where over 150 countries, including the United States, India, and China, took part. The meeting discussed the widespread concern over the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

An island in Kiribati. Photo: X/@dolcedior__

To mitigate the severity of global warming and climate change, member countries of the United Nations convened in Kyoto, Japan, on December 11, 1997, and signed an agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol. This protocol was ratified by 192 countries with the objective of reducing the emission of human-made greenhouse gases. Some developed countries like the United States and Canada showed resistance to the agreement. In 2011, Canada officially withdrew from it. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol lasted until 2012. Many consider the agreement a failure in effectively addressing global climate change challenges.

The United Nations organised a climate change conference in Paris on December 12, 2015. The treaty signed came to be known as the Paris Agreement and it officially came into effect on November 4, 2016. Some 193 countries were signatories to this. Since 1995, the UN has been organising climate change conferences and the COP 28 conference was held from November 30 to December 13, 2023 in Dubai. It saw participation from 198 countries wherein it was resolved to ‘completely cease’ carbon emissions by 2050.

The criticism that conferences and agreements are merely ceremonial and lack substantial impact surfaces occasionally. The extent to which countries adhere to the agreements they sign remains a contentious issue. Often, major powers like the United States demonstrate reluctance to assume financial obligations related to climate change mitigation, undermining the effectiveness of these agreements. Despite clear recognition that global warming and climate change are not mere fables but stark realities unfolding before us, there seems to be a tendency to slumber through high-profile meetings. Without decisive and energetic actions, the future could indeed become a graveyard for the diverse life forms on Earth, including humanity. 

 

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