Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Sylhet is a research-based institution of higher education in Bangladesh. It was established in 1986 with the lofty goals of partaking research in physical sciences and engineering, and was the first university to adopt the American credit system. True to its name, during the first couple of decades, SUST secured the 610th rank in the world list of research-oriented universities.
However, the state of affairs now at the university is far from happy and the academic atmosphere is on the decline. A grim situation of physical violence exists in the campus, too. The miscreants from the ruling political party, masquerading as students, have infiltrated the student community and violence by them, often sanctioned by the administration, had broken out within the campus. Altogether academic sanctity and human decency are unknown elements at the moment.
Most of the present turmoil, if not the whole of it, can be placed at the doors of the top administrators, particularly of the Vice Chancellor of the university Mr. Farid Uddin Ahmed, who had shown total ineptitude for governance and disregard for decency.
The utter chaos currently prevailing in SUST stems from the outdated system of selection of a Vice Chancellor (VC). Whereas Dhaka University (DU), Jahangirnagar University and many other universities in the country rely on their respective Senate to select the best candidate from a panel of candidates for the post of VC, SUST is conspicuous by the absence of Senate and relies solely on the Chancellor (the president of the country), who rubber stamps the individual hand-picked by the ruling party. Consequently, a political candidate, rather than an academically suitable one, is chosen for the post. Accordingly, the incumbent VC of SUST was selected in August 2017 for a four-year term and then given a second term last year, although he is grossly unpopular among students and teachers alike.
According to many articles published in this newspaper and elsewhere, Mr. Ahmed does not have the requisite qualifications required to be a full professor or the Vice Chancellor of a university. Appointment or elevation to the rank of a full professor in almost all the major universities in the world requires distinguished academic achievement―outstanding credentials in teaching, research and scholarly publications recognized by scholars within and outside the academic community.
While nothing to show for himself, not even a doctoral degree, earned or bestowed, Mr. Ahmed made his way to the top of the academic pole via the back door, using the greasy pole of academic shenanigan. In an American university, he can at best be hired as an adjunct faculty, also known as “freeway fliers” because they drive from one campus to another campus in order to patch together a mediocre salary teaching one or two courses per semester, usually without any benefit and job security.
A Vice Chancellor, on the other hand, must be an established executive with demonstrable leadership expertise in higher education, a deep knowledge of and ability in academic matters to promote the mission of the university and a clear sense of the diverse challenges of a public university with an outstanding undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. Moreover, the VC should provide moral stewardship, possess uncompromising integrity and unstinted wisdom, with a record of and administrative experience of working in today’s complex, multi-ethnic and global environment. Mr. Ahmed lacks all the above-mentioned qualities and attributes and is, therefore, deemed unsuitable to hold the office of the VC.
The chaos that enveloped SUST should surprise no one. Mr. Ahmed essentially brought this on himself with his clumsy and self-defeating attempts to ignore the legitimate demands of the resident students of Begum Sirajunnesa Chowdhury Hall. They were unhappy, and even angry, because of the way he was running the university and how callous he still is in dealing with their legitimate grievances.
Shamefully, to wield his power and consolidate his reign, he used state terrorism by unleashing the cops who maimed and injured the students with lathi (bamboo stick) charge, rubber bullets and sound grenades. Alumni who donated money to the students for their sustenance were arrested, physicians who were involved in providing emergency medical assistance to those on hunger strike until death were ordered to stop their humanitarian work and mobile bank accounts of protesting students were shut down. He also used numerous ancillary individuals including his 34 cohorts (VCs)―the academic Harlequins at other public universities, and at times crudely manipulated his enablers, to launch a vicious campaign of disparaging the students with their inflammatory and clownish theatrics.
Mr. Ahmed’s lack of respect for those who disagree with him, as well as misogynistic remark about the marriage ineligibility of female students of Jahangirnagar University because they stay out late at night are reprehensible. It can very well be said that a person who lacks civility and self-respect cannot show respect to others.
The renowned science fiction writer and former popular professor of SUST, Dr. Zafar Iqbal aptly described this deformed personality as a “demon.” One could also call him the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz because he does not have a heart. And there is no wizard behind the curtain to give him one.
Mr. Ahmed’s second term as the VC may now be disintegrating, tumbling toward higher entropy, a term used in physics to describe disorder. There are dangers ahead if he does not resign or removed. The university may descend into utter chaos and be paralyzed by the student movement, rendering him head of a dysfunctional institution. Or there is the risk of an erratic, embattled, paranoid VC who feels that he may be going down the gutters anyway and thus will use all available weapons at his disposal to stay in office.
Finally, we feel that educators and education administrators must move away from the culture of sycophancy and presumptuous self-importance. Otherwise, it would only help to perpetuate a culture of corruption, servility and political subservience, which is endemic in Bangladesh.
Dr Quamrul Haider, Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York and Dr Anisur Rahman, a Nuclear Safety Specialist, Manchester, U.K.
In 1920, American poet Robert Frost mused: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.” Frost held “with those who favour fire.” His poetic view unsurprisingly coincides with mainstream scientific consensus about the real prospect of our own annihilation—arising from the incomprehensible scale of problems baked into our future by human-induced climate change. That is why probably a year before his death in 2018, the celebrated British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking issued a grave warning that we must leave the Earth and colonise “other planets in the next century in order to guarantee survival from a variety of threats.”
Now that the much-hyped COP26 has ended “not with a bang, but with a whimper,” it is time to seriously consider Hawking’s suggestion—colonise another planet before the Earth ends in fire.
From The War of the Worlds by HG Wells to The Martian Way by Isaac Asimov, science fiction writers have long been fascinated by the idea of settling on another planet, especially Mars. Science fiction aside, it is indeed the dream of a growing number of scientists and geo-engineers to make Mars inhabitable with some terraforming, a term used to describe transforming another planet into an Earth-like planet.
Why Mars and not the Moon? The Moon, our nearest neighbour in the sky, is impoverished in resources. Furthermore, a day on the Moon is 29.5 Earth days long. Also, the Moon being far less massive than Earth has a weaker surface gravity—about 16 percent that of Earth. For example, a fully suited Apollo astronaut (equipment included) who weighed about 500 pounds on Earth, weighed only about 80 pounds on the Moon.
Why not other planets? The inner planets, Mercury and Venus, are too hot for humans to survive. The Jovian planets, Jupiter outward to Neptune, are gaseous, which means they do not have solid ground to put our feet on.
What makes Mars, which is on the outer boundary of our solar system’s habitable zone, a good candidate is its proximity from Earth’s closest approach every 15 to 17 years is about 54.6 million kilometres, its day-night cycle is almost the same as ours, with abundant sunshine, and it has a 687-day year with Earth-like four seasons that last twice as long. Although gravity on Mars is 40 percent that of Earth’s, it is sufficiently strong to retain an atmosphere and is believed by many to be adequate for the human body to adapt to. Additionally, hydrologic and volcanic processes on Mars are likely to have consolidated various elements into mineral ores that are of interest to an industrial society.
But current conditions on Mars—freezing cold and bereft of such amenities as a breathable atmosphere—are inhospitable for human beings. Nonetheless, in the ancient past, the Red Planet was remarkably habitable, featuring lakes, rivers and an ocean. Things, however, changed dramatically after the planet lost its magnetic field about four billion years ago when its molten iron core froze up. Without a magnetic field, charged particles in the solar wind stripped away Mars’ once-thick atmosphere, eventually reducing it to a thin sliver that could no longer retain sufficient heat. As a result, the planet underwent a reverse greenhouse effect.
Today, the greenhouse effect on Mars is extremely inefficient. Its atmosphere, about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, is not thick enough to act as a thermal blanket to keep the planet pleasantly warm. Average surface temperature on Mars is a frigid negative 55 degrees Celsius and varies between negative 125 degrees near the poles during winter to positive 20 degrees at the equator during summer. In addition, the atmospheric pressure is less than one percent that of Earth’s. Since the atmosphere is excessively thin and cold, Mars cannot support liquid water on its surface, but this does not mean the planet is devoid of it.
Thus, before we colonise Mars, we have to fix the Martian atmosphere and make it hospitable to human life. In particular, we have to raise the planet’s temperature to a comfortable level and make the atmosphere thicker. Several possible ways of accomplishing this task have been proposed. Among the many techniques that are on the drawing board, scientists are seriously considering adding temperature-raising gases in its atmosphere, to melting parts of the Martian polar ice caps using giant orbiting mirrors to reflect sunlight, to making the Martian surface non-reflective.
Introduction of fluorine-based compounds that produce a greenhouse effect thousands of times stronger than carbon dioxide is being considered as a long-term climate stabiliser. There is also the possibility of in-situ resource utilisation, thanks to NASA’s Curiosity Rover discovering subterranean methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
Another element that could play an important role in trapping heat on Mars is aerogel, one of the lightest materials known to humans. Composed of 99 percent air, it is also a good insulator, which is why it is being used in the Rover mission. Using modelling and experiments that mimicked the Martian surface, researchers from the Harvard University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and University of Edinburgh demonstrated that a thin layer of this material increased average temperatures of mid-latitudes on Mars to Earth-like temperatures. Aerogel could also be used to build domes for habitation or self-contained biospheres on the surface of Mars.
If large mirrors can successfully be put into orbit, they will reflect sunlight onto Martian poles, so that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are believed to be trapped inside the ice will melt and initiate the greenhouse effect. The orbital mirror plan has the advantage of continually introducing extra heat into the Martian climate long after the poles have sublimated.
The idea of coating the surface of Mars with dark materials in order to increase the amount of sunlight it absorbs was first proposed by author and scientist Carl Sagan. The materials could be dust from the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos—two of the darkest objects in the Solar System—or extremophile lichens and plants that are dark in colour.
As noted above, Mars does not have a magnetic field strong enough to shield it from the harmful electrically charged particles in solar wind. Scientists at NASA think that it is possible to deflect the solar wind by positioning powerful magnets at one of the five points in space between Mars and the Sun, known as Lagrange Points, where the gravitational forces and the orbital motion of the magnets would interact to create a stable location. Simulations showed that a shield of this sort would protect Mars from the solar wind.
A new study suggests that Mars could be provided with a magnetic field by creating an artificial ring of charged particles around the planet. This could be done by ionising matter on the surface of its moon, Phobos, which orbits the planet quite closely and makes a trip around it every eight hours. The ionised (electrically charged) particles, when accelerated, would generate an electric current that would give rise to a magnetic field strong enough to protect a terraformed Mars.
How soon can Mars be terraformed? Realistically speaking, once technologies are perfected, it would probably take several centuries for the Martian climate to resemble anything even remotely Earth-like. Will our planet remain habitable for such a long time? That is a moot question.
Finally, it is ironic that many of the approaches to terraform Mars represent the global environmental catastrophe currently causing such concern here on Earth. In view of this, opponents consider terraforming Mars to be the ultimate in “cosmic vandalism.” Proponents on the other hand see terraforming as the creation of a new Garden of Eden.
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.
With the evolution of human species over the past tens of thousands of years from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens to Modern Humans, human intelligence and skill continued to develop sequentially through the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and then on to Industrial Revolution.
At the earliest of times, human beings were subservient to some presumed superior intelligence or powers and that subservience was based on pure belief. That belief gradually transformed itself to faith. The faith is a collective, communal mental undertaking. Faith, once established, is difficult to root out as it comes as a joint undertaking, although each one individually holds the strands of that faith. The ownership of the faith is then taken up individually as well as collectively and it becomes part of their collective identity. A ‘faith’ can then easily transmute to a ‘religion’. When the group size becomes large enough or a significant number of groups coalesce together to form a community, the ‘faith’ becomes truly a ‘religion’.
The German historian of religion, Rudolf Otto, in his book, The Idea of the Holy, stated that the feeling of ‘numinous’ was the basis of religion of devotion. This ‘numinous’ feeling placed human beings to subservient position and at the same time uplifted the mystical powers of the unknown to higher levels. This feeling predated the period of human knowledge and understanding and hence, any attempt to explain things such as the beginning of life on Earth and everything on Earth had been passed on to the superior, unknown powers.
Religions of bewildering varieties started to evolve in various parts of the world. Shinto in Japan, Daoism in China, Buddhism in India, Hinduism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia, Paganism in Europe and other places, Abrahamic religions (all three mono-theistic religions) in the Middle East, the Sky-God in Africa and many more evolved at various times on Earth. It is estimated that altogether more than 10,000 religions evolved on Earth, but most of them went extinct or merged with the more dominant religion.
The main point here is that there is virtually no substantiation that any of these religions originated from the presumed creator. However, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism and few more religions do not rely on single creator or divine authority as the source of the religion. Buddhism believes in eternal cycle of life and death until terminated by nirvana.
On the other hand, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a bewildering variety of sects within these religions believe in Yahweh, God or Allah as the creator who is assumed to be all-powerful, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient and incomprehensible. God is ineffable, beyond any query, and any aspersion or derision of this powerful creator is blasphemous. All knowledge derives from Him and all praise to Him. However, Judaism and Christianity have gradually moved away from blind adherence to such theological doctrines. But Islam or more particularly the Sunnis have maintained total reliance of such narrative. Allah created human beings, there is a day of judgement, heaven and hell awaits life after death etc. Human beings are composed of body and soul – body perishes on death but soul returns to God!
As mentioned above, Judaism, the originator of monotheism through Abraham, had moved away from strict submission to scripture dealing with life after death. Rabbi Manis Friedman, dean of the Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies, said in a speech in 2012 that the question of life after death is non-sensical. But he believed that soul is a living thing which goes back to where it came from, probably to heaven; but body perishes and goes back to soil. He also held the view that heaven and hell don’t exist, but if someone wants to believe in these things, he has the right to do so.
The Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and Islam, both Shia and Sunni, believe strongly in life after death; because without it the whole edifice of the religion incorporating the final day of judgement; existence of heaven and hell etc would collapse. The question may be raised that how the body of the dead person would be revived, at what age and in what condition etc would that revival be and it remained unanswered in these religions.
These two religions along with Judaism proclaim that the creator created the vast universe, made every animate and inanimate thing follow certain orders etc. The traditional creator had been assigned in these religions essential attributes – He must be present right from or even before the beginning and will last until or beyond the end of creation. He is all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent and He is not accountable to anybody; He can see past, present and future. Any derogatory or disrespectful remark or any question about God’s authority is blasphemous.
The Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza’s (1632 – 1677), view of God was totally dismissive of all these gobbledegook. He showed through the power of logic that God and Nature are one and the same thing. He started from the fundamental logic that there must be a single self-subsistent entity that must be the creator and the creation. This unity of cause (source) and the consequence (creation) must be there to remove the inexplicable question that if creator created everything, then who created the creator? The creator and creation must be merged into one.
Thus, in one big swoop Baruch Spinoza dismissed the fundamental basis of monotheistic religions that there is a transcendent creator who created everything. He argued that the creator and the creation is one in Nature and it is infinite in its expanse and immanence. He held the view that human being is a composite entity of body and mind; body being the material object in space. The movement of the body is due to physical laws of motion whereas thought is a mental state.
Some years previously, French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) advocated mind-body dualism. Descartes’ (pronounced as Dekorta) philosophical view was that mind and body have separate existence within the body. This led to the belief that whereas body was material in character and would eventually decay away on Earth, the soul is subliminal and lives on eternally! It chimed or had been made to chime with the religious views. This philosophical basis remained extant until Spinoza vigorously opposed such un-scientific epistemology.
The most prominent German philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, produced his most important contributions to phenomenology and existentialism in his book called ‘Being and Time’. In that book, he argued that ‘Das Sein’ meaning ‘Being’ is the reality of our existence here. After being ‘thrown’ into the world, we strive to move from inauthenticity to authenticity. We strive to gain freedom from social milieu, freedom from archaic prejudices and practical necessities that are not our own making and move away from ‘they-self’ into ‘our-self’. Getting the freedom of ‘our-self’ releases us to attain our ‘Being’ here. But all Beings are inter-connected and there is the ‘unity of Being’. Our authenticity arises from ‘unity of Being’ with all things, making the ‘common Being’ with the universe. So, Heidegger was saying effectively that the ontology (the sense of being that exists as self-contained individual) encompasses the ‘unity of Being’.
One may find a strong resemblance, almost an echo, of Tagore’s philosophical discourse, which he argued when he met Einstein in July, 1930 in Berlin that as individual atoms or molecules join up to form a smooth congruous substance, so does the humanity of individuals form the universal humanity and human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth; without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.
Where does the religion fit in the epistemology of existentialism and human truth? Religion, any religion for that matter, is fundamentally dogmatic, sectarian and divisive. The edifice of religion is based on unproven axiomatic assumptions and social provincialism. It is no wonder that when Albert Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he answered that he believed in Spinoza’s God “who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind”.
Thus, he upheld the belief of God as the Nature itself that provides universal humanity.
On July 14, 1930, Albert Einstein,the most prominent physicist of the 20th century and a Nobel Laureate, welcomed at his home at the outskirts of Berlin, Germany the most prominent Indian philosopher, musician, poet and a Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The two proceeded to have one of the most stimulating, intellectually challenging conversations in the history of science and philosophy exploring the age-old divergence between scientific views and religious perception. This conversation took place at the juncture when a new Renaissance was sweeping across India and a brutal reality was knocking on the door in Europe. The two intellectual giants from two continents representing two different human achievements slogged it out.
A part of the conversation which is modified here a bit was as follow:
EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?
TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the universe is Human Truth.
Let me take a scientific fact to explain this — Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may feel continuous and solid. Similarly, humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to human world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.
EINSTEIN: There are two different perceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity; (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.
TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.
EINSTEIN: This is the purely human perception of the universe.
TAGORE: There can be no other perception. This world is a human world — the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it Truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences.
EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.
TAGORE: Yes, one of eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realized the Supreme Man who has no individual limitations through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.
EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?
EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.
EINSTEIN: I agree with regard to this perception of Beauty, but not with regard to Truth.
TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through Man.
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove that my perception is right, but that is my religion.
TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness — how else could we know Truth?
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. Anyway, if there is a reality independent of man, there is also a Truth relative to this reality; and in the same way the negation of the first engenders a negation of the existence of the latter.
TAGORE: Truth, which is one with the Universal Being, must essentially be human, otherwise whatever we individuals realize as true can never be called truth – at least the Truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic, in other words, by an organ of thoughts which is human. According to Indian Philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute Truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words but can only be realized by completely merging the individual in its infinity (সীমার মাঝে অসীম তুমি). But such a Truth cannot belong to science only. The nature of Truth which we are discussing is an appearance – that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind and therefore is human, and may be called maya or illusion.
EINSTEIN: So according to your perception, which may be the Indian perception, it is not the illusion of the individual, but of humanity as a whole.
TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore, the entire human mind realizes Truth; the Indian or the European mind meet in a common realization.
EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings, as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it.
TAGORE: In science we go through the discipline of eliminating the personal limitations of our individual minds and thus reach that comprehension of Truth which is in the mind of the Universal Man.
EINSTEIN: The problem begins whether Truth is independent of our consciousness.
TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man.
EINSTEIN: Even in our everyday life we feel compelled to ascribe a reality independent of man to the objects we use. We do this to connect the experiences of our senses in a reasonable way. For instance, if nobody is in this house, yet that table remains where it is.
TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the Universal Mind. The table which I perceive is perceptible by the same kind of consciousness which I possess.
EINSTEIN: If nobody would be in the house the table would exist all the same — but this is already illegitimate from your point of view — because we cannot explain what it means that our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack — no primitive beings even. We attribute to Truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind — though we cannot say what it means.
TAGORE: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time, it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.
In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper, literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.
EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!
TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.
Although it may outwardly seem that these two great intellectual giants of the 20th century held divergent and sometimes conflicting views on science and spirituality, truth and beauty, but following deeper inspection, one would find that their views were remarkably similar and almost convergent.
For example, when Einstein was asked some years later whether he believed in God, Einstein replied that he believed in Spinoza’s God. His full answer was, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world; not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind.”
Compare that with Tagore’s view on spiritual being. He said that as atoms join up to form a continuous solid substance, so do individual humans join up to form the universal humanity in human universe. Truth of the universe is the human truth. Without humans, beauty and truth are irrelevant.
Thus, Einstein’s God (God of Spinoza) and Tagore’ God (God of human universe in harmony) are remarkably similar.
(This article is an adaptation of the write-up by Maria Popova on ‘When Einstein met Tagore’, dated 27 April 2012 )
Human-induced climate change is ravaging our planet and every country, including Bangladesh, is struggling to deal with its impacts
As the world battles record-shattering heat waves, calamitous droughts, deadly floods and landscape-altering wildfires, a roughly 4,000-page report released on August 9, 2021 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spells out, in unequivocal terms, how anthropogenic climate change is ravaging our planet. Prepared by IPCC’s Working Group I and described by its authors as a “code red for humanity,” the report warns that global temperatures will likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040 if warming continues at the current rate. This is the threshold value agreed upon in 2015 at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris.
Key takeaways from the IPCC report
> Climate change is a reality and it is going to get worse
> Humans are responsible for the “widespread, rapid and intensifying” effects of climate change, and some of them are irreversible
> Extreme weather is on the rise and will keep getting worse
> Oceans have warmed, their acidification has increased, and there has been a drop in Arctic sea ice
> Glaciers are melting at an accelerated pace
> Sea-level rise will be worse than once thought
> We must cut greenhouse gas emissions now, before brutal weather becomes more prevalent and more destructive
> Tipping points, or cut-offs—which, when exceeded, will set off self-perpetuating irreversible loops in the natural world—have a “low likelihood,” but they cannot be completely ruled out
After the report was made public, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” Many media outlets did not mince words to describe the nightmarish scenario painted in the report about the future of our planet. The frontpage headline in The New York Times read, “A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us.” The Atlantic described the crisis with two words: “It’s Grim.” One of the authors of IPCC’s 2001 report told CNN, “Bottom line is that we have zero years left to avoid dangerous climate change, because it’s here.” On the other hand, in an opinion piece in the conservative The Wall Street Journal, a physicist expressed scepticism about coverage by the media. He wrote, “Despite constant warnings of catastrophe, things aren’t anywhere near as dire as the media say.”
Eight years in the making, the report essentially validates the seemingly bleak future that many of us foresaw with trepidation. It also confirms what scientists had predicted even before coal-fired power plants were built. In 1856, American scientist Eunice Foote was the first to describe the extraordinary power of carbon dioxide—the driving force of global warming—to absorb heat. The first quantitative estimate of climate change influenced by carbon dioxide was made in 1895 by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist and Nobel laureate.
For the general public, physicist James Hansen of NASA sounded the alarm about climate change after his testimony to the US Congress in June 1988 on the detrimental effects of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Yet in 1995, the IPCC is on record stating that the ability to connect climate change to human activities is “currently limited.” This time around, the IPCC admits that they can now link recent natural disasters with climate change in a way that they have not been able to before. What an about-turn!
The latest IPCC report is a stark reminder of what we are experiencing today—scorching summers roasting millions of people worldwide, out-of-control wildfires, protracted droughts, widespread famine, killer storms, torrential rainfall followed by cataclysmic floods, and more. These are among the most visible and damaging signs that the Earth’s climate is changing for the worse as a result of burning fossil fuels. And all these weather-related events are happening because the world warmed by a “mere” 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. Clearly, with each passing day, these events will become more intense, turbocharged, amplified, and worse.
Thanks to the report, many Republicans in the US Congress, who for decades disputed the existence of climate change, no longer deny that the Earth is heating up because of greenhouse gas emissions. Or perhaps the statement from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—that July was the world’s hottest month ever recorded—forced them to acknowledge climate change. However, they are still unwilling to abandon fossil fuels.
Since the 1980s, emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide, have ballooned to unprecedented levels despite repeated, and at times frantic, warnings from scientists about “civilisation-shaking” catastrophes. Scientists at the International Energy Agency say that emissions of carbon dioxide “are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021, the second-largest increase in history, reversing most of last year’s decline caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Climate is controlled by how much of the Sun’s heat arrives at and remains trapped near the Earth’s surface. Because the Sun is expected to shine at the minimum for another five billion years, we can envisage no major changes in the incoming heat for many thousands of years to come. Thus, the changes we will see in climate from now until 2050, a cut-off year determined at COP21 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, will mostly depend on how much of the arriving heat is retained by the Earth’s surface.
Having said that, even if the goals of COP21 are met, the Earth will still be warmer in the future than it is today and the warming trend will continue because it takes a long time for the Earth’s climate to adjust to the changes in its energy budget, resulting from increased greenhouse gas concentrations. Besides, if emissions of carbon dioxide dropped to zero tomorrow, climate change will continue to play out for centuries because the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere have lifetimes of hundreds and thousands of years. Given this circumstance, we can still keep warming below catastrophic levels by going carbon negative together with zero emission. Carbon negative means removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than adding to it.
Climate change and Bangladesh
As for Bangladesh, it is among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Although the global share of carbon dioxide emissions by Bangladesh is a meagre 0.21 percent, climate change has already been inflicting untold miseries on its people. The government has identified floods, cyclones, droughts, tidal surges, tornadoes, river erosion, water logging, rising sea level and soil salinity as major hazards that are behind a shift in migration and increasing poverty.
Bangladesh has a hot climate, with summer temperatures that can hit 45 degrees Celsius. In a world that is hotter by 1.5 to two degrees Celsius, heat waves will break new records, with more than half of summers being abnormally hot. Northern Bangladesh will enter a new climatic regime, with temperatures above levels not seen in the past 100 years. In light of this fact, the government is rightfully demanding that industrialised nations, who are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, reduce their planet-warming pollution without further delay, compensate poor countries for the damages caused, and fund them so that they can be better prepared for a perilous future.
In the past few years, the Bangladesh government made significant advances in disaster risk reduction. It has constructed a series of multi-purpose buildings that are used as storm shelters during cyclones, significantly reducing mortality. Notwithstanding, the damage and loss of income due to climate change is on the rise. Nevertheless, if Bangladesh wants to become a middle-income country, the government should focus on mitigation along with adaptation, and move away from coal-fired power plants.
On a different note, the amount of methane emitted by Bangladesh is so high that the country is now becoming a significant contributor to environmental degradation. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can cause 28 times as much warming as an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide over a period of 100 years. According to IPCC, the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher now than at any time in the last 800,000 years.
Melting of glaciers and ice sheets
A few words about the effects of global warming on one of the primary sources of fresh water are in order here. Out of the 71 percent of water that make up the Earth’s surface, the vast majority, over 96 percent, is non-drinkable saline water in seas and oceans. Just 3.5 percent is fresh water, but a minuscule amount—approximately one percent—are in freshwater lakes, streams and in the atmosphere. The bulk of the fresh water, almost 70 percent, is trapped in ice and glaciers. While most of the ice is in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland, some are scattered as glaciers in the mountains around the world.
The glaciers we see today are remnants of the past Ice Age, an alternating period of melting and freezing that lasted about a million years. Yielding only to the warmth of the Sun’s rays, these giant rivers of ice grind their way to the sea, crushing everything in their path, scouring the landscape, shaping mountain peaks and carving broad valleys.
Considered to be the “gold standard for measuring climate change,” glaciers are a natural data bank. In between their thick layers of compacted snow, glaciers hold records of volcanic eruptions, chemicals in the air and changes in the atmosphere. They reflect variations in the pattern of weather and climate over long periods of time.
Glaciers feed many of the world’s important river systems, including the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus, and directly or indirectly supply millions of people with food, energy, clean air and incomes. Communities living at the foothills of large mountains use glaciers as a source of water.
Across the high mountain region from the Hindu Kush to the Himalayas, which stretches from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, air temperatures have risen by nearly two degrees since the start of the 20th century. In response, glaciers are melting and retreating, permafrost is thawing and weather patterns are becoming more erratic, disrupting previously reliable water sources for millions and triggering more natural disasters. Scientists are worried that the impacts will hit not just those living in the mountains, but also millions of people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan living in the river valleys below.
Melting of glaciers has another effect. More melting means more water pools in lakes on top of the glaciers or at their lower snouts. Since the late 1970s, the number of glacial lakes across the Himalayas in Nepal has more than doubled. These lakes are often growing so fast and hold so much water that they have gushed through the rock piles holding them back, resulting in devastating floods. Additionally, steep slopes that were locked in place by frozen soil have thawed, causing rockfalls, collapsing terrains, avalanches and mud slides.
Because of global warming, ice sheets are melting at breakneck speed and will continue to melt. Indeed, a historic heat wave in July melted ice in Greenland large enough to flood the entire state of Florida with well-nigh two inches of water. At the same time, extreme flooding from higher sea level will continue to get more frequent, and the sea level itself will continue to rise well into the next century, mainly because of thermal expansion due to the amount of heat the oceans have absorbed so far.
Widespread loss of ice sheets will likely alter climate in other complex ways. For example, their white surfaces help to keep our climate relatively mild by reflecting the Sun’s rays. When they melt, darker exposed surfaces will absorb and retain more heat, thereby raising global temperatures.
It is now a truism that global warming begets more warming. Therefore, the effects of climate change will worsen with every fraction of a degree of warming. Even if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the kinds of extreme weather events we are experiencing this year, in winter and summer alike, will become more severe and more recurrent. Beyond 1.5 degrees, scientists say the climate system will be unrecognisable. In all likelihood, it will lead to the disappearance of small island nations and low-lying coastal countries, as well as unleash tens of millions of climate refugees upon an unprepared world.
What will be the response of our leaders and policymakers after they read the IPCC report? It will not be an exaggeration to say that world leaders, who are under tremendous pressure to deliver on promises made at COP21, cannot distinguish the divide between rhetoric and reality. Hence, at COP26, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland later this year, we should not expect any firm commitment from them to save the world. Instead, their speeches will be like the ones given at past climate-related summits—”full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Finally, the well-researched and well-intentioned report on climate change and recommendations for mitigation and adaptation contained therein can, metaphorically speaking, be characterised as a “recovery mission” rather than a “rescue mission.”
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.