Cultural, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

World Population and Environmental Catastrophe

We are all aware of, indeed seriously concerned about, the climate change and global warming. The large majority of scientists – environmentalists, climatologists, atmospheric physicists, geophysicists, geochemists, oceanographers and experts of hosts of associated disciplines – as well as overwhelming proportion of human population unanimously hold the view that significant climate change is indeed taking place and that is all due to human activities. But then a small but powerful section of the population, mostly in America, reject this contention and assign changes to just natural activities. Obviously, these people have vested interests in deflecting away human activities.

It is blatantly obvious that human activities are the root causes of climate change. Of course, nature may be reacting to adverse conditions created by human beings, but the initial cause is human activity. One may ask, why is it that earth is reacting so disastrously over the last few decades when it existed in stable conditions for millions of years? The answer is undoubtedly ‘WE ARE’, there are too many of ‘US’ – human beings on the surface of the earth demanding, exploiting and extracting earth’s resources ruthlessly without any regard to its stability and sustainability.

Some 200 years ago or even 100 years ago we were doing what we are doing now – spewing out carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into the atmosphere – but that did not change climatic conditions irreversibly, because not enough of us had been doing the abusive actions. But now more than 7,500 million of us abusing the earth and probably pushed the earth to the threshold or beyond its sustainability.

The large human population of the present day is causing the problems. The United Nations’ estimation of human population from 1050 to 2017 is shown in Figure 1, where the past numbers had been compiled from human records and best estimate values. At no time until 1850 the global human population exceeded 1.0 billion. Around 1750, when Industrial Revolution took place, the Western World started using coal and other natural resources to improve living conditions and consequently the population started to grow significantly. From that time on, not only the standards of living started to improve but also better hygiene and improved medical sciences managed to bring down the death rate and thereby help increase population growth. At the moment the global population is 7.5 billion and growing at the rate of 80 million every year and this number is also growing! Since 1970, the global population had gone up by two-fold!

In 1960s and 1970s there were intense debates about the sustainability of the world population beyond about 3.5 billion, particularly with regard to food production. As estimated at that time that in about 12 to 15 years the population would grow by more than a billion (about 30% of the prevailing population). If so, could the food production be increased by about 30% in that time scale? The global population had been going up at that rate ever since despite all the measures taken to curtail it.

As the population grows, there are extra demands for housing and other socio-economic facilities and consequent shrinkage of arable land. But human ingenuity prevailed – multiple crop production, better yielding crop, crop rotation, disease resistant seeds and now GM crop etc – had improved food production. In fact, food production had been improved so much that food supply for the population is no longer an issue. But that had created more serious problems, particularly environmental problems, which need to be tackled.

Figure 1 Human population from 1050 to 2017

The United Nations have also produced a population growth projection for the years 1950 to 2100, as shown in Figure 2. Many factors affect population growth and incorporating various assumptions in those factors produce widely varying outcomes.  The middle thick green line is the outcome based on best estimate values, whereas the top and bottom lines are those with 95% level of confidence in various assumptions. If corrective actions such as proper family planning, better education and social responsibility of the population etc. are taken, the population growth could be limited to 9.6 billion in 2100, whereas unbridled growth will show a figure of 13.6 billion! The difference between two extremes in population numbers in 2100 is about 4 billion, more than 50% of the present population! That is an alarming prospect indeed!

Figure 2 Human population projection until 2100

Population distribution is not uniform round the world, as shown in Figure 3. At the moment over 60% (4.6 billion) of world population is in Asia and Africa constitutes 1.4 billion (less than 20%). But by 2100 the Asian population may remain same or even decline, whereas African population will shoot up to 4.4 billion, more than three times of the present population. This drastic increase will place enormous burden on the continent and may even lead to violent responses, unprecedented population migration to other continents etc. This situation will arise on top of ensuing environmental deterioration – global warming, extreme weather conditions etc.

Figure 3 Population growth by continents

It is interesting to note that China’s present population of over 1.42 billion would come down to about 1.06 billion by 2100, whereas India’s population would grow from 1.35 billion to 1.46 billion in the same time scale, as shown in Figure 4.  China’s drastic reduction in population is due to lower fertility rates which arise due to older population group. China had imposed two-child policy right from its inception and gradually it is bearing fruit.

Figure 4 Most populous countries

As already mentioned, population growth is multifactorial. But a very important factor is the economic condition of the country. A run away population growth stunts the economic growth of the country and at the same time a low economic growth tends to encourage higher population growth. A family tends to produce more children in a poverty-stricken country so that the children can look after the parents at their old ages. Thus, population growth and poverty form a vicious circle. Examples are Pakistan and Nigeria where large population growths are anticipated. On the other hand, Bangladesh is the country which has broken out of this vicious circle.

Let us get back to the aforementioned theme that climate change is primarily due to the presence of vast population. Coal extraction and its use by limited number of people catering for one or two billion people in the Western World in the 18th or 19th century was not that damaging to the climate. But, as deprived population of the East as well as other decolonised countries’ population are striving to improve living standards from abysmal depths, demand for natural resources like coal, gas, oil as well as minerals have gone up exponentially and environmental degradation followed the suit.

Nature has an inbuilt mechanism of correcting itself when there is any deviation or offset from the norm, which is commonly known as negative feedback. If there is an increase in temperature in the summer, more water from the sea would evaporate and subsequent rain would cool down the area. There are lots of factors acting in opposite phase to the initial condition to stabilise the natural conditions and that is the negative feedback.

But there may be situations when moderate negative feedback condition could breakdown and violent response would ensue. If due to excessive increase in global temperature, arctic and Antarctic ice caps melt, then there would be no seasonal cold stream of water, no moderation of summer temperature etc. In some areas the temperature would become so high that there would be almost spontaneous fire – as in Australia, California and even in Siberia. Condensation would be restricted to limited areas giving large increase in rainfall – as in England now – causing unprecedented floods etc.

So, either we pull ourselves back from the precipice by limiting and then reversing the damage that had already been inflicted to the nature or let nature go berserk threatening the very existence of human life or for that matter any form of life on earth.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist    

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Abnormal of the past becomes normal of the future in climate change age

Sandbag embankment in Khulna, Bangladesh after the cyclone, Fani in 2019

For millions of years, we were in equilibrium with our environment. Over the past 11,500 years, a period in Earth’s history called the Holocene Epoch, there had been a global climatic stability with the average surface temperature fluctuating around one degree Celsius up or down. Our civilisation emerged and progressed against this backdrop of a relatively stable climate.

Melting glaciers

But then something happened that led to the change of whole edifice for worse. The Industrial Revolution that began around 1760 had drastically changed, indeed corrupted, our environment. Today, we live on a planet whose air is polluted, whose water is contaminated and whose soil is chemically altered. Indeed, human influence is so substantial that Earth is no longer in the Holocene Epoch, but rather in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. For comparison, the epoch before Holocene, the Pleistocene Epoch, lasted nearly 2.5 million years.

Our insatiable appetite for energy using fossil fuel to have higher and higher living standards is placing unbearable burden on the planet. Until 1970s there had been little or no concern about the detrimental effects of extraction and use of fossil fuels on an industrial scale, particularly the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.  The current concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, is about 415 parts per million. It is the highest concentration since the Pliocene Epoch, which extended from about 5.3 million to 2.5 million years ago.

We now live in a world where “abnormal” of yester-years have become “normal” of present day. Examples of present day normal that were abnormal some 50 years ago are Bombogenesis, Arctic Amplification, Hell Fire, Pyro-cumulonimbus Storms aka Fire Tornadoes, Heat Waves and Climate Refugees, Derecho, Sneaker Wave, Squall Line, Microburst, Frankenstorm, and so forth.

Under normal conditions, cold air mass sits above the poles in an area called the polar vortex. It is a large, low-pressure zone that exists at two levels of the atmosphere, one in the troposphere, where most of the weather-related phenomena occur, and the other a bit higher up, in the stratosphere, home of the ozone layer that protects us from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. The vortices are seasonal atmospheric phenomena.

However, scientists believe that the phenomenon of Arctic Amplification, which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than rest of the world, distorts the vortex in the North Pole, thereby resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle. This anomaly, a consequence of global warming, was abnormal before the 1970s, but quite normal today.

It is no longer implausible to have record snowfall and record high temperature on the same day. On November 16 of last year, Anchorage in Alaska saw its high temperature top out at plus seven degrees at 2:30 a.m. (Average November temperature in Anchorage is negative five degrees.) Before midnight that day, 21 centimetres of snow fell on the ground. This oddity, as well as 20-25 degrees swing in daytime temperature within 24 hours in the winter months—abnormal few decades ago—are normal now.

Located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions, permafrost is one of the most unique kinds of soil containing more carbon and methane than any other soil on Earth and twice as much carbon as is available in the atmosphere. But as global temperatures rise, Arctic permafrost thaws and greenhouse gases trapped in ice are released. Clearly, permafrost thawing is opening up additional pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming. Besides, ancient carcasses are emerging from the melting permafrost, and with them germs from illness long thought eradicated.

Nowadays, Australia and California are ground zero for out-of-control wildfires. As cataclysmic wildfires continue to rage across Australia, the loss of life—humans and animals—has reached staggering numbers. An estimated one billion animals have been killed so far and approximately 107,000 square kilometres—roughly 70 percent the size of Bangladesh—burned on the east coast.

Climate change is making heat waves longer and more frequent. Temperatures soaring over 50 degrees in many parts of the world are becoming the norm, while nice and comfortable weather has become the exception.

Some other wild weather phenomena due to climate change that were rare or considered abnormal in the past but not anymore are Derecho—a straight-line wind storm with hurricane-force winds; Sneaker Wave—a disproportionately large wave that suddenly appears during a wave sequence; Squall Line—a line of thunderstorms preceding a cold front; Microburst—severe downdraft caused by a thunderstorm; Frankenstorm—remnants of a super storm reinvigorated by an early winter storm and a blast of Arctic air.

Rising temperatures due to climate change is driving out oxygen from our oceans, threatening many species of aquatic life. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, around 700 ocean sites are now suffering from low oxygen, compared with 45 in the 1960s. Lest we forget, oceans are the source of most of the oxygen we breathe.

If the seas ever do rise by even a meter, our children and grandchildren may find themselves living cramped lives with other climate refugees on shrinking continents. “Humorously speaking,” they may even try to adopt the underwater lifestyle of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, provided ocean acidification caused by absorption of carbon dioxide has not already wiped him and his pineapple home from the bottom of the rising seas.

Few years ago, the sight of polar bears roaming the streets of a village or town would have been abnormal. Nowadays, it is normal because the land on which they live and hunt is under siege. As Arctic ice thins from melting, an occurrence linked to global warming, their habitat is shrinking and food supply is decreasing. As a result, they are moving out of their natural habitat and traveling hundreds of miles south of the Arctic region in search for food.

To tackle these and other new normals, every year since 1995, our leaders and/or their disciples have been meeting at various world capitals or cities, some of which are tourist hot spots―Bali, Cancun, Marrakech, Montreal, Paris―debating climate change in climate-controlled halls at the so-called Conference of Parties (COP). In order to feel what it is like living in one of the hottest places on Earth, maybe they should hold a future COP in halls without air conditioners in Jacobabad (Pakistan) during July when the average daytime temperature regularly surpasses 50 degrees.

The hype around these conferences is high, but expectations of the people are low because the proposals are not bold enough and interests of the developing countries are marginalised. Gone is the focus on establishing global “top down” approach for stabilising emissions of greenhouse gases that would be legally binding. On the contrary, focus is on voluntary “bottom up” commitments by individual nations to reduce emissions.

It has become clear that the much-touted Paris Agreement thrashed out at COP-21 for keeping the rise in global temperature this century to two degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even lower to 1.5 degrees is on life-support system. America under Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement as Donald Trump categorises global warming as “fake news!” Subsequent summits, including COP-25 in Madrid two months ago, were stuck in a rut. There is no agreement yet and none is in sight.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres roped in some world leaders, members of civil societies and corporate executives at a climate summit in New York on September 23, 2019 to highlight their plans to bring down greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. As expected, they “prioritised” a laundry list of Action Portfolios without any firm commitment to implement them.

The star of the summit was Greta Thunberg, the 17-year old Swedish activist, who delivered a blunt speech, excoriating world leaders for their inaction. And the shameless world leaders clapped and cheered every time she chastised them with phrases like “How dare you,” or “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” If they had any self-respect, they should have hung their head down in shame instead of applauding. They did not do so because they are “normal” 21st century leaders.

All said and done, what is the end game? Can pre-emptively embarking on a revolutionary change that will lead us away from dependency on fossil fuels and embracing eco-friendly renewable energies save our planet? Can we avoid the risk of a catastrophic failure of our increasingly ephemeral and tightly interlinked global civilisation as we know it? The answer to the above questions is NO, because our leaders lack the collective will to take the decisive steps required to keep our planet liveable for the future generations.

Scientists believe that if we started to cut down on emissions of carbon dioxide even by one percent in 1990, tackling climate change would have been manageable. Instead, we wasted 30 years by inaction. The inertia of the climate system is such that even if we stop introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere right now, the ones already in the atmosphere will keep on warming the Earth for another one to two hundred years before equilibrium is reached. In other words, climate change would keep on accelerating, regardless of what measures we take to mitigate its effects.

We can, however, partially solve the seemingly unsolvable problems we have created by changing the unsustainable lifestyle of many of us. More importantly, we have to work to address the problem of the world’s ever-growing population. We are probably within a few decades of a point in time where the sheer number of people on Earth will make continuing degradation of our planet irreversible. So, it is up to us whether we choose to take actions in a direction which will reduce overall global population.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, Political, Technical

Was Gulf of Mexico oil spill world’s worst man-made disaster?

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill – variously referred to as the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, the BP oil spill, the Macondo blowout and so forth – that began on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect site had been dubbed as the world’s worst man-made environmental disaster by the frenzied American media, local, regional and national politicians and the brazenly self-interested groups. But does it stack up to the reality check?

The accident in the Macondo field (28.74 N and 88.38 W) that resulted in the fatality of 11 workers and casualty of another 17 workers and the total discharge of 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gallons) of oil was, according to tabloid press at that time, the largest environmental disaster in American history. Although BP owned the lease of the Macondo oil site, the oil rig was owned and operated by Transocean (an American company), drilling and safety assessment responsibility was vested on Halliburton (another American company) and the blowout preventer manufacturer was Cameron International.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

Notwithstanding the delegation of operational and safety responsibilities on multiplicity of companies, particularly on American companies, the US District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Carl Barbier, ruled in his judgement in September 2014 that BP was primarily responsible for the oil spill. In July 2015, BP had to agree to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in the United States history. Altogether, as of April 2018, the cost of clean-up, compensation to private individuals, corporate charges and other penalties on BP amounted to a staggering $65 billion. Some people from as far north as Chicago came to claim compensation in Louisiana and Texas from that oil spill (off the coast of New Orleans in Gulf of Mexica)! It was a free-for-all compensation bonanza for the American deplorables! The local press in Texas (which has a very large oil industry), as well as American national press started floating the idea that this was the opportunity to swallow up the oil company BP, which was the 6th largest oil company in the world!  

Following the accident, BP initiated a massive response to protect the beaches, wetlands and estuaries from the oil spill by commissioning skimmer ships, floating booms, controlled burns of oil and using oil dispersant (nearly 1.84 million of US gallons). Although there were several failed attempts to block the well head, finally on 15th July 2019 it was capped. On 19th September 2010, the well was declared totally sealed by the regulators.

Although it took 87 days to plug the well-head, the long-term effects were far less than what local media had whipped up. Within weeks of the leak being plugged, the traces of oil on the surface of the sea and adverse effects on the coastline had disappeared. Now, about nine years after that disaster, the effects had completely gone and the said disaster is all but a distant memory!

Tranquil deep blue sea (Gulf of Mexico)

On a recent cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, I found the area spectacular, virtually a haven of tranquillity, where a number of large cruise ships, each carrying 4,000 or more holiday makers, are operating nearly every day of the week! The water is crystal clear, there is no short-term or long-term effects at all. People in that part of the world are now more occupied with job prospects and worried about global warming, tropical storms and tornedos, extreme rainfall and floods than non-existent consequences from the oil spill.

Just to put this disaster in perspective, it must be pointed out that it was not the world’s largest man-made disaster; it was not even the largest oil disaster. The largest man-made oil disaster occurred in Kuwait during the Gulf war on 10 January 1991 when Iraqi forces deliberately opened the Kuwaiti oil valves as their war strategy. A total of 330 million gallons of oil was spilled, which was one and half times more than the Gulf of Mexico spill. The third largest oil spill occurred in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in June 1979 when the oil well exploded releasing 140 million gallons over a period of ten months.

Accidental release of nearly 32 tons of deadly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC) on December 3, 1984 from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, India was the world’s worst industrial disaster. The MIC is far more toxic and deadly than chlorine gas used in chemical weapons. The official estimates were that more than 3,800 people (men, women and children) died within three days of the accident and over 3,900 suffered severe and permanent disabling injury. Further afield, over 500,000 people were grievously affected by respiratory problems. Although the American Union Carbide chemical company was the major shareholder in this industrial setup, the company mendaciously managed to transfer its corporate responsibility to UCIL as a standalone entity in India and only paid $470 million (equivalent to $845 million in 2018 money) as compensation. For the death toll of nearly 350 times of Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, American company paid 75 times less compensation. That makes the life of an Indian person as 2625 less valuable than that of an American! Even now, more than 35 years later, over 30,000 people are still suffering from chronic effects – heart, lungs and digestive problems – and large areas are contaminated with toxic chemicals.

World’s worst man-made disaster was, what is now known as, the Ecocide in Vietnam when more than 20 million gallons of deadly chemicals were sprayed in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s and 1970s by the US military to flush out the Viet Cong guerrillas and wipe out jungles and their hiding grounds. The herbicide called Agent Orange contained dioxin, a deadly carcinogen which causes not only somatic but also genetic defects like spina bifida and other mutation illness. The Vietnamese government estimated that nearly 400,000 people had died from dioxin exposure and over 500,000 children had birth defects. No compensation of any significance or any remedial action by the US government had ever been made.

Any disaster of any sort – whether man-made or natural – is unfortunate. But when man-made disasters produced by powerful nations get away with impunity, just because the nations are powerful, that smacks at the heart of humanity. One day the perpetrators of such catastrophes could face justice of the day. 

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist