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

Can Biden save our planet from overheating?

Biden in climate summit

Every year, the Earth Day comes and goes while we continue to dig ourselves deeper and deeper toward climate and ecological disaster. Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, we have pushed our planet to the brink of climate catastrophe, so much so that for those of us born in this century, every year has been warmer than the 20th-century average with last year rivalling the hottest year in modern times.

For the first time in recorded history, concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured last month at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was more than 420 parts per million. It is a distressing milestone, especially if we note that the planet has already warmed by more than one degree Celsius around halfway to doubling pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide. 

Then there is methane, a greenhouse gas that is a shape-shifter. The rapid rise of methane from an obscure trace gas to a major player in forcing climate change is often ignored by the policy makers, although global methane concentration in the atmosphere is now nearly two and a half times the pre-industrial levels of roughly 770 parts per billion. Methane may account for a minuscule portion of the greenhouse gases, yet it is extremely effective at trapping heat from the Sun. Over a period of 20 years, it is 80-85 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Armed with these alarming data, on this year’s Earth Day, President Joseph Biden of the United States of America invited 40 world leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for a two-day virtual summit to discuss plans on how to save humankind from the looming “existential threat” resulting from anthropogenic climate change. At the summit, he urged them to combat climate change collectively in order to prevent the planet from heading toward the climate tipping point—a critical threshold where a tiny change could push the climate system into a completely new, irreversible state. Some scientists believe that a “global disaster” is already unfolding because the climate may have crossed the tipping point. 

Biden announced an ambitious plan to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to half their 2005 levels by 2030, reaching zero emissions no later than 2050. Although the proposed cut was part of the Nationally Determined Contribution under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the White House did not provide a specific road map outlining what has to be done to implement the plan. Nevertheless, the target of 50 percent cut by the end of the decade will entail a steep and rapid decline of fossil fuel use in virtually every sector of the US economy. And that will require, among other things, producing electricity from renewable sources, cars and trucks running on electricity, phasing out chemicals used in refrigeration and air-conditioning that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, and using greenhouse gas removing technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

While a broad spectrum of people in the USA and elsewhere welcomed Biden’s plan as an encouraging starting point, environmental activists argue that his aggressive goals to switch to clean energy by 2030 is “nowhere near enough” to keep our planet habitable. According to them, as the “biggest historical polluter,” the USA needs to aim for at least a 70 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels—the high point for US emissions—if he wants to achieve zero emissions by 2050. More importantly, they are justifiably concerned that Washington’s history of backing out of or failing to ratify climate commitments will jeopardise support for Biden’s plan.

To the conservatives and anti-environmental groups, Biden’s plan is a political hot air. They fear that if implemented, there will be massive destruction of wealth, surrender of America’s international trade advantages, creation of a huge intrusive government-run bureaucracy, inhibition of free markets and a precipitous drop in the living standards of most Americans. A cadre of Republicans beholden to Donald Trump and the ultra-right Fox News even claimed, albeit falsely, that Biden will take hamburgers and steaks off the menu as part of his plan.

It is, therefore, an open question whether Biden’s new policies will survive the American political system. In the past, policies on climate change have repeatedly shifted when Republicans were in power—first with George Bush undoing Bill Clinton’s attempt to join the Kyoto Protocol, and then with Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement negotiated by Barack Obama. Hence, for Biden’s policies to succeed, he has to convince moderate Republicans to break ranks with their conservative colleagues who have succumbed to Trump’s fallacious argument that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Biden’s policies could also face obstacles in the courts.

Not only will Biden have to contend with congressional Republicans, he will also have to balance the demands of environmental groups that want him to go big on renewable energy while at the same time be wary of what it will mean for organised labour—in part because there are fewer union jobs in the renewable energy sector.  

Biden’s age is also a big factor. In the best-case scenario, setting an emissions target for the next ten years seems plausible if he remains president for two terms. In the worst-case scenario, 78-year-old Biden will in all likelihood be president for only one term. What if Trump or another Trump-like chump comes to power in 2024 and rolls back everything put in place by Biden? After all, the Republican-controlled Congress wiped out most of the Obama administration’s environmental rules in the first 16 weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Biden’s plan overlooks an important aspect that plays, and will continue to play, a devastating role in heating up our planet. It totally ignores the fact that the heat-trapping gases presently in the air will not magically vanish even if we instantly stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That is because different greenhouse gases take different amounts of time to break down via chemical reactions. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime of hundreds to even thousands of years whereas nitrous oxide lingers for about 100 years. Methane dissipates relatively quickly, persisting for about 12 years. But there is a problem—a feedback-loop situation. When methane breaks down, it can turn into carbon dioxide, thereby replacing one greenhouse gas with another.

So, can Biden save our planet from overheating? Anyone hoping that Biden’s plan will lead to a habitable future on this fragile planet should be circumspect because like most politicians, Biden is working with targets, not solutions. Moreover, he is trapped by the short-term self-interest of multi-national corporations and fossil fuel industries who fear that any real change will cut into their profit and power. Besides, his initiative of cutting greenhouse gas emissions without simultaneously removing the ones currently in the atmosphere will not be enough to stop the nightmarish effects of climate change.

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

Advanced science, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Amid global warming – why are we in a deep freeze?

Obverse effects of global warming

During winter, more often than not, a large part of northern United States is pummelled by an Arctic blast, sometimes severe, sometimes less so, that lasts for a week or two. But this winter’s blast plunged not only Midwest and Northeast into a deep freeze with bone-chilling temperatures as low as negative 45 degrees Celsius, but it also tested the mettle of millions of people living in the Deep South, particularly Texas, a state that seldom experience sub-zero temperature.

An onslaught of freak wintery weather—a cocktail of heavy snow, sleet and chilling ice storm—with sub-zero temperatures knocked millions of Texans off the power grid and plunged them into deep freeze, the lowest being negative 12 degrees in Houston. Frozen and burst water pipes in homes and businesses were widespread. Unlike northern states, Texas is not equipped to handle ice, sleet or snow. As a consequence, hundreds of vehicles, including dozens of 18-wheeler, were involved in horrific and sometimes fatal pileups on untreated icy roads.

The recent extreme weather is not limited to the United States. That is because when the winter is extreme in one part of the hemisphere, it is often extreme all across the hemisphere. Thus, the “beast” from the Arctic hit Europe too. In January, Spain experienced a deadly snow storm with dangerously low temperatures. Even a tropical country like Bangladesh, especially the northern region, could not escape the wrath of the cold wave.

Snow fell hard in Greece and Turkey, where it is far less normal. Snow also fell in Jerusalem and parts of Jordan and Syria, while snow-covered camels in Saudi Arabia made for a rare sight. We also had more than our fair share of snow. In the lower Hudson Valley of New York, where I live, Mother Nature already dumped around 36 inches of snow since the last week of January, with more in the forecast. Most of the snow—24 inches—fell in a single storm event from January 31 through February 2.

Climate change deniers have often used cold winter weather to advance their argument that global warming is a Chinese hoax. In one infamous example, when an Arctic freeze descended on the northeast, including New York City, in December 2017, former US President Donald Trump tweeted, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming to protect against” harsh winters. Only an ignoramus person like him could make such a stupid statement!

It may be counterintuitive, but paradoxically, among the many factors, anthropogenic climate change is mainly responsible for the short-lived bursts of extreme winter weather that we have been witnessing in recent years. Indeed, there is strong scientific evidence that rapid heating of the Arctic caused by global warming is pushing frigid air from the North Pole further down south due to distortion of the polar vortex.

Under normal conditions, cold air is concentrated in a huge low-pressure gyre around the North Pole in an area called the polar vortex—about 15 to 50 kilometres above the Earth’s surface in the layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. When the vortex is strong, the jet stream—a narrow band of strong, fast-flowing wind in the upper atmosphere that generally blows from west to east all across the globe—acts as a barrier between the spinning cold air in the north and the warmer air to the south. As a result, cold air remains trapped in the Arctic, making winters in the northern mid-latitudes milder.

How does global warming distort the polar vortex? It is well-known that the rise in global temperature is not evenly spread around the world. Because of the loss of Arctic ice which otherwise would have reflected a substantial amount of solar radiation back into outer space, average temperature in and around the North Pole is increasing about twice as fast as in the mid-latitudes. This is known as Arctic Amplification. Several studies show that the amplification is particularly strong in winter. Consequently, a rapidly warming Arctic weakens the jet stream, which in turn weakens the polar vortex to the extent that it becomes distorted, thereby spilling its cold air southward.

According to meteorologists, in a span of two weeks from December to January, Arctic Amplification gave rise to a phenomenon called Sudden Stratospheric Warming, in which temperatures in the atmosphere 15 to 30 kilometres above the Arctic jumped by nearly 55 degrees, from negative 80 to negative 25 degrees. This accelerated warming weakened the jet stream considerably and subsequently distorted the vortex so severely that it got knocked off the pole, resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle all the way to the US-Mexico border. Hence, the once-in-a-lifetime cold winter in Texas and other southern states.

Continued rise in global temperature will not necessarily mean an end to bitter cold waves during winter any sooner. One group of researchers believe that Arctic blasts will still occur, but their intensity will depend on how much greenhouse gases we vent into the atmosphere. It is very probable that they will become rarer over time, but the ones we are experiencing now will more likely persist and last longer. Another group says that warming in the Arctic will increase the chances of frigid polar air spilling further south, leading to more periods of extreme cold days in the future, much colder than the ones we are experiencing now.

Nevertheless, the recent weather pattern clearly demonstrates that both extreme heat and extreme cold can happen side by side. Besides, two to four weeks of cold snaps do not make a winter. They are short-term weather events, while climate is about long-term trends. Arctic blasts are, therefore, not enough to compensate for the overall warming of the climate across the planet. In fact, last year was one of the hottest years on record, with the average temperature surpassing a number of all-time highs. And it occurred without the warming influence of El Niño.

Finally, we are in a deep freeze amid global warming because our “senseless and suicidal” romance with fossil fuels has fundamentally changed the global weather systems for worse.

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

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Five years since Paris Accord: Are we any better?

Global warming and rise in sea level

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris Accord hammered out by more than 190 countries at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). The core objective of the accord is to save humanity from the existential threat posed by climate change. To that end, the participating nations agreed to keep the increase in the average global temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius while endeavouring to limit it to 1.5 degrees by the year 2100. Besides pledging to temper the rise in temperature, they agreed to restructure the global economy, phase out fossil fuels over the coming decades, switch to renewable sources of energy, embrace clean technology, and most importantly, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.

The Accord gives every country the ability to set its own goals to confront the climate crisis, in line with their specific situation. Moreover, instead of demanding expeditious and deep cuts in fossil fuel usage, it allows parties to peak greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” followed by a gradual decrease in order to reach the zero emissions goal. It is patently evident that such a vague timetable fits the interests of the major polluters, including the United States, China and India. Nevertheless, beginning this year, each nation is required to reassess its own reduction plans once every five years. However, there is no consequence or penalty if a country fails to reassess or falls short of the pledged reductions.

The Accord also requires nations to address “loss and damage” caused by climate impacts. Since the wealthy, industrialised nations are largely responsible for the backlog of climate changing emissions lingering in the atmosphere, they should compensate poorer nations for unavoidable loss and damage. But even after COP25 held in Madrid last year (2019), wealthy nations are playing Jekyll and Hyde roles—promising to cover losses while dragging their feet on providing new finance.

We are now a full five years into the Paris Accord which, according to the former US President Barack Obama, is supposed to make the “world safer and more secure, more prosperous and more free.” Are we really on course to transform our planet into one as envisioned by Obama? Are we winning the race against climate change? Did we succeed in slowing down the damage resulting from climate change? By all accounts, the Accord did not make an iota of difference in decelerating the progression of our planet, and subsequently our civilisation, toward climatic meltdown. On the contrary, climate change and its deleterious effects are accelerating, with climate-related catastrophes piling up, year after year.

Our planet is now almost at the breaking point. The environmental changes sweeping across the world are occurring at a much quicker pace than five years ago. As the Earth warms, we are witnessing more cataclysmic wildfires turning forests into carbon dioxide emitters, not to mention calamitous floods inundating nearly half of landmasses in countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Thailand and so forth. Persistent droughts, fierce storms and an increase in extreme weather phenomena—derecho, microburst, bombogenesis, Frankenstorm and many more—are on the rise. The fingerprints of climate change since 2015 can also be seen in the exacerbation of internal and international migration patterns of climate refugees.

Scorching heat waves, of all places, in the Arctic region, are now more frequent and long-lasting. It is quite likely that 2020 will be among the hottest years ever, even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Niña. Seas are warming and rising faster, putting more coastal cities at risk of going under acidic water. Warmer waters are wreaking havoc on marine organisms forcing them to migrate away from their familiar habitats. Glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, thus disrupting availability of freshwater.

Climate-induced mayhem is taking a heavy toll on the Arctic region. The amount of Arctic sea ice whose whiteness normally acts as a natural reflector of heat back out of the atmosphere is dwindling so rapidly that the region may soon become ice-free. Loss of ice is also changing the Arctic terrain—making it greener and prettier, but at the expense of releasing copious amounts of carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the frozen soil, which in turn is making global warming even worse. Additionally, scientists have found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean, worrisomely called the “sleeping giant of the carbon cycle,” are escaping into the atmosphere. In fact, northern landscapes are undergoing massive change, with potential ramifications not just for the Arctic itself, but the world as a whole.

Permafrost in cold climate countries is thawing at breakneck speed, releasing, just like Arctic ice, large amounts of long-stored carbon dioxide and methane. In addition, viruses and bacteria that had been buried under the permafrost for thousands of years are being released into the environment, posing health risks to humans and other forms of life. Also, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, a vital carbon sink that retards the momentum of global warming, has surged to its highest level since 2008.

As for peaking of emissions, there is a cavernous gap between the sharp cuts in emissions required to meet the goals of the Paris Accord and current projections. In a recent report, World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations, states, “There is no sign of slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement.” Rather, emissions from just about every country are still on the rise, thereby making it difficult to close the gap so as to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

The report further notes that even the coronavirus-related drop in emissions failed to make much of a dent in the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Consequently, WMO warns that the world risks becoming an “uninhabitable hell” for millions unless we drastically cut emissions—by at least 7.2 percent every 10 years if we want to keep the rise in temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius. Otherwise, we will soon be north of 3 degrees Celsius.

The warning from WMO is corroborated by a study published last month in the British journal Scientific Reports, in which the authors assert that we have already passed the “point of no return for global warming.” The only way we can stop the warming, the authors say, is by extracting “enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The Earth’s average temperature has already risen by roughly one degree since the advent of modern record keeping in 1880. The devastation caused by one degree rise clearly indicates that an additional 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius rise before the end of this century will lock in the changes to the Earth’s climate system that will be beyond our adaptive capacity.

Five years ago, the then UN chief lauded the Paris Accord as a landmark agreement, a potent message from world leaders who had finally decided to take on climate change in earnest. Five years later, in a complete volte-face, the present UN chief, in a speech at Columbia University in New York, issued a searing indictment of our utter disregard for the pledges made in Paris. He said, “The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging a suicidal war on nature, facing new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation….”

So much for the Paris Accord! No wonder environmentalists believe that the Accord is meaningless, and with good reason. Indeed, the toothless, nonbinding, non-enforceable accord is an oversold empty promise—a gentleman’s handshake applauding the imposition of a global climate regime on humankind that is harming the planet in the name of saving it.

Finally, world leaders should realise that fixing the climate is not about making pretty promises at grandiose conferences held in glamorous cities. And if we rely on grandstanding and farcical Accords that give us false hopes, we will lose the race to keep our planet cool and habitable.

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

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.