16 April, 2024

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Forget The Ignorant Bureaucrats, This Is Why We Need To Understand Climate Change

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

The World Meteorological Organization of the United Nations, have just stated that the warmest 13 years of average global temperatures have all occurred in the 15 years since 1997. That has contributed to extreme weather conditions that increase the intensity of droughts and heavy precipitation across the world, it said. “Our science is solid and it proves unequivocally that the world is warming and that this warming is due to human activities,” WMO Deputy Secretary-General Jerry Lengoasa told reporters in Durban. This view, articulated by a responsible organization should be recognized and acted upon by society at all levels. Today, Temperatures over 40°C and even 50°C are becoming increasingly frequent in many parts of the world, posing a major threat to human health and well-being. 

While it is an undeniable fact that global temperature and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are interrelated. The question is when was it initiated? Once a change is initiated, that there exists obvious feedback mechanisms that keeps driving the process, until a regulatory mechanism, such as glaciations, intervenes. 

Thus the geologic past is marked by a constant pattern of dry regimes with the water locked up as glacial ice alternating with wet regimes awash with unlocked glacial water. The oscillation from one state to the other involves massive heat transfer processes and accounts for the phenomena of global warming and cooling. 

There is debate, certainly on the frequency and amplitude of the changes before us and of the causes that drive such changes. However, if there is one unifying feature to the debate it is that: ‘There is a change in the climate.’ This change is already affecting both the quality of human life and quantity of glaciers the world over. A result of melting land glaciers will make the ocean levels will go up. Models looking at the affect of an 5 – 6 inch rise in sea level over the next thirty years suggests 16 – 34 million environmental refugees, depending on the preparedness of the affected regimes. 

The global effort on addressing the problems of climate change is also hampered by the fact that the IPCC is consisted only of people who are nominated by their Governments. Commenting on this feature Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute says, “Its Governments who nominate people, you will find in many chapters that there are people who are not scientists at all”. This has allowed such fundamental scientific and economic realities such as differences between biomass carbon and fossil carbon to become blurred. One obvious result is that, there is no differentiation of value between these two pools in current carbon accounting by the IPCC. Until this reality is recognized, disjointed markets will prevail. 

The UNFCC itself is a lame duck, it is still unable to recognize or identify the difference in value of carbon originating from biotic sources and fossil sources. This fact is commonsense; that while a diamond, petroleum, a lump of coal, piece of wood or piece of fruit is comprised of carbon, they are not the same, and they have different values. The carbon dioxide that emanates from each by burning is also different. The carbon dioxide from biotic carbon will always have the carbon isotope C14, while carbon dioxide from fossil carbon will never contain C14. In time, these differences span millions of years. 

If these facts reflect common knowledge, where most high school children are already aware of these facts, why has the UNFCC chosen not to ‘see’ that there is a value and temporal difference between biotic and fossil carbon cycles? A cynic might say that some ‘scientists’ are in the pay of the energy industry. 

In the meanwhile, apart from the innumerable conferences and workshops that we could have, what should we do in Sri Lanka? This question has come sharply into focus with the news that Russian scientists have discovered hundreds of plumes of methane gas, some over 1,000 meters in diameter, bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Methane is about 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Dr. Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences stated in a recent interview “Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It’s amazing.” 

All this points to the need for immediate action. Landscapes are slow to respond to rapid changes. The effect of the increase in storm force was apparent all last year. By now we should have had some national adaptation strategies. Yes, there has been a plethora of conferences around the subject, but what do I do if my drinking water runs out? What do I do if there is salt intrusion into my field? How do I deal with sudden windstorms ? If the years spent on discussing adaptation had borne any fruit, we would now be seeing public education programs on climate change preparedness by now. 

So we wait with hope for information from the Climate Change Secretariat on the range of adaptation strategies that we could use in our respective professions in Sri Lanka. But it would behoove us to begin adaptive field studies with our farmers now, based on the predictive models that have a systematic data updating function. The Climate Change Secretariat needs to coordinate all agencies dealing with natural resources, in order to develop functional models for adaptation. From the signs about us we know will have to face the oncoming changes, we need a national plan that informs the public on how we should prepare. 

Carbon dioxide is not the only contributor to warming on the planet; there is Methane, Oxides of Nitrogen, water vapour etc. In the atmosphere water vapour accounts for 60-80% of its natural greenhouse effect. Water vapour has been the most dominant greenhouse determinant for the atmosphere and has probably been so over the last four billion years. 

In terms of water vapour, forests account for some 48% of all terrestrial evapotranspiration. Thus the loss of forests worldwide, through a climate or biological event, could result in initiating changes in the climate system. As Walter Jehne of the CSIRO states, “It follows that the destruction of up to 80% of earth’s primary (old growth) forests by humans during industrialization could have resulted in a marked loss of the natural cooling capacity and therefore increased global warming.” The deforestation of the planet could very well have been the trigger that has pushed us along the current course. 

Sri Lanka was no stranger to the process, forests that remained largely inviolate since their time of formation was felled and destroyed within a period of two hundred years. The natural cooling capacity of the Island was reduced by over 80%. This conversion of the massive forests into carbon dioxide would also have been a significant contribution to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations at that time. 

Could the massive rates of deforestation and the removal of the cooling factor that initiated the warming trends that were then amplified by the increases in carbon dioxide as a consequence of the industrial revolution? This process being amplified through the burning of fossil fuels. The Vostock Ice core data looking at past atmospheres seems to suggest such a scenario. 

The most obvious way is to address the problem is by reducing reliance on fossil carbon as an index of human development, but there may be other ways as well. One interesting possibility requires us to go back to the forests. 

Forests produce vast quantities of Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN) that enable the condensation of clouds in the atmosphere. Clouds occur in many states, from the thin haze clouds precipitated by pollution and dust to the thick cumulus clouds precipitated by forests and oceans. Each type provides a certain degree of shading from solar radiation, a phenomenon termed albedo or, “the amount of incoming solar radiation reflected back into space”. The albedo of the planet determines the amount of sunlight reaching the surface, 

the amount of sunlight reaching the surface in turn determines the heat of the atmosphere. The mean value for reflecting solar radiation back into space by cloud albedo is about 30%. The cooling effect of this action is so great that a 1-2 % increase in the albedo of the planet would be enough to reduce the warming effect of current CO2 levels back to early-industrial levels. Creating a 1% cooling by albedo can help definitely stabilize the climate. 

Restoration of the cloud creating potential of terrestrial ecosystems has to be seen as a critically important activity and the financial instruments designed to mitigate the effect of global warming must recognize this potential. This means designing and implementing long maturing, multi age, and multi species systems that mimic or are analogous to the natural mature ecosystem. Hopefully, our Climate Change pundits will pay attention to these facts.

Because, Sri Lanka, is an oceanic island with a central mountain mass reaching 200 meters surrounded by an historically created water reservoir complex of over 30,000 units, we are ideally poised to respond and adapt to the oncoming climate crisis. Can we become sensitive to the realities and potentials of this nation in facing the changing climate and use these potentials to buffer our population against the oncoming impacts?  or will it be back to conferences and foreign trips leaving us wondering what we should be doing to face the oncoming crisis be continued………

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    Dr Senanayake

    The average SL citizen has other priorities than climate change. It is the govt.’s responsibility. In UK, all internal combustion engines that burn fossil fuels will be banned by 2035. The infrastructure needed to charge electrical vehicles are already in gear. However, the UK govt. is soft peddling when it comes to licensing new North Sea oil extraction & even the extension of the ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ (mainly for health reasons) that cover almost all of London now appears to be shelved due to political pressure.
    SL depends on coal powered power plants but coal may soon be outlawed. Has the govt. considered other options if this happens? Solar panels & wind farms are a common sight in developed countries but is SL promoting such alternate sources of power generation? The biggest irony is that, I am told, duty free vehicle permits will be available for those remitting money from abroad but it would be only for electric vehicles, although, the electricity generated for EVs is from fossil fuels.

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