Colombo Telegraph

On Being The Second Most Vulnerable Country To Climate Change

By Ranil Senanayake

Dr Ranil Senanayake

The 24th COP of the Convention on Climate Change is just concluding and as usual we, the public have no idea as yet as to what our nation has to say in respect of our ‘readiness’ to face the oncoming changes. It is doubly embarrassing to be told that we are the second most vulnerable country to face climate change, yet our public are grossly uninformed as to what we should do. In addition, the ‘mega madness’ of our politicians have propelled us into a fossil carbon expensive future with buildings that are massively fossil carbon expensive and infrastructure with an equally high demand on fossil energy.

If, as the international assessments such as the Global Climate Risk Index 2019, states that, Sri Lanka is the second most vulnerable country to Climate Change, what have we done to advise our population or at least choose ‘development scenarios’ that make us less vulnerable to the effects of Climate Change? Not much! The future looks bleak. It is patently clear that we are totally incapable of addressing or even debating the issues here at home. It is with sadness that I reproduce an article written almost ten years ago on the subject. The points raised in it still remain unaddressed.

Climate Change 17.12.2011.

While awaiting to hear of the brilliant contributions that Sri Lanka has made to the just concluded United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), conference in Durban, the view from Durban is somewhat clouded.  The global polluters are demonstrating extreme disdain of accepting any responsibility they have to the rest of humanity who share a common atmosphere with them.  The unilateral move by Canada in withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, a move endorsed by the fossil energy industry, demonstrates how much public interest has been eroded from political enclaves.

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.  So in burning them up we have to recognize the value (cost) of each. The carbon dioxide that emanates from them 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, the differences are in millions of years.

This much is common knowledge; most high school children are already aware of these facts. Then 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 many are in the pay of the energy industry. But what about our Sri Lankan scientists, who attended Durban?  Surely they will never sell out to the energy industry!  Perhaps they have already identified these fundamental structural flaws within the UNFCC and we might see this stand reflected in their reports.

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.

That was 2011, as nothing was forthcoming, some suggestions on what should be addressed was presented once more in 2016.

However, despite repeated calls and detailed studies on what might happen, as the studies prepared by the Ministry of Environment, there still has been no response on advising the public what we should do. For a nation dependent on perennial crops long term and rain fed agriculture, responsive models for changing agroecological zones should already be designed.  Farming landscapes should also be planned to be responsive to the oncoming changes. 

For all these years, climate change was ‘someone else’s problem’, not requiring urgent official attention.   At least now, that we have been officially named the second most vulnerable country to climate change, can we expect a more proactive response from the government? Will this lot ever wake up to the fact that ‘development’ based on the consumption of fossil fuel, only pushes our climate vulnerability that much further! 

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