My Say: The science of the signs and the sixth assessment report of the IPCC

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 27, 2021 - October 03, 2021.
My Say: The science of the signs and the sixth assessment report of the IPCC
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“We already have the statistics for the future: the growth percentages of pollution, overpopulation, desertification. The future is already in place.” — Gunter Grass (1927-2015), Nobel Prize winning author, poet, playwright, sculptor, graphic artist and illustrator

First, a sign. An ominous one. Sometime in mid-August, a research station in Greenland located 10,551ft above sea level experienced rain for several hours — for the first time — as temperatures rose above freezing. Ice sheet melt water inundated the surrounding seas.

Yes, in cold icy Greenland. And here perhaps is also where greenwashing started a millennia ago when Erik the Viking tried enticing settlers to this white and ice-bound land by calling it Greenland. This is well before corporations took to this strategy to avoid accountability!

And there are yet more signs now ... forest fires and melting permafrost in Siberia; too hot to handle summers in Turkey, Greece and Australia; a year’s rainfall in three days in flooded parts of China; and the calving of mammoth packs of ice from glaciers. Then came Hurricane Ida.

Deadly and destructive, this Category 4 Atlantic hurricane struck Louisiana on Aug 26, becoming the sixth-costliest cyclone on record and causing losses of some US$50 billion (RM209 billion). Flood damage was also catastrophic in the Northeastern US, including New York City, estimated at US$20 billion.

Now for the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change, formed in 1988, provides governments and policymakers a vital tool to assess and mitigate climate change.

The work of IPCC is parcelled out to three expert working groups (WGs): WGI — which gathers and assesses the science of climate change; WGII — which assesses the impact of climate change on natural and socioeconomic systems; and WGIII — which assesses mitigating options.

In early August, WGI published “AR6 — The Physical Science Basis of Climate Change”. This is no mean feat. Based on 14,000 studies, it is both an update and a summary of some 1,800 pages sectioned into 13 chapters, subject to copyediting, corrigenda and trickle backs. Heavy!

WGII and WGIII will issue their equally voluminous reports by next year, following which, a final AR6 will be issued. It will be fair to say that no living person, scientist or man in the street can ever claim to have read it in its entirety, let alone understand it.

The WGI report is described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “a code red for humanity”. He adds: “... the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions ... and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk”.

One shudders to think of the contents of the in-the-pipeline WGII and WGIII reports. More grim news for sure. Climate change will impact us in whichever part of the globe we live. Perish the thought that global warming can be defended at borders or at immigration control.

Per the WGI report, and it will take a brave person to claim it can be summarised, each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade since 1850 despite all current attempts to reduce carbon emissions or achieve carbon neutrality.

Surface temperatures will continue to rise until 2050 under all emission scenarios. The 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will be breached, resulting in a cascade of changes that will take us past the tipping point.

The dreaded tipping point works this way: As heat accumulates in the atmosphere, the Earth’s geophysical systems will “tip over” into a fundamentally new state, also called a phase shift. Think of your car windscreen shattering all at once minutes after being hit by a stone.

Tipping point risks have been studied in eight large subsystems: thawing of the permafrost, ocean methane hydrates, Arctic sea ice loss, dieback of the Amazon rainforest, disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet, disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and the Indian Summer monsoon system.

Tipping points in climate change are of grave concern. Economists have recently begun factoring climate change risks into economic models although it is devilishly difficult. The consensus view: We are underestimating climate risks and overestimating the costs of action.

Beyond the tipping point, food production will be severely impacted. Warmer oceans will deplete fish stocks. Potable water will become scarce. Working outdoors will become a health hazard. The rich-poor divide may fuel revolution and war, disrupting global trade.

So, why are we all so unmoved?

For one, despite the sterling work of these scientists, climate change remains mind-bogglingly complex. Climate change is where the past, present and future become one, and so perhaps AR6 should more correctly be called an indictment on humankind rather than a report.

Collectively, past, present and future is Mother Time! As Darwin explained, evolution is hard to comprehend because of the sheer immensity of Mother Time — its eons, its epochs, its eras — which by and of itself is the agent of change. The same applies to climate change.

Most of us relate to Mother Time based on our immediate needs, our hopes for our children and of memories of our most recently departed ancestors. The forecast catastrophic future rise of global temperatures or ocean levels does not alarm us nor does it register in our heads.

Herein lies the problem. Even as we careen towards collective disaster, national, regional, sectorial, industrial and individual interests take centre stage with sickening regularity, making us wonder whether we are truly modern compared with our ancestors.

Our ancestors, the ancients, were faced with a different problem altogether. They simply did not have the science to explain the signs they observed — the last ice age, rains without end, drying rivers, eclipses, dust storms, meteors, shooting stars, comets and swarms of locusts.

At best, these signs were deemed as omens. On the coattails of omens rode superstition and divination. As recent as in the 1930s, one could hear the cry of a dealer in secrets and magic, the fatahfal, in the streets of Baghdad: “I count the stars and take omens!”

But we must credit some ancients for having uncommonly good sense and intuition. For the Mesopotamians, everything in the universe could have an ominous import to mortals. To guide their intuition, they could rely on the Babylonian Diviners Manual. Yes, an ancient AR6!

From this manual is a gem relevant to climate: “The signs on earth as those in the sky give us signals. They are not separate as earth and sky are related. A sign that portends evil in the sky is (also) evil on the earth; one that portends evil on earth is evil in the sky.”

That was a very promising start. But after intuition came the claim that Man has dominion over all things on Earth and that this is divinely ordained. It looks like we are stuck with that mindset even as the evidence of our future ruination mounts by the day.

What is to be done?

Both big and little things.

For a start, climate studies should be part of our school syllabus, with only the science included and shorn of all else. Next, our ministers and captains of industry can set the tone and be good examples by cutting back on conspicuous consumption.

Only inclusive societies can get the climate change equation right. Politicians must therefore reset their agenda and move away from divisive and non-inclusive policies. Yes, no one must be left too far behind, but equally important, no one must be left out of the political process.

Our oil palm industry should set its sights on becoming a shining example of sustainable production by sticking scrupulously to set standards of conduct and compliance without resorting to all manner of ifs and buts. And that includes fair labour practices.

As an individual effort to avoid the tipping point, we will have to consider a simpler lifestyle, but yet one that is rewarding. Old world pursuits and hobbies — gardening, cookery and knitting — may yet make a comeback. We must accept a tax on superfluous consumption.

Failing which, we will surely consign future generations to what must be, to use a harsh term, climate genocide.


M R Chandran is chairman of IRGA Sdn Bhd, an agro-technology enabler, and adviser to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

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