By Jill Tatarski, Loyola University New Orleans
Today, we face serious challenges to life on our planet. Increasing temperatures on the Earth’s surface are melting glaciers, ice and permafrost. Ocean temperatures are rising and affecting weather patterns, leading to more intense storms, flooding, sea level rise, heat waves, droughts, decreased food production, water scarcity and disease. Natural disasters exacerbated by human mismanagement are changing predictable seasonal weather patterns to becoming more and more unpredictable. These unpredictable weather patterns (rainfall, rising tides, increased droughts and flooding) are having very serious impacts on crop yields and water supplies.
The world’s poorest bear the brunt of the impacts of global warming. Responses to climate change must be immediate, equitable and just. It must take into account the role of the developed countries, especially the role of the United States that accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, but represents only 5% of the world’s population.
15% increase of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 2020
80% decrease of U.S. global warming pollution required by 2050
200 million people displaced by sea level rise, flooding and droughts by 2080
In sub-Saharan Africa, climate change is fueling desertification, disrupting food supplies, and driving water-related resource conflicts. Insect-borne diseases are spreading and flood-related diseases are thriving. Christian Aid predicts that by the end of the century, 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could die of disease directly attributable to climate change.
In Central America and the Gulf Coast of the United States, more intense hurricanes are possible. Hurricanes Stan in Central America and Katrina in the United States in 2005 demonstrate the kinds of problems we will see in the future. Hurricane Katrina forced a million people to evacuate. In coastal Mississippi, Katrina’s powerful 28 foot-high storm surge did not leave a single structure standing. Record-high temperatures on the Gulf of Mexico surface waters helped make Hurricane Katrina the most financially destructive hurricane ever to make landfall anywhere. www.earth-policy.org.
In Asia, melting glaciers are currently causing dangerous flooding. Over time, the complete melting of the Himalayan glaciers will diminish the water supply for one billion people living in China, India and Nepal.
Global warming is a global problem that demands a global solution. We must rethink international development assistance to include environmental impacts. Billions of dollars in U.S. international development assistance and finance supports oil and gas projects in developing countries – projects that exacerbate climate change, have other harmful social and environmental consequences, and do nothing to fight poverty and hunger. www.climateequitycampaign.org.
Factors that need to be considered regarding climate change:
Climate change is a trans-boundary and global problem.
Climate change is the cumulative effect of a huge number of individually insignificant greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change impacts of present emissions may not be evident for many decades, whereas irreversible impacts can only be avoided by anticipatory measures.
Climate change will have significant impacts on the social and economic environment.
Global warming adds a significant stress to coastal environments already experiencing intense development and population pressures. The potential impacts of climate change on sea level, the shoreline, and marine ecosystems are of paramount importance.
Sea-level rise, shoreline erosion and flooding: Over the last century, global sea level has risen on average 4-10 inches. If global warming continues unchecked, major urban areas built near sea level along the Eastern seaboard including New York City, Boston, Washington, DC, and Miami will be at risk with an expected sea level rise of 18-20 inches above current levels by 2100. Low-lying infrastructures in these areas including buildings, roads, power lines, airports, train and subway systems are all at risk to increased flooding. Where land is sinking rapidly, along parts of the Gulf coast including New Orleans and Galveston, sea level rise may be significantly faster. Where land is being lifted up, as along parts of the Pacific coast and Alaska, sea level rise will be slower or not at all. The effects of sea level rise are heightened during storms because the areas flooded due to storm surge and higher wave heights are greatly expanded.
In addition to human development of the coastal zones sea level rise can lead to widespread wetlands loss threatening important habitat for shorebirds, plants and nursery areas for fish, as well as valuable ecosystem services.
The wetlands and barrier islands that protect South Louisiana have eroded about 30% since 1900. In Florida, sabal palms are dying in coastal lowlands because of rising sea level. Salt-water intrusion into underground water resources is a problem in many coastal states (e.g. CA, MA, NC, SC and FL) threatening water quality for residential and industrial users.
Coastal storms: Since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the U.S. has entered a phase with more frequent tropical storms and hurricanes. Even if storm intensity and frequency remain the same in the future, with the increased population and development in coastal areas, and increased flooding due to higher sea levels, property losses will continue to increase.
Winter storms in the mid-latitude can also produce high damages in coastal areas, as evidenced during the 1997-98 El Nino winter when California, Oregon and Washington experienced record rainfall, flooding and incidences of cliff erosion and mudslides.
Coastal agriculture, coral reefs and marine ecosystem health: Water quality is likely to change and become unsuitable for certain uses, either because of the increased influx of sediments and pollutants with higher runoff, or because of decreased flushing and higher salinity levels with reduced stream flows. Increased salinity threatens water quality for residential users as well as certain types of agriculture, for example rice, which is extremely sensitive to salinity increases and could not be sustained in areas where saltwater intrudes into the groundwater. Combined with higher water temperatures, coastal areas are likely to see an increased risk of low-oxygen conditions threatening fish stocks and other marine organisms; toxic algae blooms leading to shellfish mortality; bacterial problems along beaches posing a health threat to beach users; and species shifts to cooler waters adding to the difficulties of commercial fisheries. Coral reef communities form another marine ecosystem known to be under chronic stress, largely from human activities. Warmer ocean temperatures, higher carbon dioxide and nutrient concentrations, higher sea levels and sediment loads, and possibly more frequent destructive storms could add climate-induced stresses that may threaten their survival. Excessively high ocean temperatures as a result of the El Nino in 1998 have already led to bleaching of coral reefs around the world.
Impacts on coastal and marine resources, valuable ecosystems and treasured places are the result of human and environmental stresses and global climate change. www.climatehotmap.org/impacts/coastalareas.
Increased intensity of droughts, floods and changes to growing seasons has significant implications for soil productivity, water supply, food security, human welfare, poverty and deleterious and irreversible impacts on biological diversity. A change in climate will result in more adverse socio-economic impacts in Africa than in other parts of the world. Countries in Africa tend to have a much higher share of their economy dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture than is the case on other continents. www.worldbank.org.
Africa’s contribution to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases has been minimal. New York uses more gasoline in a week than the whole of Africa does in a year. Yet, Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change as widespread poverty severely limits its capabilities to adapt. www.fragilecologies.com.
By the mid 1990s, sub-Saharan Africa had been identified as a region particularly vulnerable to the consequences of global climate change. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa depend on natural resources that are sensitive to changes in climate. Water supplies suffer from high variability of rainfall in many parts of the continent. With reservoir levels dangerously low, projected changes in the climate will put pressure on water availability, which may lead to local or regional conflicts and are certain to affect economic development.
A changing climate is affecting food security. Over half the African population live in rural areas, dependent on the local environment for food. The marginal cropping conditions in semi-arid and sub-humid areas – where rainfall is extremely unreliable – have led to widespread malnutrition. The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) www.fao.org reported that people living in sub-Saharan African countries are most in danger of starvation and food insecurity due in part to global warming. Further climate variability will leave African countries reliant on food aid.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change www.IPCC.org found that in Africa, 1.1 billion hectares (2.72 billion acres) of land have a viable crop-growing period of less than 120 days per year. By 2080, the team estimated, climate change could extend this area at risk by 5% to 8%, or between 50 and 90 million hectares.
Global warming affects not only trends in production, but diseases affecting animal and plant life. Climate change not only has an impact on food security but is likely to influence the development and intensification of animal diseases and plant pests. Most pests and diseases act locally, but have global implication because of modern trade patterns and human mobility. In a globalized world, farmers, agricultural and health experts and governments will have to adapt to an accelerating stream of new pests and diseases caused by changing ecological conditions.
Climate change will affect not only natural resources but also have implications for human health. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria are already placing national healthcare system under stress. www.scidev.net.
A report by the United Nations Environmental Program www.unep.org states the futures of hundreds of millions of people across the world will be affected by declines in snow cover, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost and lake ice. Many glaciers are already receding because of climate change. Mountain regions at risk include the Himalayas.
The Ganges River Basin is the most populous river in the world. The Ganges River begins in the central Himalayas and flows 1,568 miles to the Bay of Bengal. Over the course of millennia, the Ganges and its tributaries have formed one of the largest flood plains in the world with the sediments from the erosion of mountainous areas.
The Ganges and its tributaries and distributaries flow through 3 countries: India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Ganges Basin system remains the main source of freshwater for half the population of India and Bangladesh and nearly the entire population of Nepal. The importance of the Ganges can hardly be exaggerated, particularly in its lower stretch, where it is the only river from which freshwater can be obtained.
The Lower Ganges Basin contains an active and a moribund delta, both of which are affected by enormous flood flows in the Ganges, relentless tidal pressures from the sea, and occasional severe cyclonic storms capable of disrupting environmental systems. The major environmental issues which are associated with population factors include: 1) increasing demands on natural resources from development activities; 2) the inward penetration of higher salinity levels; 3) the spread of waterborne diseases due to the extensive embankment of former bodies of water; 4) water and soil pollution; 5) decline in fisheries due to human interventions; and 6) the excessive logging of the Sunderban forest.
Bangladesh, being downstream and deltaic portion of a huge watershed, is naturally vulnerable to the water quality and quantity that flows into it from upstream. All major rivers flowing through Bangladesh have their origins outside its borders, and therefore, any interventions in the upper regions have a significant impact on Bangladesh.
One cause of increased flooding in Bangladesh can be traced to Nepal and India, where the majority of the rivers originate. Massive deforestation of the mountainsides has significantly reduced the Himalayas capacity to absorb the monsoon rains, and it has greatly increased the amount of eroded soil that is carried by the floodwaters.
Reduced water flow in the Ganges Basin has resulted in a severe depletion of fisheries. The reduction of fisheries resources has resulted in a decrease in the nutrition of the regions inhabitants. Due to the decrease in groundwater and surface water, tremendous pressure has been exerted on the wetlands to convert them to agricultural land, resulting in a serious decline in the numbers of waterfowl and reptiles. With the reduction of forest and vegetation cover, a wide variety of insects’ populations have been severely depleted.
The Ganges is also a religious site for millions of Hindus. Early each morning people gather on its banks. A woman, her eyes closed, cups the murky water of the Ganges River in her hands, lifts them toward the sun, and prays for her husband, her children, her grandchildren and her own ailments. She, like India’s other 800 million Hindus, has absolute faith that the river she calls Ganga Ma can heal. The prayer rituals carried out of the river’s edge may not last for another generation. Scientists and meteorologists find the Himalayan source of the Ganges (Hinduism’s holiest river) is drying up. The Gangotri glacier, which provides 70% of the water of the Ganges, is shrinking at a rate nearly twice as fast as two decades ago. Environmental groups have long focused on the pollution of the Ganges. More than 100 cities and countless villages are situated along the Ganges and few have sewage treatment facilities.
According to a United Nations climate report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the source of the Ganges could disappear by 2030 as temperatures rise making global warming the greatest threat to the Ganges.
The shrinking glaciers also threaten Asia’s fresh water supply. The World Wildlife Fund listed the Ganges among the world’s ten most endangered rivers. In India, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people. The immediate effect of glacier recession is a short-lived surplus of water. Eventually the supply runs out, and the Ganges will become a seasonal river, largely dependent on monsoon rains.
Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program – www.btnep.org
America’s Wetlands – www.americaswetland.com
United Nations Environmental Program – www.unep.org
Look Far Connections – www.lookfar.org
Friends of the Earth – www.foe.org
Climate Ark – www.climateark.org
Climate Change: How It Impacts Us All – www.un.org/dpi/ngosection/annual-conf.asp
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – www.ipcc.org
WHAT CAN I DO
Whatever action we take, we need to remember that the Earth is alive. Our actions must be sensitive to the religious, cultural and habitats of the Earth’s coastal areas, land and waterways. Of course nations need to do the big things that will reduce greenhouse gases, but we also need to do the small things that each one of us is capable of doing. Small things add up to making a big difference. Here is a list of suggestions that are small, but if we all do them, it will make a big difference.
1) Educate yourself and others on global warming. What’s missing in bringing about changes to global warming is the universal political will. 2) Reduce, reuse, recycle by buying products with minimal packaging. Choose reusable products instead of disposables. 3) Use less heat & air conditioning. Lower the heat when you are sleeping or away. Raise the air conditioner when you are away. 4) Change your light bulbs. Replace regular light bulbs with compact florescent light bulbs (they use 2/3 less energy and give off 70% less heat). 5) Drive less & drive smart. Walk or bike. Think ahead and combine trips. Avoid “jack rabbit” starts and aggressive driving. Keep your tires properly inflated. 6) Buy energy efficient appliances. 7) Use less hot water when washing clothes. 8) Turn off lights, your TV, computer when not in use. 9) Plant a tree. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. A single tree will absorb approximately one-ton/908 kilos of carbon dioxide during its lifetime. It is you that can make a difference. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”