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RSTV IAS UPSC – Rising Oceans, Sinking Cities
Published on Sept. 19, 2019, 7:27 p.m.

Rising Oceans, Sinking Cities

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TOPIC: General Studies 3

  • Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation

In News: The Earth could witness a dramatic decline in fish stocks, a 100-fold increase in the damage caused by superstorms and millions of people displaced by rising seas, if humanity does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 900-page draft report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Destructive changes have already been set in motion. The draft report says that even with most optimistic emission reduction scenario, by the year 2050 many low lying mega-cities and small island nations will experience extreme sea level events every year. The big four - United States of America, China, India and European Union will face most devastating fallout of the ocean and ice related impacts of climate change. 

  • The report, which will officially be released on September 25, concludes that humanity must overhaul the way it produces and consumes almost everything to avoid the worst ravages of climate change and environmental degradation.
  • This follows another sobering report released by the IPCC last month that captured global headlines with its warnings of the devastation to land use caused by rising global temperatures. That included concerns about the Earth’s ability to provide sufficient food for humanity as crop yields decrease and droughts and wildfires become increasingly common.

The Wrath

Oceans serve as a marine sponge for the planet, soaking up a quarter of the CO2 emitted by humans and absorbing more than 90 percent of the additional heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions since 1970. As a result, the oceans have become warmer, more acidic and less salty. 

Without this absorption, global warming would already have made the Earth's surface intolerably hot for humans. This comes at a cost, as the increase in CO2 in ocean waters causes a phenomenon called acidification, which disrupts the ocean's basic food chain.

The marine heatwaves, which is the anomalous heating of areas of the ocean, have become twice as frequent since the 1980s and are creating vast oxygen-depleted dead zones. The life-giving oxygen in marine environments has dropped two percent in 60 years, and is on track to lose another three to four percent by 2100 at current rates of carbon pollution. 

  • Freshwater supplies for billions of people, including the world’s mountain dwellers, will be hit by melting glaciers that will first release far too much water, and then not enough
  • Without cuts to man-made emissions, at least 30 percent of the northern hemisphere's surface permafrost could melt by the end of the 21st century, unleashing billions of tonnes of carbon and accelerating global warming even more.
  • By the year 2100, ‘annual flood damages are expected to increase by two to three orders of magnitude’, or 100- to 1,000-fold
  • Even if the world manages to cap global warming at 2C, the global ocean waterline will rise enough to displace more than a quarter of a billion people
  • Earth's two ice sheets, sitting atop Greenland and Antarctica, have lost roughly 400 billion tonnes of mass each year in the decade to 2015, becoming the main driver of the rising sea levels
  • Globally, the corals upon which half-a-billion people depend for food and protection are unlikely to survive surface warming of 2C above preindustrial levels. 
  • The warming is also expected to lead to a doubling in the frequency of extreme El Ninos, which drive forest fires, cause disease outbreaks and affect cyclones if emissions are not cut.

The Grave Situation

While the four - China, the United States, India and the European Union (accounting for nearly 60 per cent of global fossil fuel-based emissions) - face devastating fallout from the ocean and ice-related impacts of climate change, none seems prepared to announce more ambitious goals for purging carbon from its economy.

  1. US President Donald Trump was a no-show at the G7 climate segment at this year's summit in France. In 2017, Trump said the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. He has also systematically dissembled predecessor Barack Obama's climate policies.
  2. India is rapidly developing solar power, but continues to build up coal-fired capacity.
  3. The EU is moving towards a mid-century "net-zero" emissions goal, but several member states are dragging their feet.
  4. Long seen as a leader on climate, China - which emits nearly as much CO2 as the US, EU and India combined - has recently been sending mixed signals.

The time to act is NOW! There is a very small window left for India’s policymakers to respond to the severity of the threat. There is a need for the well-being of the masses to take precedence over short-term economic gains for a few.

Connecting the Dots:

  1. The same oceans that nourished human evolution are poised to unleash misery on a global scale unless the carbon pollution destabilising Earth's marine environment is brought to heel – Discuss.