“Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath”-Nathaniel H. Egleston
At the turn of the 20th century, amidst the deteriorating environmental conditions, Nathaniel Egleston –the second Chief of the US Division of Forestry – took to his guilty conscience, awakened by a then-murky threat to existence that loomed large and heavy, and took his woes to the public eye. Through his renowned article for the Harper’s magazine, titled “what we owe the trees”, Egleston expressed his concerns about the influence of the then-pioneering Industrial Revolution on both the landscape and demography. He saw what others could not – capitalism at the expense of survival, veiled in the guise of a better way of living. While humans marveled at the leaps and bound it made, the ‘almighty dollar’ took helm and Mother Nature took the fall. Trees gained superficial economic value, and lumber production became common parlance – money was rolling in the pockets like never before, and the dollar assumed divinity. People took and took whatever they wanted from mother nature without holding their end of the bargain – there was no give-and-take; just take. People had adopted what Egleston pointed out as a “freebooter style”, and he could see what everything was leading up to – humanity at a crossroads with nature. Reforestation was then alien a concept, and there was no sight of karmic justice. Nature did come to settle the bargain once or twice, but it did not awake the human conscience on a global scale. The infamous smog of 1952 capitalized on the remorse of industrialists, but after a series of repeated denials of the correlation between the deaths and the pollution that the coal stations emitted, prompted the British government to reconsider its energy mix and pass the world’s first “Clean Air Act”. But that was it for the rest of the world then, for money had to be made fast and economies had to be built. Profiteering became humanity’s best friend at the expense of the trees – our sincerest compadres. Common wisdom dictates that the value of something is not realized until it is gone, and the same applies to mother nature – trees slowly exacted its vengeance, and the world we lived in changed for the worse. We won the battle but slowly started losing the war without even knowing about it; or how Egleston subtly says:
“The trees are man’s best friends; but man has treated them as his enemies. The history of our race may be said to be the history of warfare upon the tree world. But while man has seemed to be the victor, his victories have brought upon him inevitable disasters”
Humans are creatures of habit – where threats to survival loom in, the conscience breaks free and humanity is pushed to a united front. Lands, weapons and bombs may have reigned supreme for a while, but no more – there’s a new kid on the block, and he is as ruthless and merciless as one can be. Even the monster under the bed falls pale in comparison to the nightmare of our own creation. Climate change – or perhaps more aptly, climate ‘breakdown’ – is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the twenty-first century.2020 bears witness to it – was the world not warned earlier about the impacts of messing with the environment, one of them being an outbreak of zoonotic vector-borne disease? Were red flags not raised on every medium possible (with even Netflix featuring an explanatory episode in its popular infotainment show, “Explained”, on the looming risks of the pandemic)? Were they not raised high enough? Did we not hold our end of the bargain with nature? It is ironic for the very species that relies on the trees – for the oxygen to breathe in, for the fruits it bears for energy, for the by-products it expels for the profiteering we wag our tails around, and for regulating extreme temperatures that we face (to name a few) – to take it for granted. Did trees change course? No, but humans did. Egleston would be turning in his grave right about now.
So, what has exactly brought humanity to crossroads with nature? What has brought the need to fight for our survival? And the most important questions that one need to ask is: why is unanimity of support a forlorn dream? Why is climate modification not treated as an existential threat in various modicums of the social order? Rational questions with irrational directives, one must say.
“Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time”
The proof is truly in the pudding. People have started to notice. Glaciers have shrunk; ice caps on water bodies are breaking apart; water body levels are rising and getting warmer; temperature and weather patterns are exhibiting volatile aberrations; species are changing trajectories; the flora and fauna around are slowly counting its days; trees are flowering sooner than expected; agricultural yields are shrinking; water cycles are accelerated in an unhealthy discourse for its inhabitants; coral reefs are bleaching; marine and terrestrial ecosystems are on the brink of destruction; and the list goes on. By 2018, mean warming of about 1.2°C beyond preindustrial baseline has already caused unacceptable impacts, but it does not stop there. The demons are coming sooner than one predicted – as per WMO’s estimates, the mean increase of 1.5°C, expected by 2030, will be here earlier than expected (no more than in the following five years). There’s more – through 2024, nearly every region on Earth is predicted to be hotter than it has been in the “recent past”. The Arctic region will experience the most significant warming by then – it has already witnessed its ‘historic’ loss in ice caps in the year 2020. The Antarctic region will experience the most significant storms by then – something it does not usually bid hello to. Forget horror movies and folklores for the thrills and chills; we’ve set a stage for all the horrors to follow. The climate change models, unlike most models of differing purposes, have remained mostly accurate. The pandora’s box is slowly unravelling, and the wake-up call has never sounded more desperate than now.
“As climate model projections have matured, more signals have emerged from the noise of natural variability that allow for retrospective evaluation of other aspects of climate models — for instance, in Arctic sea ice and ocean heat content. But it’s the temperature trends that people still tend to focus on.”
It is true that temperatures and weather patterns are changing. But what does it mean for the survival of human life, exactly? Well, the more the world stockpiles on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more we risk the depletion of the protective stratospheric ozone layer – 2020 bears witness to the historic deficit in ozone layer over the Antarctic region. The deficit that, in the preceding year, exhibited the lowest historic contraction ever has left everyone in a flurry of negative emotions, and that too in a year where anything and everything could happen. More harmful ultraviolet radiations (the B- and C- types) are able to easily penetrate all protective layers that the atmosphere harbors. This is where greenhouse gases add insult to injury –if any heat was meant to escape, the entrapment of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides, to name a few, will ensure that the lid remains tight. In effect, heat waves become common practice. More people are affected and pushed to the gallows with increasing prevalence of heat cramps and strokes. Rates of melanoma and cataracts cases keep jumping with every day we choose to turn a blind eye to mother nature. Children are resultantly born with genetic mutations. When the human body’s core temperature reaches the temperature of 38.5°C, an adult is exposed to a cascade of symptoms, and healthy organ functioning is, in due process, compromised. Living a healthy life has become a difficult and often dangerous task to fulfill.
“Climate change is not just an environmental issue; it is a technology, water, food, energy, [and] population issue. None of this happens in a vacuum”
(David W. Titley)
It takes on a toll on the produce that we eat and the water we drink to surviveon. With trees maturing faster than disposed, the fruits they bear do not necessarily possess the nutrients it ought to carry – in extreme cases, they bear no fruits at all. For the capitalist and profiteers, another perspective might run a chill down the spine: crop yields are falling. Forget biofuels if the crops are not enough to even feed a single person. For the consumers, it equates to undernutrition and malnutrition. Climate modifications will alter the trajectory of migration patterns of harmful insects and pests – the locust infestation (and the economic and social losses it carried with it) should come as no surprise at all for the inhabitants of Kenya, Somalia and some South-East Asian nations (Pakistan included). With an already-domineering situation of global poverty, undernourishment and malnutrition, the developing nations will take the first hit. They already have. Others will follow suit.
“The violence that exists in the human heart is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air, and in living things”
One of the many things that makes humans special from the rest of the animal kingdom is their diverse dietary needs – they rely not just on the fruits of our toil, but also on the flesh and produce of certain animals. While the continuity of various crops dangles on thin ice, the fate of animals (and the animal kingdom, as a whole) also hangs on a balance. Lands are riddled with increasing prevalence of droughts and depleting yields. Eutrophication is accelerating beyond control, and water bodies are deprived of the necessary conditions to regulate life within. In effect, habitats are altered or become inhabitable – the warming ocean bodies are already pushing schools of fish away from their original habitats. Migration carries with it the potential risk of an epidemic outbreak – the fresh wounds from the coronavirus outbreak should be enough to sum up the detriments of the latter. Adding fuel to the fire, the woes of water- and air-pollution are threatening to adulterate the food chain at large – clean water bodies, for instance,are be robbed of the purity and benefit it was meant to offer. The 1956 Minamata outbreak in Japan is as good an example as any.
Breathing nowadays feels like playing with fire – with an abundance of noxious and toxic gases present in the air we breathe, one improves the odds of physiological impairments and mortality. And with the increasing concentration of ozone and greenhouse gases, nature’s self-cleansing protocol is violated – the pollutants are unable to escape even the troposphere (our breathing space). Even in small quantities, this poisonous cocktail of gases poses an existential threat of grave repercussions. These gases silently pile up within the respiratory or circulatory systems, accumulating to the point where they are no more a drop of poison; rather, an ocean of it.
If the aforementioned fails to serve its purpose, then perhaps economic woes might titillate the conscience of the ‘dollar-guided’. Undeterred increments of temperature and climatic detriments would mean a drastically-abridged fertility of the lands that we rely on. Crops will fail to mature efficiently. The products do not command the same value as it used to. The swelling of droughts and siltation has made land unsuitable for any use, let alone agriculture or construction. The livelihoods of people dependent on such lands has gravely contracted, adding to the woes of different socio-economic classes within. Anomalous calamities – acid rains, storms and otherwise – are reigning supreme. Land is losing its value in more ways than just economic ones – the price tag means nothing if it can’t satiate the socioeconomic and necessitated value that it ought to deliver.
“There is one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent threat of a changing climate”
If something needs to be done, it needs to be done now rather than later. And as common wisdom dictates, if there is a will, there is a way – or better still, if there is a will, there is unity. The existential threat is real. There is no denying the harrowing climate statistics – humans tend to aberrate from the truth, but numbers do not lie. It is time to carry the mantle of change ourselves as well and face the looming threat with a cohesive front. Unity has helped generations, and its time the twenty-first century jumped leaps and bounds itself. The lives of the generations to follow depends on how we act today. Time for more Thunbergs and Gores.
“People need to stop financing denial of climate change”
For that to happen, an army needs to be raised. The curtains of ignorance must be removed from the field of sight of as many people as possible. Current technological capabilities make it possible to engage more people with facts and information, especially in the way that is understood by a specific person – there is no one-size-fits-all, and the gap between the knowing and otherwise must be mitigated through the way one understands. This is where a robust, rightly-guided and unbiased media takes the spot light – infomercials and public awareness programs must be tailored to local needs (or, rather, the needs of the viewers it hosts). Governmental and not-for-profit organizations of every country must invest the necessary resources – be it time, finance, human capital, and so on – to embark on educating its citizenry. With a plethora of media to capitalize on, this would not be difficult task.
“We must now agree on a binding review mechanism under international law, so that this century can credibly be called a ‘century of [decarbonization]”
Shiny enterprises and state-of-the-art legislations might look good on paper, but the entire exercise fails if one does not walk the talk – there is no point of a legislation without legally-binding commitments. The relative successes of the Kyoto Protocol are an example of the wonders compliance can do for the world (though one may argue against its efficacy and shortcomings). Moreover, there is no point for a nation to attend a Convention and sign an MEAjust for the sake of the ‘almighty vote-bank’ and leaving it unratified. Even more baffling is the curious case of advanced economies like the US and Canada rashly pulling out of ratified agreements like the Paris Accord – if the world leaders want to inspire and lead by example, they are not doing a very good job at it. Now is not the time of personal interests; mother nature does not discriminate between the rich and poor, white and dark, man and woman, the affluent and poor-struck, and so on. Its’s tongue is one and not bound by any language, and the message is one and same for all; when such is the case, shouldn’t our response follow suit?
“Be part of the solution, not the problem”
(Stephen R. Covey)
The next steps, on an individual and communal level, are self-explanatory – making amends with mother nature. The adulteration of the environment needs to be curbed. For such to happen, existing and prospective pollution-control policies must be undertaken. Carbon-reduction commitments must be expedited to the maximum possible. The fight against ozone-depleting substances must be won at all costs. Redundant and polluting technology and practices must be phased out – it is heartwarming to see a keen player like Pakistan taking big steps in alternating the traditional brick kilns with the modern-day zig zag kilns, or imposing sanctions on stubble-burning to combat the issue of smog and air pollution. If trees are meant to be cut down, the same (or more) must be given back to the Earth – afforestation and reforestation must become common practice (one is again reminded of Pakistan’s awe-inspiring ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ project).Economic and social incentives must take root if one is to lure the affluent – tax incentives for adopting, or shifting to, green technology is a good start. Appropriate penalties must hold the miscreants at bay. Humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels in its energy mix must cease to exist. Renewable resources must be sought and exploited to the fullest.
It does not stop here. Municipal and household wastes must be properly disposed. Trash must end up in the correct bin. Vehicles should not emit noxious and unhealthy gases, for which battery-operated engines or green-tech (such as catalytic converters) should do the trick. Industries and pollution hotspots must be built far away from residential areas and water bodies. Emissions should be filtered for toxic gases – a plethora of scrubbers, electrostatic precipitators and filtering technologies are available. Sanctuaries must be built to preserve depleting flora and fauna species. Water bodies must be purified of any non-degradable and poisonous litter it harbors. And the list goes on and on.
“We have a single mission: to protect and hand on the planet to the next generation”
There is so much to do, but so little time to do everything. Climate change must be taken seriously. The time is past when humanity thought it could selfishly draw on exhaustible resources and do as it please. We all know now that Earthis not a commodity. The battle is lost, but the war is not over(yet). And while the damage has been done, it is not too late to make amends. The lives of our children and theirs hangs in the balance. Solutions to the crisis are within reach, but in order to capture them, we must take urgent action today across every level of society. In order to do so, we need to gather our brains and take helm of the battleground. Climate change has united mankind more than ever, and it’s a race against time and odds. No one says it better than Christine Legarde:
“It is a collective endeavor, it is collective accountability, and it may not be too late”
The debate is no more about the legitimacy of climate change. It is about whether we will live to tell the tales of our successes. Will we make history or become a part of it? The victor at the end of the war will surely know the answer to this.