Archive for December, 2014

AT the close of this year, we should all look back on the “big picture” and review the major challenges the world is facing and what needs to be done.

Environmental destruction and wars are the two biggest threats (both man-made) which may seal the fate of humanity. This piece is about the environment.

Melting ice caps; rising sea levels; extreme weather patterns; destructive, terrifying and unprecedented storms; disruption of agriculture; spread of diseases to new places and new kinds of diseases. They are all here and these are just some of the cryptic signs of global warming or climate change.

The end game, if it is not checked or reversed steadily, is the extermination of humanity. Exactly when and how fast the situation is deteriorating is still being debated due to the scientific and mathematical complexity of this phenomenon.

Only recently, from Dec 1 to 14 in Peru, another gathering of all nations tried with limited success, to agree on the targets, measures, responsibilities of all parties and the huge costs needed to address this environmental problem.

What exactly is the problem and why is it so serious and difficult to address?

Global warming is caused by excessive man-made emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), into the atmosphere making the earth warm faster than it should and causing havoc to the climate, weather patterns, food production and ecology.

It all started in a significant manner during the Industrial Revolution in the West more than 200 years ago, not long by human civilisations but long enough to alter the natural state of Earth to cause this massive ecological imbalance. It’s like planet Earth is suffering from a serious and uncontrollable bout of fever that is getting worse by the day and no medication seems to be working.

The countries most under immediate threat are the small island states which may disappear from rising sea levels but the destructive effects in other forms would soon engulf all other countries. It can be sudden or gradual, that’s the unpredictability of climate change.

Many Malaysians may not understand the dangerous effects of global warming on our daily lives thinking that they are something far away or would only affect us many years ahead.

The extreme weather conditions have been blamed by many experts to be the cause of the devastating floods in the East Coast and also the likely cause of the disappearance of AirAsia flight QZ8501.

At the rate things are going with little mitigating measures so far and many countries squabbling over their responsibilities, commitments and energy needs, many scientists agree it is only a question of when and no longer if, human life would simply end on this planet.

Even if humans disappear from the face of this planet (or future civilisations may be advanced enough to leave Earth and start colonies in other habitable planets), some scientists have predicted that other species of animals may survive, evolve and may eventually take over as masters of Earth. If this happens, let’s hope they will learn from the lessons and follies of humankind and not make the same mistakes.

All countries need vast amounts of energy to develop their economy and fossil fuels are the main sources of energy until now. CO2 is the main by-product from the usage of fossil fuels to produce energy.

But CO2 is an inert gas and not toxic. So the problem is not so much of it directly polluting the local air quality like making it dirty, but rather this “greenhouse effect” is the result caused by the build-up of such gases in the upper atmosphere.

It may seem harmless and indirect yet the long-term consequences are deadly and catastrophic. And herein lies the problem; because the negative effects are NOT so visible and immediate such as in localised water and air pollution, there does not appear to be a great sense of urgency.

And because the problem is global and “general” (“not in my own backyard” mentality), many nations feel they can conveniently push the responsibility to others or they keep postponing any counter-measures, either collectively or on their own, and some may wait for their future government administration to deal with it (also called “passing the buck to future generations”).

The development of renewable and reliable forms of energy, especially solar, and finding innovative and effective ways of burying compressed greenhouse gases in a more solid state beneath the earth surface may hold the keys to addressing this problem. In the meantime, all efforts must be made to cut back the inefficient use of fossil fuel. But this is easier said than done as traditional fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, are cheaper and more readily available.

An important habit to promote to consumers is to reduce energy wastage, such as switching off the lights and air cons when not needed.

The other hurdle to overcome is the high cost of new environment friendly technologies and the reluctance of developed countries to share a greater burden and responsibility to the solutions needed. Poor and developing countries cannot afford the costly new technologies, yet they are asked to sacrifice their developmental efforts for the global “common good”.

Twenty-two years ago, in June 1992 at the UN Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, the first international agreement on global warming called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was signed into place. It described the problem, identified the most likely causes and laid a broad framework for all countries to work together to address this global threat. Third world countries such as Malaysia were then unfairly blamed for not doing enough to protect the forests which acted as a carbon sink for the greenhouse gases.

I was at Rio as an adviser to the government and I remembered the euphoria when the convention was finally adopted after many days of horse-trading and late night intensive meetings among the delegates who were broadly divided into two camps – the developed and the developing countries.

It appears that the same old arguments were used then and at the recent conference in Peru. The positions of the developed and the developing nations remain broadly the same – whether to accept past and current responsibilities and what commitments they are prepared to make. And it’s also about being fair to developing countries in need of energy sources to develop their economy.

Of course, two wrongs do not make a right but it is grossly unfair to ask the poorer developing countries to sacrifice their economic development without offering them alternative, cleaner and reliable sources of energy that they can afford.

Addressing global warming has always been an economic and political issue and adopting a common and just approach acceptable to all nations is the biggest challenge.

May the global community find the collective will and resolve to work together to save humanity from extinction.

The writer was a former chief executive officer of a government-linked council involved in addressing certain environmental issues. Comments: