Detailing climate change

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Rescuers look for farm workers believed to have been buried by a landslide in Cameron Highlands on Nov 6. Higher rainfall inputs due to climate change could increase the chances of landslides. — File photo

AT the beginning of this month, the very lengthy and detailed ‘Intergovernmental Panel Report on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014’ was published at the end of the United Nations IPCC meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark.

It focussed on the impacts, adaptation and vulnerability that climate change would cause. It frankly stated that unless we take rapid action to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions, our world can expect “severe and pervasive” negative inputs from climate change.

This report is based on scientific evidence provided by distinguished academic experts worldwide and is a prelude and guide to world governments and their advisors before the Paris summit in December next year. There it is hoped that an international agreement curbing greenhouse gas emissions will be signed.

If we continue to burn fossil fuels at our present rate, the temperature worldwide will rise between 4 and 5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. If before then all nations contribute to a reduction in global temperatures of less than 2 degrees Celsius, then we could eliminate the fears of dangerous heat waves, flooding, ill health and aggressive conflicts.

Implications for Asia

The report devotes 43 pages in Chapter 24 to implications for Asia. Generally there has been an increasing number of warm days continuing from the last century. Rainfall inputs too have varied. With an ever increasing demand for water as cities grow and with generally higher standards of living, there is a great need for water-saving technologies and water re-use strategies.

Higher temperatures will lead to lower rice yields with shorter growing periods and thus further irrigation demands. A steady rise in sea levels will sadly affect reclaimed mangrove swampland, now converted into productive padi fields, through storm damage and the gradual intrusion of salt water into the subsoil.

The report does, however, state that the impacts of climate change on the vegetation of lowland tropical areas need further research.

Animal, bird and fish distributions and the continued survival of some species will lead to a change in habitats and migratory patterns. In coastal area mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass beds could decline. With the present pattern of ever increasing sea surface temperatures, this warming, together with the progressive acidification of our seas, will see further damage to coral reefs and thus a knock-on effect on fish species that colonise the reefs.

Rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and economic development combined with climate change will increase environmental pressures in the removal of natural vegetation through land clearance. This can be counteracted by preserving native trees and by replanting, using fast-growing species to create ‘urban lungs’ to absorb carbon dioxide and replenish oxygen.

Although not mentioned in this report, Kuching, as a city north and south of the Sarawak River, has taken the lead amongst Southeast Asian cities in achieving just this. It is a green city.

Meteorologists worldwide document extreme climate events and observe their increasing frequency. Southeast Asia is no exception to this but more frequent and intense heat waves will increase mortality and morbidity amongst the vulnerable. Higher temperatures combined with increases in heavy rainfall inputs will inevitably heighten the risk of dengue fever, malaria and diarrhoeal diseases.

Added to this, with increased flooding and sudden dry spells, rice crops could fail and thus food prices and living costs could rapidly rise. The report particularly details that temperatures in Southeast Asia have increased at a rate of between 0.14 degrees Celsius and 0.20 degrees Celsius each decade since 1960.

Higher temperatures could lead to lower rice yields and greater irrigation demands.

The frequency of heavy rainfall is increasing, with annual totals of wet-day rainfall increasing by an average of 22 millimetres every decade. It is the intensity of rainfall deluges that present insuperable problems to man, animals and plants in terms of environmental damage.

In lowland forests, the flowering of plants are activated by irregular droughts. A decrease in droughts could also mean a reduction in seed dispersal and thus an increase of those species that can tolerate heavier rainfall inputs. Currently five of the species of marine turtles nest on Asian beaches. Will they survive or migrate northwards? Most of the larger river deltas in Asia are sinking, owing to ground water extraction and the trapping of upriver sediments by the creation of dams for reservoir lakes.

Without coral reefs and the replanting of mangrove swamps – both natural absorbers of wave energy – the present rate of sea level rise will increase the rate of storm inundation with possible further loss of both human and animal life.

There is, however, a certain ambivalence in this global report as many of the findings are based on simulation models. Whilst some research implies that higher temperatures will lead to lower rice yields, due to a shorter growing period, other research suggests that an increase in atmospheric CO2 should enhance photosynthesis and thereby increase rice yields.

The debate will continue. The report does not distinguish between the threats to either hill rice or lowland rice farmers. Perhaps the statement that “farmers have been adapting to climate risks for generations” and “indigenous and local strategies have been well documented in Southeast Asia” should put our minds at rest.

One of the great problems facing many Southeast Asian countries has been understated in this report: that of settlements on unstable slopes in landslide prone areas. Higher rainfall inputs increase the chances of landslides and thus the loss of life. It is suggested that rural poverty is greater than urban poverty and will increase further still with continuing climate change.

The push and pull factors of migration from rural to urban environments, whilst being a phenomena worldwide, could result in the rural poor taking lower paid jobs on urban construction sites. Heat stress disorders amongst the workforce, resulting in productivity losses, have already been recorded in some Southeast Asian countries.

Simply, in monetary terms, mankind needs to earn and learn to survive at whatever stage of development. Likewise animals, birds, fish and plants need their habitats to be protected. We must be the protectors of our planet, for clearly the threats occasioned by climate change will not disappear next year, or in a decade or within the next 86 years, unless all nations give their utmost support to the proposed agreement at the Paris summit next year and, more importantly, abide by their promises. It is not beyond hope to achieve.

For more go to www.ipcc.ch.