Update on Climate Change: It's already happening!

For an agricultural economy like Pakistan, this poses severe threats to the economy and human lives

In December 2015, the Paris Agreement was signed by member countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This historic agreement lays out a global action plan to limit global warming to below 2°C by reducing emissions.

While this, a great step in the right direction, unfortunately the effects of global warming can already be seen. According to the latest state of the climate report by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), 2015 has seen "the toppling of several symbolic mileposts" in terms of sea level rise, heat as well as extreme weather events.

According to a statement by NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information:

“Last year’s record heat resulted from the combined influence of long-term global warming and one of the strongest El Niño events the globe has experienced since at least 1950".

The report confirms that 2015 was the warmest year and global temperature now has crossed the 1°C mark as compared to pre-industrial era. Global CO2 (a  green house gas) levels, are now at over 399 ppm, meaning that the task of keeping global warming below 20C is already a daunting one.

Sea level rise due to thermal expansion of oceans and melting glaciers was also the highest in 2015 and the oceans are now 70 mm higher than 1993 (when satellite measurements began). Tropical cyclones were also above average, with 101 cyclones occurring in all ocean basins in 2015.

Glaciers are showing increased net annual losses with the Arctic ice sheet showing the lowest maximum sea ice extent in its 37 year record and the Greenland ice sheet experienced melting of more than 50% of its surface. This has resulted in global sea levels hitting record highs as well. On the other hand temperatures in the Antarctic were lower than average and the sea ice extent varied from record highs in May to record lows in August 2015.

Another, less talked about issue is the spread of diseases, especially in the tropical and sub tropical areas. On August 3, 2016, it was reported that an anthrax outbreak had occurred in Siberia, Russia, which affected dozens of people and killing a child. The current thinking is that a heat wave has thawed out the frozen permafrost, uncovering the carcass of an anthrax infected reindeer. When the carcass warmed up the anthrax was revitalized and spread over the whole area. There are a lot of burial grounds in Siberia with infected reindeer carcasses, which had been killed due to repeated anthrax outbreaks in the 20th century (almost a million reindeer were killed). As the world warms up more, the mosquito Aedes Aegypti (which carries dengue, chikungunya and zika viruses) is likely to spread more, as may cholera. Cholera is spread through contaminated water and increased heat and flooding can lead to more incidences of the diseases in South Asian developing countries with poor sanitation.

South Asia is likely to feel the impacts of this changing climate immensely. Himalayan glacial melt has already shown an increase in floods in the main South Asian rivers. Increasing heat has meant more droughts and failing crops, as well as spread of disease.

In Pakistan, we have already observed the effects of rising temperatures in 2015, when a drastic heat wave resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people. Droughts and forest fires are also being observed at an increasing rate in many parts of the world, putting the lives and livelihoods of communities at severe risk. For an agricultural economy like Pakistan, this poses severe threats to the economy and human lives.

Already, every month in 2016 has been warmer than ever before and it is now a certainty that the current year will break the 2015 records. All of the above impacts are likely to impact Pakistan, a developing country, dependent on agriculture, with poor health and sanitation facilities. While the world rallies around to curb emissions, it will bode well for Pakistan to increase its efforts towards adapting to a changing climate. The situation is the same for other countries in South Asia, like India, Bangladesh and Nepal. All of them need to invest in increasing the resilience of their people to deal with climate change and its impacts.

Saima Baig is a Karachi-based environmental economist, climate change consultant and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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