The temperature in a small town in Eastern Russia, Verkhoyansk, located 10 kilometres above the Arctic circle, recently pushed to an astonishing 38 degrees Celsius—hotter than the annual average of Dhaka, Toronto, New York, or Los Angeles, during the same time of the year. One of many other signs of rapid climate change includes retreating glaciers, release of permafrost, and vast reserves of trapped methane in lakes and the ground that are slowly being released in the Arctic. Just earlier this month, the City of Norilsk had to face a 21,000-ton diesel leak from a tank that possibly failed due to weakened foundations from melting permafrost. And last year, wildfires roughly the size of Belgium burned across Siberia. This isn’t simply concerning, but an urgent call that our current climate system is failing earlier than climate models had predicted.
If you think these are just one-off weather patterns, think again. According to Copernicus Climate Change Service, this past May 2020 was one of the warmest months in recorded history. Using satellite data, we have seen 1.68 million square kilometres of sea ice being lost, an area approximately 11 times the size of Bangladesh. In fact, the recent extreme temperature anomalies have surprised many seasoned climate scientists.
This is where the inherent risk lies; the possible underestimation of climate models and thinly-buffered responses from the COP meetings. There is no such thing as perfect data and if anything, it may have slowed climate action. First, it must be remembered that climate change, global warming or whatever terminology you wish to label our current condition, does not respect any geo-political boundary and has endless variables. Second, while the hot weather in Siberia may seem like an isolated incident, there is mounting evidence that human-induced climate change is coupling with weather patterns to create climate extremes across the world, and Bangladesh will receive the brunt of it. Last year the epicentre was the 20 percent of Australia’s forest that burned, this past week it was a town above the Arctic Circle that faced the hottest day on record, and tomorrow a climate-based calamity may come knocking on your own door.
So, what can we do to address this problem? The news is inundated with countries desperate to go back to its capitalistic ways. The profit maximisation model will hasten our linear movement to the same sputtering economic model that our forefathers had envisioned as the panacea for success. Yale professor Ben Cashore calls the global situation a “super wicked problem” in that the ones who are causing the problem in the first place are also trying to solve the problem. At this point, the hard truth is that the poorest half of our planet probably isn’t anxious about how warm Siberia is, or that the COP-26 meeting was postponed due to Covid-19. Instead, they are rightfully concerned about actions that will bring food to peoples’ tables this week. Thus, we must adapt our solutions in more practical terms. A completely new system is almost impossible to achieve on short notice, due to the omnipresent foundations of our economic system. However, what we can do, as we pick up the pieces from a world visibly ravaged by the coronavirus, is to amplify the variety of tools already available in our toolbox.
A light at the end of this Covid-19 crisis tunnel comes from Paris. City authorities have already cleared up 650 kilometres of bicycling paths to prevent traffic congestion. Bike rental along with the sale of new bikes have gone up. Britain has come leaps and bounds from 2010, when 40 percent of its electrical power came from coal, and by early April 2020, the last coal burning plant was turned off (partly due to the coronavirus lockdowns). This milestone isn’t just limited to coal-based power. The UK is now home to the largest off-shore wind generating farm in the world, estimated to be able to power over 10 percent of electricity needed for the country by the end of this year. City of Vancouver, Canada has an ambitious 100 percent renewable energy target and the United States, for the first time in well over 100 years, has consumed more energy from renewable sources than coal. If countries can replicate and keep the momentum going, we would still be somewhat on the right track.
In the context of Bangladesh, being inspired is one thing, but ground level action is another ball-game altogether. For example, forest cover in Bangladesh was to be increased to 20 percent by 2015, and that goal has shifted to 2021, with potential for further delays. It is critical to understand why such an ambition did not meet its original goal to ensure there is no a repeat of the same problem. We saw during the recent super cyclone Amphan how the Sunderbans acted as a natural barrier to absorb its impact. Thus, it is pressing that we continue to increase the buffer zone for the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Furthermore, we urgently need to develop a wide green-belt of forest area along the coastal regions of Barisal, Nohakhali and Chittagong that will help increase our national carbon sink and buffer against cyclones.
Furthermore, countries like Bangladesh need to find greener solutions to energy production as opposed to archaic methods from finite resources. The argument that wealthy countries had access to cheap energy and therefore we should as well is retrogressive. It leads to unsustainable national growth that will plague our immediate and future potential. Other than retroactively amending national policy, we should make use of the Green Climate Fund through effective green innovation from strong public-private partnerships. Such innovation can be a paradigm for the rest of the world to follow. Moreover, using the highly effective Canada Fund for Local Initiatives is another way small NGOs can have greater national impact.
Finally, we should not forget that we are now living in the time of the sixth great-extinction on our planet, and this one is being caused by us. Regardless of the cyclical nature of attempting to solve the very problems we have collectively manufactured, individuals can still make a difference. Don’t forget to turn off your gas stove when it is not in use, turn off lights and air conditioners when you leave the room and guide others along the way. Those small gestures still add up, and they still matter.
Shams-il Arefin Islam, Associate Fellow, Yale Berkeley College, Yale Young Global Scholars Fellow 2018-2019, is a Yale University Graduate.