Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen characterized the current epoch as the Anthropocene. Our kind possesses the power to transform our planet on par with volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers.
Our unprecedented success and capacity to dominate the planet, relative to other creatures, has been made possible through centuries of cleaver manipulation of knowledge, energy and technology. We harnessed fossil fuels to power the industrial revolution, the agrarian revolution and more recently, the information revolution.
Take the newspaper or the electronic device you have in front of you now. It is a testament of how our lives and economies are dependent on energy – the heavy machinery that logged trees or excavated mineral ore and shipped them to factories that turned trees into paper and mineral ore into electronic devices, the trucks that distribute the newspaper and the electricity that power your devices.
Nearly 80 percent of the energy that powers our economies and enables hundreds of millions of activities that make our lives possible – from entertainment to waging war to saving lives – is generated from fossil fuels.
However, the enormous creature comforts of the modern civilization and the breathtaking economic progress we have enjoyed have not been without consequences. By burning fossil fuels, we have released huge volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. About 150 years ago the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were circa 270 parts per million. Today, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are estimated at over 400 parts per million.
High levels of carbon dioxide, along with other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are associated with a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. Essentially these gases create a blanket thus absorbing and preventing long wave radiation from the earth’s surface from escaping into the upper layers of the atmosphere. The net effect is the earth’s atmospheric temperature rises and it becomes a sort of hothouse.
The hothouse effect is called global warming. Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that average global temperatures could increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celcius by the year 2100. This may seem to far into the future to worry about. The temperature rises might seem too trivial, but the consequences will be catastrophic for all lifeforms on the planet.
Data from NASA, which dates back to 1880 and confirmed by Japan Metrological Agency suggests that July 2015 was the hotest month in atleast 4,000 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also predicts that a strong El Nino id building up, one that could outscale the intensity of the record 1997/98 event, which visted devasting havoc on our economy infrastructure, health and livelihoods.
Science shows that there is an unequivocal link between carbon dioxide emissions from utilization of fossil fuels and dangerous global warming. But skeptics exist, including US presidential hopeful Donald Trump or Nobel Laureate Ivar Giaever who believes that global warming is a non problem, which will take care of itself if left alone.
There are also strong advocates for why we need to cut back on carbon pollution. Pope Francis in his 2015 Encyclical warned that addiction to fossil fuels and compulsive materialism was pushing the planet to a perilous breaking point. According to the Pope, humanity faces ruin without a revolution in our hearts and minds. According to US President Barak Obama, climate change is not some future threat to our children or grandchildren, it is a reality we are experiencing today. Hence the time to act is now. Obama argues that carbon dioxide, like chemical wastes such as mercury, arsenc and sulphur must be regulated.
This November, the world will converge in Paris at the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convetion on Climate Change. I am not holding my breath for a global deal. But I think we all have a moral obligation as citizens of the world to act responsibly and preserve the planet for future generations. COP 21 must be about what individual nations and communities can do curb carbon pollution. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, we must undergo a radical revolution of values.
We must shift from a society hypnotized by big business and profits built on profilgate consumption of carbon to a people-centered society. Now is the time to begin to end our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels and put our economies on solid path of responsible growth powered by renewable clean energy.