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CWA # 193, 31 December 2019

The World This Year
Climate Change in 2019: Active Civil Society, Hesitant State

  Rashmi Ramesh

Climate change is no more a phenomenon of the future, it is a reality. The first decade of the 21st century experienced the effects in a way that reiterates the existence of this phenomenon. 

What happened?
2019 witnessed a series of events pertaining to the environment and climate change- destructive disasters on one hand and international conferences on climate change. 
Brazilian Amazon, Australia, Indonesia had suffered from distinct high temperatures and forest fires, resulting in damage of bio-diversity. High temperatures have also gradually melted the glaciers, Greenlandic ice sheet and Antarctic ice sheet in the polar regions. One of the immediate effects of melting is the rise in sea level, along with the rise, water bodies are also experiencing excessive heating and acidification. Such developments cause high-intensity cyclones and hurricanes. Dorian is noted as the most devastating hurricanes in the history of the Bahamas Islands. 

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for the Climate Action Summit to discuss climate action and enhance the nationally determined contributions. Conference of Parties-25 was held in Madrid, where the focus was on implementation of the Paris Agreement. 

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teen was named the TIME Person of the Year for her contribution in raising awareness about climate change and inspiring the younger generation to voice their dissent over state apathy towards climate change. 

What is the background?
Science had warned about climate change long time ago when the existence of Ice Age was discovered in the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, scientists foresaw the intensity in changes, particularly keeping the Industrial Revolution as the breaking point. It is now proved that the Industrial Revolution in Europe contributed to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. As a reason, the concept of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ was put across. 

Climate change is a natural process that earth experiences and scientists have termed these periods as epochs. There have been references to Anthropocene (an epoch where human beings are capable of influencing the natural cycles of the planet) as a new geological epoch, succeeding the Holocene. Though there are differences of opinions over the term and the time period of the new epoch, scientists express consensus over the role of human beings in climate change. The focus is now on looking at climate change through this angle, rather than separating human actions and the environmental processes. The disasters that occurred in 2019 are also being perceived in a similar fashion.

What does it mean?
First, climate change is no more a phenomenon of the future, it is a reality. The first decade of the 21st century experienced the effects in a way that reiterates the existence of this phenomenon. 

Second, the question of whether ‘natural disasters’ are ‘natural’ anymore. The Amazon fires were caused by the burn and slash agriculture method. It was the case with Indonesian wildfires as well. The heat generated by Amazonian fire expedited the melting of glaciers in the Andes mountain range. The link between fire and melting glaciers is just an example. But, at the larger level, scientists opine that human actions act as an additive value to the already devastating disasters. 

Third, civil society has become more sensitive towards environmental issues and aware of climate change. European countries are leading in this front. Climate protests have ensured that the political leaders take this issue on a more serious note. For the first time, election campaigns focused on climate change at this scale. Democrats in the United States and the parties in the United Kingdom spoke about green deals and climate action. Bangladesh passed a resolution in the Parliament, declaring ‘planetary emergency’ where climate change and loss of biodiversity are included. Australia presents a contrary picture, where, the Conservative coalition won the polls in May 2019. Despite the deteriorating condition of the Great Barrier Reef and continuous droughts, Australians chose to vote for the coalition that has long resisted any action on carbon reduction.  

The role of youth has particularly been very encouraging. Sixteen children/teens including Greta Thunberg from Sweden complained to the UNICEF regarding states’ inaction towards climate change. Of these children, six of them were from the developing countries like India, Nigeria, Brazil, Tunisia, Argentina and the Marshall Islands. In the coming days, civil society in developing countries may don a more proactive role. 

Fourth, the nature of international negotiations over climate change has not seen much change. Countries continue to diverge over crucial issues that necessarily clash with their national interests. It was witnessed in both UN Climate Action Summit and COP 25. There were neither strong announcements in the Climate Action Summit, nor any consensus and agreement in the COP. With this, the negotiations over the framework for operationalizing the Paris Agreement is slated to happen in 2020.

Fifth, 2019 was another year of paradoxes. Governments promise for more action to deal with climate change, but are mostly non-committal. In some cases, countries talk about protection and conservation at the domestic level but contribute to activities outside, which increase global warming. Norway is a classic example- it talks about climate change, protection of the Arctic, and sustainable development; but exports hydrocarbons to a few EU countries, UK, US and China. The debate of economy vs environment has reached a peak, and it raises doubts over the possibility of sustainable development itself. 

Sixth, since climate change is a reality, the next question is whether mitigation is possible or is an adaptation, the way forward. As of 2019, mitigation has been the priority for the international community. 

Rashmi B R is a PhD scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. She can be contacted at rashmiramesh5@gmail.com.

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