That’s it then; scientists have confirmed that the carbon dioxide level in the Earth’s atmosphere has crossed 400 parts per million. And the way it looks, it’s probably the point of no return. According to the Scientific American, the last time the world saw carbon dioxide levels above 400ppm was some 3.6 million years ago, a period that was known as the middle Pliocene.
So how do we understand the crossing of this threshold exactly?
Imagine the planet is a car. All of us — you, your friends and family, colleagues, and strangers — have been driving about for a while. Some, more than others, have heated up the car by driving it recklessly (pumping fossil fuels and greenhouse gases deliriously into the atmosphere). The temperature is soaring, and it’s getting hotter inside the car. It doesn’t matter that we know, like climatologist Dr. James Hansen has said, that 350ppm is the optimum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But now that we’ve crossed over to the dark side of CO2, we realise that turning the ignition off isn’t going to change anything. We’ve got to keep driving in that hot car full of seven billion people.
What’s growing up in a world with 400ppm of CO2 going to be like? It’s not going to be pretty.
Already, 2016 is slated to be the hottest year on record. We have all, in some form or the other, been witness to the impacts of climate change. Unpredictable weather has wreaked havoc in different parts of the country and the world, threatening livelihood and food security. Droughts, famines, air and water-borne diseases are proliferating.
Worse, when it comes to climate change, children are the most vulnerable. The UNICEF report ‘ Unless We Act Now: The Impact of Climate Change on Children’ puts it succinctly: “There may be no greater, growing threat facing the world’s children — and their children — than climate change.”
Another UNICEF report, ‘ Children and Climate Change: Children’s Vulnerability to Climate Change and Disaster Impacts in East Asia and the Pacific’, explains further: “The types of climate risks confronting children are diverse, ranging from direct physical impacts, such as cyclones, storm surges and extreme temperatures, to impacts on their education, psychological stress and nutritional challenges.” The report mentions that soaring temperatures are linked to “increased rates of malnutrition, cholera, diarrhoeal disease and vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria”.
“For me, growing up in a warmer world means that each month is likely to be warmer than the next, and the weather is going to be extremely uncertain (erratic monsoons, increase in typhoons),” says Payal Parekh, the programme director of climate group 350.org. “When these storms hit, children have the least resources and abilities to survive them, especially children in the poor villages along the coast; they suffer when there is drought in the form of malnutrition and we know that often means girls are the first to get less to eat,” adds Parekh. The organisation 350.org is named after the optimum amount of CO2 level in the atmosphere.
The good news, of course, is that on Gandhi Jayanti, India ratified the Paris agreement, right on the heels of the USA and China. India became the 62nd country to ratify the agreement, which looks to keep global temperature increase between 1.5 to 2°C. These may seem like small degrees of temperature change, but the repercussions are far-reaching. A World Bank Report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 °C Warmer World Must be Avoided, warns that a “4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs”. This includes higher malnutrition rates, unprecedented heat waves, and loss of biodiversity.
As Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director writes in the foreword to the Unless We Act Now report, “No human responsibility runs deeper than the charge of every generation to care for the generation that follows it. For current and future generations of children, and for us all, the stakes could not be higher.”