The recent heat wave in India has cost some 2,500 lives, but both government officials and scientists say this could be just the beginning of widespread heat-related deaths in a changing climate with increasing temperatures.
And don’t think that this is an issue that concerns only developing nations and countries stretched to the limit by overpopulation like India.
In the United States, studies have shown that heat is associated with excess mortality in many regions of the country, and recent floods in Texas and Oklahoma, in which scores of people died, are also attributed by many scientists to human-made global warming.
Indeed, climate change is thought to be contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing over $1 trillion to the global economy. (1)
To say then that climate change is a real and urgent problem would be an understatement, although this is not to deny the fact that there are still plenty of climate change deniers around and more than plenty of powerful forces that stand to lose as a result of economic adjustments that seek to control climate change.
Satellites that have recorded temperatures over the last few decades confirm that humans are the main cause of climate change.
Greenhouse gases, caused primarily by the burning of fuel fossils, are the principal driver in the changes in global surface temperatures.
Of course, all modern economies are based on fossil fuels, which means shifting to alternative energy sources will be hard and it will take decades to accomplish.
Nonetheless, inaction will surely prove to be utterly catastrophic in the years ahead for the entire planet.
As the authors of a recently published book on climate change point out, even “average global warming above 2°C (3.6°F) could trigger potentially devastating events.” (2)
With a global average warming of 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit), the same authors warn, even the word “catastrophic” would be inaccurate in capturing the scale of the destruction that would follow.
Global sea levels would rise and many coastal cities would sink into the oceans. Crop output would be lowered significantly, with prices rising exponentially, and food production and distribution would be affected across the board. Rising temperatures will cause increasingly severe and long-lasting droughts, with simply immeasurable economic and social consequences. Floods and tropical storms will also increase in many parts of the world, wiping out fast areas of crops and causing massive infrastructure damage.
With increasing temperatures, social unrest, violence and chaos will also increase, creating new political and social challenges, which will have, undoubtedly, enormous repercussions on notions like “democracy,” “individual liberties” and “human rights.”
In sum, civilized life itself, as we know it, will be severely affected.
So, what can be done about global warming and climate change?
To the disappointment of a certain variant of the environmentally conscious community, individual actions in response to the challenges posed by global warming are like drops in the ocean.
As individuals, we all have an obligation and responsibility to the planet’s ecosystem, which means we have to pitch in every way we know how in order to help save the environment and reduce carbon dioxide omissions (recycling, driving and flying less, using less air conditioning, and so on), but any effective response to climate change must be systemic.
The actions undertaken by individual countries will not suffice to prevent the planet from getting hotter. A global problem requires a global response.
But as impossible as this undertaking may seem, given that capitalism is driven entirely by the profit motive, there are already precedents of international collaboration on a wide range of global environmental issues.
The “Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer” is one such perfect example. This is probably the biggest environmental success story. It was signed in 1987 by just 24 countries, but subsequently ratified by 197 nations. Thanks to this protocol, the ozone layer crisis has been averted and the ozone hole is well on track to recovery. (3)
Global warming requires similar systemic thinking and action, especially since it poses a far greater challenge than the ozone hole.
For starters, we need to transform our energy system by moving away from coal and other fossil fuels.
Secondly, cap and trade approaches for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are mostly favored by economists, need to be supplemented by a regulatory approach. Leaving everything up to market forces has proven a disastrous approach across the economic and social spectrum.
Thirdly, there must be a systemic approach to reducing tropical deforestation, including systematic monitoring and analysis of deforestation and a crackdown on corruption in environmental agencies.
Fourthly, there need to be substantial increases in green technology investments by the public sector.
Eco-investing requires the kind of attention that is usually assigned by nations to national and international security issues.
And it must be done on a global level, probably with the creation of a global public fund that would allocate resources to all countries so they can invest in green technology.
Without global action on climate change, heat-related deaths will soon be the least of the problems facing contemporary societies.
1. Fiona Harvey, “Climate change is already damaging global economy, report finds.” The Guardian (September 26, 2012)
2. Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet. Princeton University Press, 2015, p. 14.
3. Jason Samenow, “Ozone layer is healing, expected to recover by around 2050, major report finds.” The Washington Post (September 11, 2014).