“It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion with your eyes closed, and your hands tied behind your back.”
I first heard this comment about 10 years ago from an eminent climate scientist concerned with human behaviour, and this phrase has stayed with me ever since. This is because some images you can never forget: witnessing a fatal car accident, the birth of a baby, or an animal killing another animal in the wild.
A simple observation can evoke something inside you, or even change your outlook on life. This may go some way to explain why so many scientists working in climate change become so passionate about the problems of global warming. Particularly the ones working in the field, especially those stationed in Greenland or the Antarctic, who have seen ice shelves melting with their own eyes.
Scientists are no different from those in any other profession; there are egos, politics and squabbling over funding or who gets the biggest office. However, when it comes to sustainability, regardless of country or university, they are consistent in their message.
The time to act to mitigate damages is immediately. NOW. TODAY. Tomorrow is just too late.
A key report was published just this week in a leading science journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, fearing much worse results from ice melts and warning of “profound consequences for humanity”.
The combined predictions of 22 prominent scientists from around the globe stated that by the end of this century, in 2100, the probability of the world’s sea level rising (SLR) by one metre is 50%; the likelihood this could rise by two metres is 5%.
This level of possibility might not sound frightening (e.g. one in 20), but would you get on a plane if you were told this was the risk of the plane crashing?
Even Japan (which is one of the most risk-averse nations) essentially ignored the probability of severe damage to the Fukushima nuclear facility. Their safety calculations did not predict the sum of a combined sequence of natural events.
Following the powerful earthquake in 2011, their physical defence was programmed to withstand the onslaught of a tsunami of less than 10 metres, whereas the cumulative effect of the waves meant the tsunami that day reached 15 metres, causing a complete meltdown to the facility.
The painful lesson to Japan, and to all of us, is we must be aware Mother Nature is a powerful force which can lead to devastating results if we are not respectful and prudent.
So why are we so complacent about rising sea levels?
I believe this is simply because many of us just cannot see it coming and we are in denial naturally enough; we like to believe that it is something that will happen in the distant future.
It is because currently we cannot see this with our own eyes, and so cannot comprehend the consequences. It is simply too abstract. Our emotional thoughts are often related to previous events we have physically experienced. Psychologists explain this as a natural phenomenon called visual information processing.
The lead scientist of this latest report, Jeremy Bamber of Bristol University in the United Kingdom, highlighted the big picture scenario: “If we see something like that [high SLR] in the next 80 years, we are looking at social breakdown on scales that are pretty unimaginable.”
Around 1.8 million sq km of land could be lost and up to 187 million people displaced. “Many small island states will effectively be pretty much uninhabitable. We are talking about an existential threat to nation states,” explained Bamber.
This time lag (80 years) may seem some way off, but this will be in our grandchildren’s lifetime. This is the legacy we will be passing on to them – our “gift”. Unless we change our behaviour NOW.
Some critics claim these threats are just scare-mongering. However, most people agree climate change is a reality. It is just the degree of damage we are arguing about.
Looking at a country like Malaysia, even a small percentage of sea level rise would have a major impact. The already vulnerable coastal regions will be prone to more flooding and damage to precious crops and agricultural land is inevitable. The tropical belt of South-East Asia has specifically been highlighted as an area where food security will be negatively impacted the more the global temperature rises.
Dr Renard Siew of the Climate Reality Project in Malaysia and now attached to Group Sustainability at Sime Darby, has warned we will be seeing a 10 to 15% drop in farm yields annually because of unpredictable weather.
He cautions: “The trend could see more farmers deserting their fields, harming families and Malaysia’s food security. Falling farm incomes will increase poverty and reduce households’ ability to invest for a better future.”
Malaysia has one of the highest seafood consumption rates in the world, and many people rely on fisheries for their income. Extensive mangrove forests are necessary as nursery areas to juvenile fish. However, according to one recent report by the South-East Asia Disaster Prevention Research Institute (SEADPRI), a 90cm rise in sea level would decimate the entire mangrove population.
The delicate relationship between climate change and agriculture is an extremely important issue since the world’s food production resources are under pressure from a rapidly increasing population. So food security will continue to rise up the political agenda in many countries.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest contributor to global greenhouse gases after the United States and China considering we waste between 30-40% of all food produced. Perhaps in the coming years, the emphasis will be on education for all of us.
If we continue to over-produce and over-consume, the energy pointlessly wasted will mean many of us may end up closing our eyes and watching a sustainability car crash with our own hands tied behind our back.
Or we could think collectively as a society, of small ways to avoid potential disasters our beautiful grandchildren would have to face because of our ignorance and inaction.