Climate change and its impacts on life and livelihood

Our world is changing and not necessarily changing for good. In the last 20 years, global temperatures, i.e., the ambient temperature of our planet, has gone up by almost 0.3 degrees. Small numbers, no doubt, but very very consequential in the overall context of things.

The reason for this seemingly transient temperature rise is climate change. At the surface level, climate change, at least its increased rate, is directly related to human activities. Over the last millennia, human activities summed up as a whole have resulted in a transformation of natural systems such that carbon dioxide and a myriad of other so-called greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. The net effect of this is increased retention of heat and the manifestation of several hazardous effects. Before we consider those impacts, let’s do a quick refresher on how greenhouse gases trap heat.

Converting the world to a massive heat chamber

As a natural process, the Earth takes in a lot of solar energy from the sun as sunlight and heat. Much of that ‘absorbed’ energy is eventually recycled (a better word would be reflected) back into space, and ideally, over time, the Earth’s base temperature should remain constant. Greenhouse gases act as a reflective screen that prevents the reflection of inbound heat out of Earth. Once produced, they ascend to the upper realms of the Earth’s atmosphere to block the exit of ‘absorbed’ heat. You can think of it as a giant spherical cloud covering our planet that allows for only entry of heat but not exit. Of course, the process is much more diffuse, and in reality, only a certain amount of heat gets retained but at the base level, what you need to understand is that greenhouse gases are ‘heat trappers.’

Again, the major source of greenhouse gases has been human activities. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have steadily pumped huge volumes of carbon dioxide (the major greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. Currently, atmospheric greenhouse gases are at the highest levels we’ve seen in the last 800,000 years.

What are the impacts?

Above rising global temperature and above direct physical effects like decreased rainfall and worldwide desertification, climate change heralds a cascade of event that’s altering life as we know it and as we live it.

  • Mass population displacements

When the environment changes, everything that calls such an environment home has two options; migrate or evolve. Unfortunately, as humans, both options are typically undesirable. Climate change is a harbinger of harmful, destructive change to the environment. In the last few decades, there’s been an upsurge in the incidence of natural disasters and bad weather conditions, most of which have climate change as an underwriting factor. For people living in areas where bad weather and natural disasters have become a mainstay, the only viable option is unplanned migration. In Bangladesh, for instance, over 3 million households housing no less than 16 million people were displaced by floods that swept through the country in 2007.

  • Depreciating standards of living

Above the mass displacements that occur on account of the effects of climate change, it’s also important to note the systemic collapse and eventual depreciation of living standards that come with these effects. An important example to demonstrate this phenomenon is the situation in Haiti. Since suffering many hurricanes, landslides, and floods in the last decade, Haiti’s economy and standard of living has regressed tremendously. More than 60% of Haitians live in poverty. Millions don’t have access to basic amenities and healthcare, and disease pandemics constantly ravage the populace. A lot of this can be tied down to the destruction of means of livelihood of the Haitian public. With hurricanes, floods, and landslides, farmlands and important cash crops were destroyed. Already scarce social infrastructure serving communities in the country also fell away with these natural disasters. So that today majority of Haitians live without electricity, health care, or things as basic as a toilet seat.

Haiti is a focal point to demonstrate what can happen if disasters of this nature become a mainstay. With every passing day, climate change draws the world closer to an alternate reality where these events could become as common as regular rainfall.

  • A higher incidence of diseases

Our changing climate has also incidentally created a system for otherwise novel diseases and illnesses to thrive. Disease-causing agents (as well as vectors) thrive in the consistently hot, waterlogged, and densely polluted ecosystems formed by the effects of climate change. And since these environmental artifacts continue to form at a faster pace, as humans, our exposure and susceptibility to these illnesses continue to rise as well.

However, more worrisome is the fact that the climate change disease bug disproportionately hits rural settings. Unlike the urban city centers with full-on health care and disease management systems, these communities must face newer disease threats and older now treatment-resistant illnesses with crude illness management systems.

For what it’s worth, industrialized city centers do not escape unscathed. The last few decades have seen a steady rise in the incidence of complex respiratory diseases and heat-related health complications in urban settings, all tell-tale manifestations of climate change. While the world currently enjoys the luxury of identifying them as isolated events, there’s now an ominous pointer to the fact that they’re bound to become mainstream if the current climate change trajectory is sustained.

  • Nutritional changes

We already established that climate change tilts existing ecosystems. With that tilt comes a concurrent transformation of the lifeforms living in said ecosystem. The overall result from the nutritional perspective is a rearrangement of the existing food chain. More often than not, this rearrangement is negative rather than positive, with organisms in such ecosystems scrambling to source food and nutrition.

As the polar ice caps melt, Polar bears have found it increasingly difficult to garner nutrition. In the Amazonian rain forest, eucalyptus leaves now contain less water than normal – a subtle feature of the waning rainfall in that area. Pair that to the declining nutritional content of these leaves, and you understand why Koalas now battle with malnutrition. Elsewhere in Africa, droughts are catalyzing a systemic decline in the population of Elephant herds.

As it is for animals, so also is the case for man. Climate change and its effects have caused a decline in arable land formations as well as ferment a significant drop in cash crop yields.  Asides from the apparent effects of malnutrition and starvation, especially in vulnerable populations, there’s a future long-term risk that’s much more impacting. The world’s land available for agriculture is significantly limited. Through the last millennia, our population has risen at a rather exponential rate. Without arable land and with more mouths to feed, future generations run the risk of surviving a global-scale starvation incident.

The future ahead

More than its immediate effects, climate change poses potentially life-changing risks. Addressing these risks and in so doing securing the future of our planet requires proactive, solution-driven efforts from every one of its occupants. The world has to transition from carbon-dependent greenhouse generating energy sources to greener ways of powering our planet. Only when this is assured can we rest knowing that our future and that of our planet is adequately secured.

Article author: Write_artist (