From Heat Wave to Global Hothouse

Martin Khor

The heat wave in Malaysia has continued relentlessly for the past few weeks. There are reports of the heat affecting fish farms and livestock, resulting in a lot of losses.

As the water level drops in most dams, the water supply situation is also causing concern.

Schools in some northern states closed again for a few days when the temperatures crossed the danger level.

Last week, haze caused by open burning and forest and peat fires on Sabah’s west coast added to the people’s misery.

The combination of heatwaves caused by El Niño, made worse by climate change, forest fires and haze, must be causing residents to feel like they are in hell-like conditions, having to suffer the heat, air pollution and breathing difficulties all at the same time.

There are now predictions that rain will soon fall and put an end to the scorching heat. The bad news is that the rains may be so heavy as to cause floods in parts of the country.

These extreme weather events are no longer temporary irritations that will soon go away and are thus tolerable.

As climate change takes hold, these events are increasing in number, are lasting longer and are causing more adverse effects.

They are becoming the “new normal”, in which we have to expect permanent hotter days and nights, and heavier rainfall and flood conditions. Far from being mere irritations, they will disrupt livelihoods, incomes, our way of life and health itself.

According to data from the Natu­ral Resources and Environment Ministry, Malaysia’s surface mean temperature has been rising by 0.14°C to 0.25°C per decade, or up to 1°C over the past 40 years.

This is a large jump indeed. Keep in mind that a rise of 1.5°C (above the pre-industrial era level) in the global temperature is now con­­si­­dered the new danger level, and 2°C a disaster, while 3°C is an outright catastrophe.

If the temperature in Malaysia continues to increase at the same rate as the recent four decades, we will soon be in the disaster zone.

Reports also show a pattern of heavier rainfall in Malaysia in recent years, resulting in more serious floods.

In the past fortnight, there have been at least three new reports on climate change that conclude that the situation is significantly worse than previously believed.

A report from the US president’s office predicts there will be up to tens of thousands of additional heat-related deaths annually in the United States, according to eminent climate scientist John Holdren, who is Barack Obama’s science adviser.

Holdren said that if there were no sweeping policy changes, “people who try to work outside will basically be unable to control their body temperature and die. This is a really, really big deal.”

The 300-page report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, is co-authored by various government departments.

“Every human being in every part of the United States is now being impacted by climate and will be increasingly impacted if we do not take action now,” said Gina McCarthy, head of the Environ­mental Protection Agency, which contributed to the report.

“We are talking about everything from our food, our water, our air, our weather. If that’s not enough, it’s probably impacting how happy you are every day and what your mental health is.”

The other two papers deal with how the melting of the Earth’s ice caps will raise the sea level much more and faster than previously thought – threatening the survival of many of the coastal cities and regions in the world.

The lead author of one of the papers is James Hansen, perhaps the world’s most famous climate scientist.

The 52-page paper on ice sheet melting, sea level rise and super storms, by 18 scientists (published in the journal Atmospheric Chemis­try and Physics), highlights mechanisms in the climate system that could cause much more rapid sea level rise, as well as super storms.

The paper warns of the loss of all coastal cities as well as future “super storms” more devastating than those seen in the modern era.

It concludes that the melting of Greenland and Antarctica can happen fast, causing sea-level rise of “several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years”.

This is much more than the worst-case scenario of the UN climate scientific panel, the IPCC, of a sea level rise of almost a metre by 2100 in its 2013 report.

Another paper, published in Nature, warns that the West Antarctic ice sheet could disintegrate within decades due to global warming, instead of the hundreds of years previously assumed.

This melting of the sheet could contribute to sea level rise by almost a metre. With ice also melting elsewhere, the total rise may be 1.5m to 1.8m by 2100. This is more than the IPCC scenario.

There is only a remote chance of long-term survival (in their present form) of big cities such as New York, Miami, New Orleans, London, Venice, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Sydney.

The three reports have significance for Malaysia. The warning in the White House report about health consequences of climate change is most topical.

If there will be tens of thousands more deaths in the United States due to additional heat, it would be worse for Malaysia, as we have a far hotter climate.

The news that the sea will rise by much more than predicted is also of great concern because a large part of the Malaysian population lives in coastal areas, especially in the penin­sula but also in Sabah and Sarawak.

A large part of the country will be uninhabitable if the sea level rises a few feet, let alone by many metres.

This news and the heatwave should really spur us to action to curb emissions and to adapt to climate change, as soon and as comprehensively as possible.

Originally published in
The Star.

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