Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Scorched Earth – The Signs Of Accelerating Man-made Global Warming Are All Around The Asia-Pacific Region

Michael Richardson, SCMP – Updated on Feb 18, 2009

The devastating bush fires in Australia, severe drought in China and the spread of haze pollution in Indonesia in recent days are linked by a common underlying trend – temperature rise in the Asia-Pacific region and other parts of the world. They are an unwelcome reminder to policymakers preoccupied with the global financial and economic crisis that climate change is striking now and will strike much harder in future if not tackled effectively by the international community. Australians, who live in the driest inhabited continent on the planet, are counting the cost of the extreme heat and prolonged lack of rain that set the scene for the raging fires in the southeast state of Victoria earlier this month. The final death toll is expected to rise to about 300 as more bodies are discovered. Damage to property and livestock, and the cost of treating the injured, could exceed A$2 billion (HK$10.1 billion).

In China, drought has spread to 12 provinces across central and northern China that produce the bulk of the country’s wheat, threatening the staple winter crop. The China Meteorological Administration said on February 5 that some parts of the country were experiencing the worst drought and highest average temperatures in 30-50 years.

Last week, thick haze from forest fires blanketed large areas of Indonesia’s Riau province as farmers and plantations took advantage of dry conditions to burn forest and clear land cheaply. This practice, although illegal, has proved difficult to stop. It causes acrid smoke to drift over neighbouring countries when the wind blows in their direction.

No one is suggesting that above-average temperatures alone are responsible for these events. The Australian fires were fanned by wild winds and, in some cases, police suspect arson. However, temperature rise is an important factor. It increases susceptibility to disaster, whether caused by nature or people. On January 5, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said that 2008 was the 14th-warmest since records began in 1910 and 0.41 degrees Celsius above the 1961-1990 average. It noted that Australia had warmed by about 0.9 degrees over the past century.

The panel of international scientists advising the UN on climate change warned in its most recent report two years ago that fires in Australia were “virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency” because of steadily warming temperatures in the next few decades.

The same panel, in its summary for policymakers around the world, found that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level”, caused when oceans expand as they warm. Melting glaciers and polar ice sheets adds to their volume.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in 1988 to provide independent advice to the UN, gave examples of projected regional impacts on Asia. It said that, by the 2050s, freshwater availability in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, particularly in large river basins, would decrease. Heavily populated coastal areas in South, East and Southeast Asia would be at greatest risk due to rising sea levels while mega-delta regions would also be subjected to increased flooding from rivers fed from melting glaciers on China’s Qinghai-Tibet plateau and the Himalayas. The panel also said that health risks associated with floods and droughts were expected to rise in East, South and Southeast Asia.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation, which helped set up the IPCC, the global combined sea-surface and land-surface air temperature for last year is estimated to be 0.31 degrees above the 1961-1990 annual average of 14 degrees. This makes 2008 the 10th-warmest since 1850. It is now 23 years since the world has had a cooler-than-average year. The warmest year on record was 1998.

Vast swathes of Indonesia’s forest and underlying peat bogs dried out and burned in 1997 and 1998, casting a pall of toxic haze over much of Southeast Asia.

The IPCC says that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity, mainly from burning fossil fuels and deforestation, are blanketing the planet, making it warmer. The scientists concluded that the average global temperature would increase by between 1.1 degrees and 6.4 degrees by the end of the century, depending on the level of emissions over coming decades.

Last week, the Norwegian Polar Institute reported that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, were hitting new highs. Levels rose to 392 parts per million, a rise of 2.3 ppm from a year earlier, up by a third since the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. The Pew Centre on Global Climate Change in the US says that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now at their highest in at least 800,000 years. Once carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, it stays there for a long time. The economic slump may cut emissions for the time being, but this will have little, if any, impact on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

We are seeing, in Australia’s bush fires and China’s drought, the grim face of the future in the Asia-Pacific region as the temperature rises. Curbing global warming emissions and adapting to climate change will be costly. But failing to do so will be even more expensive and painful.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Comments are closed.