Look 214,000 million kilometers away from Earth, and you will find our sister planet, Venus. Named after the eponymous Greek goddess of love, this planet shines as one of the brightest celestial bodies in our night sky. Mankind has always looked towards colonising potential planets such as Mars. Yet, Venus is rarely brought up as a possible candidate. Have you ever wondered why that’s the case? Well, the truth of the matter is that Venus is entirely uninhabitable. Ravaged by the long-lasting effects of climate change, our sister planet has completely metamorphosed from having similar atmospheric conditions to Earth to a fiery sphere of literal doom.
Enshrouded in thick layers of sulphuric clouds and a crushing atmosphere, the surface of Venus is hot enough that the ground glows red. Scientists believe that a billion years ago, high carbon dioxide levels in the Venusian atmosphere trapped enough heat to trigger a global SGE (Super Greenhouse Effect) that boiled away all traces of water on the planet. This so-called runaway greenhouse effect elevated the planet’s surface to reach uninhabitable temperatures of 400-500°C.
Now, to be fair, even if millions of years were to pass it is unlikely that Earth will ever reach such conditions as Venus. Indeed, the unique geography of Venus and its numerous volcanoes have undoubtedly played a significant role in its current predicament. However, this should not belittle the effects of climate change. Unique conditions or not, Venus should be seen as a testament to the reality of climate change and its impacts.
The most significant environmental challenge of our era
Climate change. It is a buzzword that often gets thrown around, together with the pessimism that surrounds the future of our planet. Every year, new records are constantly broken regarding our environmental situation. Just this past decade alone has seen the Earth facing an unprecedented wave of fires, floods, and scorching heatwaves.
So, just what is climate change? Is it any different from global warming?
Climate refers to the permanent or long-term patterns of the weather observed in a specific region or area. For example, Malaysia has a tropical climate – hot and humid weather dominates throughout the year. When there is a long-term change in said established climate, then this is known as climate change. Although global warming is often used interchangeably with climate change, there is a distinction between the two. Global warming is primarily used to refer to human-induced warming of the Earth’s climate system, whilst climate change covers both natural and anthropogenic causes the effects are often measured as the average increase in the Earth’s global surface temperature.
Alright, then what causes global warming?
Global warming is primarily driven by human activities such as fossil fuel burning. When fossil fuels are burnt, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are released. Carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) is an umbrella term commonly used to refer to all greenhouse gases. These gases can trap heat more than others and envelop the planet’s surface, sort of like a blanket; this causes our planet to be a bit more toastier than it should be.
The greenhouse effect is not inherently evil, in fact, without this phenomenon our Earth would be far too cold for us to even live on. The issue is that we just have too many greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. When sunlight travels across space and reaches our planet, the Earth will absorb enough energy to warm itself up before it is eventually expelled back into space. However, instead of a one-way street back to space, some of this heat would be absorbed by the greenhouse gases. This would provide the molecules of said gases with an extra kick of energy to vibrate faster, heating up the atmosphere and our planet.
According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) 2020’s climate report, the average rise in temperature has since doubled (0.18°C per decade) since 1880 (0.08°C per decade). Already, the average global temperature has increased by 1°C since pre-industrial times.
The impacts of climate change
So how does a little bit of extra warmth affect us?
Apparently, a lot.
Even the slightest change in the average global temperature can have catastrophic effects on our planet. The first and foremost is the increase in severe weather frequency such as storms, heatwaves, droughts, and floods. A weather event is only considered extreme if they are unlike 95% of the typical weather events of the area.
Global warming can increase the chances of scorching days and nights, fueling the intensity of heatwaves and droughts. As a place becomes drier due to the heat, the forests in the area become prone to catching fire, such was the case for the bush fire blazes in Australia early last year. Another greenhouse gas, water vapour, can also accumulate in the atmosphere and cause frequent heavy rain. Additionally, global warming elevates sea levels and increases the amount of seawater pushed onto shores during coastal storms, leading to destructive flooding. Lately, Germany has been experiencing a roller coaster ride of high temperatures followed by heavy precipitation. All of this culminated into cataclysmic floods that swept across west Germany and its neighbouring countries, tragically taking the lives of over a hundred individuals. This is bizarre for Germany as such intense rainfall is said to be completely foreign to the local climate, even more so during the summer season.
Contemporary scientists often dub climate change as “one of the biggest global health threats of the 21st century” due to its direct and indirect effects on our health. For most people, there is the luxury of air-conditioning or fans to ward off the incoming heat. However, others may not have such privileges. People living in underdeveloped countries would have to bear with high temperatures over long periods of time, which could lead to a rise in heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion. In the United States, it is estimated that more than 150,000 people may perish from heat-related deaths due to climate change by the turn of the century.
Furthermore, even the food that we eat may be at risk. As the land becomes drier, it becomes harder for farmers to grow their crops. Crops such as corn would be especially threatened as they are extremely heat-sensitive. As the supply of crops becomes crippled by the extreme weather, food prices may jump by 20% or higher. Animal sourced foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy may also ramp up in prices as cows and hens become at risk of dying young from the extreme temperatures. Even our seafood will be significantly affected. Coral reefs are stated to provide a habitat and shelter to 25% of all marine life. However, it is estimated that 99% of all coral reefs may be gone if the global temperature rises by 2°C; without a home, millions of fish stand to perish together with it.
But enough doom and gloom. It’s finally time to address the healing part of the title — How we can fight against climate change.
Steps towards recovery
“Nature is healing, we are the virus.” is a popular meme that spawned last year amidst the first few waves of lockdown. Since then, there has been some buzz around the fact that one of the positive impacts of a global pandemic was its effect on the environment — nature finally given a chance to heal itself.
It is undeniable that the lockdown has decreased greenhouse emissions throughout the world. However, I am afraid that this is but a temporary solution produced by temporary circumstances. Who is to say that after the lockdown is lifted and the virus is wholly eliminated, the carbon emission will not double or even treble compared to pre-covid times? People often said the same thing during the 2008 financial crisis when carbon emission temporarily halted, only to surge the following year later. Instead of depending on special circumstances each time, we require more concrete solutions to effectively tackle the issue.
In his latest book on climate change, Bill Gates suggests that we should aim not to reduce greenhouse emission but to eliminate it completely. More specifically, Gates refers to the concept of net-zero, where there is an equilibrium achieved between the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed and released by the planet. However, to achieve this net-zero goal, we need to stop depending on fossil fuels.
Unlike hydropower, which depends on the weather and rainfall, no such limitations exist for fossil fuels making it fast and incredibly cheap to obtain. Thus, in order to achieve the goal of net-zero emission, there needs to be innovation in the development of renewable energy to gradually phase out fossil fuel usage. Currently, scientists are looking towards nuclear energy as a potential solution. Despite the negative connotation that nuclear power pertains, it is also one of the few carbon-free energy sources that are highly efficient in supplying energy reliably. For example, TerraPower has proposed the concept of a travelling wave reactor, a fully automated nuclear reactor capable of running on different kinds of fuel, including waste from other nuclear facilities. Fitted with a fail-safe mechanism to prevent overheating, the reactor would be free to harness nuclear fusion power to generate electricity. Other companies such as Heliogen have also looked towards other renewable sources such as solar energy. Their aim is to use an array of AI-controlled mirrors called Heliostats that work together as one giant magnifying glass- allowing a high concentration of solar power needed to generate the temperatures required by manufacturing industries.
With the implementation of carbon pricing by the government via a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system, large companies and shareholders have also begun to adjust their business models to accommodate their carbon emissions. For instance, large automobile manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors have begun shifting their focus towards the electrification of transport with the development of more carbon-friendly electric vehicles. Others, such as Danish shipping giant Maersk, have begun looking into energy-efficient shipping vessels to cut its net emissions to zero by 2050. To add, The Climate Pledge is a public commitment project first started by Amazon to reduce carbon emissions and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. As of now, the list of supporters has extended to include over 100 multinational corporations. In fact, earlier this year, Facebook had just announced that their global operations were now 100 per cent fully powered by renewable energy. Now, whilst each company’s strategy to approach climate change and operational effectiveness may differ, it is nonetheless apparent that companies have become more carbon conscious and of their role in the healing process.
Of course, that’s not to say that the rest of us are simply bystanders in the recovery process. Every one of us can contribute to the fight as well by striving to be more carbon conscious and reducing our carbon footprint. This is as easy as simply replacing our old home appliances with a more energy-efficient one. Moreover, should enough people start demanding and buying more zero-carbon alternatives, an economic incentive for companies and investors to focus on such products would be created. As Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. In such cases when the crisis just seems too far gone, remember that even when Pandora had inadvertently unleashed the box of evils into the world, hope alone remained inside.
By: Yun Jing