Ugly realities

26 Aug 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE plaque bears the inscription, “A letter to the future.” Further, it reads, “… This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Dire words indeed, but the situation is no less than so. Thus reads the bronze plaque unveiled last weekend in Iceland, set up to mark the death of Okjoküll (or ‘Ok’) glacier to climate change. It is Iceland’s first such death; scientists warn that over the next 200 years, at the rate at which the effects of climate change are hitting the planet, the sub-Arctic island will lose some 400 other glaciers.

To put this in perspective, consider the numbers: in 1890, glacial ice here was some 16 square kilometres, which by 2012 had fallen to a pitiful 0.7sq km, explains a report from the University of Iceland dating back to 2017. To maintain the status of a glacier, the mass of ice and snow must be thick enough to move by its own weight, which requires that the mass be 40 to 50 metres thick approximately, according to Oddur Sigudsson, a glaciologist with the Icelandic Meteorological Office. But Okjoküll was reduced to the stature of a ‘dead glacier’ back in 2014, when the decision was made that it was no longer ‘alive’ given that it was not moving.

The plaque unveiled on Aug 18 also carries a record of the level of carbon dioxide measured in the atmosphere of this location in May. Cymene Howe, associate professor of anthropology at the American Rice University which partnered with Iceland in this project, is on record as saying back in July that “This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world. […] Memorials everywhere stand for either human accomplishments like the deeds of historic figures, or the losses and deaths we recognise as important. By memorialising a fallen glacier, we want to emphasise what is being lost — or dying — the world over, and also draw attention to the fact that this is something humans have ‘accomplished’, although it is not something we should be proud of.”

Even when presented with scientific findings, many continue to deny climate change.

That projection of the loss of all of Iceland’s glaciers over the next couple of centuries pertains to just one island in the world we inhabit, keep in mind.

The matter of import to keep in perspective, though, is that of course the effects of climate change aren’t limited to one part of the world. In fact, additionally, the effects are — or will, in some cases — be felt most strongly in the regions that have had little to do with the kind of industrialisation and pollution that have led to the phenomenon.

Consider Pakistan, or even the subcontinent at large, for example. The scarcity of water is a major issue, an increasingly immediate one, although this country in particular can hardly be considered amongst the more heavily industrialised. In fact, in report after report, stats after stats, it is the US and several other Western regions that are the ones to have caused the most damage to the fragile equilibrium that constitutes the environment we call home.

Moving forward with that thought, the earth has — or is thought to have — its ways of getting even. Going by one stream of theory, for example, forest fires such as those witnessed in North America some months past are nature’s way of clearing out the undergrowth and making room for new plant life to survive. Some scientists argue that such occurrences are essential for the health of the planet — nature has a way of culling what has to be weeded out, what is no longer supportable.

Similar perhaps is the case of the sins of omission and commission of mankind. Activities, or the exploitation of Earth’s available resources, do and of course will continue to have a fallout. The loss of glaciers is but one example. Even in Pakistan, snow and ice levels are known to be going down. For example, as we travel to Naran from Islamabad, reports are that glacier melt is reality, while ice levels at major mountain peaks are going down.

In such a situation, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere, there is reason for serious thought and, more importantly, policymaking goals. That given the empirical realities science presents us with, the fact there is still denial about the effects and nature of climate change — such as in by US President Donald Trump — quite simply beggars belief.

But then, humans are odd creatures, given to self-delusion. The truth of the matter, though, is that what mankind cannot or does not want to do, the planet might take care of. Such are the wages of the sin of centuries of mooching off. Such may be the wrath (or consequences) man has brought upon itself.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2019