Images from the wildfires ravaged areas are perfectly apocalyptic, with scorched trees and telephone poles poking out from smoky gray, ashen landscapes. Buildings are reduced to piles of bricks, concrete, and metal. Cars sit in driveways and along roadsides, blackened and gutted.
Major fires spanning several states have burned 4.6 million acres, national fire officials say. That’s an area roughly equivalent to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.
While the 94 major blazes are burning mostly in rural and forested areas, major cities along the West Coast — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, among them — are also feeling the impact.
Smoke from the blazes is making air quality unhealthy, which can irritate lungs, cause inflammation and affect the immune system, heightening the risk of lung infections such as coronavirus. In Oakland, California, where many businesses and facilities are closed because of statewide Covid-19 precautions, officials have opened “clean air centers” for those with nowhere else to go.
“I currently don’t have my own home right now so I didn’t want to be stuck outdoors all day, and I have asthma. I could start to feel like my breathing was getting a little tight so I decided to come over here,” said Teddie Moorehead, who has been homeless since June and sought refuge at the Dimond Branch Library.
The majority of the fires are in California (25), Washington (16), Oregon (13), and Idaho (10), though blazes have also emerged in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, the National Interagency Fire Center said Sunday morning.
“More than 30,000 firefighters and support personnel are assigned to incidents across the country,” the center said Sunday.
Three California Wildfires Reach Historic Proportions
In California, firefighters are battling more than two dozen major fires, but officials expressed hope that improving weather conditions will boost efforts to control the flames.
Three of the five largest wildfires in state history are burning now, officials say. One of those blazes, the LNU Complex Fire, which was about 96% contained as of Saturday, has burned more than 363,000 acres.
Little rain, high temperatures, and strong winds helped fuel the flames, and it’s unclear how long it will take to get them under control.
Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Robert Garcia’s department is fighting fires with 500 personnel, when it usually has 1,000 to 1,500, he said Saturday. Some firefighters are working more than 24 hours in a shift, he said. The Bobcat Fire northeast of Los Angeles is tearing through the mountainous national forest.
More than 4,100 structures have been destroyed since August 15, Cal Fire said Sunday, adding that 16,750 firefighters are battling fires statewide. As the massive fires rage, more are popping up.
“Firefighters across the state responded to 36 new wildfires yesterday, and all were contained quickly,” the agency said.
Fires in the state have burned more than 3.3 million acres this year, with the August Complex Fire burning in the Mendocino National Forest accounting for more than a quarter of the sum. The blaze, the largest in state history, is only 28% contained, according to Cal Fire.
In the Sierra Nevada range north of Sacramento, the North Complex Fire has consumed more than 258,000 acres, killing at least 12 people, the US Forest Service said Saturday. The victims include a 16-year-old boy who was fleeing the area in his vehicle, Butte County authorities said.
No Sign Of Stopping
At least eight of Oregon’s wildfires are expected to burn “until the winter’s rains fall,” said state Department of Forestry Fire Chief Doug Grafe.
In the forested lakeside town of Detroit, 55 miles east of Salem, the Lionshead Fire moved so swiftly that the town of 225 went from having no evacuation warnings to being ordered to evacuate immediately in a matter of hours.
The Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District lost one of its fire engines and its office in the blaze, prompting the Aurora Fire District, about a three-hour drive northwest, to donate one of its own rigs to the hard-hit town.
“It came fully loaded with hoses, nozzles, medical and rescue equipment, and food and water for firefighting crews in our district,” the Idanha-Detroit district said on Facebook. “Our firefighters were overjoyed to receive this very gracious gift, many of us succumbing to tears of gratitude.”
Four of the 10 people killed in Oregon’s wildfires died in the Beachie Creek Fire in Marion County, where Detroit is located.
Dozens of people are missing, mostly across Jackson, Lane and Marion counties in western Oregon, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said.
Typically, fires consume about 500,000 acres a year in the state, but “this week alone, we burned over a million acres of beautiful Oregon,” she said.
“We saw the perfect fire storm. We saw incredible winds. We saw very cold, hot temperatures and, of course, we have a landscape that has seen 30 years of drought,” Brown said.
The state is preparing for a “mass fatality incident” based on how many structures are charred, Oregon Emergency Management Director Andrew Phelps said Friday.
About 500,000 people in the state are under some type of evacuation alert. Evacuation orders have been issued for more than 40,000, Brown said.
Air Conditioners Exacerbate Climate Injustice
Air conditioners are the epitome of inequality and climate injustice.
Buying air conditioners is one of the most popular individual responses to climate change. As the temperature of the globe increases, most people are buying and using air conditioners to protect themselves from the scorching heat. As of 2020, there were 1.9 billion air conditioning units in the world. By 2050, the number of air conditioners is expected to grow to 4.5 billion. That means every 2 people out of 7 are using air conditioning. Further, 37% of all the world’s electricity is used for air conditioning.
At an individual level, air conditioning seem good to protect oneself from the sweltering heat. However, the use of air conditioners possesses two inherent problems- (i) They only worsen climate change and (ii) the access to air conditioning is inequitable.
How do Air Conditioners Contribute to Global Warming?
Air conditioning is a trap- the warmer it gets, the more air conditioners we use. The more we use air conditioners, the warmer it gets. It is an irony that the technology we need to stay cooler only makes the climate hotter.
Air conditioners use refrigerants that also happen to be powerful heat-trapping gases. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the chemicals used in air conditioners are 12,000 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
According to the calculations of the World Economic Forum, greenhouse gas emissions from air conditioning will account for as much as a 0.5-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century.
Unequal Access to Air Conditioners
As of now, people have mostly focused on the technological aspect of air conditioners. Various countries have started funding initiatives to upgrade air conditioners. They aim to replace HFCs with harmless chemicals.
The problem of unequal access to air conditioners is mostly disregarded.
It is perhaps because almost all elites possess an air conditioner. Further, lower-class people who cannot afford an air conditioner right now desire one. In this race for buying air conditioners, no one is asking the right questions.
Given that air conditioners contribute towards global warming through the release of HFCs and consumption of huge energy, why should only some people be allowed to have air conditioners?
The harmful effects of air conditioning on climate are socialized. However, the benefits are not socialized.
Also Read: Climate Refugees: Pain of Unseen Victims
We are not in this Together
When it comes to climate change, it is often repeated that we are all in this together. However, nothing is farther from the truth. The rich people who afford air conditioning make life terrible for others who cannot afford an air conditioning. Further, they totally insulate themselves from the harm of the air conditioners.
The case of air conditioning makes any kind of technological progress to protect humankind from climate change look bleak. If there is technological progress, it appears that it may be private. Like air conditioning, technology may not be a public good.
When Jeff Bezos returned from space last year, he made it very clear that elites will not reduce their carbon footprint. He instead suggested moving the heavy industry into space. He said, “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space. And keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is. That’s going to take decades to achieve, but you have to start. And big things start with small steps.”
Bezos is the owner of one of the most polluting companies in the world. Instead of switching to green energy, he is talking about taking polluting industries to space.
It may, in fact, be possible for Bezos to start his life in space permanently. He may be able to give his future generations a better climate up in space. Unfortunately, he will take this step only after he has done damage maximum to the earth, to an extent that life may not be possible here.
That is exactly what air conditioning is- make life terrible for others but also make technological progress to insulate yourself from the harmful effects inflicted on others.
The Way Forward
Before taking any step towards mitigating climate change or making any technological progress to protect humankind from the effects of climate change, it must be kept in mind that climate change affects different classes of society differently.
Any future technology that is not public good should be rejected by the people. Although air conditioners are now beyond the stage where they could be regulated but governments must ensure that air conditioners are taxed heavily. The revenue thus generated can be channeled for green energy initiatives.
Poor Countries: Dumping Sites of Rich Nations
It is always being said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But dumping dangerous waste in poor and developing countries sees no treasure from rich man’s trash. In fact, it is the rich man’s burden that a poor man is forced to bear.
Around the world, waste generation is rising fast with more urbanisation and high consumption.
World Bank estimated that waste generation would exceed 70% from the 2016 level and reach 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050.
High-income countries account for only 16% of the global population but generate more than one-third of the world’s waste.
Source: The World Bank
The UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report predicted that e-waste will reach 74 metric tons by the year 2030, doubling waste in just 16 years.
The UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report predicted that e-waste will reach 74 metric tons by the year 2030, doubling waste in just 16 years.
E-waste has become the fastest generated waste from households due to higher consumption, short life cycle and less reusability. But the fact is e-waste is the most toxic to human health. It generates carcinogenic fumes and wastes that harm human organs.
Source: Deutsche Welle (DW)
Ragpickers in Nairobi search for recyclable plastic to earn their living. But these people are always the losers for their health and well-being. Plastic as a non-biodegradable product generally ends up in the oceans and causes harm to the flora and fauna of the water as well. Rivers and inland water sources also become polluted in countries with a lack of waste disposal infrastructure.
A legal dispute between Canada and the Philippines discloses the dark side of the global trade of waste.
Source: Deutsche Welle (DW)
Here a fisherman in the Philippines tries to remove fish traps from plastic-loaded waters.
United Nations Sustainable Goals urged the nations to work hard to make the world cleaner and environment friendly by reducing the impacts of climate change.
But if the poor countries keep accepting the rags of rich world people, then how will it fulfil the promise of a clean and healthy environment for their own people.
Sub-Saharan countries are specially mentioned where waste generation would be tripled by 2050. Hence it is witnessed that countries which are least capable of managing their waste are dealing with the ever-increasing burden of trash in the world.
European Environment Agency says that European countries do not keep track of their e-waste being generated and exported mostly to Asia and West Africa. While A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that the US shipped its discarded mobile and electronic waste to Caribbeans, Hong Kong and Latin America.
Africa is witnessing a twin menace from high levels of e-waste generated toxic and environmental pollution and already raised global warming effects due to climate change.
Countries of Africa are already facing the huge effects of climate change and many of these are the dumpsites of Europe. Environmentalists and analysts are fearful that such African countries would not be able to meet the sustainable goals for a clean environment.
African environmental expert Nnimmo Bassey says that Africa is becoming a dumpsite for the West for all kinds of waste. He further emphasised other countries are becoming conscious of the ill effects of waste thus rejecting it.
Bassey added that African governments are not taking serious steps to make laws and stop such dumping because they are probably taking payments to let the waste be dumped onto their lands.
What Does the World’s Waste Do to Poor Countries?
Foremost, it contaminates oceans, clogs drains, causes floods, spreads infectious diseases, stinks and pollutes the environment, harms wildlife and damages the overall flora and fauna of already poor countries.
Tearfund, a poverty charity, estimated that between 400000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries due to diseases spread by mismanaged waste.
Although, waste picking provides a source of income to the world’s poorest population and also reduces the cost for municipalities. But undoubtedly this is very dangerous and unhealthy work. Burning and smashing of such harmful wastes release pathogens and disease-causing fines in the air and lead to infectious viruses and bacteria in the surroundings.
In fact, disposal of electronic and chemical waste is cancerous and leads to deaths from cancer if not handled with care and with appropriate waste management techniques.
But as such poor nations mostly do not have planned waste management and disposal systems in place. Hence, unsystematic and unprotected waste disposal causes harm to the rag pickers.
Rich Nations Must Pay!
Countries must pay for dumping their trash in poor nations.
Countries generating waste beyond a limit must take measures to set some budget for making dumping countries a better place for people to live. Companies that are generating waste must source their funding in poor nations that are accepting their waste.
Developed Nations that ship their waste to poor countries cannot deny their responsibilities for making the environment polluted, seas choked and a nuisance all over.
Each nation must manage their waste on their own territories instead of luring poor nations to accept toxic waste and dispose of their lands.
Nations must know how to consume less, produce less, recycle waste and reuse.
Also Read: The African Great Green Wall
Countries that dump their waste in poor nations know and understand the health and environmental consequences of their acts and still proceed. Hence, they should be penalised.
What Can be Done for the Future?
South Korea is an inspiration here, it once recycled only 2% of its food waste and now achieves 95% of food waste recycling.
Though almost every country in the world signed a UN pact in 2019 to reduce the export of hard-to-recycle plastic waste and even companies pledged to take efforts to cut the production of such plastics and take recycling steps. Now, the implementation of these pledges in a serious manner is most warranted to gain real results beyond pacts and promises.
Source: National Geographic
Another solution that can handle the problem of mounting waste is the creation of a circular economy as proposed by World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with the use of analytics produced by McKinsey & Company.
This system aims at minimising the waste and reusing almost all what we have produced.
Countries should recycle and dispose of all of their waste within their boundaries without shrugging the responsibility towards the already burdened and poor people. Else, these people would not be able to bear the cost of an unhealthy population, polluted environment and damaged ecosystem.
International organizations can fund more waste management and disposal systems like that by funding of infrastructure of recycling capacities by the World Bank.
The world needs a strategy for more growth and less garbage.
In fact, its the duty of economically affluent nations to provide funds, expertise and encouragement to least developed and developing countries to make their waste disposal and recycling systems develop and work effectively.
Recycling will also save the rare earth minerals for future electronic manufacturing and prove an economically beneficial option.
Finally, a healthy and clean environment is a shared advantage for the world and benefits all.
Climate Refugees: Pain of Unseen Victims
Climate change is taking place fast with increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, erratic weather, loss of biodiversity and damaged ecosystems. Millions of people are suffering from damage to their lands, agriculture, livelihood systems and threat to life. Living conditions are becoming treacherous with each passing day.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reminded that on an average 21.5 million people are forcibly leaving their places annually for climate-related events like wildfires, floods, storms and high-temperature rises since 2008.
Even the international think tank Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP) predicted that by the year 2050, 1.2 billion people would be affected and displaced by natural disasters and climate change.
Climate refugees are the people who are forced to cross the border of their countries due to the unavailability of clean water, food, livelihood and a place to live. As we see how people of Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were hit by massive hurricanes and forced to leave their places and arrived at border areas of the US and Mexico for safe living places.
Image Source: IDMC
Chain Effects of Natural Disasters
The impact of climate change is generally related to short-term relief and measures for the people who are affected by the havoc and disaster caused by weather events. But in a true sense, these natural disasters are a permanent and a huge cause of concern for people around the world susceptible to natural disasters.
Climate risks basically have chain effects and cause huge havoc on multiple aspects of life and livelihood.
Natural disaster generally limits access to safe water and food and cause diseases due to unhygienic conditions. Further damaged lands lead to loss of livelihoods and agricultural damage which causes food shortages and hunger threats.
Hunger and thrift forced people to migrate and even cause refugee problems.
Climate change has a long-term effect not only on the people but on the overall culture, societies and economies beyond just displacement of people.
For example, sea-level rise has already distressed and destroyed a number of coastal communities and forced them to leave to other places leaving behind their agricultural lands, homes, and way of living.
Rising seas and increasingly violent storms have wreaked havoc on small island nations like Tuvalu. Photo credit: Vlad Sokhin
90% of people in coastal areas are generally poor people and living in poor or developing nations and island nations.
Bangladesh is a nation that is being predicted to be submerged up to 17% by the year 2050 by the rise of sea level and almost 20 million people will lose their homes.
These people generally move to other places and earn meagre wages as unskilled labourers.
Children of such people are also forced to become child labourers without opportunities for education, skills or training to lead a quality life.
They are forced to live in ghettos and untidy and unhygienic conditions.
A damaged temporary home near the Meghna River in Bangladesh, in a coastal area threatened by erosion and rising salt water levels in the soil. Credit: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Barcroft Media/Getty
Even cities and towns where they fled face an influx of more people and hence pressure on infrastructure and services.
Correlation Between Climate Change and Conflict Migration
UNHCR’s report Global Trends in Forced Displacement 2020, brings the shocking fact that 95% of all conflict displacement occurred in those countries which are vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change.
In view of this threat, international governments started to recognize the existence and effects of climate change migration.
U.S. President Joe Biden released the Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration in November 2021 and first time agreed with the link between climate change and migration.
This report finds the linkages between climate change and international security, conflicts, geopolitics and instability. Further, it calls for an urgent need to establish policies and strategies to develop safe, proactive and humane management for climate migration flow.
Response to Climate Migrants and Refugees
- Creating Economic Opportunities
One of the most important measures to help the climate-affected people is to create sustainable and viable economic opportunities for the communities at their places or the places of their migration.
In Bangladesh, cyclonic floods have caused salinity in more than 50% of farmlands. Agricultural output and earnings of farmers were affected badly for this reason. Hence, in such situations, government and NGOs can give training, skills and resources to adapt climate-resistant practices and crops to achieve a sustainable livelihood and safety of food.
- Recognition of Refugee Status
Climate refugees must be given the same status as those who fled the conflicts.
The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, adopted by the UN in 2018 clearly accept that one of the major factors of migration is climate change. The regulation asked nations to formulate
Plans for visas and relocation of climate refugees and help them if the return of these migrants is not possible.
A clear definition of climate refugees and their inclusion in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the need of the hour so as to protect these forgotten victims of climate change.
- Climate Financing
Funding is required to achieve a climate-neutral, resource efficient, climate-resilient and just economy by 2050.
Climate finance is required to reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate efforts, and adapt climate-resilient practices.
At the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, World’s wealthy nations pledged climate financing of $100 billion by 2020 but they are still short billions of dollars annually.
- Strict implementation of the Paris Agreement
Countries have to come together to reduce the temperature below 2° Celsius(c) and ideally to 1.5°c.
- Responsibilities of Carbon Generating and Industrial Nations.
Rich industrial nations like the US, Japan, Canada and most of Europe are responsible for generating more than 50% of all generated global warming greenhouse gases, from fossil fuels and rapid industrialization, over the past 170 years, with just 12% of the world population.
Hence, it becomes a responsibility of these developed and rich nations to help poor nations and affected people financially and technologically.
After all, they have resources and stability which they can lend to their peer nations and make them sustainable enough to live life with dignity.
Not to Forget
We all need to act collectively and fast to manage climate change threats. It is the responsibility of all national and international government bodies, non-governmental organizations, and each responsible citizen to adopt climate-friendly measures.
We are the global citizens in the sense that climate effects and their vulnerability cannot be seen and felt in silos.
Natural disasters have domino effects.
It is an irony that nature does not see the difference between people and places. It can create havoc for all without discrimination if not treated with care.
Remember, together we can make an impact!
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