28 May 2015 11:46:50 IST

Earth in peril

The looming dangers of global warming and the opportunities that beckon

Try doing this for fun. Get hold of a friend and tell him/ her that every second, four Hiroshima bombs (atom bombs of the size dropped on Hiroshima) are falling on earth. Yessir, every single second. And record their reactions.

Jeers, sniggers, snide remarks? Well, only to be expected, because the idea sounds preposterous.

But it is true. To put it more graphically, each year, the earth is taking as much energy as 125 million Hiroshima-type bombs. And this has been happening for some years now. No jokes, it is very true.

Incredulous? Why then, you ask, are we all not burnt to ashes by now? Where is all the energy coming from and where is it going?

Welcome to the fascinating but scary science of global warming.

You must have heard that our factories and automobiles are burning a lot of carbon and producing carbon di-oxide, which rises to the sky and settles up there as a blanket. Not just COs, but also other gases, called greenhouse gases or GHG, such as methane.

Greenhouse gases

Now, in some respects the earth is like a mirror. It reflects the sunlight it receives back into the universe. The waves it receives and those that it reflects are somewhat different — they differ in wavelength. The GHG that have spread themselves like a blanket over the earth do not allow these waves to pass through them. As a result, a lot of heat gets trapped, and what have you? Global warming.

You may have known most of this. What you probably didn’t know is the enormity of it — 125 million Hiroshima-yield bombs every year?

Why are we still alive? Because the oceans are soaking up all the heat, and that is kicking off a long chain reaction — because the seas are getting warmer they are expanding, leading to a sea level rise (which is also happening because global warming is melting the ice in places like Greenland, adding water to the oceans).

The oceans are also soaking up carbon dioxide. Add COs to water, you get carbonic acid, which means the oceans are turning acidic. This sets off another domino effect — for instance, acidification kills corals, and since corals are like nurseries providing food and breeding areas to a lot of fish, the fish die, and in turn, those creatures that live on the fish die, and so on… and the chain reaches a point where the livelihood of 500 million fishermen is imperilled.

Climate science

Ninety-five per cent of the climate scientists agree that global warming is happening, and are building models — scenarios — to judge the effect. Most are convinced that global warming is a big problem. There will be floods in some places, droughts in other places, monsoons will fail, or intensify, rainforests will go dry, water availability will be endangered and so forth. Terrible scenarios, and if you are interested (you should be) you can google up more stuff on this.

But the point I would like to make is, if you are students, all this is good news for you! You can build a career centred on this and, guess what, you will be doing mankind a whole lot of good with such a career.

Rise in temperature

The verdict of the scientific world is that unless the average rise in global temperature is limited to 2 degrees Celsius over what it was in the “pre-industrialisation period,” by 2050 things are going to be pretty bad. The pre-industrialisation period can be roughly taken to be the 1840s. Even 2 degrees increase is bad enough, but it seems we cannot avoid it.

International talks on climate change are trying to find out how countries can work together to achieve this “2 degrees” target, and working together on this is not at all easy. There is a lot of tu-tu, mein-mein in this — developed countries telling the developing countries to, for instance, stop using coal, and the developing countries telling the developed, you are the ones who created the problem in the first place. This is somewhat like a fire raging over a town and people fighting over who is responsibility it is to extinguish it.

Opportunities for students

Now, there are two things worthy of note. First, we must avoid temperature rise beyond 2 degrees over pre-industrialisation levels. Second, we must make adjustments to be able to live with even the 2 degrees rise. Both are opportunities for students, no matter what your discipline is.

Look at it this way. Annoyed with mankind’s recklessness, Nature is bowling us bouncers and each bouncer is an opportunity for you to hit a six.

Water is one bouncer. Can you come up with solutions for economic use of water—in agriculture, in the industry, in homes? Can you use water efficiency as a marketing tool for your product? Can you think of scenarios where you can create a business using water arbitrage?

No matter which industry you get into, you can think of a play for yourself under the global warming-climate change rubric. You might need to climate-proof your business, or develop climate-proofing solutions to sell.

From creating clean energy infrastructure, such as wind and solar to limit global warming, to energy efficiency technologies, to water technologies, agriculture, climate change is a mind-boggling business opportunity. It pays to keep this at the back of your mind.